The Liberal Democrats don’t need to “listen” – they need to lead

The party should collaborate with Keir Starmer’s Labour to resist this disgraceful government as forcefully as possible. 

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I voted for him, but I can’t say that my heart soared when the worthy but uninspiring Ed Davey was elected leader of the Liberal Democrats last week (27 August). It soared even less when he used his victory speech to announce that he would embark on a “national listening project” to reconnect his party to the people.

Put bluntly, the Lib Dems need another protracted bout of navel gazing, of self-flagellating introspection, like a proverbial hole in the head. 

They have already held an exhaustive internal review into their disappointing performance at last December’s general election. They have held four leadership elections over the past five years, each a de facto referendum on the party’s future direction. This last one was triggered by Jo Swinson’s resignation more than eight months ago, leaving the party effectively voiceless during the gravest crisis to afflict this country since the Second World War.

Davey ascribes December’s election result to the fact that “voters don’t believe we share their values” and “don’t believe we are on the side of people like them”, but that is plain wrong.

In the European Parliament elections just six months earlier, the Lib Dems won 16 MEPs (up from just one) and nearly 20 per cent of the vote, beating both the Conservatives and Labour. A month before that they had gained 704 councillors and won 19 per cent of the vote in the local government elections. They were demonstrably and unequivocally in tune with at least half the population on the two greatest issues (Covid-19 apart) that Britain has faced this century – the Iraq War and Brexit. Their core values of tolerance, inclusion, openness, economic fairness, social justice, environmental protection and internationalism have never been more needed than in this present age of blinkered, divisive, jingoistic populism.

The Lib Dems were reduced to a rump of 11 MPs last December not because they were out of touch with voters, had the wrong values or opposed Brexit. They suffered because, in the wake of their success in the European and local elections, they fell foul of their own hubris by agreeing to Johnson’s demand for a general election, presenting Swinson as the next prime minister, and promising to cancel Brexit without a second referendum.

They suffered because Britain’s polarised politics deterred Tory moderates from voting Lib Dem lest they let Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street, and disgruntled Labour voters from backing them through fear of enabling another extreme Tory government.

Despite that, the Lib Dems still won 3.7 million votes, which was approximately 1.3 million more than they secured in either the 2017 general election or that of 2015. At a time when the country faces both a health and an economic emergency, it would be a grotesque waste of time, an act of almost criminal self-indulgence, for Davey to spend the next few weeks or months criss-crossing the country listening to voters telling him what to do.

He should show leadership. He should have the courage of his convictions. He should tell voters what he thinks, not the other way round. He should make common cause with Keir Starmer and carry the battle to Boris Johnson’s singularly inept and destructive government with every means at his disposal, both at Westminster and at local level – where the Lib Dems still boast a formidable army of activists and more than 1,300 councillors.

He does not need to conduct a national listening exercise to know that he should be demanding a clear and coherent strategy for combating Covid-19 and rescuing the economy, and an independent inquiry into the government’s disastrous handling of the pandemic so far; that he should be highlighting the recklessness of the government’s refusal to request an extension of the Brexit transition period; and that he should be warning of the very real danger of Scotland leaving the Union

He does not need voters to tell him that he needs to expose and condemn the government’s shameless cronyism, blame-shifting and debasing of public standards; its destructive assault on the civil service, BBC and judiciary; its ministers’ refusal to accept responsibility even for such egregious errors as the A-level fiasco; and its concentration of power in the hands of an unelected revolutionary – Dominic Cummings.

That is how Davey can revive the Lib Dems – not by “listening”, but by collaborating with Starmer’s Labour to resist this disgraceful government as forcefully, imaginatively and relentlessly as possible. That is how he can best position his party to benefit from the public’s growing disenchantment with Johnson at next year’s local elections. That is how the Lib Dems can best hope to seize the 80 seats where they are the obvious challengers to Tory incumbents in the general election of 2024.

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times and a New Statesman magazine contributing writer and online columnist.

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