Opinion: Dead parrot bites back – again

Eastleigh HQ leafletsAt the Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth in 1990, Margaret Thatcher famously used Monty Python’s ‘dead parrot’ sketch to mock the Liberal Democrats’ newly-designed bird of liberty. After a series of name changes and a derisory 6% of the vote at the European elections in 1989, the Lib Dems had been virtually written off. But the Eastbourne by-election gave the party the opportunity it needed to defy its media critics and get back into the game. This week, the dead parrot bit back – again.

Mike Thornton’s stunning victory in the Eastleigh by-election is testament to a strong, local candidate and well-orchestrated campaign. But it also comes thanks to a wider party mobilised and energised by the perfect chance to fight our corner – and against our coalition partners. Despite the sad background to the by-election and distraction of the Rennard row – amplified no doubt by a sceptical press – the party came together to show that it’s far from over. Even in the least favourable conditions we can pull off an impressive campaign, and our voters know we will deliver.

Much attention has been devoted to UKIP’s unprecedented showing at the polls. Their vote was up massively on the 2010 general election, though only 6.5 percentage points up on their 2009 European election score. Their relative success is still likely to be a flash in the pan when it comes to what most voters regard as the next ‘real’ elections in 2015. New polling by Lord Ashcroft would tend to reinforce this view: only 43% of Thursday’s UKIP voters in Eastleigh say they’ll back the party again in two years’ time.

But what about the issues UKIP purported to be campaigning on? Europe was certainly far down the list – not a single voter talked about it when I was in the doorstep. It barely got a mention in UKIP campaign literature either. Instead, immigration featured in 2 out of 4 reasons to vote for the party in one leaflet hitting Eastleigh doormats. But with 93.4% of Eastleigh constituents born in the UK or Ireland, it hardly seems a frontline issue there either.

Perhaps the most important lesson of the by-election, besides the resilience of Lib Dems, is that we are now a true party of government. That comes with its own challenges, but my overall impression is that we are seen by many as ‘good guys’ making the best of a tough job. The Tories have not yet shaken off their pre-Cameron ‘bad guys’ image and there are instead signs that it is re-toxifying. Meanwhile, UKIP are taking over the ground vacated by Lib Dems as a vehicle for mainstream protest votes – UKIP’s rise could not have happened without the market opportunity opened up by the coalition.

A similar story now looks set to play out across the south of England and those areas where Lib Dems are primarily doing battle with Tories. This doesn’t mean the coalition is over – but where we have strong local roots, work to explain our achievements, and highlight our differences with the Tories, the future is looking a lot brighter than it did just a week ago.

Giles Goodall is a Lib Dem European Parliamentary Candidate for South East England.

* Giles Goodall is a Lib Dem European Parliamentary Candidate for South East England.

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16 Comments

  • Richard Dean 2nd Mar '13 - 5:44pm

    I disagree. I would frankly prefer not to be known as a dead parrot, and also not to be known as an animal that bites.

    Simon Hughes, in one of the election TV programmes, acknowledged that migration WAS a frontline issue in Eastleigh. His impression was that, in constituencies like Eastleigh where almost everyone is white and UK-born, and where many people are relatively affluent, the population’s inexperience of ethnic or immigrant peoples leaves them wide open to scare-tactics, and that that was an important part of why UKIP nearly won.

    A most important lesson is that activists matter. Which is a major problem, because in 2015 every constituency will need its activists to be local – it won’t be possible for people to come from all over. Unless it builds numbers, Eastleigh won’t have so many in 2015. And Mike is a nice person and a deserving winner, but to just scrape through when every councillor is LibDem, and everyone respects the council, is not a performance that bodes well for other places that don’t have those advantages.

  • @Richard Dean
    I don’t think you’ll find EVERY councillor is LibDem. I may be wrong, but I seem to remember Mike Thornton denying that fact during one of the televised debates, where I have to say that I was very impressed by the UKIP candidate: I think Diane James added quite a few votes by the way she conducted herself, in contrast to the Conservative candidate.
    If the LibDem loyal voter core and and local organisation was able to save Eastleigh in the absence of any damage limitation strategy during a crisis, maybe we should be asking why one wasn’t – and never seems to be – in place ….and long before the 2015 election.

