Post 2017 Northern Liberalism Part 2

A few days ago, I wrote Part 1 of this article, at the time intended to be the one and only part, but the response in comments and in person has, I feel, required a deeper look into the situation we face in the North of England post-GE2017, in particular the areas that I know well, and provide some of the more interesting case studies. Part 2 looks at the General Election of June, and Part 3 will look into how we move forward.

Southport has always been interesting, staying orange in 2015 when everyone thought it would go blue, a spot of council strength that defies logic in a town with similar demographics to Clacton. On 12th June this year, John Pugh wrote an article entitled “How we lost Southport” on this site, and I hope he will not mind me using that work as a reference point here. In it he clearly pins down the reason he believes we fell into third place – national messaging. I should at this point say that this is not a three-months-too-late national campaign bashing article, the 2017 General Election was a surprise one, fought furiously by all of us. Yet, we are now far enough away to look back with a level of objectivity. Our national messaging was quite simple – Tories want a hard Brexit, Labour can’t win anyway because of Corbyn. Simple, but not effective. It fell particularly flat in the least well-off regions of the country, the North of course.

Attacking Corbyn may well have gone down in attempts to steal votes from naturally conservative voters, but in the constituency in which I now live, Leeds North West, we found dozens of national leaflets attacking the blessed Jeremy landing on doormats in Labour-leaning areas, prompting a backlash against us. Whether the requests for this to stop were eventually listened to or not I don’t know, but they kept coming, and this has made two things clear to me. Firstly, that our national messaging wasn’t right in 2017 and secondly, and more importantly, that as a national party we do not listen enough to those who know best, in this case the campaigners and councillors on the ground, who unanimously saw these leaflets for the messaging disaster they were for the wards we were already struggling in most. 

In Leeds NW, we were also hit hard by the other end of the national message. While Leeds as a city voted to Remain in 2016, the outer areas of Leeds NW went quite heavily Leave. Therefore, in Otley, Yeadon and Adel, our 2nd Referendum was political suicide from which Greg Mulholland’s personal vote could not quite save us. Greg was vilified in the party for abstaining on the triggering of Article 50, but it was the right choice politically. With a heavily remain southern half and a heavily leave northern half, Leeds NW presented a Catch 22 choice. I believe Greg punted on the fact that the remain population would vote for Labour as they always had, while Otley and the outer wards were core to his support.

Of course, hindsight is 20-20, and it is very easy for me who had no responsibility for national messaging to pick it apart. Yet we must be grown-up and look objectively at what happened in June to avoid repeating it in 2022. While I have focussed on two areas I know well here, the situation is just as likely to be completely different in other northern constituencies as it is to be similar. The North is incredibly diverse as our success there has been. Metropolitan centres like Manchester Withington, student heavy areas like Sheffield Hallam, vast Leave-voting rural seats like Berwick-upon-Tweed and Westmorland, old market towns like Chesterfield have all returned Liberal Democrats to Parliament, based upon local council successes. It is to these local veterans we must listen, who know their area better than anyone else, before we send counter-productive leaflets through doors to undo their hard work. There must be a way to work local experience into our national campaign material.

* Ed Thornley is Constituency Organiser in Edinburgh Western, and helped deliver that constituency’s best ever result in May’s election.

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  • Michael Cole 13th Oct '17 - 12:57pm

    I hope that the leadership takes good note of what Ed says.

    Being a ‘southerner’ I do not have any local knowledge, but I think Ed makes a lot of sense.

    I disagree with only one point , namely that I think that the next GE will be well before 2022.

  • paul holmes 13th Oct '17 - 1:44pm

    Another good analysis Ed. I would only disagree with one thing you say which is about critiquing the GE strategy from ‘hindsight’.

    There were voices, including mine, which long before the GE were arguing that staking everything on the Remainer strategy was not only not working but was actually pushing away support including some long standing supporters and Members. I always thought that the idea that Remain strongholds would switch in large numbers to us on that one issue was mistaken. I think it was Liberator that recently carried some detailed examples of some so called ‘top seats’ identified in summer 2016 where very low LD vote shares in 2015 (and long before) continued to be very low in June 2017.

