Election Diary 3: Into the final stretch

Harold Wilson stated more than fifty years ago that a week was a long time in politics, and in a general election campaign this is especially true. There are just under two weeks left until the country goes to the polls, and a huge proportion is still up for grabs in this most divisive election. It is also the most important since Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979, which fundamentally changed Britain, for better or worse. 

It is therefore little surprise that two main parties have recently shifted their focus going into the final weeks and days of the campaign. Labour, despite Jeremy Corbyn’s increased poll ratings, has not garnered enough support to pose a real threat to Boris Johnson’s plans for majority rule. His party has now focused its attempts on retaining its Northern Leave-voting seats, which could give the Lib Dems an opportunity to heavily target previously Labour-supporting Remainers. The huge spending pledges have not caught the public’s imagination as much as Corbyn and Seumas Milne would have wanted, nor have their plans for large-scale renationalization. Or, for that matter, the party’s disgraceful failure to combat, let alone admit to, its anti-Semitism. 

A new poll, employing a method that accurately predicted the 2017 election result claims that the Lib Dems are on course for thirteen MPs if the election were held today. If true, this would a disastrous. After the recent successes in European and local elections, such a poor showing would mean that the Remain voice would have virtually no voice in Parliament, and would, I fear, mean the final failure of the Remain campaign as a whole. 

The party’s pledge to revoke Article 50 is one of the main reasons for this slump. Speaking to even the most ardent Europhiles, I have found a disquiet about the policy. For Jo Swinson to succeed, she needs to position herself as the moderate, opposing both the extremes of Corbyn and Johnson. Supporting revoking does exactly the opposite. It presents the Liberal Democrats as un-democratic, ignoring the first vote and not allowing even a second. Much anger in the public at this extreme turn has meant that a rethink is needed if the current poll figures are to be reversed. 

The strategy was not created without reason. In early September it looked increasingly likely that Corbyn would start to campaign for Remain, or at least put his full party support behind a second referendum. Instead, he stitched up a vote at his own party conference, and continued to pursue the Kafkaesque ambiguity that makes up a small part of his manifesto. Labour did not become another voice of Remain, and so now it looks like Swinson and her party that are the extremists in this continuing debate. 

This week we have seen a shift away from this position, with Chuka Umunna not mentioning the word ‘revoke’ once in his speech on Monday, stating that his new party would support a People’s Vote if not elected as the majority power in Parliament. In this we can detect a distinct shift away from Swinson’s pronouncement in the ITV interview that she would revoke one day one of her premiership, a promise which went down badly on the Question Time debate days later. Emphasis has changed onto preventing Johnson from gaining his coveted majority, correctly portraying him a reckless, meandering extremist. Many of the four million Tory Remainers searching for a political home will be attracted by this message. 

The future of the Remain movement and of the country’s future beyond Brexit heavily depend on this election result, and its consequences will have long-reaching consequences for the foreseeable future. The coming days will be crucial in ensuring that the Liberal Democrats are able to secure the representation they need in parliament to further their cause. A change in strategy is a needed part of capturing the public’s imagination and putting forward the ideas of a brighter, fairer future that expands beyond remaining in the EU. 

* Patrick Maxwell is a Liberal Democrat member and political blogger at www.gerrymander.blog and a commentator at bbench.co.uk.

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  • David Becket 29th Nov '19 - 12:12pm

    Well said.
    Two weeks to go to readjust our campaign.
    The arrival of Trump next week might help us, remember Kinnock in 1992

  • LibDem’s do not have any attractive policies (unless on welfare who will stick with Labour) except for remaining in the EU, have not even heard much about political reform – and that tends towards expanding the political class rather than empowering the voter, so has little general appeal.

    The good news is that Boris is not going to get fifty percent of the vote, therefore a future case can be made for rejoining the EU or having a very close alignment with it. Labour probably won’t bother as they want to break numerous EU rules so they can create a socialist paradise in the UK.

