Our country is divided, and our constituencies may be, too

Wayne Chadburn’s post yesterday afternoon asked a question that the Liberal Democrats may have answered and agreed on nationally – that the majority of Lib Dems oppose Brexit – but it is a question that is still of huge regional significance. And national electoral success is won regionally, seat by seat. Significantly, the proposed boundary changes – if recommended next year in their current form – would move parts of the current Penistone and Stocksbridge constituency in South Yorkshire (where Wayne Chadburn is based) into Sheffield Hallam, Nick Clegg’s patch.

When moving to Sheffield in late 2015, I bought a home within this constituency not only because I think south-west Sheffield is a great place to live, but because – for the first time in my life – I’d be living in a constituency where I would have voted for my sitting MP. I have since delivered Nick’s Christmas cards, enjoyed the annual fundraising dinner and made friends with fellow Lib Dems. As an academic in a university’s Modern Languages department, I worry about the future of ERASMUS. And so on.

But I have also been critical of the party’s post-referendum anti-Brexit stance. The proposed boundary changes have formed part of my thinking, as well as volunteer work I do out in Stocksbridge, actually – an area very different to my Fulwood ward. Angela Smith, Labour MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge, may have voted against triggering Article 50 – like our own Nick Clegg. But her constituents voted 61% for Brexit. By contrast, Sheffield Hallam residents voted 64% Remain.

Behind those headline figures that suggest irreconcilable cultural differences, there is the threat of a common political narrative. Sheffield Hallam was once Conservative, before Richard Allan (now Baron Allan) turned it yellow in 1997. The Conservatives have come second in each subsequent election apart from 2015 (when Labour made it to second place) – just as the Conservative candidates have been runners up in the two elections since Penistone and Stocksbridge was established as a constituency in 2010.

I am not saying that the Liberal Democrats should reverse the decision taken on a national stage, at last year’s conference. But there is a difference between accepting that decision and promoting it at the expense of other policy areas. I hope that Jackie Pearcey will take Manchester Gorton in May; I support her campaign. The Liberal Democrats as the nationally anti-Brexit voice with more MPs than the Greens, who are positioning themselves as the other anti-Brexit party, will no doubt help local Lib Dem efforts in the Manchester constituency, an area estimated to have voted Remain by 62%. However, the Greens have been busy talking about another flagship policy, in addition and unrelated to Brexit: their three-day weekend. I profoundly disagree with that policy, but it does at least position the party in debates around economic growth and the value of work in ways that are easy to understand (and, to our benefit, attack!) I absolutely agree with Ashley Cartman that something important is missing from the Liberal Democrat Strategy Consultation paper, and that we need an economic and industrial strategy – fast.

The fact is that to win elections, we need to be more than a national protest party. We need to win at elections, which means winning seats that are regionally far from straightforward. In order to do this, I suggest – in contrast to the Strategy Consultation paper – we have to bridge mainstream ideological divides in the electorate by distinguishing ourselves with pragmatic, compelling policies. There are many Liberals in the 48%; but there are some in the 52%, too. I have high hopes for Gorton. But other constituencies are more divided and others, quite literally, may soon be divided up by the Boundary Commission.

* Sean Williams is a Lib Dem member in the Sheffield Hallam constituency

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  • paul barker 12th Apr '17 - 2:48pm

    Brexit is about the Economy, among many other things. It has the potential to put Britain through the same sort of pain that Greece & Spain have been through.
    On voting, we should note that a big chunk of Leave voters hadnt voted before in “normal” Elections & seem unlikely to vote in 2020, let alone in Locals. Theres a strong correlation between lack of interest in Politics, lower likelihood to vote in the usual cycle of Elections & support for Leave.

  • Mark Blackburn 12th Apr '17 - 4:00pm

    Nowhere Is the title of this piece truer than in my own constituency, Somerton and Frome. Frome is in the north east, a miniature Bath in some respects, and was heavily Remain. Voters there expect us to stress our pro-European credentials. But the geographical rural majority of the constituency contributed to the 57/43 Brexit vote here – council candidates in the forthcoming local elections would rather we keep quiet about Europe.
    The truth is though that most Brexit voters here were misled, as they were everywhere – immigrants haven’t taken all their jobs, £350m isn’t going to be freed up for the NHS. We have a moral duty to do what is in the best interests of the country as a whole, and to be standard bearers of the truth. That doesn’t mean we have to patronise people or ram it down their throats on every piece of local election literature. After all, it’s not their faults they were lied to, and they still need and deserve Liberal Democrat councillors. Let’s ‘Focus’ on what’s relevant, where it’s relevant.

