Taking on the Conservative message on ‘strength’

There’s an insightful piece by Tony Blair in the Guardian yesterday on how Theresa May has framed this election in terms of the Brexit negotiations. While aimed at Labour readers, we have the same need understand what it is we are facing.

Blair observes that

Essentially, the Tories … have hit on a way of getting votes by presenting the election as about “strengthening the prime minister’s hand in the Brexit negotiation”, ie, they have turned a partisan Tory vote into an act of national interest.

Of course, all parties run for election on the basis that a government formed by them is in the national interest. But in this Brexit context, the Tories have hit on what seems a plausible objective claim that they actually need a big majority to represent the country adequately in what is without question a really tough negotiation.

This argument has real cut-through. This is why ignoring the Brexit issue or trying to play it down as one issue out of many just won’t work.

This plays to a very primal human instinct of respect for strength. The alpha proto-human chimp who was strong in one context would be strong in another because it is just strength. Our instincts did not evolve for the reality that the UK’s bargaining position in the EU is just as weak or strong as it is, whether the prime minister of the day happens to have a majority of 10 or 100, or none at all. The UK’s strength in the EU and the PM’s strength in parliament bear little if any relation one to the other.

There’s a danger here that we look at the 48% and then add on the large chunk of the 52% who want a soft Brexit – staying in the Single Market – or whatever, and tell ourselves that with this on the Brexit issue, we have a strong message with reach. But tragically, most people aren’t too bothered by Europe one way or the other, but quite rightly want the UK to be in a strong position not a weak one.

So here’s the challenge: how do we show that a good result for the Liberal Democrats makes the UK stronger rather than weaker?

Frankly, it makes little difference to Theresa May’ strength in parliament, never mind the EU, whether she has a majority of 50 or 150. But if there are, say, 50 rather than 10 Liberal Democrats, that sends a message that there is still appetite for co-operation with Europe. It would give May a reason to accept a closer relationship than her back-benchers, intoxicated on vandalism, would otherwise tolerate. That’s a stronger PM in parliament, and a stronger UK because it has more freedom of action in the agreement it can reach.

Of course the previous paragraph credits the PM for having some interest in doing the right thing. We could just say, and may believe, that May is happy to sacrifice the national interest to score points in domestic politics. But that would be giving up on the people currently buying the strength thing and planning to vote Conservative as a result.

Blair offers a different recipe for Labour and to be honest I’m not clear how it is supposed to work. But to his credit he sees the importance of a non-partisan challenge to the Tories’ utterly partisan abasement of the national interest.

We have to expose the fact that the mandate the Tories are asking for is not for an open negotiation in the interests of the country but for a “Brexit at any cost” driven by the ideology of the right of the Tory party.

Yet if this is seen as a narrow Labour point, it will be much less persuasive. Hence the absolute necessity – in the Labour interest – of rallying people to a more reasonable and open position on Brexit across the party divide.

Maybe Labour won’t listen because of the messenger, but do they have anybody else who understands the problem? We should read this, and understand it, and compete for those ‘strength’ votes.

* Joe Otten was the candidate for Sheffield Heeley in June 2017 and Doncaster North in December 2019 and is a councillor in Sheffield.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Unfortunately it’s Blair sending the message, a man few will trust after Iraq. I doubt very much he will gain us a single vote. We have to ignore him and go after the anti hard Brexit votes ourselves.

  • @Mick of course, you’re right but the substance is worth the LibDems reflecting on in terms of strategy/targeting of soft Tory remainers

  • Lorenzo Cherin 25th Apr '17 - 1:23pm

    I have more time for Blair than many , even though I left the Labour party and later joined this one just after the Iraq war !

    But there is no excuse for his phrase in this article

    ” Labour is the only party in favour of the union of the UK and the EU ”

    No, we are that , as much or more !

    This is why I get so irritated when I read of Liberal Democrats considering embracing Scottish independence because they like the EU most . They are a tiny minority who do not represent the vast , and I mean vast , majority of this party .

    Only patriotic stance can counter an nationalistic one.

    Macron gets it . He is running as very patriotic and very pro Europe .

    Blair gets it. He just needs to stop avoiding the fact he has more in common with this party than he does with Corbyn.

  • ethicsgraadient 25th Apr '17 - 1:31pm

    Tory strength will be hard for any party to dent. In my area core Labour supporters are willing to ‘lend’ their vote to the Conservatives this election to ensure Brexit happens and to give May the strongest negotiation position possible.

    Others have posted hearing similar things in traditional labour, brexit majority areas. As A poster on another site stated:

    Leave voters (including nearly all UKIP) from all other parties(Labour, Scot nats, LIbs etc) are switching to vote Tory for this one election while at the same time the Tory remain voters are also still going to vote for the Conservatives.