    Once Brexit is done and if it goes completely wrong then both the Conservatives and Labour will have the excuse to call a national emergency, massive spending/tax cuts from the Conservatives or mass nationalization from Labour. All depends on how large the majority of the election winner, whether the LibDem’s can run on rejoin EU manifesto, if there is a quick new election may be able to do so. The EU would be amused if Sterling was devalued to 0.5 and we were forced to join at that rate, writing off more than half of everyone’s wealth!

  • I disagree with the OP’s assertion that the revoke pledge was the main reason for our disappointing poll ratings so far. The main reason is the appalling media bais against us, Jo was frozen out of one TV leaders’ debate and stitched up in another. So you cannot take anything useful from the reaction of the audience to whatever Jo said in the BBC QT programme last week, as even the BBC itself has admitted that the audience was stacked against the Lib Dems. It’s not just that they were nearly all supporters of the two main parties, but they were the most extreme partisan type. The Corbyn supporters in particular absolutely despise us for existing. If it had been Labour proposing a “Revoke Article 50” policy, the Momentum shills would have been singing its praises. As it is, Labour has cornered the market for a “moderate” Brexit policy, by refusing to say which side they would even support in a PV. There is no point in us sitting on the fence like Labour. They can get away with it because of their tribal core vote. We don’t have that luxury.

  • John Marriott 29th Nov '19 - 12:26pm

    Yes, Patrick, “it’s Revoke wot done it!”, to paraphrase that famous Sun quote. Is it too late to change emphasis or will ‘Revoke’ join ‘Tuition Fees’ in the catalogue of foot shooting decisions?

    Yesterday’s TV Climate Debate just about summed up the hubris that is pervading the current Tory campaign. But why did Jo Swinson open with Brexit? Mind you, I suppose that, deep down, this is rapidly turning into a ‘Brexit Election’.

    What about the economy? Yesterday the IFS passed judgement on the three main parties’ spending plans and the Lib Dem programme clearly came out as the most honest, only to be virtually ignored by the BBC yesterday evening.

    There’s still a couple of weeks to go. Much that it might be anathema to many LDV contributors, isn’t it time for the Lib Dem ‘Generals’ to steer a course towards the centre ground? Some of us, who, despite our criticism of recent actions, still have a soft spot for liberalism, live in hope.

  • As has been pointed out, theres been a shift in emphasis, I dont see how we can do more than this without being ridiculed for Flip-Flopping, a charge that would fit into popular prejudices against us. We dont need to see the old “Libdem Dithering” slogans dug up again.
    We went into this Election with all The media & The Big Money against us, thats the reality we have to live with.

  • David Becket 29th Nov '19 - 1:04pm

    I am not suggesting we should campaign for the safest possible Brexit, but we should campaign for that to be an option, thus ensuring if Brexit wins the least possible damage is done. Ideally that would be stay in Single Market/Custom Union. Possibly too late for that. When the Boris deal comes up for scrutiny we should support. or indeed propose, amendments that will take some of the hard edges off of his proposal.

  • The problem with a policy other than revoke is that it’s difficult to have a credible second referendum policy that’s significantly more Remain than what Labour already has. You need a Leave option on the ballot paper, it can’t be May/Johnson/No Deal since you’d never be able to implement it, so you have to negotiate a new one which means not telling the EU before you start you intend to recommend the voters reject it. Under those constraints you’re not going to get much distance from Labour.

    The Lib Dem policy of “we’ll bring the Remain option, someone else can bring the Leave option” for a second referendum I think is entirely reasonable … but requires a “someone else” to be allied with on the matter.

