In the Spring …


In the Spring every Liberal Democrat activist goes out delivering and canvassing.  To pass the time, and increase the interest, many of us play mind games about the political tendencies of the streets and houses we are approaching, trying to anticipate what we may expect.  In Bradford we have to anticipate first of all whether the front door and letter box will be at the front or the back – well, we hardly ever open our own front door in Saltaire, though the letter box is there. In generations past, front doors  in West Yorkshire were only used for weddings and funerals; now, you are more likely to encounter thick piles of clothes and shoes which prevent the person you wanted to talk to from getting close enough to open it.

The most successful game I ever played, with others in our group, was in an affluent area of Sheffield Hallam in the 2010 campaign: guessing the sort of reception we would get, and the likely political leanings, from the make of the car in the drive. BMWs indicated solid right-wing views, Mercedes only slightly less so.  Minis denoted concern not to hog the road or to look aggressive, Peugeots had a definite tendency towards Liberalism, and Volvos were a pretty sure bet.  When one of my nephews was lodging with us a few years later, and looking for a car to buy, he explained to me how each make and model of car carries a particular image that the purchaser buys into: male, female, assertive, family-oriented, socially aware.  This reassured me that I had not been idly associating choice of car with political tendency.

But that was then.  Now it has got far more confusing, with Toyota Prius for the environmentally-conscious, Minis that are no longer small (and made by BMW), and above all the rise of the 4×4.  In Yorkshire the Land Rovers parked in rural villages that are snowed up in winter are now supplemented by posh 4x4s in occasional urban drives.  In Wandsworth, where we live during the week in London, the streets are jammed with 4x4s of all makes and sizes – British, German, Japanese: doing the school run with children in the back, taking teenagers out at weekends, whatever.

But what has confused me even more has been the recent appearance of Volvo 4x4s.  There are two parked in our London street as I write, and another round the corner (few Victorian houses in London have drives or garages, and the contest for street space, even when regulated by permits, can be bitter).  What is the image that the driver of a Volvo 4×4 wants to convey?  Environmentally conscious, though with low mileage per gallon?  Social democrat on the Scandinavian model, although driving the children to their private school every morning?   They certainly look less ‘in your face’ than the German 4x4s with which they compete, less luxuriously ‘top of the range’ than the Range Rovers; but they still take up a lot of space.  Perhaps their owners are confused both about their self-image and about their social and political affiliation?  (Apologies to those reading this who already own one of these: do put me straight on what their image conveys.)  The Ferrari 4×4 that nearly knocked me down when walking to the station the other day was entirely without modesty or social conscience; but the Volvos remind me of those wonderful estate cars that so many of my Liberal friends used to drive, secure in the depiction of a shared vehicle in a shared community.

The other week I saw my first Volvo 4×4 in Saltaire.  Well, it’s snowier within reach of Saltaire, particularly if you are driving up the dale (Airedale, of course, though driving over the tops into Wharfedale, across Ilkley moor, can also be testing).  But this Volvo’s lack of muck and highly-polished paintwork suggested that it hadn’t spent much time on moorland roads.  Saltaire is a village where the Guardian outsells every other paper except the Yorkshire Post, to judge from the pile in the Co-op; there’s hardly another 4×4 in the village.  So perhaps this Volvo symbolises a political progressive with Conservative twinges, in the same way that Saltaire’s Congregational church with its full peal of bells symbolises the wobbling loyalty of Titus Salt (who built the village) to his non-conformist roots and Liberal politics?

Canvassing, and delivering, have changed beyond description since I first ventured out in 1961; net curtains have almost disappeared, gardens have become less uniformly tidy, attitudes to canvassers less tribal but also less friendly.  I don’t venture out as much as I did; delivering a road in Baildon last Spring (Baildon Road as it climbs the escarpment, and Cliffe Avenue) which had 20-30 steps up to every house left me desperate for a rest and a pint; and pounding the pavements of Eccleshill and Idle left me with a badly-bruised heel.  No doubt younger generations of activists have their own games as they go on their rounds, looking for different indicators of political affiliation; there are, of course, computer programmes that provide them with useful clues.  So tell me: what signs should I be looking for now?

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords. He has taught at Manchester and Oxford Universities and at the LSE.

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  • Eddie Sammon 18th Apr '16 - 11:27pm

    I’ll try to get canvassing soonish. I worry that certain messages are not getting through to the public and I’m worried about a doorstep revolt against things like the EU and liberalism. If people aren’t making contact on the doors then it can seem that the other side represents a distant elite or even simply disorganisation.