    I think there is a lot of truth in this statement and explains the huge Tory lead.

    There is little alternative apart from the Lib Dems due to Corbyns unelectability and Labours shambolic positioning on brexit, defense and the rest.

  • Andrew McCaig 25th Apr '17 - 1:46pm

    I think we should go all out to attack Theresa May on reliability and trustworthiness.. Look at the u-turns:
    Single Market
    NI contributions
    Election date

    Look at how she tried to deport 50,000 foreign students until the British courts told her it was illegal. Look how she convinced her friends in the Press to call High Court Judges doing their job “Enemies of the People”. Look at the jingoistic comments from Michael Howard over Gibralter (planted by May for sure). Look how she stabbed Cameron in the back after professing loyalty.

    Our message should be “Who knows what she will do over Brexit once she has a landslide majority? Her track record shows that whatever she says now, it will not be that! And will most certainly be in HER interests before anyone else”

  • “…Leave voters (including nearly all UKIP) from all other parties(Labour, Scot nats, LIbs etc) are switching to vote Tory for this one election while at the same time the Tory remain voters are also still going to vote for the Conservatives…”

    Yup. The Tory ‘Coaliton of Chaos’ narrative is clever and it’s working. Looks like everyone else is powerless to stop the juggernaut, despite what Blair may be saying about strategy. The most recent detailed ICM poll figures suggested that only 6% of Tory remain voters would back the LibDems and 80%+ would still vote Tory. The (ludicrous) charge that LibDems are somehow being “undemocratic” in proposing a second referendum is also coming up on social media.

  • Labour had a a majority of 167 in 2002 and the ‘Strength’ to take us into Iraq, and the comparables keep coming. Dodgy dossier of lies, half truth and false promise. Same old.
    Much as I too have a lot of time for Blair this is a powerful comparable to make and therefor give people the backstop of another vote on this issue.
    We should be careful about all out support for the EU and more about a vote on the Deal for safety reasons. Mistrust of politicians is still a powerful undercurrent.

  • Andrew McCaig 25th Apr '17 - 2:46pm

    “The (ludicrous) charge that LibDems are somehow being “undemocratic” in proposing a second referendum is also coming up on social media.”

    That has been happening for months, mostly by the same small group of trolls.. It is better than being ignored!

    We just did some surveys and there were Leave voters who agreed that another referendum would be justified if public opinion changes… That is a good line to take with the “undemocratic” lobby.. “You mean you want to enact the “will of the people” even if it is no longer “the will of the people”??

  • Arnold Kiel 25th Apr '17 - 3:48pm

    Theresa May is NOT a strong leader:

    1. Conversion from measured Remainer to Leaver overnight, and hard Brexiteer in a few weeks. She is following, not leading.
    2. Not a single constructive thought about the Scotland-, Ireland-, Gibraltar-dilemmas her Brexit-tunnel-vision produces.
    3. Empty talk about an “industrial strategy”, while disregarding the fundamental question of single-market and customs union membership shows incompetence in economic and trade-matters.
    4. Stubborn pursuit of, then failing in, and not even now growing up over her senseless “tens of thousands” net immigration goal.
    5. No practical follow-up on her baseless claim to care for JAM’s, no specifics on “a country that works for everyone”. More generally: by avoiding controversial discussions, she does not confront (or see?) the contradictions between her words and actions.
    6. Johnson’s appointment: both are unable to build strong personal relationships with foreign leaders, and their personal- and working- relationship is bad. Her comfort-zone is domestic, even provincial, and Johnson is no functioning complement. She is a specialist in securing, not crossing borders.
    7. Her claims that the country is coming together demonstrate either her inability to sense the country’s true mood, or her unwillingness/inability to bridge divisions.

  • Arnold Kiel 25th Apr '17 - 3:50pm

    continued, because of length

    8. Her complaint that Westminster is not coming together demonstrates that she feels challenged even by weak opposition and is not confident that she can control Conservative MPs. Therefore she seeks strength in (ideally anonymous) numbers, rather than working with her backbenchers.
    9. Chanceless fight against Gina Miller demonstrating preference for power-grab over building majorities, even at great expense in terms of time, money, and reputation.
    10. Extreme stubbornness on unilateral guarantee for EU residents in UK (a big, costless win with remainers and abroad). Shows that she does not see the benefit of creating goodwill with adversaries. This is another example of her all or nothing-attitude; the PM shows no willingness for trade-offs between more and less important issues. Can she politically differentiate between them?
    11. Schoolyard-fight attitude towards the HoL: roll over or face abolishment. Elected or not: there are many significant figures relevant to the public debate and worth listening to.
    12. Send only communication-style: rare, orchestrated speeches, broadcasting intentions and appeals, no dialogue, no apparent sign of listening, no exposure to unknown/spontaneous audiences.