    On the polling, the Lib Dems haven’t actually lost that many voters since the September peak – just down a couple of percent on the raw figures. The problem is that a lot of people (2-3 times the amount the Lib Dems have lost) who were saying “undecided” or “wouldn’t vote” in September are now polling as Labour, which means that relatively speaking Labour have gone up and Conservative and LD have gone down (though the Conservative drop has been masked by Brexit not standing in many seats). So it’s not that Revoke has put people off (one might equally suggest that Labour’s slight Remainwards moves – guaranteeing a second ref, for example – have been considered “Remain enough” by some voters, who have now moved back to Labour: well done getting them to move towards you!) … but that the party hasn’t really attracted anyone else since September. But that might be due to other policies, rather than the EU stance, too.

  • Mark Blackburn 29th Nov '19 - 1:34pm

    I don’t think Revoke 50 on its own was the issue – the issue was aligning this with attempts to seduce Tory remainers at the expense of alienating just about everybody else. I can see why it was done – to win a few affluent seats in London and the SE – but the collateral has been damaging. Too much focus on attacking Corbyn backfired – lots of Labour people don’t like Corbyn but they become defensive after a while and in many places we need the votes which they were ready to give but are now more reluctant about it. More attacks on Johnson should have happened sooner – the centre right types who are/were going to vote for us don’t like him anyway. It would also have helped to douse the ‘Tory Remain Party’ name-calling. More please, and I hope it’s not too little too late.

  • @ Martin “Have there been widespread complaints about revoke from those in the electorate who might possibly vote for us? – I do not think so”.

    You obviously missed the television programme about Ms. Swinson’s visit to the target seat of St Ives….. where, incidentally, I would be delighted to see a return to parliament of a proper Liberal radical MP, Andrew George.

  • marcstevens 29th Nov '19 - 2:16pm

    More policies like this please – the Lib Dems propose £1 billion extra to be spent on community policing. Music to my ears after the SNTs were cut back by Mr Johnson and Ms May before him. Crime should be a far bigger issue in this election with the national rise in knife crime and Jo Swinson has form on tackling this issue and should speak more about it.

  • Peter Watson 29th Nov '19 - 2:18pm

    @Mark Blackburn “I don’t think Revoke 50 on its own was the issue – the issue was aligning this with attempts to seduce Tory remainers at the expense of alienating just about everybody else”
    I think the problem is compounded by fostering the impression that a Johnson Brexit might be preferable to a Corbyn Remain.
    For three years the party has had a very clear-cut message: anti-Brexit and demanding a second referendum. But at the eleventh hour the leadership has made the Lib Dem position much more confusing than it should be.

  • A final referendum of a pointless Brexit v Remain would be even less democratic than revoke if a majority gained. Johnson’s deal v remain if the election gives LibDem plus Conservatives a majority would be democratic as the majority of Brexiteers would have something to fight for and reflect the divide in the country. Before the referendum was held a law would have to be passed immediately implementing the result so that neither party could backtrack

    Jo could show her mettle by getting the EU to give some concessions on freedom of movement and access to welfare (even if only clarifying or extending what rules can currently be applied). Whilst Labour would go manic about keeping the Conservatives in government, if the end result was staying in then the LibDem’s could then launch themselves as saviours of the country and might even get the youth vote back.

    There have been hints that Boris might go for a referendum if all else fails.

  • Paul Barker 29th Nov '19 - 3:07pm

    The only way anyone could get the impression that We are closer to The Tories is if they read a lot of Labour stuff or if thats what they want to believe.

  • nvelope2003 29th Nov '19 - 4:05pm

    Frank West/Paul Barker: Any deal with the Conservatives would finish the Liberal Democrats for the foreseeable future if not for ever and they would not be seen as saviours of the country by anyone except a tiny handful. Why do we keep seeing this crazy idea after what happened in the last 2 elections. It makes many of us despair about the membership who seem to be incredibly naïve.

  • Paul Barker 29th Nov '19 - 4:21pm

    We keep seeing this idea because Labour/Momentum keep promoting it, for obvious reasons.
    There is no-one in The Libdems suggesting any deal with The Tories.

