After an initial decision to delay the Liberal Democrat leadership election for a year due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, the party decided to go ahead with the contest under lockdown conditions. Since the party’s spokesperson for the climate emergency, Wera Hobhouse, MP pulled out, it has been a two horse race between the education spokesperson Layla Moran MP and the acting co-leader Sir Ed Davey MP.
Last summer, Davey lost to Jo Swinson in a friendly contest to replace the retiring leader Vince Cable. The environment took a backseat, as Brexit dominated. The party was flying high in the polls after winning 16 seats in the EU Parliament and gaining 704 councillors in the local elections. Yet the 2019 General Election result saw the party return only 11 MPs to parliament and the loss of the leader’s seat. The subsequent internal election review described the campaign as a “high-speed car crash”.
In 2020, as the government dominates the airways during the pandemic, the Lib Dems have struggled to grab the attention of the media. The role of the party in the coalition and the party’s positioning in relation to Labour have caused heated debate throughout the leadership race. However, the climate emergency has been a source of agreement. It is important to note that the party membership determines policy at conference. Even so, the leader is influential in the shaping and communicating of the party’s policy platform.
The Moran plan
Elected in the 2017 general election, Moran co-edited a policy booklet entitled Build back better at the start of the leadership election. The contributors have written in their “own individual capacity”, yet the sections on the environment from Duncan Brack and Richard Hebditch have been influential on Moran. Ideas include a new Green Corps to provide young people with opportunities to volunteer with environmental organisations and a Nature Act that does for the nature emergency what the Climate Act did for the climate emergency. Moran herself has called the coronavirus a “dress rehearsal for climate change” and argued for even more ambition on the zero-carbon agenda. Current party policy is for the UK to be carbon neutral by 2045. Moran has argued that the UK should follow the Kingdom of Bhutan and strive to become the second carbon negative country in the world by 2045.
Bhutan’s famed Gross Happiness Index (GHI) also appears to be an inspiration for the MP for Oxford West and Abingdon. She wants economic development indicators to reflect the importance of well-being. Moran’s most eye-catching policy is to scrap the Treasury and replace it with a ‘‘sustainability department‘. Moran’s ‘Green Spark‘ recovery plan includes financial incentives to switch to electric vehicles, including VAT exemptions for electric vehicles and a scrappage scheme for diesel vehicles.
Is Ed ahead?
Meanwhile, Moran’s opponent is the former secretary of state for energy and climate change during the coalition government. The bookies’ favourite since January, Davey has emphasised his record of “taking on the Tories in government and winning” with the claim that he quadrupled renewable energy. This was described by Full Fact as “only a slight exaggeration” since renewable energy as a share of total electricity generation in the UK “went from about 6.4 per cent to 22 per cent” between 2010-2015.
The MP for Kingston and Surbiton believes the pandemic has given us “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to reshape the economy and deal with the climate emergency. Davey has said he would invest £150 billion in the green economy over the next three years. This includes the party’s current policy of at least 80 per cent of electricity generation from renewable energy sources by 2030. Davey has also called for the ban on the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles to be brought forward from 2035 to 2030. He has argued that at least half of financing from the Bank of England should be invested in green projects, and also mooted a plan for government “climate bonds” and tax incentives for green saving and pension programmes. Davey has also echoed the importance of rewilding, tree planting, peat bog restoration projects, as well as an ambition to insulate every home by the year 2030. This is part of a plan for a Green Jobs Guarantee, which also includes training programmes and a commitment to the national living wage.
Making the green agenda front and centre
The distinct policy proposals of Davey and Moran barely disguise the consensus within the party that the climate and ecological emergency should be at the forefront of the Lib Dem platform. In fact, many of the ideas outlined by the candidates are compatible with each other. Additionally, the candidates share commitments to a Universal Basic Income (UBI) and to establishing a new Green Investment Bank (the last one was sold off in 2017). There is undoubtedly wide agreement about how to transition to a green economy.
The race to the top on the green agenda is a welcome development within the Lib Dems. Whoever becomes leader at the end of August will know that the party has a lot of work to do to make an impression on the electorate. This can only be achieved by putting the climate and nature crisis front and centre.