Ed Davey: What the Liberal Democrats must learn from our election defeat

Our election post-mortem must guide our future response, says Ed Davey, the Lib Dems’ acting leader.

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The Liberal Democrats had a hugely disappointing general election result last December. And our general election review published last week rightly pulls no punches.

I believe the party can recover and help build a liberal country that’s greener, fairer and genuinely cares for people, but that requires a degree of responsibility and reform within the party that we’ve not seen for years.

Our shocking performance has been variously explained by our Brexit position of “revoke”, by the collateral damage we suffer in seats where we fight the Tories when Labour has an unelectable leader, by the Brexit Party’s decision to stand down and the inevitable hit progressive parties take in the first-past-the-post electoral system when the right unite and the left divide. 

But the truth is far more uncomfortable for my party. Sometimes with a dark sense of humour, the general election review details just how much the party has forgotten its purpose, forgotten how you win elections and forgotten how you talk to voters. Instead, over a period of years we’ve become fantastic at talking to ourselves, within a party structure that makes the Byzantine Empire look open and simple. 

The review’s public transparency is its strength. I’ve heard the usual bleatings about “washing our dirty laundry in public”, but I’m determined the party recognises it’s time to stop blaming others and face up to the reality that we have serious, deep-seated problems that must be fixed, if we want liberalism to revive in Britain.

Fortunately, as intended, the review is forward-looking and packed with sensible, albeit what one would have hoped self-evident, recommendations – such as we need to articulate a vision, have a strategy and talk about things that are relevant to voters! I’m particularly struck but not surprised by the review’s focus on the party’s need to engage more profoundly with BAME people and communities.

But the challenges we face mean we must start implementing this review immediately, not spend the next year gazing yet again at our navels. Because the challenges the world faces desperately need progressive politicians to get their collective acts together.

Our country and world are battered by a pandemic and threatened by climate change. The wave of right-wing national populism that brought us Brexit, Trump and Bolsanaro has shown itself utterly incapable of the wisdom and global cooperation needed – and our people and economies are paying a huge price. Countries with more liberal and progressive governments seem to be rising to the Covid-19 threat far more effectively – and are certainly taking climate change more seriously.

In the United Kingdom, our struggle against coronavirus has revealed some of the best things of our country – the NHS, the selflessness of so many front-line workers, from supermarket staff to bus drivers, and a compassion and caring for each other that the cynics claimed had gone.

Yet it has revealed in sharp relief the inequality in our country. How when the chips are down, it’s the poorest who suffer the most. How BAME communities who disproportionately work in lower paid jobs, such as the care home staff who were left so shockingly unprotected for so long, have suffered the worst. And how utterly inadequate some of our support systems have become – from the low levels of statutory sick pay to the flawed designs in universal credit.

So when I look at the Liberal Democrat 2019 general election review, and think about the future, I’ve set myself two “Covid-19” tests. First, could we convince people that Liberal Democrats in government would have handled the crisis better? Second, can we articulate a post-Covid vision of reform, that could excite people to look afresh at the Liberal Democrats?

The bar is admittedly not high, for any alternative government to have handled covid-19 better than the Conservatives have.

Yet I believe the instinctive trust of people and local communities that liberals have, would have transformed the response. Through transparency, through empowering local government and through embracing the help offered by so many, from our businesses to our universities, from the start, the scale of this human and economic tragedy could have been reduced. These Conservatives only seem to think central, national and big. Yet when a virus is spreading like wildfire, you can’t fight it just by levers pulled slowly in Whitehall.

And the future can be so different from this incompetent shambles.

Starting with the economy, not only must we not return to austerity, we instead have to rebuild by investing in people and investing to fight the climate change pandemic. Education and the environment need to be hard-wired into a sustainable, fair recovery.

And surely the death toll in our care homes alone should make it a liberal demand to nurture a truly caring society? When we don’t value care, and the people who care, we are saying we don’t value our neighbours. We are saying we don’t believe in equality of value and respect. A vision of a people first, caring society wouldn’t be a bad place for the Liberal Democrats to start the fightback.

Ed Davey MP is acting leader of the Liberal Democrats.

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