Aphra Brandreth is a Conservative Councillor and was the candidate in Kingston and Surbiton in last year’s General Election.
As I write, the Liberal Democrat’s 115,000 members are deliberating over who will become their fourth party leader in just five years. The choice between Ed Davey and Layla Moran represents a step backwards or a step to the Left, but ultimately with just 11 MPs neither leader is likely to shift the party from their current status as the fourth largest in Parliament any time soon.
So does the outcome even matter? With so few MPs they have very little influence, we’ve seen that during the current pandemic where the Lib Dems have been barely visible in the debate. Does anyone outside the Westminster bubble even realise Davey is acting party leader? Where the party do have MPs, well over half represent constituencies in either London or Scotland, highlighting just how unrepresentative they are of the country as a whole.
In the 2019 General Election, I stood as the Conservative candidate against the incumbent Davey in Kingston and Surbiton. Davey is back for another try at party leader despite failing once already. Last time the party thought a better bet than him would be Jo Swinson (remember her, our next Prime Minister?!)
In our General Election hustings, Davey used a “Not me, Guv” approach to avoid taking responsibility for any policies or issues from his time as a cabinet minister in the Coalition Government.
The public (Twitteratis excluded) understand the challenges of making hard decisions with conflicting priorities. And in my view, what the public crave in their politicians more than anything else is trust. Trust they will do their best, trust they will be honest and trust they will own their decisions.
Davey’s record shows he voted for raising the tuition fee cap, against raising welfare benefits and for the “bedroom tax” to name a few. But even when presented with facts and voting records Davey tries to shift the blame to anyone else but him.
However, you can’t distance yourself from policies that you supported as a Government minister, and that’s the fundamental problem for the Lib Dems – they ultimately don’t want to take responsibility. As a party of protest, when they finally get the opportunity to govern, they realise that either their policies aren’t workable (take their university tuition fee promise which former party leader Vince Cable admitted was simply not feasible) or they would rather someone else stepped in to sort the issues out.
It is the same at a local level with the Lib Dem-led council in Richmond Borough in London where I am a Conservative councillor. While Hammersmith Bridge, a major route into central London, is closed for the foreseeable future to traffic, the Lib Dem administration is happy to sit by believing it’s not their problem.
They’re hoping someone else will sort it out, although with Sadiq Khan having bankrupted Transport for London, rebuilding the bridge any time soon is looking increasingly unlikely. When the Conservatives controlled the council, we were prepared to take responsibility for the bridge, but not the Lib Dems for whom responsibility is an anathema.
Moran’s leadership bid clearly distances herself from the coalition days saying she wants to move forwards, but where is she moving to? She’s made it clear she considers a coalition with Labour an option, and certainly wants to build significant co-operation.
And that’s the other big problem for the Lib Dems. What do they actually stand for? With Keir Starmer having firmly positioned himself in the centre Left ground, Moran’s Lib Dems would be shifting even further to the Left with more unworkable promises.
Her plans for a Universal Basic Income may well become the tuition fees saga for the next generation of Lib Dems, too expensive to be feasible and with the resulting inflation ultimately ineffective. So, the question is why would anyone who supports a centre Left stance vote for the Lib Dems, when they could vote for the main opposition party which already has a clear voice?
And why does it matter anyway? It matters because a significant proportion of people who vote Lib Dem aren’t voting for a Lib Dem Government, they are voting against the alternatives. Which means in places like Richmond, Twickenham and Kingston where a Corbyn-led Labour vote collapsed, and the Greens stood aside, the Lib Dems swept up votes. Leaving the electorate with ineffectual representatives and a council administration that doesn’t really stand for anything clear, and takes little responsibility. And that has consequences for residents.
Whichever leader the Lib Dems choose at the end of this month, until they are prepared to take responsibility for their past, and set out a future that is both workable and distinct, they are unlikely to have much of a voice in this Parliament or the next.