One lesson of the Richmond Park by-election that we should all take account of in the coming general election is that those who call an election may lose control of the campaign. Zac Goldsmith chose to fight a by-election on the expansion of Heathrow airport. But he lost the election because voters found other issues – above all, Europe – mattered as much to them.
Theresa May has defined this seven-week election campaign as all about Brexit. But it won’t be, and it can’t be, however hard she and her party, and the partisan right-wing media, try to hold attention to that. (Did you see the Daily Mail font-page headline on Wednesday, ‘Crush the Saboteurs’?) The condition of our schools, the tightening squeeze on their budgets while Mrs. May wants to spend money on grammar schools, the continuing cuts in grants to poorer local authorities, the deepening crisis in the health service, will all attract public attention – because they are closer to most people’s immediate interests than the long-term future of Britain and our place in the world.
The Conservatives have set out their pitch for an election that focuses on Brexit and the coming negotiations. Jeremy Corbyn’s response so far has been to focus on domestic issues, and to avoid a clear line on our future relationship with the EU. We will do best if we talk about both, and link the two as closely together as we can. Nick Clegg’s announcement that he will stand again as a candidate, on Wednesday afternoon, struck the right balance: he spoke of the domestic concerns of his constituents in Sheffield first, and then of how a hard Brexit would damage their interests further.
So it’s not a choice of ‘either/or’ in how we fight this campaign; it has to be both Britain’s relationship with the European continent and the sort of society we want to Britain to be. We have the great advantage that most of the public know, at least in outline terms, what our position is on Europe. Many already understand how that position links to an open and tolerant society, and a fairly-regulated economy. The continuing surge of new members demonstrates how passionately some feel about the issue; the by-election result in Richmond showed the sympathy of a wider section of voters for our position. We have to find ways as the campaign moves forward to contrast the European choice of liberal democratic values, shared public services and social inclusion with the right-wing preference to make Britain resemble a Republican-governed USA: leaving the poor behind, cutting taxes for the rich, and letting public services wither. The sort of relationship the government sets out to negotiate with the EU will directly affect the sort of country Britain (or England) becomes.
Mrs. May has tried to define the campaign instead as a contrast between national unity under the Conservatives against the divisions and confusions of the other parties. She is trying already to revert to the 2015 ‘nightmare’ narrative of Labour in government at the mercy of the SNP. In reality the Conservative Party is itself internally divided – and bitterly divided, between pragmatic centre-right politicians, who overwhelmingly supported Remain, and hard-right ideologues, who are passionate to cut us off from the continent so that we can rekindle our Anglo-Saxon ties, shrink the state, and let free markets rip. Theresa May’s rhetoric offers gestures towards one-nation Toryism, but her gut instincts are culturally conservative and nationalist, from a small-town southern English perspective. We need to find a way as the campaign develops to highlight those divisions, and to emphasise the pressures from the Conservative Right to cut public spending yet more, to leave the poor further behind, and to follow the Trump Administration wherever it may wish to lead us.
The Prime Minister has told us what she wants the campaign to be about. But it’s a long time until June 8th, and unexpected events will intrude. And we must do our utmost to reframe the issues in liberal and social democratic terms.
* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.