    Contrary to widespread belief, I do question the PM’s leadership- and communication-skills, and therefore her qualities as a negotiator and networker. Not a good choice for “a global Britain” in the 21st century.

  • The Brexit Exit : It’s started. BBC News this afternoon :

    Confectionery giant Nestle plans to cut almost 300 jobs, mainly in York and Newcastle, and move production of the Blue Riband chocolate biscuit to one of its factories in Poland. Sites in Halifax and Girvan will also be hit, but the company hopes to cut jobs through voluntary redundancies.

    So much for a resurgence of the UK under a “Strong’ government”.

    Theresa’s obviously running away and dodging the hurricane to come.

  • Keith Browning 25th Apr '17 - 3:53pm

    The Lib Dems still seem to be wearing their sandals and can’t find any heavy boots…!! I like many million, do NOT accept the result of the Brexit referendum as it was based on a raft of lies and a biased media. When this happened in Russia and Turkey the ‘West’ complained that these elections were rigged – but it is happening here in the UK before our very eyes. EVERY newscast I watch and listen to is careful to balance time spent between the two major parties, but the content and emphasis is 100% against Labour and pro Conservative. For anyone who fully understands the nuance of the English language, the bias is quite unbelievable. The Media has become the mouthpiece of the Tory party (a la Russia and Turkey) and so the LD leadership need to stop pussyfooting around and tell it like it is – very un-Lib Dem like I know, but someone needs to take the lead – boots on and gloves off.

  • @David Raw
    We could do with starting a tally somewhere. I heard a figure of about 3000 from the European Medicines Agency (think that was it). Lloyds Bank and many more that are slipping under the radar and not featured in The Torygraph.

  • Another U-turn of May: promise to tighten foreign takeover laws, and then allowed Green Investment Bank to be sold off

  • Jayne Mansfield 25th Apr '17 - 5:19pm

    @ David Raw,
    A spokesman for Nestle has said that the change would have been necessary irrespective of whether we left the EU.

    Unions are understandable upset but typically, the Director of the free market think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs explains, this is what profit seeking organisations do, they seek efficiency savings which usually means job losses. Isn’t that the brutal truth?

    I have no love for Nestle, I still wouldn’t touch a Blue Ribands or any other product that I can determine is made by them. Anyone who believes that these multinational corporations care about anything but profit should remember the baby milk scandal.

    One of the many things that I would have liked to know prior to the Brexit vote and since, would have been, how the different political parties intend to deal with multi- national corporations and the power and influence they yield over elected governments.

  • Of course the one strength a larger Tory majority (if made up of mainstream or moderate Tories) would be to allow May to be more flexible in her negotiations. At present she is beholden to her right wing knowing that neither Labour, SNP or Lib Dem would back her if they scented blood. And why should they the majority of their voters voted remain. She therefore currently has to rely on her right wing, perhaps the only upside of he winning may possibly be the ability to put the extreme right back in it’s box.

    Of course this is more wishful thinking than prediction….

  • @ Jayne. Thanks for that info.

    I share your views about global multinationals. I also wonder if the Macron enthusiasts are aware of his preference for globalisation ? A pretty awful choice in France.

    It’s more and more apparent that so called democracy (if that’s what it is ?) has very little idea of coping with the power of the multinationals.

  • An additional thought on the Tories based on 60 years’ experience.

    They have one prime and ultimately final policy : to put their own party first no matter what – almost like a pack of wolves. They will stand on their heads and say black is white if it suits their purpose. To think otherwise is naive

  • Peter Watson 25th Apr '17 - 5:47pm

    @Jayne “the Director of the free market think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs”
    Would that be this site’s former Liberal Voice of the Year? (https://www.libdemvoice.org/winner-liberal-voice-mark-littlewood-26608.html)

    As far as I am aware the current holder is 2013’s Sam Bowman from the free market think tank the Adam Smith Institute (https://www.libdemvoice.org/and-the-winner-of-our-liberal-voice-of-the-year-award-is-sam-bowman-32632.html). For some reason the site doesn’t seem to have continued awarding that honour.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 25th Apr '17 - 5:56pm

    Any doubts about Macron raised here are justified, a new figure needs questions asked.

    A lousy choice for France , no way. Go to the EN Marche website and read the policies.

    The man’s an economic and social Liberal , a real ally !