    That Remainer strategy post June 2016 also was tied in with the much touted post 2015 ‘Core Vote’ strategy that says we should target constituencies containing concentrations of ‘urban, educated, middle class professionals’ who more represent ‘true’ Liberal values -but in fact then voted Labour in such ideal Core Vote constituencies as Sheffield Hallam and Cambridge! In other words we should deliberately exclude the majority of constituencies across the UK, including many of those we have previously won with the ‘wrong type of voters in the wrong type of constituency’.

    I do hope the new Leadership Team are getting a grip of all this theorising and getting back instead to what has been proven to work.

  • Lest it be thought that Ed represent the totality of Northern thinking on this, I do NOT think that being full-blooded remain was a mistake, in fact, I think we were not remain ENOUGH and lost a lot of our previous voters, certainly in heavily remain areas like Hebden Bridge in my patch, to Remain-flirting Labourites who were (quite rightly) able to say that we didn’t have a cat in hell’s chance of forming a government, and they did.

    Ed said in his last post that we lost Greg because of a high student Labour vote, and then in this post that Greg didn’t lean heavily enough leave – and while it’s possible that both are partially true, but those students, you can bet, were not leave voters.

    As to emphasising other things: we are now a tiny parliamentary party. I don’t like it, you don’t like it, but it is true. We get limited bandwidth with the media. I have seen LD press releases on all kinds of topics, a firehose of them lands in my inbox daily. The media doesn’t pick them up, though, and it’s no use bemoaning it, we’ve got to make the best of the chances we get.

    Simple, clear messages are best. That’s why the brexit one – and “we would legalise cannabis” (a positive) and “Tim hates the gays” (a negative) – got traction whereas our more nuanced positions on, say, health or education don’t. We need positions and policies that can be stated in a single sentence OR LESS, because that’s all the media will give us. Anything more complex will please party folk but not even get through to the electorate.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 13th Oct '17 - 2:25pm

    Although I agree with the article and initial comments far more than with Jennie on the extent of emphasis of our Remain stance , it is important that we consider great effort does go into other areas , as Jennie correctly says, and yet the media ignores all that effort.

    It is thus important that we both do as she advises , get good simple but sensible messages , and therefore good simple but sensible policies too !
    My support for our drugs policy would have been much stronger, and it was strong, if spokespeople could promote it in ways they did not.

    Which shows we also need messengers able to put it , whatever the stance, across in good , simple but sensible ways.

    We lack that in my view, or those people.

    One of the ways we could advance is with new spokespeople, not sure Vince got that missive.

  • Alisdair McGregor 13th Oct '17 - 2:25pm

    I entirely concur with what Jennie said; we lost in both the Yorkshire losses by not being Remain enough, because our position was (and sadly, after the HQ stampede at Conference, still is) a wishy-washy uninspiring mealy-mouthed fudge that has no traction with anyone (Leavers hate it because it sounds like backsliding on Brexit, Remainers hate it because they want to just stop Brexit, and fundamentally nobody wants another sodding referendum).

    Like Jennie says, the party need to adopt straightforward, forthright, principled and easily communicated policies that get us traction. If I stand at the next General Election the word “referendum” will be banned from being on any literature and I’ll say exactly what I believe – that in a Parliamentary Democracy it should be the responsibility of MPs to look at the utter clusterf*ck that Brexit is and stop it dead.

  • Katharine Pindar 13th Oct '17 - 2:53pm

    Alisdair, in my opinion the fudge has been in Labour, not committing itself to Remain strongly enough in the Referendum or in the Parliamentary votes or in the General Election, where their janus-like facing won the votes of many Lib Dem sympathisers. Like Jennie, I believe we didn’t emphasise our own Remain credentials strongly enough in the GE, and we had not spelt out clearly enough the advantages there would be in staying in a reformed two-tier EU, as opposed to the evils of Brexit. And now the fudge lies with the Government, trying to get a transitional deal to avoid the reality of Leave until it will be too late, after March 2019, to stop it altogether. The hope now is for the country-wide wave of support for another referendum to grow strongly enough for it to be demanded next October, when Parliament will have a vote and the failures of the negotiations together with the rapid worsening of the country’s prospects should make it a viable prospect.

