Brexit on the doorstep

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 was the Liberal Democrat candidate in Huntingdon Constituency in 2019 and blogs at

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  • At the moment we are trying to bring out the remain vote for us. I don’t see a way for Lib Dems to appeal to Brexiteers in the short term.

  • Nom de Plume 16th Apr '17 - 2:10pm

    This is the hard question – How to make the relevance of the EU clear to ordinary voters? Something the EU itself has notably failed at. It is either abstract (developing the single market, extending stability and prosperity to East and Central Europe) or personal (travel, friends, work, cultural). Potentially, if they got they got their act together, they could deal with problems like the migration crisis. It is partially about Britain’s place in the world. This, in the UK, against a hostile press. I don’t have an off-the-cuff answer.

  • paul barker 16th Apr '17 - 2:22pm

    I am afraid that I agree with Andrew T on this.
    Before we get too depressed though we should remember that 52% of people who voted last June isnt the same as 52% of regular voters. Theres lots of evidence to suggest that a big chunk of Leave voters had never voted before & will never vote again. Theres a strong correlation between backing Leave, not voting regularly, not being a supporter of a Party & not being interested in Politics.
    Its easy to see how appealing the Leave campaign was to people who know nothing about Politics & dont want to know. Leave cut through the complexities of facts, ideology & ethics with the beautiful simplicity of an angry yell. No wonder people who voted for that dont want Leaflets covered in more bloody Words.

  • Andrew McCaig 16th Apr '17 - 2:30pm

    It is very hard for us to appeal to “Brexiteers” at the moment, who are the 20% or so who feel really strongly about the issue. The polling data shows that almost no 2015 UKIP voters have switched to us even though there is churn with all other parties. We have to accept that having taken a distinctive position on this issue to the extent of becoming “enemies of democracy” in the eyes of the Daily Mail, we will get that doorstep reaction from a minority of voters.

    However we can certainly appeal to Leave voters. I spoke to at least 2 in Gorton yesterday who will vote for us in order to get an MP (like Gerald Kaufman) who cares about ALL their constituents. Conversely there were Remain voters for whom the events of the coalition were more important than Brexit.

    We need to stick to our distinctive policy on another referendum, but be calm and sympathetic to people who disagree with it. Most people do not think it is achievable anyway, even if they support it..

  • Tony Greaves 16th Apr '17 - 2:43pm

    I have never known so many angry people (in my basically working class ward in Colne). It’s not a new thing, it’s been growing for some time. But there are more now than ever. A lot are people who do not vote, do not care about anything in the real world locally (as I view it anyway), hate all politicians and all politics, and are simply not willing to take part in any discussion about anything – and object to being asked to do so. The other day I was even phoned by one youngish man I had met on the street who had refused to accept the leaflet I was delivering, and when I asked him in a reasonable way why he was not interested in local affairs, started ranting at me. An hour later he rang me to tell me he was going to make a complaint about me because I had “no right to ask him” why he did not want the leaflet. I asked him who he was going to complain to and he said “the Council of course”. I worry and I despair.

  • David Evershed 16th Apr '17 - 3:09pm

    Many Lib Dems were unhappy in a coalition with the Conservatives and left the party.

    In the same way many voters were unhappy in a coalition with other EU countries and voted to LEAVE the EU.

    Lib Dems learned a lesson and will not be forming a coalition with the Conservatives again. Voters learned a lesson and will not …………………….

  • @david

    Yes they did and may of us came back. Time moves on, I’m trusting the Lib Dems have been inoculated against Tories for a very long time and as Brexit bites I’m hoping a lot of the electorate will be inoculated against Tories and UKIP bearing gifts.

  • Tony Greaves 16th Apr '17 - 4:07pm

    I don’t think the anger and unhappiness of many people is actually much to do with the EU. That was just a symptom and an opportunity. The mood is very dangerous and when leaving the EU is seen to make no difference, and things get worse, it could focus on something much worse.

  • Andrew McCaig 16th Apr '17 - 4:44pm

    I agree, there are some dangerous forces stirring, and in the relatively small number of places where we have the resources to be active we have to keep engaging with everyone as much as possible. Every time a community politician shows they care about people is a small blow for civilisation.. And we need to try and spread out activity out of the target wards..

    I am a little worried at the current trend to only deliver to people who vote in local elections to “save resources”. Ok in the last days of an election campaign but otherwise a self-fulfilling prophesy of non-engagement

  • Nom de Plume 16th Apr '17 - 4:48pm

    Martin, the LibDems when they had 11MEPs were fully engaged. Graham Watson was vice-president, Sharon Bowles chair of an important committee. Perhaps the only UK party properly committed. Remains so.