    I voice my opinions on here and on Twitter, but the reach is still very limited. We all need to be careful not to be a talking shop and need to get writing articles for newspapers too.

    Thanks to those who go out and do the hard work.

  • One sign is that those who promote the use of meaningless titles and, through their participation, legitimise the anti-democratic institution that is the House of Lords, have a serious issue in terms of their liberal and social democratic credentials. Just saying…

  • William Wallace 19th Apr '16 - 11:38am

    Stevan Rose: Go out and deliver some leaflets! And you might bear in mind that we have to make the best of the semi-democratic institutions we’ve got. Only a quarter of the electorate voted for this government. The appointed Lords is now actively challenging some of the ill-considered and unthought-through proposals they are trying to rush through. Would you prefer us not to?

  • Matt (Bristol) 19th Apr '16 - 12:41pm

    William Wallace – I have (very gently) started leafleting this weekend, and I can say that speculating on the politics of those who you are delivering to is entertaining, but can distract from regarding every individual voter as an individual voter.

    On the HoL point, I genuinely recognise that this is a difficult choice, but would be intrigued to hear your response to the recent Guardian article by Lord Avebury’s son calling on the party to renounce the opportunity to participate in the hereditary election to replace Lord Avebury.

  • Back in the heyday of the SDP, they were popularly cariacatured as being Volvo-drivers.

  • Kay Kirkham 19th Apr '16 - 4:07pm

    Visiting new members with bundles of Focus to deliver, I noticed that the addition of solar panels to the roof may be an indication of Lib Dem leanings.

  • William Wallace 19th Apr '16 - 4:27pm

    Matt (Bristol):
    We fought hard during the coalition government for a fully-elected, or at least an 80%-elected, second chamber: with much resistance from many on the Labour benches ( and most on the Conservative benches) to reform. We are also in favour of ending hereditary by-elections, so gradually reducing the size of the House by 92: but there’s a tactical argument about whether we just abandon that ourselves, or push for multilateral abandonment (the Conservatives have the largest number, by far). The most urgent issue at present is to agree some limit on the PM’s right to nominate as many peers as he wishes: large numbers have been added to the Conservative benches since the election, including some serving special advisers (which is close to being constitutionally improper), and no doubt more will follow. So the existing form of our second chamber is highly unsatisfactory. But the Commons is also a mess, with far too many government ministers; and the Lords, as it is, does almost all of the detailed scrutiny that Bills get.

  • Simon Banks 19th Apr '16 - 8:02pm

    (Racist comment deleted)

    There does seem to be a tendency for Liberal Democrats to drive small cars or battered old large cars.

    In a part of Leytonstone long ago where lived many relatively well-paid public sector workers, I developed the theory that two cars in the drive meant Labour.

  • Matt (Bristol) 19th Apr '16 - 8:02pm

    WIlliam Wallace – thank you for answering my query …

    You’re right, there is a tactical choice, but I can’t help wondering if a small number of hereditaries sitting in the HoL and making perfectly reasonable, constructive points and not one knowing they’re there, is completely equal in gain to the party symbolically and loudly making a show of not cooperating with each new hereditary election, and getting heard and known for it.

    We as a party, largely have at least a general sense of what we’re for. I suspect many people in the country at large really don’t know what a Lib Dem Britain would look like – renouncing the hereditary elections process would be gesture politics, and might not be constructive in the short term, but would set out on a step towards that vital thing we seem to be lacking – a narrative…

    … and it might (just) shame Labour – who claim to be against these things – into doing something, which might set the dominoes rolling.

    I appreciate you meet people on a daily basis who recognise the value of what you do in the HoL, and I don’t want to demean that – but many of us meet people daily in our workplaces and homes (even) who share our values but scoff at the party because of it’s setbacks in the last 5 years.

    Sadly, all the effective scrutiny of the details of legislation in the world is not going to shift negative opinions like that without something to light the blue touch paper.

  • “Go out and deliver some leaflets! And you might bear in mind that we have to make the best of the semi-democratic institutions we’ve got.”

    Why of course your worshipful highness, I should know my place. There is, however, nothing that winds me up more than to see those who the electorate have rejected, some of them 5 times, nevertheless acquiring the power to legislate over those who have rejected them at the ballot box via the patronage route. The Lords isn’t semi-democratic; it has less legitimacy than the Zimbabwe parliament, and yet Liberal Democrats participate and therefore provide legitimacy. Principle is far more important and should not be compromised.

