Wayne Chadburn’s post yesterday afternoon asked a question that the Liberal Democrats may have answered and agreed on nationally – that the majority of Lib Dems oppose Brexit – but it is a question that is still of huge regional significance. And national electoral success is won regionally, seat by seat. Significantly, the proposed boundary changes – if recommended next year in their current form – would move parts of the current Penistone and Stocksbridge constituency in South Yorkshire (where Wayne Chadburn is based) into Sheffield Hallam, Nick Clegg’s patch.
When moving to Sheffield in late 2015, I bought a home within this constituency not only because I think south-west Sheffield is a great place to live, but because – for the first time in my life – I’d be living in a constituency where I would have voted for my sitting MP. I have since delivered Nick’s Christmas cards, enjoyed the annual fundraising dinner and made friends with fellow Lib Dems. As an academic in a university’s Modern Languages department, I worry about the future of ERASMUS. And so on.
But I have also been critical of the party’s post-referendum anti-Brexit stance. The proposed boundary changes have formed part of my thinking, as well as volunteer work I do out in Stocksbridge, actually – an area very different to my Fulwood ward. Angela Smith, Labour MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge, may have voted against triggering Article 50 – like our own Nick Clegg. But her constituents voted 61% for Brexit. By contrast, Sheffield Hallam residents voted 64% Remain.
Behind those headline figures that suggest irreconcilable cultural differences, there is the threat of a common political narrative. Sheffield Hallam was once Conservative, before Richard Allan (now Baron Allan) turned it yellow in 1997. The Conservatives have come second in each subsequent election apart from 2015 (when Labour made it to second place) – just as the Conservative candidates have been runners up in the two elections since Penistone and Stocksbridge was established as a constituency in 2010.
I am not saying that the Liberal Democrats should reverse the decision taken on a national stage, at last year’s conference. But there is a difference between accepting that decision and promoting it at the expense of other policy areas. I hope that Jackie Pearcey will take Manchester Gorton in May; I support her campaign. The Liberal Democrats as the nationally anti-Brexit voice with more MPs than the Greens, who are positioning themselves as the other anti-Brexit party, will no doubt help local Lib Dem efforts in the Manchester constituency, an area estimated to have voted Remain by 62%. However, the Greens have been busy talking about another flagship policy, in addition and unrelated to Brexit: their three-day weekend. I profoundly disagree with that policy, but it does at least position the party in debates around economic growth and the value of work in ways that are easy to understand (and, to our benefit, attack!) I absolutely agree with Ashley Cartman that something important is missing from the Liberal Democrat Strategy Consultation paper, and that we need an economic and industrial strategy – fast.
The fact is that to win elections, we need to be more than a national protest party. We need to win at elections, which means winning seats that are regionally far from straightforward. In order to do this, I suggest – in contrast to the Strategy Consultation paper – we have to bridge mainstream ideological divides in the electorate by distinguishing ourselves with pragmatic, compelling policies. There are many Liberals in the 48%; but there are some in the 52%, too. I have high hopes for Gorton. But other constituencies are more divided and others, quite literally, may soon be divided up by the Boundary Commission.
* Sean Williams is a Lib Dem member in the Sheffield Hallam constituency