  • Mark Smulian 13th Oct '17 - 3:11pm

    I wouldn’t presume to comment on the details of northern politics, but Ed’s complaints about headquarters anti-Labour leaflets in Leeds North West are more or less identical to those made in Liberator by George Turner about how similar leaflets, and a refusal to heed those who actually knew about individual seats, ruined his campaign in Vauxhall – see Liberator 385:

  • paul holmes 13th Oct '17 - 3:11pm

    As I have said before I must have taken part in a very different GE campaign to some others commenting here. I helped in 2 Constituencies, one Labour facing and one Conservative facing and the voters were absolutely crystal clear that our stance was to oppose Brexit and to oppose the Referendum result. It did us no favours whatsoever with the electorate -including with some of our own members and Cllrs.

    Katherine – how could we, during the June GE, have argued for the benefits of staying in a two tier EU when no such things was/is on offer and we had never argued for it previously when we were in a position to influence such thing?

  • Mick Taylor 13th Oct '17 - 3:12pm

    I agree with Alisdair and Jennie and spoke on this at conference. Referendums (or plebiscites as Hitler and De Gaulle called them) are a cop out for Labour and Tory because it means they don’t have to confront the EU split in their parties. Wilson opted for an EU referendum in 1975 because his cabinet was split and Cameron did the same in 2016.
    And yes, from where I was sitting during the 2017 GE (the USA as it happens) no UK political party was portrayed as being against Brexit and from the reporting I saw the Lib Dem message was muddled and unclear. I have been told that both Greg and Norman insisted that they would lose if the party was seen to be against Brexit. I am as certain as I can be that the losses we incurred and many of the gains we failed to make are down to fudging the EU issue. I had hoped for an unequivocal pro EU campaign, making clear our total opposition to leaving the EU. Instead we got the so-called second referendum pushed endlessly down voters throats without any attempt to say why we thought staying in the EU was vital for the UK’s interests.
    And before anyone says we can’t be just an anti Brexit Party, we aren’t. The manifesto and most of the campaign literature I have seen talked about lots of other important issues, like the NHS, like the economy, like mental health and much more. The problem was, and still is, that we didn’t establish ourselves as relevant on the biggest issue of our times, namely Brexit. Given that all the other things we want to do cost money and there won’t be any if Brexit happens, this failure was and is crucial.
    We live in a parliamentary democracy in which ALL decisions are ultimately made by Parliament, not by a referendum, which was advisory. MPs are elected not as delegates but representatives, who are supposed to exercise their judgement on the issues before parliament. I for one am still waiting for most of them to exercise any kind of judgement at all.

  • paul holmes 13th Oct '17 - 3:41pm

    Mick, our Manifesto once published did indeed contain a lot of excellent policies -but everyone knows that you cannot establish your policy narrative in just 3 weeks before Polling Day. All we had banged on about for the preceding year was how terrible Brexit was going to be and that we opposed it.

    When I was driving away on holiday very early one morning this summer, I heard a repeated 5 Live interview with Tim Farron. He clearly stated that ‘majoring on Brexit’ had been a gamble but one he did not regret taking. I can understand the reasoning behind this approach (although I never saw any evidence that it would work in electoral terms) given the utterly desperate position we had been reduced to by 2015. But I cannot understand why people think that even more of the same failed experiment will work next time. Especially as we will almost certainly have actually left the EU by the time of the next election.

    Significant chunks of ‘Leave’ voters were and are heavily motivated enough that they switched Party allegiance in large numbers in order to oppose the EU, first to UKIP and then in June to the Conservatives. Remain voters (beyond the pages of Social Media) just are not focused so strongly on that single issue. In June 2017 they had moved on and many voted Labour, not over any fudged stance on the EU but because as ‘Progressive voters’ they saw it offering a message of hope for the future. A message that spanned the range of domestic political issues which we had been largely silent on for the previous year and were in any case still handicapped over with regard to the Coalition Years.