  • Immigration is an issue where even to acknowledge there might be a potential problem runs the risk of appearing to pander to or legitimise racism. However, Chris Huhne acknowledged that the influx of Poles to this country had had the effect of suppressing wages, in the building industry in particular, in his constituency. I would guess that the basic attitude of British people towards Poles is mildly positive. I would doubt that that is the case with respect to Romanians and Bulgarians. Whether the voters of Eastleigh have serious grounds for concern about a further influx of eastern Europeans none of us knows at this point, but UKIP’s argument that politicians lied to the people about the number of Poles who would come here, and are not telling the truth about the number of Romanians and Bulgarians who will come here and that the only way to secure our borders is to withdraw from the EU is a simple and potent one. It cannot be countered by being unwilling to discuss the subject or by saying that things are more complicated than that (which of course they are).

  • Congratulations to all involved! I was delighted when it emerged that the seat had been retained. Less delighted at the unseemly large UKIP support. I am particularly concerned at the ease in which immigration can expropriate a campaign in an area that is relatively unaffected by a migrant influx. Fortunately, by the next election, it will be evident that the wild scares are unfounded.

    Cameron’s policy of appeasement to the Europhobes looks more of a damaging liability than ever.

    Labour demonstrated all the dangers of in group introversion. Now they say that the seat was always a lost cause. But the cause was the same old idée fixe of ‘Let’s kick Clegg’; they believed their own factional group, expecting their ‘natural’ supporters to return to turn their backs on the Liberal ‘traitors’ and punish the Lib Dems for being part of the coalition.

    Had this analysis been right, John O’Farrell would have been the perfect candidate to do the job. Except, so much for Labour’s inward tribalism, it did not work out at all that way; perhaps some did turn to Labour, if so, as many left Labour for UKIP or even went the other way to Mike Thornton. The outcome of this by-election is worse than Labour is letting on.

    UKIP meanwhile are cock-a-hoop and a massive danger for the European elections. The UKIP/BNP representation is already very damaging to the UK and Liberal Democrats could be worst hit (though the base-line is lower than for other elections). The very raison d’être of UKIP means that they are less likely to be active at the community level, which will dampen their progress. Clearly we and other parties need to expose both their policies and their record, despite the blind eye that they enjoy from a lot of the national press.

    At least we can be sure that the Eastleigh local party will be already planning on how to win back the lost 14%. Well done to the local party in particular.

  • Mark Inskip 2nd Mar '13 - 7:43pm

    Its correct that 93.4% of Eastleigh constituents born in the UK or Ireland and I noticed on my visit back to Eastleigh earlier this week that the Polish shop in the High Street had gone out of business. Both indications that immigration is not having a significant impact in the constituency. However UKIP successfully played up fears of immigration amongst voters in Eastleigh,

  • Liberal Neil 2nd Mar '13 - 8:36pm

    @Sean – every borough and county councillors in the Eastleigh constituency is Lib Dem. There also four Tory borough councillors on Eastleigh borough, but they represent wards outside the constituency.

  • Bill le Breton 3rd Mar '13 - 9:30am

    What Julian and Joe wrote.

    Deregulation in a monopolistic economy ‘frees’ the powerful by depriving the People of their legitimate power. Paradoxically the more you deregulate the big business interest, in the author’s terms, the more you regulate the life of the People and damage the chances of small, local business. The People are not free to resist the exploitation by lightly regulated coagulations of economic power, they are its subjects. Small, local businesses are discriminated against.

    Today’s system has considerable similarities to the system operating under the pernicious Corn Laws – and today’s Westminster is as instrumental in this oppression as was the Westminster that sustained the power of the landed interest to retain its monopoly over the supply of the staple requirements of the People.

    The good fortune was that the anti-Corn Law leaguers were inspired and led by great Liberals. Where is the John Bright of today?

    The only ‘lead’ that the People are being offered today are those focusing their attention on immigration and ‘shirkers’ (and other ‘drawbridge up’ fixations) rather than on dismantling monopolistic power.