    In the meantime, I have taken a year out of not even having a political conversation in a pub, have only done so now because of the EU debate that I feel strongly about, have no intention of delivering a single leaflet and am disillusioned with virtually all politicians. I will support the party by voting for it but I have absolutely zero enthusiasm for being told what to do by a title awarded by what I consider a system that is fundamentally corrupted by patronage.

    Straight answer to your question, as you might have realised, I would prefer that you acted on a higher principle and did not participate. If Labour took the same position, despite their greater lack of principles, the Lords would become completely untenable within weeks. Your participation prolongs its existence, as you well know. However flawed the Commons and how it is elected, the people had their say, decided to keep the flawed electoral system, and no matter how much I disagree with the Tories they were democratically elected. It is fundamentally wrong, wrong, wrong, for unelected and often failed politicians sitting in the Lords to undermine said democratic and elected government, which is what you seem to be saying you are doing. You increase my disillusionment with the system.

  • “many of us meet people daily in our workplaces and homes (even) who share our values but scoff at the party because of it’s setbacks in the last 5 years.”

    I would suggest that the woes of the last year have been largely down to a perception that a party that traded on ethical principles compromised those principles in Coalition. And it did sacrifice principles when going along with Tory tuition fees and the bedroom tax neither of which were in the Coalition Agreement. It will take a long time to regain that trust and must involve public demonstrations of a return to higher principles. What better demonstration than a unilateral withdrawal of peers.

  • @ Simon Banks.

    I find the term used to describe a BMW car offensive and am surprised it hasn’t been picked up by the moderators.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 20th Apr '16 - 9:13am

    David, if you had emailed us, we might have picked that up sooner. The racist comment has now been deleted.

  • Sadly, I think William’s article is wrong from the very first sentence. No longer is it true that “In the Spring every Liberal Democrat activist goes out delivering and canvassing. ” Over the last six years a vast number of good Lib Dems have either left the party, or just given up on the hope that it is prepared to rediscover itself.

    Whether it was tuition fees, bedroom tax, or NHS reform in coalition or more recently the choice of our MPs to vote to bomb Syria after setting the five tests, barely one of which was actually achieved, many former activist’s motivation has fallen massively. The main reason for this is the disconnect between the party hierarchy who just continuously say get out there, work harder and be happy, and the activist base which see no realisation from that same hierarchy that they accept that it is them who have messed up catastrophically and it is them who need to put it right. Nor is there any sign that there is any willingness in the party to change itself even though we are at best flat lining electorally but probably the results in may will show we are still in decline.

    I really do despair at how laid back so many are at the state the party is in, and how few are prepared even to consider trying to change things.

  • Tony Dawson 20th Apr '16 - 9:18pm

    I am vey pleased to know that my BMW tells the world I have solid right wing views. The fact that it cost me £600 eight months ago, has done 130.000 mile and I have only spent £70 quid on it so far presumably does not mitigate this? 😉

    Now what about my Lexus, rusting away for the past four years since some idiot crashed into me from the side?

  • Alex Macfie 21st Apr '16 - 9:22am

    Matt (Bristol): I think you are wrong about the hereditary peerages. We have to play the hand we are dealt. Virtue signalling by refusing to replace hereditary peerages would be quickly forgotten, and the long-term result would simply be 1, then 2, then 3 fewer Lib Dem peers, then the system still intact only none of the hereditary peers being Lib Dems. The farcical nature of the election is already clear enough with the reporting on it; no-one thinks that our participation in it implies support. Any more than fighting FPTP elections indicates support for FPTP.

    Remember the Eastbourne by-election, which Paddy originally thought we should not contest because it would supposedly it would give succour to Terrorism (as if Ian Gow’s assassins cared which of the three staunchly pro-Union parties won the by-election). If we had gone through with this gesture, it would have been quickly forgotten, as perhaps we would have been as a party as our victory there signalled the start of our fightback. It’s the same sort of thing thing here.

  • Matt (Bristol) 21st Apr '16 - 9:52am

    Alex, I do see that argument, and I have to admit to ‘thinking aloud’. Having John Thurso in the HoL is a plus for the party, I do see; and I was not arguing for a complete renunciation of the HoL as others were above.

    But our main rivals on the left and centre-left (and it benefits UKIP, too) are arguing that we are not the party of radical reform that we claim to be, that we are just ‘more of the same’.

    What can do as a party – may be not on this issue, maybe on others – that is genuinely constructive (now, that is the problem) and building for the future that will swing that around?

    Or are we waiting for Labour to claim the next big step in constitutional reform was their idea, as has happened with some of the liberal advances that were made under the coalition?

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