Author Archives: Ed Thornley

Post 2017 Northern Liberalism – Part 3

As promised, the last part  (Part 1 here, part 2 here) of my foray into political analysis will look at how we move forward in an area of the UK where we kept less than deposits in June of this year. Central to this is, I believe, the strategy suggested by Mark Pack and David Howarth of creating a core vote. However, this is clearly a long-term strategy, and I want to look at the more immediate future.

It is because of our current situation that I welcome the appointment of Tim Farron as our new spokesperson for the North of England. It’s a logical place for him to be, proud as he clearly is of his Preston upbringing. I also think it is a great opportunity for Tim to get back to what he does best, rallying the troops. With all the important local elections coming up, our members really do need that drive. A good first step would be for us to denounce the Northern Powerhouse for the complete fudge that it is, and to scream it from the rooftops. Fractional funding increases in real terms does not constitute a powerhouse anywhere. We should also continue to speak out on the pointlessness of the new City Region Mayors, whose only success that I can see is to get flip-flop Burnham out of the Commons. I was very happy to hear Carl Cashman say that the first thing he would do if elected in the Liverpool City Region would be to have a referendum on his new position – because why on earth does Liverpool need three mayors?

Having mentioned Tim, I feel it is worth reiterating what is for me the defining message of his leadership, pick a ward and win it. We used to run a dozen councils in the North, but now it’s just South Lakeland. If we are to gain Parliamentary seats, we must gain council seats, it’s a very simple and uncontroversial truth. Council elections are always effected by national opinion, there’s no way around that, so we fall back on a record of local delivery, on Labour’s incompetence and the cruelty of the Conservatives. It will be an uphill battle, in some places it’ll be impossible for now. So we must focus our resources on winnable areas, not fritter them in hopeless contests. A strong organisation is also central, such as that now delivering impressive results in Sheffield. The ability of the Sheffield party to co-ordinate and focus their efforts to specific areas across the city is what made the win in Mosborough and the solid swing in Beighton last week possible.

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Post 2017 Northern Liberalism Part 2

A few days ago, I wrote Part 1 of this article, at the time intended to be the one and only part, but the response in comments and in person has, I feel, required a deeper look into the situation we face in the North of England post-GE2017, in particular the areas that I know well, and provide some of the more interesting case studies. Part 2 looks at the General Election of June, and Part 3 will look into how we move forward.

Southport has always been interesting, staying orange in 2015 when everyone thought it would go blue, a spot of council strength that defies logic in a town with similar demographics to Clacton. On 12th June this year, John Pugh wrote an article entitled “How we lost Southport” on this site, and I hope he will not mind me using that work as a reference point here. In it he clearly pins down the reason he believes we fell into third place – national messaging. I should at this point say that this is not a three-months-too-late national campaign bashing article, the 2017 General Election was a surprise one, fought furiously by all of us. Yet, we are now far enough away to look back with a level of objectivity. Our national messaging was quite simple – Tories want a hard Brexit, Labour can’t win anyway because of Corbyn. Simple, but not effective. It fell particularly flat in the least well-off regions of the country, the North of course.

Attacking Corbyn may well have gone down in attempts to steal votes from naturally conservative voters, but in the constituency in which I now live, Leeds North West, we found dozens of national leaflets attacking the blessed Jeremy landing on doormats in Labour-leaning areas, prompting a backlash against us. Whether the requests for this to stop were eventually listened to or not I don’t know, but they kept coming, and this has made two things clear to me. Firstly, that our national messaging wasn’t right in 2017 and secondly, and more importantly, that as a national party we do not listen enough to those who know best, in this case the campaigners and councillors on the ground, who unanimously saw these leaflets for the messaging disaster they were for the wards we were already struggling in most. 

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Post 2017 Northern Liberalism

After 2015, half of our Parliamentary seats were in the North of England. Now it’s one of twelve, and only just. Across the North, especially in the cities, we fell back in 2017, losing Leeds North West, Sheffield Hallam and Southport. Why? Many reasons, but one stands out for me and that is a simple surge in Labour support. In both Leeds NW and Hallam, students registered and voted in greater numbers than ever before – in one Leeds NW ward, registration numbers increased by almost 20%. Even though Southport was lost to the Tories, we see that a surge in Labour support, and an unwillingness for Labour voters to vote for us tactically, pushed us into third place.

Does that mean that we are defeated in the North? Not at all. We still run South Lakeland Council, have sizeable groups in Sheffield, York and Newcastle, we hold fifteen of Southport’s twenty-one seats on Sefton Council, and we have nine councillors holding the line in Leeds, six of them in Leeds NW. It is also becoming increasingly clear, on the doorstep and anecdotally, that this Labour surge was national, not resulting from local issues. In Leeds NW, we have been cursed (or blessed) with a Labour MP who is rapidly making a bad reputation for himself in the constituency. There is a surprisingly high level of buyer’s remorse, especially for so early in the Parliament. People are saying on the doorstep “Oh I wish Greg had got in”, even from those who tell us they voted Labour in June. Facing all-out elections in May, we have begun our campaign early, fearing we would be heavily up against the wall, but so far our canvassing returns are good. Our new MP appears to have done little to steal our local government base it seems, even in polling districts that went Labour in June.

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Mrs Copeland

Copeland is a place of significance for me, I love it to bits, and I wish I had been able to come up and help the campaign. On Thursday, Rebecca Hanson and team delivered a solid result for us in Copeland, doubling our vote share and forcing UKIP down into fourth place. Of course, we are by no means a close third, but over time could this become a Lib Dem target seat?

Neighbouring seat Westmorland and Lonsdale, held by our own Tim Farron, had a strong tradition of Lib Dem second places by the time he won in 2005, while in Copeland our vote has snuck above ten percent only twice; in 2005 and 2010. This by-election has been seen by some as purely a start to the Cumbria County Council elections in May, and I think that has its own benefits. Rebecca did a fantastic job of getting our name out there, even to the isolated villages in the fells.

My Grandma lives in one of those villages, and tells me that they have a lamppost at the bottom of her road which has been broken for approaching a year. The council have been contacted again and again to fix it, but nothing has been done, except a bloke coming to take the bulb out. This broken lamppost makes it incredibly difficult to see pedestrians or to pull out of the road at night – it is impossible to see the cars that race over the fells like lemmings, flinging themselves around corners without slowing or looking. A small thing to be sure, but this local dog-dirt politics is how we built ourselves up across the country – if evidence is needed, I refer you to Paddy Ashdown’s book ‘A Fortunate Life’ where he details how he won Yeovil on campaigns of this kind.

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Musings on the Aftermath

Whether or not to extend British involvement across the “non-existent” border between Iraq and Syria was always going to be a divisive issue. There was no way around that. For a party such as ours, it promised to be particularly so. Not especially in Parliament, where we are now so few that nobody would notice except us. No, I mean divisive internally. Within hours of Tim’s announcement that he would support the strikes and ask our other MPs to as well, not only had my inbox exploded with Facebook notifications declaring it to be a stupid idea or that the …

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