    While the anger of those either living on food parcels or those of us angry that our neighbours have to do so is focused on ‘outsiders’, the Establishment continues to get away with murder, literally.

  • Bill le Breton 3rd Mar '13 - 12:47pm

    Sorry if the above seems incongruous!!!! Posted in wrong place!

    But it makes a similar point, that I would make here. As Geoffrey reports, the Dead Parrot referred to the dreadful founding ‘statement’ for the new Party launched in the National Liberal Club, and its withdrawal by the then two leaders Bob McC and David S, and their reporting by a mocking press following its withdrawal hours later in terms of the ‘dead parrot’ sketch .

    Another factual error above is the belief that the recovery of the Party’s started at the Eastbourne by-election. That recovery was led in fact by the publication of a series of local campaign packs by ALDC titled People First at Brighton in 1989. Eastbourne resulted from the party generally and including its team in Eastbourne having used these campaigns extensively throughout the winter of 1989/90.

    These fired up local activists across our nation and gave them practical campaigning opportunities to get their teeth into which began to restore morale through campaigning action.

    What would similar campaigns be about today? I think they would be about every element that is causing the falling living standards, reduced life chances and attacks on our commonwealth which is fueling the disconnect between the People and their Parliament. As I say above, this is strikingly is similar to the disconnect existing at the time of the Corn Laws.

    Where are today’s Brights and Cobdens? Today, we are told that we live in a meritocracy, but as Michael Young predicted as far back as 1958, that is not necessarily a good thing when its creates a ruling class (the meritocracy) separated by wealth, advantage and opportunities from an understanding and empathy with the great mass of the British public.

    Our Westminster of today does not serve the interests of the masses – its serves the interests of the meritocracy. It is as oppressive as was the unreformed Westminster of the time of the Corn Laws.

    Sadly, we Liberals have been part of the problem and not part of the solution. The Cobdens and the Brights, like the great post 2nd WW reformers, had vital experiences of life outside the Westminster Village. They were from outside the Establishment. They did not forget their roots and did not pull up the ladder after them.

  • Simon Banks 3rd Mar '13 - 5:52pm

    There is plenty of evidence that immigration as an issue often plays well in areas with few people of recent immigrant origin that are near to more mixed areas. There seem to be two reasons for this – one, that people see the place next door and fear their area will become similar, and two, that often people in the area with few immigrants have moved from the more mixed area, sometimes to get away from the minorities.

    Immigration, though, is often a kind of proxy for wider and vaguer fears. There will be areas, especially at local level, where UKIP are our main challengers and we should be thinking hard about how best to beat them.

  • Mark Inskip 4th Mar '13 - 10:03pm

    @Bill le Breton ” As Geoffrey reports, the Dead Parrot referred to the dreadful founding ‘statement’ for the new Party launched in the National Liberal Club, and its withdrawal by the then two leaders Bob McC and David S, and their reporting by a mocking press following its withdrawal hours later in terms of the ‘dead parrot’ sketch .”

    The founding ‘statement’ was on 3rd March 1988. Thatcher’s speech was more than 18 months later on Friday 12th October 1990. She clearly refers to the party’s new bird logo not to the any founding statement.

    “Another factual error above is the belief that the recovery of the Party’s started at the Eastbourne by-election”

    The Eastbourne by-election was the Thursday after Thatcher’s speech on 18th October 1990 and lead to the memorable Evening Standard headline “The parrot has twitched!”. I spent the last full week of the campaign in Eastbourne and I remember the buzz of the campaign to this day and the momentum it created. I felt a similar buzz last week in Eastleigh.

    (doesn’t mean I don’t remember the People First campaign packs and found a couple in my loft at the weekend but they don’t create the same excitement as memories of overturning a 16,000 Tory majority to create a 4,550 Lib Dem one)

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th Mar '13 - 1:02am

    The Eastbourne by-election was at a time when the party was written off as having collapsed (due to extremely biased reporting of the merger), and the national press played its usual game of ignoring local circumstances and local campaiging so supposed the by-election would be dominated by the national standing of the parties and the circumstances which had no particular local relevance that caused the by-election to happen. In this case, the sitting Tory MP had been killed by an IRA bomb, it was supposed this would bring a huge sympathy vote to the Tories.

