Carers and social care will be the Liberal Democrats’ new priorities, Ed Davey promised on Monday as he softened his anti-Brexit stance in his first conference speech as leader of the UK party.
Speaking in a virtual address, Sir Ed outlined his pledge to become the “voice” of carers and recalled his own experiences looking after his mother and disabled son.
“To the thousands of young people, caring for your mum or your dad, I understand what you’re going through. And I promise you this: I will be your voice,” he said.
“I am determined that the Liberal Democrats will lead the way to a more caring society as we emerge from this pandemic.”
Sir Ed also said that he had written to Prime Minister Boris Johnson to invite him to begin talks with the Lib Dems, the Labour party and leading care organisations in order to agree a “long-term, sustainable solution” to the social care crisis.
Political parties have struggled for years to find a solution to the rising costs of care, particularly for England’s ageing population, which has resulted in families having to navigate a complicated and expensive system involving local councils and private providers.
While he described the Lib Dems as “pro-European”, in a stark contrast to the party’s anti-Brexit policy of recent years, he argued that it needed to change and ensure it represented all members of society.
He said: “We will always be a proud Liberal party: defending individuals. Nurturing community. Protecting civil liberties. Championing the environment. Patriotic. Internationalist. And yes, always pro-European.
“But we can’t just talk to ourselves. We can’t just speak for people like us. We have to represent the whole country, not just some people.
“We are not a think-tank or a pressure group. We don’t exist merely to put forward ideas or espouse a set of principles — however noble they may be,” he stressed.
In the past few years the party has drawn the bulk of its support from pro-Europeans and in the aftermath of the 2016 EU referendum, it even boasted that 10,000 people had signed up to become members.
However, its number of MPs has fallen from 57 at the 2010 election, after which it formed a coalition government with the Conservatives, to 11 at the poll last December, when the then leader, Jo Swinson, was among those who lost their seat.
In an interview with the Financial Times ahead of his speech, Sir Ed said that the party would continue to hold the government to account on Brexit as the transition period came to an end.
However, the MP for Kingston and Surbiton in south-west London also acknowledged the findings of the party’s internal review, which he said had raised concerns that the party “hadn’t been listening to the British people”.
The internal inquiry, led by Liberal Democrat peer Dorothy Thornhill, compared the party’s 2019 general election performance to a “high-speed car crash” and said that the party’s fixation on revoking Brexit among other policies had “alienated large chunks of the population”.
In his speech on Monday, Sir Ed acknowledged the steep electoral challenges facing the party, adding: “We have endured three deeply disappointing general elections, in five tough years.
“At the national level at least, too many people think we’re out of touch with what they want. We can’t fix this with a catchy new slogan. Or by fighting the same battles, in the same way.”
Sir Ed became interim Lib Dem leader after the election and formally assumed the leadership following a contest against Layla Moran, MP for Oxford West and Abingdon.
In recent weeks, he has embarked on “listening tours” throughout the country, in an attempt to bridge the gap between voters and the party.