  • Brexit is stirring up a lot of racism. It will get worse.

  • I had three leaflets returned but like Tony Greaves asked why. I have to say it was nothing to do with Europe rather that we had attacked the right wing in British politics and that they did not want the move to the populist programme to stop. Immigration, benefits to spongeing benefit seekers and one who was very UKIP, except that they had become too liberal?
    March on fellow Liberals, if we were not rattling their cage we would not attract enmity.

    For those genuine people who hate us all, they have a in high rent properties not enjoying life because of creeping poverty is not reasonable in this day and age.We need to attack those issues every bit as much as the European question However all research seems to suggest those same people will lose out with a hard brexit, so our cause is just.

  • All political parties will attract some hostility at some doors. It’s jus how it is. It’s easy to forget that whilst political enthusiast tend to view politics as disagreements and compromise, a lot ordinary people see the opposition as a sort of threat and react accordingly. But, that’s people for you. Funny old cove is Johnny emotions.

  • The EU gradually took over control of almost every aspect of our lives and the people of this country were denied a say on the loss of democracy. This created a democratic deficit and a large disconnect between the people and the real legislators. When the first vote on the matter in decades came up, many people just wanted to get out.

    They ignored Project Fear. They don’t care if there are serious temporary financial setbacks. Restoring self government for the long term is much more important. They have confidence that an independent UK with the right leadership can trade with the world and not be held back by the bureaucratic EU with its protectionist policies, failing currency and political integration ambitions.

    In short, they saw remaining in the EU as a future to be avoided and independence as a positive ambition.

    The majority of Remainers voted for the status quo for personal financial reasons. They do not want to risk even a fraction of what Project Fear was threatening. Many trade with the EU or feel some financial vulnerability to Brexit. They put these needs before sovereignty or concerns about how the EU will continue to evolve. They chose to ignore the fact that the status quo is not an option. Perhaps a guaranteed soft Brexit would have won over most of them.

    I shall not define the LD reasons for remaining but would just make the point that the enthusiasm for all things EU make you a fairly exclusive club.

    A final point is that when the leadership effectively claims that the voters got it wrong, I’m not surprised that you get a hostile reception.

  • Arnold Kiel 16th Apr '17 - 8:46pm

    Unfortunately, there is no positive story here. People have ample reason to be dissatisfied, and there is no political solution: the UK economy is too unbalanced to work for everyone. The Brexit ideologues have successfully deflected this anger to the EU and plan to focus UK wealth-creation even more towards the few, once outside the EU. EU membership has dampened UK income- and wealth-inequality, but cannot correct it. For the middle-aged, low-skilled Briton, remaining in the EU would be less bad, not good.

    I doubt these people represent much LibDem voter potential. But to change their mind on Brexit, they need to understand that Brexit is a frivolous exercise that will turbocharge austerity in all areas of public services and benefits. They will pay the price, and will never participate in the benefits, if any.

  • Peter – the EU didnt control almost every aspect of our lives. If you travelled and worked around Europe you would have seen massive diversity, because actually the EU controlled very little. Name one european law that caused you a problem? Take the working time directive. Ive had periods when Ive really overworked myself to the point of sickness. Did I exceed the 17 week rolling maximum? No – because that waa set at a stupidly high level. Sometimes European judges rules our ministers’ actions illegal. But UK judges also do that. The freedom you bang on about is freedom to do what exactly?

  • Denis Mollison 16th Apr '17 - 10:18pm

    “The EU gradually took over control of almost every aspect of our lives”
    That’s a grotesque exaggeration. Sure, there were/are a huge number of EU regulations (each in its time agreed by our government) to do with free and safe trade, many good ones to do with the environment (pollution, preserving biodiversity), and some less good (agriculture and fisheries?), but “control over our lives”?? I find it hard to think of any significant EU law or regulation that I could describe as controlling a significant aspect of my life.

  • Andrew Tampion 17th Apr '17 - 7:33am

    Tony Greaves
    “I don’t think the anger and unhappiness of many people is actually much to do with the EU. That was just a symptom and an opportunity.”
    I realise that I am caricaturing you for which I apologise in advance.
    You go around telling people that they don’t know their own minds then you wonder why they get angry with you.

  • Andrew Tampion 17th Apr '17 - 7:37am

    Wayne Chadburn

    Thank you for a welcome and interesting post the other day. Please don’t give up and leave the party. There are definitely a lot more than 3 or 4 of us disputing the denialism of the die hard remainers who dominate this site.

  • Peter Martin 17th Apr '17 - 8:37am

    @ Tony Greaves,

    “I don’t think the anger and unhappiness of many people is actually much to do with the EU. ”

    There’s some truth in this. We’ve seen some anger and unhappiness in the USA too which has led to the rise of Donald Trump and we can’t blame the EU for that!