    The press had no idea of the local strength of the party in Eastbourne, dating back to the Liberal capture of the council in the 1970s. It tended to believe the propaganda that Ian Gow was a much loved local MP, when he wasn’t – there are MPs in all parties of whom that can be said, Gow was definitely not that sort. It also played the usual game of supposing that all parts of the south are uniformally inhabited by wealthy Tory types, and so ignored the existence of large inland estates of very modest housing that is a big feature of the Sussex coastal towns.

  • Bill le Breton 5th Mar '13 - 8:58am

    Mark, I don’t want to labour my points nor to diminish the importance of Eastbourne AND not to forget the Ribble Valley, but I think that the role of the People First campaigns is underrated – it got the party campaigning – it allowed the grass roots to do something whilst the national party leadership was cocking things up. Sound familiar?

    Nor would Thatcher have used the allusion in her speech if the Dead Parrot sketch had not been attached to the Party at the launch of the foundation policy position statement., my point. This set of policies was also miles away from the core convictions of the overwhelming majority of the party – also sound familiar?

    Leaders are everywhere and always trustees – when they forget that they damage the prospects of the community they lead.

  • Matthew Huntbach 6th Mar '13 - 12:28am

    Bill le Breton

    As Geoffrey reports, the Dead Parrot referred to the dreadful founding ‘statement’ for the new Party launched in the National Liberal Club, and its withdrawal by the then two leaders Bob McC and David S, and their reporting by a mocking press following its withdrawal hours later in terms of the ‘dead parrot’ sketch

    Yes, remember how this came about? Towards the end of the negotiations between the Liberal Party and the SDP on merger, there was this idea suddenly thrown in that there should be a joint policy document written only by the two leaders. I remember this well, because at the time I was on the National Executive of the Young Liberals, Rachael Pitchford the YL chair was one of the Liberal on the negotiating panel, and she was reporting back to us for consultation. As soon as she told us about this idea, I expressed my strong opposition to it – it seemed to me it was storing up trouble, since the merger was NOT a merger of the two leaders, and to have this important funding document prepared without any wider democratic input was surely against our democratic principles and also worrying because it would not get the scrutiny such a document surely ought to.

    As it happened, neither of the leaders took this particularly seriously. Robert Maclennan handed it over to two young interns working in his office, who turned out to be proto-Orange-booker types. David Steel seemed content with whatever came out of Robert Maclennan’s office. It was all part of the wacky way in which the final part of the merger was handled. What was needed was reassurance that really it was business as usual, no big change, Liberal and SDP members would carry on largely doing what they were doing before. But instead the PR people at the top of the parties wanted the opposite of this – to make out the merged party was some brand new thing that had come from nowhere. The word “Liberal” was almost banned because it seemed to them so old-fashioned and bringing up the links with the past – they really wanted the new party to be called “Democrats”. So with this policy document, it should have been a reassuring, business as usual thing. It ought to have been obvious that its role was NOT to propose big new policy directions, especially big new policy directions dreamt up solely by two young interns who had no democratic backing for their positions and no contacts with the wider party membership. Well it ought to have been obvious, but not for the first or last time we were let down by incompetent leaders and a belief that superficial PR people know what’s best and party members who do the stuff on the ground don’t know anything useful and so should be ignored when creating the national image.

  • Richard Dean 6th Mar '13 - 1:29am

    Leaders are never just trustees, and never just spokespeople. A good leader is trustee only in the sense that people trust the leader to lead them to a place where they’ll want to be when they get there.

    Mostly, people in the community want to focus on getting on with their lives. On some issues they have firm beliefs and values, on others they don’t have a strong preference, and sometimes, as in the present recession, they hurt but don’t know how to make things right, so they turn to leaders for guidance.

    In that circumstance, the job of a leader is to find the right way forward, to the place I mentioned, and find ways to lead people that way. A leader who does not do that fails the community.

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