    I know some cling to the belief that as the problems of Brexit become clearer over time then voters will swing to us and that may happen. But there really is no sign of it so far.

  • Colin Paine 13th Oct '17 - 5:40pm

    Not sure Adel was pro- leave, most residents I canvassed there on the day of the vote were appalled at the prospect of Brexit.

  • Katharine Pindar 13th Oct '17 - 7:05pm

    Mick, you say you wanted an unequivocal pro-EU stance in the GE campaign, ‘making clear our total opposition to leaving the EU’. So far so good. But then you add, ‘instead we got the so-called second referendum pushed endlessly…’. How illogical is that? The referendum on the deal, party policy, allows us NOT to leave the EU if enough of the electorate agrees with us. Of course the campaign included saying why we think staying in the EU is in our vital interest, but I agree we didn’t make the points strongly enough to win over more of the Remainers.

    Paul, this ‘failed experiment’ is to recommend the referendum, which you evidently haven’t noticed is growing in favour all the time. Why, an elderly neighbour to whom I was talking, saying that we need this referendum next October, surprised me by retorting that personally she would like it tomorrow! People have sussed out now how many lies were told, see their standard of living slipping already while the Government makes no headway with its unrealistic demands, observe the enormous waste of resources going on the fruitless project, and increasingly want it stopped.

    Side issue, but the idea of a two-tier EU could have been put long before the new French President decided to consider it. The point is that there are already NINE of the 28 EU members, including us, who aren’t in the Eurozone, so form an outer tier. We do need though to be considering what changes we would like to see in EU organisation and how we think it should be reformed, if and when we stay in. (Please spell my name correctly, by the way, it is Katharine with an ‘a’ in the middle.)

  • paul holmes 13th Oct '17 - 8:39pm

    Katharine, there really is little evidence of any significant shift in public opinion. Even Mark Pack, the arch anti Brexiteer,reported that the latest poll evidence was of a very small movement. Meanwhile both May and Corbyn have said within the last 2 days that “..there will be no second referendum…” and they of course lead the overwhelming majority of MP’s backed by 82% of voters.

  • Katharine Pindar 13th Oct '17 - 9:42pm

    Well, Paul, wait and see. We have a kind of winter of discontent to come, I think. There won’t even be talk of trade relations between the UK and the EU before December now. I wouldn’t rely on a desperately divided government or an official opposition which has been providing so-called ‘constructive ambiguity’ (more like destructive) all along to maintain, in either case, their present positions. They each fear each other and any early general election, so, as I’ve said before, supporting a referendum eventually could turn out to be a face-saver and a way out for both of them.

  • The problem I have with those who are arguing that we should stop ‘banging on about Brexit’ is that they seem to see the issue purely in terms of electoral strategy. I’m all for finding ways of nudging our poll levels up (I am so over this 7% thing!) But for me, Brexit actually matters. I’ve been more depressed about politics since 23/6/16 than I think I have ever been in my life. I want to oppose Brexit, and I want my party to do the same. If we can play a part in stopping it, great. But even if we can’t, I still believe we should stand for the principles of internationalism and co-operation with our neighbours which we have held since the 1950s. What I’m saying is, even if its true that our Brexit stance is electorally foolish (and I don’t actually believe that is so, but lets for the moment imagine it is) then I say let’s take that hit and stand for what we believe in. After all, we faced a moment a few years ago when we chose to break a long-held principle and it didn’t work out too well for us. It’s not a habit I want us to get into.

  • Local campaigning is key – based on the knowledge of the supporting voters and members – to represent the ward or constituency when elected. The views of the local majority must also be considered – not only the LD voters who consolidate the message – and can only be taken onboard by the full workings of the campaign team. So every constituency is individual in some way or other.
    Those of us who campaign nationally can only do so much to create interest in the party. We have a role but it is broad and not able to take on board the local needs – which the local campaigners provide and I hope control. One important role the national team tries to fulfill is recruiting members irrespective of where they live. Much has been written elsewhere of the need for local parties who are thin on the ground to link with neighbouring ares which can loan working support to help but not dominate a particular local campaign. [The interplay of local and national workers is a big issue and is being developed]

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