  • David Allen 29th Nov '19 - 4:29pm

    The answer to “oh gosh, it’s difficult to decide the referendum question, so let’s use that as an excuse not to bother having one” is basically simple. The Leave option must be that which has (most recently) been agreed between the UK and the EU. The referendum is to decide whether to confirm that agreement, or to Remain.

    That still stands if (say!) the Lib Dems win an overall majority of seats but less than 50% of the votes. We stick with the principle that Brexit can only be abandoned if the nation votes specifically to do just that. Then we (in that sadly unlikely scenario) bury Brexit for good.

    If (piling on the speculation) the Lib Dems actually win more than 50% of the vote, then brushing the adoring crowds to one side, I suppose we might ask a worshipful nation “well now, do we still need this referendum do you think, or shall we just do as you have asked us, and revoke?” But that (fantasy) outcome is, of course, a bridge we should not have tried to cross until we (hypothetically) reached it.

    Things get a little more complicated if the election result brings us the chance of pursuing a referendum but only if by agreement with Labour. What we then do, surely, then depends on judgment and negotiation. Labour would probably want to replace Johnson’s Deal with Labour’s Deal before holding a referendum. Now, I know that many Lib Dems would be terrified of having any dealings whatsoever with Labour, but – Would we really want to go to the wall for the sake of insisting that it should be Johnson’s Deal that goes onto the ballot paper?

  • Alex Macfie 29th Nov '19 - 6:44pm

    David Allen: No-one is “terrified” of dealings with Labour. The Lib Dem position is no coalition, nor confidence & supply, with either Tories or Labour. As I understand it, we would abstain from a Queen’s Speech that included a People’s Vote, and support any PV legislation, but would not do any deals with either Johnson or Corbyn in the sense of voting for stuff we wouldn’t if we were in opposition. Whatever happens we would stay in Opposition.

  • “Lib Dems on course for thirteen M.P.’s…..that would be disastrous”.
    According to bookmakers Paddy Power we are on course to win 17 seats and the Conservatives are 2/5 on to win an overall majority. I tend to trust the bookies in these matters as they are untainted by any wishful thinking or party loyalties. Their assessment is sobering and while we can spend hours arguing just how we could have nuanced our policy on Brexit, the fact remains that our overall offer to the public, beyond the issue of Brexit, has simply not been compelling enough. The details thereof can wait and will, in time, fill a lengthy book but we do need to start getting better at seeing ourselves as others see us.

  • David Becket 29th Nov '19 - 6:56pm

    Then the best would be Boris plan modified by scrutiny.

  • Laurence Cox 29th Nov '19 - 6:58pm

    if we only end up with 13 seats after the General Election, it would call Jo Swinson’s leadership into serious question. Having been passed a good hand by Vince with the local election and Euro election results, it would be seen as a major failing if we do not win at least as many seats as we have MPs at present, including the defectors from other parties. The Lib Dems in the Lords were pretty quick in ending Tim Farron’s leadership in 2017 because of campaign failings.

  • Alex Macfie 29th Nov '19 - 9:04pm

    Bookies set their odds on the bets they ate getting, not on any expect knowledge, especially in politics where their knowledge is likely to be limited. And there is all to play for; far too early for post-mortems. One gets the impression that some ostensible Lib Dems are just waiting for the leadership to fail.

  • Katharine Pindar 29th Nov '19 - 10:04pm

    The Liberal Democrat appeal which helped us win so many council seats and do so well in the Euro elections has not changed. It depends, it seems to me, on widespread perception that both the major parties have shifted to the extremes, one to the Right and the other to the Left, and their two leaders who promote those trends are both deeply disliked by large sections of the population. We are seen as the moderate, centrist party which has attracted MPs to join us from both the others, and which leads past PMs from both to recommend voting for us. I think this is what we should be confirming in our campaigning nationally and locally during the remaining weeks of the campaign. Hearing Tim Farron yesterday, talking on the doorstep to voters who supported Leave, with friendly consideration and presenting a reasonable case for us without any slagging off of opponents, seemed to me the right way forward. Let us remind the voters of who we are and that, in fact, we are more like them in our thinking than they have realised. Party leaders come and go, but the Liberal Democrats hold steady in our beliefs, and in our knowledge that we have much in common with and much to offer our fellow citizens.

