Lib Dem hustings: the other leadership contest

At a hustings co-hosted by the New Statesman, Jo Swinson and Ed Davey made their pitches to a resurgent party.

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A crowd of more than 400 Liberal Democrat members gathered at the London School of Economics last night to hear Jo Swinson, the party's deputy leader and the current frontrunner, and Ed Davey, the former energy and climate change secretary, make their pitches for the party leadership. The event was chaired by the New Statesman's political editor, Stephen Bush. The final vote will take place on 23 July, the day after the Conservative leadership election decides Theresa May's successor.

In policy terms, there was little to distinguish between the two candidates. A battle for the soul of the party this was not. Buoyed by recent successes in the local and European elections, as well as the defection of Chuka Umunna to the now 12-strong Lib Dem benches, Ed Davey and Jo Swinson appeared to agree on more or less everything – other than the question of who should become the party's new leader.

“I was chatting to Chukka today and I said he looked really well,” Swinson told the audience. “He said ‘I’m just really happy!’” She encouraged members to welcome disaffected pro-Europeans from the Labour and Conservative parties into the fold, as the Lib Dems continue to gather momentum in the polls. Davey, too, claimed that “we already know – although we’re not supposed to say – two or three people, five or six people, that are still in the Labour or Tory parties, who might come across.”

Davey's opening remarks struck a triumphant tone that harked back to the era of Asquith, Lloyd George and Liberal domination: “This is the first Liberal Democrat leadership contest in over 100 years in which we’ve just beaten both the Labour Party and Conservative Party in a UK-wide election.  We. Are. Back. In. The. Game”, he announced. Not since the heady days of "I agree with Nick" have the Liberal Democrats known this much optimism.

Both candidates bonded over their desire to stop Brexit by any means necessary and to establish the Remain cause as the party’s USP. And both gave conciliatory explanations for the underlying causes of the Leave vote. “It’s not surprising that a lot of people who have found life just too hard thought, it can’t get any worse, let’s try something different.” said Swinson. “We need to make the case that we can reshape the economy.” But neither sought to explain the way in which the economy was "reshaped" during five years of austerity under the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition. As business minister under Vince Cable, Swinson urged “caution” over raising the minimum wage and spoke in favour of zero-hours contracts for some workers.

On a second referendum, Ed Davey warned that victory for Remain was not a foregone conclusion. “If we conduct the People’s Vote in divisive language,” he said, “without showing that we want to bring the country together, then we won’t win and we won’t be able to bring the country together. We know the People’s Vote has some dangers, and we need to think very carefully about how we approach that.”

Jo Swinson criticised the Labour leadership's approach to Brexit. “I don’t accept that any Corbyn-led Labour Party will be a party of Remain. He has proved beyond all doubt that he is a Brexiteer” she claimed, although Labour policy now calls for a confirmatory vote on a final deal. “We’re in this situation because Jeremy Corbyn went missing in action in 2016 and went on holiday. Had he campaigned with the energy that he put into the 2017 election, it could have been quite a different result.”

Beyond their pro-EU credentials, the other mutual interest between the two candidates was the environment. “I did once campaign against the Liberal Democrats,” admitted Swinson, “but it was 30 years ago, I was 9 years old and I was standing in my kitchen talking to my dad, trying to persuade him to vote Green.” Davey, the former secretary of state for energy and climate change, made much of his cabinet experience in the coalition years, describing himself as “a proud tree-hugger” with a desire to “decarbonise capitalism”.

While the country is distracted by the Tory leadership contest, and as both main parties are more divided than perhaps ever before, this other, less headline-friendly race between two candidates from a largely united and rejuvenated party could yet be decisive. If recent polls are to be believed and the Lib Dem revival continues, the winner might become a kingmaker once more.