    But the UK isn’t America. If we’d had a referendum ten years ago before the GFC hit I am sure we would have had a comfortable majority for remain. The polls ate the time were giving the remainers about 2/3 of the vote. So there needed to be something like a 17% swing for the Leavers to win the the poll.

    So while we can’t blame the EU for the GFC we can blame the EU for adopting such a rigid economic structure that it was unable to cope with it. The euro, and the system of fixed exchange rates with all other members, apart from the UK, worked reasonably well up to 2008 but has been a disaster afterwards. True, the UK hasn’t been a part of all that but the fall out from the EU’s economic woes hasn’t stopped at the Channel ports.

    The EU is our largest trading partner and for our economy to be successful we need to be able to export to the EU as well as import from it. So the EU itself has to accept some of the blame for “anger and unhappiness”. Not all of it but enough to produce that 17% swing which has made all the difference to our EU future – or lack of it.

  • I think that ‘Prospect Theory’ may help us understand what is going on. Briefly, if people think that there is a very high probability of all options being unfavourable, people are more likely to be risk-takers and get angry at those who point out the unlikelihood of the small chance actually occurring. See Kahneman ‘Thinking Fast And Slow’ pp 316-319, especially the grid diagram.

  • I’m surprised that some people challenged my point about EU control of our laws and ignored the substantive point I was making.

    Without wishing to revisit the Brexit debate, I recommend reviewing the comprehensive list of EU competences. They include, but are not restricted to, food, medicine, transport, employment, environment, safety, trade, financial and commercial just to name a few. I consider these to cover most aspects of our lives.

    The EU, if it chooses to legislate, has supremacy if there is conflict with existing national laws. I did not express an opinion on the merits of EU legislation. I was commenting on the erosion of self government over decades whilst denying democratic opinion. This built up resentment over many years culminating in the Brexit vote when the opportunity arrived.

    The purpose of my comment was to try to explain the different motivations in the recent referendum and explain why those who voted Leave may resent being told that they misunderstood the consequences and should vote again.

    I congratulate Mark Argent on raising an important observation. If the party chooses to ignore the voter reaction to its primary policy despite such a warning, then it could be a serious omission.

  • Denis Loretto 17th Apr '17 - 9:37am

    Two points –
    1. Pitying smile = irrelevance. Leaflet bundled up and handed back (or worse) = potency.

    2. We are still in the early stages of this. As the destructive implications become clearer of leaving not just the EU itself but the single market, the customs union and many other institutions which provide real value to us, many of those who voted leave in genuine expectation of better things for our country (as distinct from those who simply hate Europe) may well come round to our demand for a referendum on the outcome of the negotiations. This is our campaign. It is a good and worthy campaign. Our leadership must not be deterred from seeing it through.

  • Large White Bear 17th Apr '17 - 9:49am

    The area, as described by Mark, would seem to be predominantly working class with a high proportion of self-employed people (the white van man or woman sneered at by La Thornberry!) and a large number who would probably define themselves in surveys as ‘English’ rather than ‘British’. There would be a widespread sense of being ignored or despised by the political class. The problem for the Lib Dems is that they are very strongly identified in such areas as a middle class party which is remote from their concerns and interested mainly in white collar public sector professionals. Challenging that perception is a difficult task, but a revival of the Liberal tradition of ‘community politics’ (borrowed incompetently by UKIP and alluded to by Theresa May) would be a good starting point.

  • Nom de Plume 17th Apr '17 - 11:16am

    Peter – a single market means single rules. When they leave and if there is a new agreement. It will be interesting to see how much Brussels regulation is simply transfered to UK legislation. This is true even if they try and go down the WTO route. Splendid isolation does not exist. It is worth noting that the UK will have no imput into how these rules are created. How high will be the cost?

  • @Peter “I’m surprised that some people challenged my point about EU control of our laws and ignored the substantive point I was making.”

    But your point misses the point! A sovereign Westminster chose to adopt EU agreements and laws (to which it and/or its representatives were party to) into UK law. Farage in his earlier campaigning was clear, the problem was with and at Westminster, not Brussels (ie. it was Westminster that failed to put the adoption of the key EU treaties to the British public, it was Westminster that failed to say no to Brussels etc.).

    This isn’ to say that Brussels is necessarily benevolent, just that the UK got itself into the current mess. so all those Leave voters who shout “Brussels this, Brussels that” have been mislead…

  • @ Nom de Plume, I’m aware that the single market means single rules. That does not disagree with any part of my comment.
    @Roland, with respect, I did not miss the point. I have not blamed Brussels and I fully agree that successive UK governments have handed over sovereignty to Brussels without consulting the electorate. It is interesting to ponder whether Sovereignty is theirs to dispose off without democratic agreement, but that is a separate matter.