  • Yousuf Farah 29th Nov '19 - 11:29pm

    And the Socialist Corbynistas’ Workers Party; formerly known as the Labour Party will probably tank in this election as well, and then whine like toddlers on social media as they always do, this time about how their Messiah: Comrade Corbyn, will go down in history as a serial loser. A man so discredited and pathetic, that he couldn’t even beat not only some of the worst prime ministers, but some of the worst Tory Leaders in a long time.

  • Tonight Labour’s spokeswoman at the debate brought up the dossier on the negotiations between the UK Tory Government and the US on higher drug prices for the NHS in a UK / US trade deal after Brexit. The Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru all lined up to agree that the dossier was genuine and that the threat was real. Then Nick Robinson turned to Jo Swinson and asked her whether she agreed. She dodged the question, and merely reiterated that the issue wouldn’t arise if we stopped Brexit.

    Why should she have wanted to dodge that question?

  • Arnold Kiel 30th Nov '19 - 8:12am

    What would have been the alternative to the LibDem’s revoke-policy?

    It could only be contemplated by excluding the option to govern, as LibDem’s could never ratify any WA: neither May’s, nor Johnson’s, nor any other. Labour’s electorally lethal Brexit-convulsions would be serious politics in comparison.

    So support for somebody else’s 2nd referendum would be contained in an election pitch as a sidekick to any big party able to form a Government, with a (any) second referendum as the condition, and no serious further manifesto-proposals.

    Hardly a better vote-winner. Jo’s aspiration to govern and revoke was and is without alternative to present the party as a relevant player. It was, of course, never a likely outcome, and should not be presented as such, but it is the only logical stance.

  • “If Johnson does get back, which at the moment looks more likely than not, I cannot see any real chance of a trade deal with the EU, partly because Johnson is so distrusted, but also because every government has to underwrite a trade deal and the time is far too short. I guess Johnson would be reduced to pleading for a ‘no deal’ deal together with a ‘no transition’ transition extension, while relying on his propagandists and media mates to proclaim a brilliant success.”

    I think most people will give Boris the benefit of the doubt, having avoided no deal and come home with a half decent deal in a short time period when the EU said absolutely no changes were possible, getting a trade deal does seem possible, given that it is in the EU’s own self interest and we all start off with the same rules.

    If we end up with a minority Tory govn, inching towards no deal in January because it can’t pass the current deal through parliament – or because by the time it takes to call another election we will be out with no deal – are the LibDem’s really going to say no to a final referendum to sort the mess out once and for all? It is actually the Conservatives who would face ruin if they lose Brexit to a final referendum, BTW and the LibDems could then spin it as both saving the country from Brexit and offering the country the only way to avoid a Marxist future.

  • Arnold Kiel 30th Nov '19 - 8:52am

    Frank West,

    1. Johnson was forced by Parliament to avoid no deal.
    2. His deal was always on offer, but rightly rejected by May and himself over a year ago (“No British PM could ever…”)
    3. There will be no Tory minority Gov’t, as all other parties can and will cooperate on a limited agenda.
    4. Hopefully, losing Brexit will ruin the Conservatives.
    5. I can tell you from experience that the Marxist present in Germany or France provides, on average, a better quality of live than the UK status-quo.

  • David Becket 30th Nov '19 - 4:39pm

    @ Martin
    It might not work, but we are seen to be trying to bring this to an end without the Revoke proposal which upsets all leavers and some remainers. We need to be seen as the one party trying to break the deadlock.

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