The Liberal Democrats stand at a critical juncture. After the disappointment of the last election, the future of the party is again up for discussion in the leadership contest that opens today.
Whether it was how we rebuilt post-coalition or whether Brexit was the issue to catapult us back to pre-2015 levels of support, members and supporters not surprisingly have strong views about the future direction of the party.
As nominations open for our leadership contest today, we must return to this debate.
There are some in the party who want the Liberal Democrats to take major strides to the left in order to present ourselves as radical. The challenge is we don’t yet know what policies Starmer’s Labour Party will adopt between now and the next election, so defining ourselves entirely in relation to him is painting ourselves into a corner, four years out from the next election.
We should also question whether that approach is the best way to win seats, which should always be at the forefront of our mind. I am unconvinced a large swing to the left is the correct path to win over the voters we need in the 91 seats where we finished second under a year ago.
Moreover, as a centre-left, progressive politician all my life, I firmly believe it’s possible to be radical without going to the political extremes.
“Our party’s greatest achievements have always been delivered from the radical centre-left.”
When I helped develop the policy of 1p on income tax to pay for education under Paddy Ashdown, it was incredibly radical. When I moved the amendment in Parliament to abolish the homophobic Section 28, that was a vital progressive step. When I fought the Tories over climate change and won, more than trebling renewable power with a new subsidy policy combining state intervention with competitive market forces, it was world-beatingly radical.
And in the future, I want the party to adopt similarly radical positions on education, equalities, the environment and so much more.
Such radicalism inspires my plan to invest £150billion over three years for a green economic recovery, to deliver green jobs and businesses, whilst saving our planet at the same time. And my approach to a caring revolution, starting with my new deal for the millions of unpaid and poorly paid carers that would see them finally properly rewarded for the work they do.
Our party’s greatest achievements have always been delivered from the radical centre-left. That’s why I want to be crystal clear about where a party led by me would stand in relation to other parties. Like Paddy Ashdown in his Chard speech of 1992, I reject so-called equidistance: we must not be in some mushy middle between the Conservatives and Labour.
Our election review spelt out clearly that the necessity of equidistance in the 2019 election, created by the appalling choice between Corbyn and Johnson, meant we found ourselves squeezed both ways, with little public understanding of what we stood for.
We cannot ever allow that to happen again.
“It’s not enough just to be anti-Conservative. To beat the Tories at the next election, we must first grow much stronger as a party ourselves”
I am an anti-Conservative politician, and that’s how I would lead our party. We are a million miles from the Tories. While we promote international co-operation and human rights abroad, they pull up the drawbridge. While we want world-leading plans for a Green Revolution, their climate plans are timid at best. While we would root out poverty and inequality, the Conservatives have no commitment to social justice and have failed to take any action in response to the Black Lives Matter protests.
Yet it’s not enough just to be anti-Conservative.
To beat the Tories at the next election, we must first grow much stronger as a party ourselves, so we have something others need when we look to work with other progressive forces in British politics.
While it’s early days, I’m already convinced it will be much easier to find common ground with Keir Starmer than it was with Jeremy Corbyn.
And my lodestar in approaching that relationship is my experience working with Paddy Ashdown in the 1990s, as he took the progressive opportunities presented by Tony Blair. Yet in dealing with any other party, it’s vital to be realistic. We can’t just forget the record of the last Labour Government. On Iraq, on ID cards, on keeping the DNA of innocent people on police databases and keeping children in detention centres.
There are no quick fixes in politics. What I’m offering is the vision and experience to help rebuild the Liberal Democrats.
Ed Davey is acting co-leader of the Lib Dems and MP for Kingston and Surbiton