    All of which is peripheral to the matter raised by Mark Argent. The people who voted leave, in my opinion, did so primarily for reasons associated with sovereignty. The consequence is that when Mr Farron tells them that they did not understand what the trading deal would look like and should vote again, it causes resentment.

    Some people on this site regard the pooling of sovereignty as a net gain. I realise all of that. I am trying to propose an explanation, not canvass for UKIP, but it is like treading through treacle. The LD view of the EU seems to comprise of tunnel vision.

  • Nom de Plume 17th Apr '17 - 12:30pm

    It would appear that sovereignty is an emotional issue. If sovereignty is limited to enacting laws instead of creating laws, it is a loss of sovereignty.

    I know some people have a problem with the Social Chapter, whether they can get a better terms remains to be seen. Oppositon remains the best policy for the Lib Dems.

  • I knocked on doors every day during the referendum campaign & have been knocking on doors again recently.
    Recent experience has been very positive. I only came across one person who was not polite & he was a UKIP supporter. It has been much the best response I have encountered on the doorstep since the tuition fees debacle.
    When I canvassed last June the leavers fell into 2 categories. Those who thought they were going to be rich if we left – the £350 million pounds per week group – & those who knew we would be poorer but who considered it a price well worth paying to get rid of the immigrants.
    The issue most often raised on the doorstep, and I called on 2,000, was the fear of 80 million Turks coming here. It was on all the Brexit literature.
    I was able to reassure voters that
    a. Turkey was moving away from satisfying the entrance criteria &
    b. Each member country has a veto.

    However I only spoke to 2,000 voters. What about the other 35 million?

    We now know that there isn’t £350 million a week extra for the NHS & Turkey is not about to join the EU.
    The electorate were lied to & I have met many leavers on the doorstep who now regret their vote in addition to the 48% who voted to remain plus those who did not vote & now also regret it & all the non-British EU citizens who were not allowed to vote, but who can vote on 4th May.

    Don’t be afraid to go out there knocking on doors. The response is very positive, as all our recent by election victories have shown.

  • Sue Sutherland 17th Apr '17 - 3:33pm

    Someone on Facebook has shared a map showing the levels of the number of anti-depressants being prescribed according to local areas. This appears to have a strong correlation with the referendum vote in that areas with high levels of anti-depressant prescription seem to have voted Leave. If this is the case we are dealing with deep emotional distress channeled into political expression, so it’s no wonder people are angry with us for challenging the hope they believe Brexit gives them.
    It’s appalling that people have been brought so low by bad housing, a stressed NHS, a lack of social care, low pay, structural unemployment and poor prospects for the future. It’s no wonder they voted to take back control, when they have little control over their own lives and I think it’s understandable that they blame the obvious scapegoats, immigrants, for everything once political leaders and right wing papers encourage them to hate. Hatred at least helps you feel alive, whereas depression is a living death.
    Please can we give them a viable alternative, a way in which their lives can really be turned around, which I believe means an alternative to the economic policies that are at present grinding the faces of the poor, those on benefits, the disabled and large numbers of the working poor. They felt we let them down in Coalition, so please can we redeem ourselves and these unhappy people at the same time?

  • Three of our local deliverers voted Leave. One has stopped delivering over Tim’s opposition to Brexit – but will still vote for our County Council candidate because she works so hard for our villages. The other two are still happy to deliver: one told me he disagreed over Europe but agreed with us on most other things.
    As to voters, I’ve had people saying they no longer support us because of our opposition to Brexit, and others say they used to vote Conservative or Labour but now support us – for the same reason. And many who support us for entirely different reasons. Die-hard Bexiters won’t vote Lib Dem now, but a good candidate with good policies and campaigns on local issues will get support from lots of voters regardless of how they voted in the referendum.

  • Peter >The LD view of the EU seems to comprise of tunnel vision.
    Rather than it being clear you are explaining, it reads very much as though you are arguing the case against. So, someone else responds by arguing the case for.
    It kind of self-perpetuates in that both parties see the other side as entrenched. And of course, wrong!
    ‘Better in than out’ isn’t tunnel vision, by the way.

  • Robert Wootton 22nd Apr '17 - 10:26am

    Leaving the EU is like leaving a secure job that you may not particularly like to go self- employed without knowing what job you are going to do, without a business plan and a cash flow forecast. I think people were just fed up with the increased bureaucratic red tape they had to deal with at home which they saw as emanating from Brussels.

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