  • Andrew Tampion 12th Apr '17 - 5:59pm

    As a Remain voting Liberal Democrat who is happy to accept to accept the outcome of the Referendum and who is opposed to current party policy to seek to reverse the result I have many reasons for my position some of which are ably set out in this article.
    Roger Roberts. Membership of the EU is not a principle of our Party because the principles of our party are free trade and internationalism which can be promoted in many different ways not just through EU membership.

  • paul holmes 12th Apr '17 - 6:44pm

    Sean -welcome to a relatively near neighbour. I grew up in Sheffield and between 1995-1997 regularly took a team from Chesterfield to help in the build up to Richard Allan ending a century of having a Conservative MP in Sheffield Hallam.

    My first vote after my 18th birthday in 1975, in Sheffield, was to stay in the European Economic Community as it was then known. Last year I campaigned for and voted to Remain in the EU. Yet I very much agree with the thrust of your article.

    For example, having come in from an afternoon’s campaigning for the County Council elections I have just read through the Press Releases that the National Party has issued today. It seems that comment on every domestic issue has to relentlessly be dragged back to Brexit. Yet among the the thousands of canvass responses from those we have talked to during the current election campaign, very very few ever bring Brexit up. Neither, in by election canvassing in 3 different constituencies from last June onwards, have I come across any automatic correlation between voting Leave/Remain and voting for or against the Liberal Democrats.

    Whilst the consequences of Brexit remain a major issue of both principle and everyday practicalities, it is not the only issue around -and for most voters it is far from their single driving concern. I also take Andrew Tampion’s point. Our Party was Internationalist before the EU was ever created, remains Internationalist despite last June’s Referendum decision and will be Internationalist even if at some future date the EU ceased to exist. Similarly we were Internationalist before the League of Nations was created, during its existence and after its collapse. One of our key principles and motivators does not depend on a particular organisation existing at a particular point in historical time.

  • paul barker 12th Apr '17 - 7:27pm

    It seems to me that the old strategy of saying things in different places was tested to destruction in 2015. Its no way to build loyalty among voters & without that loyalty we would be crushed again the next time we get into Government.

  • David Evans 12th Apr '17 - 7:49pm

    Paul Baker indeed you are right, but the year is wrong. Nick saying one thing in a PPB “An end to broken promises,” followed by him making a pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees, both before a general election, followed but Nick then saying and doing the exact opposite once in government, put us back as a party fifty years and led to a resurgent Conservative party and the EU referendum.

    The year was 2010.

    Until then, for many people we were the hope for a new better future for politics, but our leaders sacrificed it, apparently without remorse. Until we address that legacy (and no-one seems to want to) we will not be in government again for a very long time.

  • Sean Williams 12th Apr '17 - 8:01pm

    Thanks Andrew, Mark and Paul Holmes — and Paul, I hope to meet you sometime
    in person. I agree with your points.

    Paul Barker and Roger Roberts: re. unity, loyalty, and “gone are the days when we tried to be all things to all people”. I am not trying to destroy the strength of the Lib Dems, on the contrary! I fear that our wholesale anti-Brexit, post-referendum stance nationally may cost us parts of the electorate locally, whom we after all need to engage with to get Liberal Democrats into parliament (and thereby emphasise internationalism all the more easily, among other things).

    Note *engage* — I am committed to liberalism and democracy, which means I think politics must be connected to ordinary people’s opinions. Blaming a referendum loss on “communication issues” alone is not grappling with the views of people who are more motivated than ever, it seems, to go to the ballot box.

    All of that doesn’t mean suddenly shifting our principles, but it does mean pragmatically re-aligning some of our positions to move with the times. There’s a difference. It doesn’t make us morally bankrupt, but instead trying to get into power to make people’s lives better.

