New leader of the Liberal Democrats Sir Ed Davey has said he believes his party remains “robust” and “strong” and could perform surprisingly well at the next general election.
Sir Ed admitted after his election victory on Thursday that his party has “lost touch” with voters, and set himself the goal of turning the party around.
The former Cabinet minister said the Lib Dems have to “wake up and smell the coffee” after a series of disappointing general election results.
The Kingston and Surbiton MP, who had been acting leader since Jo Swinson lost her seat in the 2019 general election, defeated Layla Moran to win the leadership by 42,756 votes to 24,564.
But in a sign that the contest had failed to grip even the Lib Dem membership, turnout was just 57.6% – something Sir Ed blamed on the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think the real issue is we had a leadership election during Covid. I don’t think that has ever happened before.
“We weren’t able to have any meetings with people in public, it was all over Zoom, so I’m not surprised that turnout was lower than in recent leadership elections,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
The new leader promised to travel across the country to hear voters’ concerns and “face up to uncomfortable truths”.
Sir Ed said his job is to “rebuild the Liberal Democrats to national relevance” but acknowledged: “None of this is going to be easy, none of this is going to be straightforward.
“And none of it is going to be quick or simple to achieve.”
Speaking on Friday, Sir Ed added: “We’re a robust, strong party. We’ve had some difficult years, absolutely, but our values of liberalism have been the strongest values over two centuries and our values, I think, are central to British traditions – the question is how to we articulate that.
“And you’re right – we’re up against some difficult times. Some parties that have got a lot more money than we have, a voting system that is not fair.
“Yes, we know that we have some challenges, but my job is to fix the fundamental problem with the party, and that is to reconnect with voters.
“And if we do that, if we can make sure that people understand that we are their voice again, I think that we can surprise people.”
Since the coalition government in 2010, which saw Nick Clegg join forces with David Cameron’s Conservatives, the party has slumped in Westminster elections.
Lib Dems won 62 seats in 2005 and 57 in 2010 but in 2015 they were reduced to a rump of just eight MPs, in 2017 that rose to 12 but fell back to 11 in 2019.
There has been a revolving door at the party leader’s office – Mr Clegg quit in 2015, his replacement Tim Farron lasted until 2017, Sir Vince Cable took over but was gone by July 2019, and Ms Swinson only lasted until she lost her seat in the December 2019 election.
The position of Labour under Sir Keir Starmer and the fact that Brexit has now happened also present difficulties for a party which had defined itself as a centre-ground, unashamedly pro-European Union force.
I'd like to congratulate Ed, and I look forward to working with him to campaign for a better future for Britain.
Thanks to my amazing team, supporters, and the entire Lib Dem membership! 🔶
— Layla Moran 🔶🟡 (@LaylaMoran) August 27, 2020
Ms Moran, who lost by more than 18,000 votes, congratulated the new leader and said: “I look forward to working with him to campaign for a better future for Britain.”