The Liberal Democrats have had a tumultuous decade – going from coalition partners in government to only a few MPs on the Commons benches.
A poor election result in 2019 saw the early exit of their leader Jo Swinson and a takeover by her deputy – and former coalition minister – Sir Ed Davey.
But with the Lib Dem party conference beginning and over a year of leadership under his belt, how is he fairing at the top?
Is Sir Ed sticking to his promises and are the Lib Dems making progress?
Back in December 2019, the party set out its key priorities for the election:
- Stopping Brexit – arguing it would release money to be spent on public services over the next five years
- Investing £20bn a year for five years to tackle climate change
- Introducing a 1p rise in income tax to invest in health and social care, allowing the NHS budget to be increased by £26bn a year by 2023-24
- Recruiting 20,000 more teachers and increase schools funding by £10.6bn a year by 2024/25
It is impossible to judge the party’s progress on policies when they don’t hold power in Parliament.
But it is possible to look at the pledges and see if they have remained Sir Ed’s focus – and if he has kept to his own promises from his leadership bid.
In an interview with the BBC during the contest against Lalya Moran last year, the now-leader outlined his plan:
- The economy would be his “number one priority”
- He would not be seeking to re-join the EU
- But he would be fighting for green jobs
- He would back a Universal Basic Income
- And he also promised to call for extra funding for schools to help them re-open safely from the pandemic.
As you can see, the main pledge Sir Ed moved away from was the “stop Brexit” promise.
Yes, the deed had already been done, but in the interview he made it clear the party wouldn’t be calling for a return to the EU in the immediate future.
And while he has spoken of his opposition to leaving the bloc in Parliament since, the focus of his interventions centred in on securing a close relationship with the EU and strong trade deal instead.
When it comes to his own policies, it is clear the theme of climate change has remained central.
In Sir Ed’s first contribution in the Commons after becoming acting leader – before he was elected into the permanent post eight months later – he said the Lib Dems would “argue for the radical climate change policies” advocated by Jo Swinson, and he has regularly brought the topic up in debates since then.
But it is also fair to say the economy is top of his agenda. Looking at those Commons speeches, he has raised issues concerning jobs, businesses and the self-employed more than any other since taking the reins, coupled with calls for “green jobs”, as he pledged.
The other topic he has dedicated himself to is social care. In his first conference speech as leader in 2020, he promised to be “the voice of carers”, drawing on his own experience of looking after his mother and then his disabled son.
And he has made numerous pleas to government from the opposition benches, campaigning to improve conditions for workers and get support for unpaid carers who helped loved ones.
However, there are areas he promised to push but appears to have faltered.
For example, he has only brought up Universal Basic Income once in the Commons, asking the government to “look more seriously” at the proposal.
And there are only two mentions we can find where he asks for more funding for schools.
Cutting through to voters
So how is Sir Ed’s performance chiming with the public?
The Lib Dems have always performed well when it comes to local government polls. They currently run 27 councils with a majority in England, and play a prominent part in another 14 local authorities.
They still sit in third behind the Conservatives and Labour when it comes to the number of councillors, but Sir Ed said early on in his leadership that this strong local base could be used as the “springboard” for success in Westminster.
There’s been one early success.
In the by-election for the seat of Chesham and Amersham, the Lib Dems won the seat.
Despite the constituency going blue since its creation in 1974, Lib Dem Sarah Green secured a majority of over 8,000 votes.
Sir Ed proclaimed his party was now the “main threat” to Tories in many areas of the country…and he even knocked down a wall of blue bricks to prove his point.
But while the by-election win gave the Lib Dems a boost, and a more positive outlook for future performances, it did highlight a divide between policies in Westminster and in the grassroots.
For example, the party supports HS2 on a national level, backing the controversial rail project that will see new high speed trains running between London and the north of England.
However, analysis has pointed to Ms Green’s opposition to the policy being a key element of her win in the Buckinghamshire constituency – an area particularly affected.
Boris Johnson’s planning reforms also caused great controversy in the seat, with concern about what it could mean on the ground.
But planning reforms have not figured in Sir Ed’s priorities away from that particular battle at the ballot box – he’s only raised the government’s plans twice in Parliament.
After the win, he embarked on a tour of “Blue Wall” seats with similar demographics to build on the by-election bounce, eyeing up areas where the Lib Dems could feasibly overturn small Tory majorities.
Talking to the BBC ahead of his visits, it wasn’t HS2 and planning he wanted to hammer home. Instead, his policy messages were on social care – “It’s fundamental to who I am,” he said – small business, the self-employed and, yes, the environment.
Policy to power
It is clear that one by-election win does not a comeback make.
In the Hartlepool by-election of 2021, the party came seventh with just 349 votes; and in both the Batley and Spen, and Airdrie and Shotts by-elections, it was a similar story, with the Lib Dems trailing fourth.
Polling from YouGov’s voting intention tracker has also remained low since Sir Ed took charge, staying between 5% to 10% .
And despite that strong local base, they only gained one council in the English local elections from May.
Sir Ed is sticking to his pledges, the Lib Dems have seen some results – but there’s a long ladder to climb to more local, or even national, power.