    Re. Nick Clegg: he did get us into government, and the Lib Dems had sound economic policies. We can and should learn from the experience and the subsequent electoral demolition. But we need to learn lessons in order to get back into government again, in the political system we’ve got, in the constituencies we’ve got, have had in the past, and ones we could realistically gain next time around.

  • After the last General Election it was often said,
    “What is the point of the Liberal Democrats? What do they stand for?”
    Most people hadn’t a clue. The one policy that everyone had known was our opposition to increasing tuition fees so in most people’s minds we were a party which breaks its promises. We were virtually wiped out in 2015 as a consequence.
    However we now have a cause & nearly everyone knows what we stand for. We have risen in the polls, are winning seats everywhere, including Richmond Park. Our membership has doubled & nearly all those joining are ardent remainers.
    Of course there were a few in our party who supported Brexit & some of these have already left the party, but for every Brexiter leaving we are gaining 100 new members who support our policy on Europe. Why join the Lib Dems if you support Brexit?
    Tim Farron has been brilliant.
    He recognised this great opportunity & seized it with both hands. If we had sat on the fence like Labour we would have suffered the same fate. There is no future for this party in chasing the UKIP vote.
    I went out canvassing yesterday evening in a traditional Labour area. Not one person was voting Labour. Previous Labour supporters said that they did not know what the party stood for any more. They know what we stand for & that is why tens of thousands of people are joining our party.

  • Andrew Tampion 12th Apr '17 - 10:18pm

    I’m in agreement with you, my point is that membership of the EU or the UN or WIPO or whatever is an expression of the underlyimg principles of the party not a principle in it’s own right.

  • Bill le Breton 13th Apr '17 - 8:54am

    Roger, I hope you might consider that there is a significant distinction between membership of the EEA and membership of the EU.

    As a champion of diversity and a celebrant of the great variety of cultures across and within the continent of Europe, I hope you would condemn the actions of the Troika in Greece, Spain and Portugal. I found the threat to so many unique ways of life intolerable.

    There is a desire among politicians dominant in the institutions of the EU for political union. That requires a common currency among many other implements of this market based process of cultural homogenization.

    This is not the case among non-EU members of the EEA.

    I argue that the proper domain for internationalists as opposed to the supra-nationalists of the EU is the EEA. By joining the federation of non-EU EEA nations the UK would give a powerful boost to that economic community.

    Countries that value their national identity and wish to be truly internationalist as opposed to supra-nationalist would grow in number. The others could proceed at a faster pace towards their goal of economic and political union.

    This was a difficult argument to make before the June result, but, following the vote, it seems a very Liberal position.

  • Bill le Breton 13th Apr '17 - 9:59am

    Sean you believe that in May 2010 “the Lib Dems had sound economic policies.”

    The facts are otherwise. The Lib Dems fought the 2010 general election on an economic policy virtually indistinguishable from that of Labour’s (Darling’s spring budget), targeting a reduction in the deficit by half over the period 2010-15.

    Immediately on entering Government we became vociferous champions of accelerated deficit reduction and believers in expansionary austerity.

    In May 2010, the economy was in recovery mode – growing nominally at 5% a year – back on the pre-2008 long-term trend rate, which in deed would have seen the deficit reduced perhaps by more than half by 2015.

    Instead the economy crashed into recession again. This was dreadful economic policy, but it was even worse political policy.Because it was based on the strategy of discrediting Labour on the economy.

    In the 1990s Ashdown had come to the conclusion that we could only win Tory seats in large numbers if Con>Lib switchers had confidence in Labour’s management of the economy.He watched like a hawk polling questions delving this issue. The beneficiary of discrediting Labour economic management were the Tories NOT the Lib Dems. It was this that condemned us to lose all those seats to the Tories in 2015, most of them won when in 1997 Labour’s rating on economic management was high.

    But then Clegg was much cleverer than Ashdown, the community worker from a Yeovil.

  • Sue Sutherland 13th Apr '17 - 12:03pm

    For me, the other part of campaigning against Brexit is to seek to rectify the situation of those who voted Leave because they had not shared the opportunities that membership of the EU had given others. Some very cruel things are being done in the name of austerity and economic policies geared to protecting the rich. If we don’t adopt policies to right these wrongs then, I believe, we cannot call ourselves Democrats or Liberals.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 13th Apr '17 - 1:44pm

    Paul Holmes and Bill le Breton, and some on here who are making contributions that do not obsess on Brexit, illustrate another new development in our party and politics in general.

