One of the salutary experiences of the last few months has been door-knocking in several areas which Liberal Democrats have not worked for a while and where there is significant support for Brexit. Responses have been varying. Alongside those promising to vote Lib Dem there have been angry responses — people who see the Lib Dem clipboard and slam the door and even someone who rushed out of their house to shout at me for putting a Lib Dem leaflet through their letterbox.
This leaves me wondering about the antipathy.
A slammed door says that someone is angry, but not why. Where conversations have been possible — though they are sometimes rather short — they have been illuminating.
It’s easy to dismiss the Leave campaign for its lies. The sense I have been getting on the doorsteps is of something deeper than that, as if we are wrecking the bright image of a wonderful Brexit. The situation was brilliantly summed up by a UKIP leaflet celebrating the wonderful [sic] prospect of Brexit and suggesting that people depressed or upset about it should join the Lib Dems.
Talking of the “left behind” doesn’t quite catch the sense. It’s more raw than that. These are people trapped by rising house prices, who know that others are finding the money for better homes. Some are people who have sought good work opportunities and found them beyond their grasp. Others see their children and grandchildren struggling. There are also people for whom the conviction that “life will get better” is what keeps hope alive. The Brexit vision seems to offer that hope, but there is a niggling doubt that it may prove another false dawn. A Lib Dem saying Brexit is not what it’s cracked up to be is unwelcome because they might be right. The sense is caught by the person who said: “I voted Leave. We were alright before we went in and will be alright when we come out. I feel sorry for my children and grandchildren.” She seemed to hold both the optimism and the worry.
A few times I have found myself thinking of the phrase “Basildon Man”, coined in the 1980s to explain why people in Basildon were voting for Thatcherite Tories rather than Labour. The suggestion is that they were hard-working and determined (or at least, hoping) to get ahead. The optimistic language of independence and trade deals catches that sense. It’s caught by another comment: “I voted Leave because of all the scaremongering. It can’t be as bad as that. I’m an optimistic sort of person.” I fear I heard a fragility in that a whistling-in-the-dark that whistles all the more loudly as it knows it is defying reality.
The sense of recurring betrayal and loss matches others saying “I don’t vote. They’re all liars.” These are people for whom the broken promises of the Brexiteers join a long list of broken promises: voting Leave was a good way to kick the system, with no expectation of change, and no surprise when it doesn’t happen.
There is a problem. From the perspective of a Remainer, David Davis’ promise of Brexit bringing “exact same benefits” as we now have sounds laughable: in this interview he clearly wriggled. But although his words are utterly implausible, they offer the bright optimistic future and sense that “things are now different” that seduced many who voted Leave. What’s lacking is the statecraft and the wisdom to admit that this is fantasy.
What can Lib Dems do?
It’s not enough to bemoan this. Liberal Democrats need to offer a real alternative vision. Instead of “we won the war, why give in now?” (and silly comments from Michael Howard on invading Gibraltar) we need the vision of an EU that makes ware obsolete. Instead of an “independent free-trading nation” (actually squeezed between the US and China), we need the vision of the possibilities of the single market. Instead of the fear of “being ruled by Europe” we need name the influence we have through the EU. Instead of “undemocratic EU”, we need to talk of this as the only free-trade area in the world with a democratically-elected parliament.
There’s a close alignment between these and Liberal Democrat values: there’s an urgency in offering those to the people who slam doors in our faces. Although I can argue forcefully for a “referendum on the terms”, that’s the mechanism for rejecting a bad Brexit. On the way to that place we need vision that’s both inspiring and aligned with reality.
* "Mark Argent is PPC for Hertford and Stortford, and was formerly Chair of Cambridge LibDems