Dr Foxy on how the Swinson Davey battle is shaping up
Understandably the focus of political interest and betting is on the contest to succeed Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party, and most likely Prime Minister. This does rather overshadow the ongoing contest for the leadership of the Liberal Democrat Party, which finds itself in the rather unfamiliar position of rude health. Having had some excellent results in both Local Elections and in the recent Euro elections, Vince Cable contrasts sharply with Theresa May by leaving the role on a high, with the party polling at its best for nearly a decade, and united over the major issues of the day.
The choice facing the Liberal Democrats is between the strong favourite Jo Swinson, current Deputy Leader, and Ed Davey who is rated by punters as the outsider. There were around 200 in the audience for the East Midlands hustings with a significant minority of members who had joined in the last few weeks amongst the more veteran members.
The differences of policy direction between the two were modest and nuanced rather than the gaping chasms afflicting the Labour and Conservative Parties. Discussion ranged over a broad range of topics as a result, from environmental issues, fracking, restoring trust in politics and government, support for marginalised communities, the role of positive discrimination in promoting diversity, campaigning support for local parties and the integration of new members such as Chuka Umunna.
PBers would be either disappointed or relieved to find the important topics of Scottish Independence and Proportional Representation were as untouched as a pineapple topped pizza. Perhaps surprisingly, Brexit was little discussed, with both candidates strongly pro-EU membership. The differentiation between the two was subtle on policy, but quite different in style and presentation.
Ed Davey was on home turf, having been born and schooled in Nottinghamshire with a backstory of being orphaned at the age of 11. He was clearly proud of his work in the 2010-15 Coalition, particularly for his time as Secretary of State for the Environment and Climate Change.
Similarly he cited other achievements such as introducing the clause that repealed the homophobic Section 28, and the abolition of compulsory retirement ages. His background as an economist seems to give him a stronger leaning to market mechanisms and more inclination to incentives than heavy handed state intervention.
His points were well supported by evidence, and well argued in an assertive but not bombastic style that comes over well in more weighty interviews and debates. He rather reminded me of Clem Attlee in his ability to achieve change rather than just talk. In his closing speech he did rather give in to hubris by talking of being Prime Minister rather than just party leader.
Jo Swinson has been particularly active in the #PeoplesVote campaign, speaking to the mass rally in Parliament Square, and working closely with other parties on this. She clearly works well on common platforms, and this may be important both for integrating new members and for electoral strategy and in a hung parliament. She seemed a little stiff initially, but warmed up as the evening progressed, and was particularly passionate about environmental issues and reaching new audiences and voters. While also a member of the Coalition government, she did not emphasise this as much as Davey. She seemed to model herself more in terms of Jacinta Arden as a political heroine.
In all, I left the hustings in good spirits and would be happy with either as leader. Both were well rooted in the party, and strongly pro-environment amongst the other Liberal Democrat values of compassion and inclusivity. Both were happy to acknowledge that they had changed their minds over issues over the years, and both had known political defeat and despair losing their seats in 2015 as well as demonstrating the grit and drive to get them back. Both were approachable and demonstrated good emotional intelligence when speaking afterwards, and having selfies with supporters. Eavesdropping other attenders on the way out, most seemed to think that the decision was finely balanced as to who would be better.
I think that the race will be closer than expected, and that while Swinson should be favourite, I would not bet on her at current odds. Ed Davey is running a good campaign and had a lot of audience support. 6/1 at the time of writing is good value and I have backed him, and will be voting for him.
Dr Foxy has been a Lib Dem member for 5 years, having previously been a member of the Labour Party 1994-2002.