    Both are usually a little to the left of me in our party internal , shall we say philosophical or policy directions.Yet I agree with them lately a lot and always respect their perspective when I do not.

    New allies are emerging in our party. Those obsessed with Brexit and not.

    I find myself even in the David Raw camp ???!!!

  • As a traditional straight down the line Liberal of sixty years standing (and sitting) I must have done something wrong somewhere to get the approval of the sentimental sanctimonious UKIP-lite wing of the party. Of course I know things change – but not always for the better.

    PS I don’t mean you, Lorenzo, I couldn’t possibly mean a warm hearted chap like you, could I ?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 13th Apr '17 - 7:44pm

    David Raw

    Are you addressing your comments , at me , saying I or others with my views on a range of things, are ,the

    ” sentimental, sanctimonious, UKIP-lite wing of the party “,?!

    And then the sarcasm aimed at me in your later paragraph ?Why that ?! If you mean to praise me , by making a kind comment , do so , and that would be appreciated.If you mean to hurt me , you fail , as I know me and you thus do not. I am warm hearted.

    I am also cool headed. After the warm heart has done its bit for a while I can judge things accordingly. I do not like what I see above .

    Perhaps you might explain . My comments in mentioning you , were friendly .They often are with you even when we disagree. Humour is often present. Here the humour seems to have got the better of you , or bitterness has got the the better of the humour. The bitterness is not mine.

    There are no set wings of this party, as my piece explained, they are fluid , we find agreement and accept the reverse , on various issues.Caustic is acceptable , about others, in other parties ,or with views one disagrees with in this party.

    Satire is fine . Send up and all that too, is not a bother, particularly when in response to a strong point another might sometimes make.

    Insults are not good. After someone has made a mild and magnanimous comment , less so. The other week somebody thought I was strong calling the opposition, the muppet show ! The above makes that seem truly a word of encouragement !

    Sarcastic comments directly aimed at a fellow member but phrased as if not are unwelcome.

    I thought you said you were a “straight down the line Liberal for sixty years ” ?!

    Nothing straightforward at all in your comments and insinuation above .Other than in their not being straightforward at all !

    And nothing , politically, sentimental , sanctimonious , UKIP-lite , about me or anyone I like or agree with !

  • Wayne Chadburn 14th Apr '17 - 6:58am

    Sean I couldn’t agree with you more! To response to my piece has been heartening in most cases but I share your concerns that the Lib Dems are in danger of becoming the national protest party again. Penistone and Stocksbridge will be no longer when the boundary commission completes its work. My tiny part of this constituency will be cut off and be sewn onto the West Yorkshire constituency of Colne Valley. The old and the new constituency ought to be fertile ground for the Lib Dems. Until the party comes up with a way of speaking to those, like me, amongst the 52% in a way that isn’t either supercilious or haranguing in nature, areas like Penistone, which could be fertile to the Lib Dem message, will stay fallow.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 14th Apr '17 - 2:18pm

    Sean and Wayne , your efforts are to be seen as very productive and constructive, I would like to say how that is welcome , unlike the insults levelled at some of us who do not always subscribe to the Liberal orthodoxy, oh, sorry, they prefer , radicalism, of the generation that thinks loving this country makes them think too much of monarchy and patriotism, which of course their circa 1960s party rejected as the preserve of an altogether alien viewpoint not in keeping with their true flame of New Liberal ideas more akin to Mao than Mill !

  • Peter Martin 16th Apr '17 - 9:40am

    @ Paul Barke, “Brexit is about the Economy, among many other things. It has the potential to put Britain through the same sort of pain that Greece & Spain have been through.”

    Greece and Spain are users of someone else’s currency so there is always going to be much less fiscal space for them than for the UK government which is an issuer of its own currency. Such a government always has the ability to provide full employment for its population should it wish to.

    @ Bill le Breton.

    You are obviously one of the few Lib Dems who has a good understanding of how economies actually work and can see through the neo-lib we-must-balance-the-budget type nonsense.

    Your post of the 13th April could have been written by any of us with Keynesian persuasion. Yet you call yourself a monetarist! I can’t quite understand why! I’m sure you aren’t really!

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