Interview: Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey visits St Albans and Harpenden
- Credit: Lee Wood
Sir Ed Davey, Liberal Democrat leader, visited St Albans and Harpenden on Friday, April 8 as his party gears up to "park their tractors on Tory lawns".
The Liberal Democrats are fighting back in areas like St Albans after losing all but eight of their 57 MPs in the 2015 general election, seven years ago.
The Hertfordshire city fits the same profile as Bath, Richmond, Abingdon and Amersham – where cost-of-living is high and the Lib Dems have secured once-Conservative seats. Will the party see a surge in popularity in more places like these in this year’s May 5 election?
"I don’t want to make predictions – that would be taking people for granted and I’m not doing that," said Sir Ed.
Three years ago, in 2019, the Lib Dems became the largest party on St Albans City and District Council for the first time since 2011. Daisy Cooper MP ousted the Conservative Party’s Anne Main in the same year.
"In this area, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire – we’ve got a strong base already. It’s a two-way fight between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats."
In 2021, the party gained an MP in Chesham and Amersham from the Tories, a constituency less than 10 miles from the edge of St Albans.
Amanda Milling MP, Conservative Party chairman at the time, dubbed the Lib Dems’ victory a "warning shot" over planning, alleged over-development, and lacklustre levelling up aims in the commuter belt.
Davey said: "Conservative-led Hertfordshire County Council has been completely tin eared to residents who want to make improvements in their life.
"I was talking to a couple on my visit here today who desperately wanted an electric vehicle, but the county council has virtually refused to install public chargers on their land, stopping them from making the change.
"But I think we’re getting our policy agenda right – climate, cost of living, housing."
Can the country – councils and individuals – afford to solve the cost-of-living crisis without backtracking on environmental goals?
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"I think the government is failing miserably on the cost of living. Bills are going through the roof and here’s no strategy. They don’t seem to care. They don’t seem to 'get it'."
Davey, who was the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change between 2012 and 2015, claims to have a strong record on climate change.
He pointed to a Carbon Brief study from January this year which claims that the Conservatives’ policy to scrap the zero-carbon homes standard and end support for onshore wind in 2015 has added £2.5 billion to the nation’s heating bill.
"We managed to do a lot of solar PVs, onshore wind, and offshore wind. There’s still a lot more to do and obviously the government has moved too slowly.
"Some offshore windfarms which my department created are paying the taxpayer back. When the market price is above the price we agreed, they have to return the cash.
"We’re in a different situation with electric vehicles because the market is not as mature.
"Where the government has gone very badly wrong is by removing the subsidy too quickly.
"The government is telling people – rightly in my view – that by 2030 we need to stop the sale of petrol and diesel cars.
"But the Conservatives don’t understand how unaffordable electric vehicles are for ordinary people.
"What we saw with wind is that you subsidise, and then you get the market to catch up with pricing. The renewables market is now really resilient."
Sir Ed wants a windfall tax on oil firms during the crisis, claiming that the Tories have "lost the plot" on tax.
"Oil firms are seeing a huge increases in their profits, partly because Putin has invaded Ukraine," he said.
"How sick is that? That companies are seeing a mass increases in their profits because an illegal war has been raised where innocent civilians are being killed.
"Profiting from an illegal war is wrong. Full stop.
"That’s not a controversial thing to say."
Davey also has a plan for cheaper housing – to curb developer-led planning policies and to hand decision making to neighbourhood forums.
"The community approach means you get what you need such as schools and infrastructure – the important stuff which isn’t for-profit.
"Developer-led policies result in the wrong houses in the wrong places.
"We need more housing. Community-led approaches achieve that because you get sustainable, better designed, more affordable houses."
Davey acknowledged that planning was the biggest issue during the Chesham and Amersham by-election in 2021.
Just one year later, he predicts that voters could stray to the Liberal Democrats if the Tories cannot find a way to appear trustworthy before voters.
"We’ve always been a home for people who want decency in British politics – and I use the word ‘decency’ advisedly.
"It’s rare that people have put so much focus on the individual rather than the party. Boris lies on an industrial scale."
The Lib Dems fought their own battle to regain trust in the LGBTQ+ community following a row in 2017, when then-leader Tim Farron was unclear about his stance on gay sex.
With widespread calls for more protections for gender diverse people this April, where does Sir Ed stand on trans rights?
"I think the vast majority of British people believe we should ‘live and let live’, and that we should allow people to be happy.
"The converse is that people apparently don’t want one another to be happy.
"Just think about that."