Lord (William) Wallace writes…Defining the issues in this election campaign

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.

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12 Comments

  • A good article, we probably dont have enough time to shift most Voters out of their Tory vs Labour mindset but we can give it a good try.
    On the positive side, Labours decline does seem to have speeded-up in the last few weeks, they are now averaging about 25%.
    We are on around 11% & again, our rise seems to have accelerated recently.
    I actually think that we have a good chance of getting more votes than Labour on June 8th, but probably too late to shift the Media narrative. A lot depends on how we do on May 4th, those Elections will get a lot more Media attention than they normally would.

  • yes a good post – but will it be acted on? If the Lib Dems are to do well, we need to get back tactical voters. That won’t be achieved by following the failed line of ‘only the Lib Dems’ support this that and the other (usually when it not even true) we need to as David Steel said – work with Liberals and like minded people in all parties and none.

    The EU was never the most important issue to most people. It would be a mistake to think that Richmond will be repeated in other seats which don’t have the special circumstances of the by-election. Indeed if the greens stand, we could well lose the Richmond seat again. Please don’t get tied up political hack speak which is meaningless to many people – lets talk about values, aims and making peoples lives better. If you think we can woo just the 48% then we won’t get past 12% in the polls, we have to have a message with wider resonance that shows the party gets it.

  • Agreed, an excellent article. I think this sentence best summarises the task for LibDems:
    “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”.

  • Sue Sutherland 20th Apr '17 - 2:19pm

    A good article but there will be a lot of tactical voting against the Tories for Brexit reasons so we must remain clear that the party wishes to remain in the EU, although for democratic reasons we would seek to achieve this through a second referendum, after bringing in policies to alleviate the deprivation that caused many people to vote Leave.
    We must monitor what is happening on social media because some people are already worried that we won’t seek a return to the EU because we are their last hope.
    I also think we should tackle the issue of “taking back control”. So far it’s been attacked because it’s so vague but I think it is deeply meaningful to people who have little control over their own lives. They have been told that this lack of control is down to EU membership whereas the deprivation that causes this feeling has been caused by our own domestic policies, following the principles laid down by Thatcherite economics.
    I hope we can find a way of giving back genuine control over the next few weeks.

  • Arnold Kiel 20th Apr '17 - 4:00pm

    The formula is: BREXIT=AUSTERITY*2 ≠ CONTROL≠SOVEREIGNTY

  • Andrew McCaig 20th Apr '17 - 6:50pm

    The vision I like to portray of “Taking back control” is a rowing boat drifting towards Niagara Falls.. Rather than the much larger EU boat successfully navigating to shore…

  • Neil Sandison 20th Apr '17 - 8:05pm

    We must not let the tories control the agenda at this election .lets be radical enough to put some fresh ideas foward for example George Osbourne loaded new homes development exclusively towards home ownership with only trickle down affordable housing at the margins if your council was tough enough to insist on some element of affordable homes. We need flexible tenures at affordable prices with the option of rent now buy later when you can both afford and can secure a mortgage .Stop calling it the NHS like some Labour mantra mostly concerned with hospitals and start talking about a reformed National Health and Social Care Service and start offering joined up health and social care to reduce the number of elderly and vunerable people ending up in hospital in the first place.

  • Katharine Pindar 20th Apr '17 - 8:54pm

    An essential point for us to hammer home, I believe, is that Theresa May achieving a substantial majority will not solve her essential problem, which is to leave the EU internal market while remaining in it, and to control immigration from the EU which is actually needed here. In other words, the problems of Brexit will be no nearer a solution on June 9, merely postponed. Let us above all continue to expose the desperate folly and fantasy of this government’s positioning.

  • Antony Watts 21st Apr '17 - 9:52am

    Look, we have to focus. There are two issues in this election

    – Remain (not Brexit please…)
    – Social Justice

    These must be the banner headlines, underneath the details. EVERY interview, news story from LD MUST mention these two headlines.

    Focus.

  • Denis Loretto 21st Apr '17 - 1:54pm

    In broadly agreeing with William Wallace as to the breadth of our campaign we must not lose the main focus – fighting to retain the closest available relationship with the EU and giving the electorate the right to decide upon the ultimate deal. That is our USP and the clear reason for the surge in our membership. While also plugging our liberal values and the policies deriving from these values, we must not delude ourselves into thinking that it is a sudden conversion to these which will drive voters who did not support us in 2015 to get behind us now.

  • Steve Holbrook 21st Apr '17 - 10:30pm

    Of course Lord Wallace’s thoughts are inspiring to us because we belong to the thinking, caring body in society.
    On closing the eyes there appears a blue tsunami and it will surge over us.
    The misinformed, the misled, are encouraged to vote for the likely winner, in much the same way as a gambler feels the strong lure of a sure bet; they make up the tsunami. There is glory in merely winning.
    Yes we’ll fight the election with the inspiration articulated so well by Lord Wallace but we must begin to prepare our case ready for the next but one general election.
    The EU – the world – need to be reformed and we need to spell out to the electorate just what we want our reforms to lead to – in much simpler terms than now, so that the misled and the misinformed get behind us next time. Consensus is our greatest strength but it can also be our greatest weakness, in that we get lost in negotiating the finer details.
    We need to focus on projects – alternatives to the Trump wall – concrete things that appeal to the better nature in people.
    How about projects to rebuild Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan so that we can report boatloads of engineers, architects and builders going off for peaceful purposes with big economic paybacks? Isis and the like will wither in the face of peace and the misled and misinformed will join us because we spell out what’s needed for prosperity.
    It’s not defeatist to talk about a blue tsunami – but heck it’s realistic.
    Concrete matters. The tsunami might be heralding much better weather.
    Apologies for using figurative language.

  • Steve Holbrook 24th Apr '17 - 12:10am

    Of course Lord Wallace’s thoughts are inspiring to us because we belong to the thinking, caring body in society.
    On closing the eyes, there appears a blue tsunami and it will surge over us.
    The misinformed, the misled, are encouraged to vote for the likely winner, in much the same way as a gambler feels the strong lure of a sure bet; they make up the tsunami. There is glory in merely winning, especially if you’re losing out in life.
    Yes we’ll fight the election with the inspiration articulated so well by Lord Wallace but we must begin to prepare our case ready for the next but one general election.
    The EU needs to be reformed and we need to spell out to the electorate just what we want our reforms to lead to – in much simpler terms than now, so that the misled and the misinformed get behind us next time. Consensus is our greatest strength but it can also be our greatest weakness in that we often get lost in negotiating the finer details.
    We need to focus on projects – alternatives to the Trump wall – concrete things that appeal to the better nature in people.
    How about us suggesting projects to rebuild Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan so that we can mention our wanted-for boatloads of engineers, architects and builders going off for peaceful purposes with big economic paybacks? Isis and the like will wither in the face of peace and the misled and misinformed will join us because we spell out what’s needed for prosperity.
    It’s not defeatist to talk about a blue tsunami – but heck it’s realistic.
    Concrete matters. The tsunami might be heralding much better weather.

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