  • Arnold Kiel

    Theresa May may not be a popular leader as far as you, the EU and Liberal activists are concerned, but she is popular and respected by many in the UK. Whether you like her or not doesn’t really matter. She will almost certainly win the GE with a massive majority and negotiate the deal that takes the UK out of the EU. When I look at the leaders in most EU countries I’m more than happy we have someone like Mrs May and I didn’t even vote for her – although I must admit I will this time. You seem fond of the UK, try having faith in it’s people and their elected representatives.

  • Jayne Mansfield 25th Apr '17 - 6:18pm

    @ David Raw,

    I don’t know whether you have read it, but I have found ‘ Understanding the leave vote’, an analysis by Kirby Swales of NatCen important and helpful. ‘The left behinds’ seemed to me to becoming a cliche’. Some of those that I know to have voted to leave cannot in any way be described as such.

    If one wishes to change attitudes to the EU and our relationship with it, my own view is that one needs evidence as to which people voted leave and why? It is only then, that one can address the underlying causes of the vote. Without such evidence, one is just preaching to the converted.

  • Jayne Mansfield 25th Apr '17 - 6:25pm

    @ Peter Watson,
    No Peter , it wasn’t that Littlewood fellow. It was someone called Jamie Whyte, who was described as the Research Director of the IEA.

  • Andrew McCaig 25th Apr '17 - 6:28pm

    Nothing wrong with social liberals but a revival of the economic liberalism we had not practised for over 100 years is what brought us to disaster in 2010

  • Jayne Mansfield 25th Apr '17 - 6:47pm

    @ Peter Watson.
    I apologise, I had to chase someone who pushed a UKIP leaflet through my letterbox. Its a long time since I ran that fast!

    The full quote can be accesses on today’s Mail online :-
    ‘Nestle to cut 300 British jobs and move lunchbox favourite Blue Riband to Poland’.

  • David Allen 25th Apr '17 - 6:55pm

    Theresa May’s “Strength” pitch must be ridiculed. We should have a PPB which intersperses clips of Theresa on “stable leadership”, “unite behind me”, and “parliament is not coming together” with similar clips from Stalin, Mussolini, Erdogan, Trump, and Mugabe!

  • Peter Watson 25th Apr '17 - 7:31pm

    @Jayne Mansfield “I had to chase someone who pushed a UKIP leaflet through my letterbox”
    I hope you caught them, but I shudder to think what you might have done with the leaflet!! 😉

  • According to the Wikipedia article on Major Oliver Smedley, it was he who co-founded the Institute for Economic Affairs with Anthony Fisher in 1955. Smedley was still appears to have been a member of the Liberal Party at that time having contested several parliamentary elections from 1950 as a Liberal but left in 1962 due to his opposition to the EEC. He subsequently founded the “Keep Britain Out” campaign and The Free Trade Liberal Party in 1982. Interestingly the IEA was not initially intended to be a think tank in any meaningful sense but just as a front to pose as a “scholarly institute” whilst peddling Hayek’s ideas. The Liberal Party was a very broad church when Jo was leader!

  • Peter Watson 25th Apr '17 - 7:35pm

    @David Allen “Stalin, Mussolini, Erdogan, Trump, and Mugabe!”
    Unfortunately most, if not all, of these have won a general election in one form or another, and might even appeal to some supporters of Ms. May!

  • To win back the pro-Leave South West seats, Libdem must focus on domestic issues more than Remain. Regarding Brexit, just commit to keep the country in the Single Market is enough.

    Accusing May of being unpatriotic for cheerleading foreign takeovers of national interests despite promising to tighten foreign takeover laws would attract a good deal of “nationalists”.

  • Katharine Pindar 25th Apr '17 - 9:18pm

    Thomas – NO! We don’t back off from Leave voters, we show them the harm that a Hard Brexit would bring, and the danger that May’s government would railroad it through. We point out, as has been well put by Andrew McCaig and Arnold Kiel among others above, that we have an untrustworthy and unreliable Prime Minister whose government is a threat to our nation’s prosperity and must be checked.

  • Little Jackie Paper 25th Apr '17 - 10:05pm

    I don’t dispute any of this – but ultimately it feels a bit like ducking the point. At the referendum the basic REMAIN message that was rejected can be summarised as, ‘vote for the EU – really it’s not all that bad.’

    At best it feels like some remainers don’t want to ask why that message was rejected – at worst it looks like some don’t care.

    Yes, yes – being nasty about other parties and politicians might make for good internet knockabout and make us feel all warm inside. But really and truly what is the relationship with the EU we want? I don’t see that anyone has really addressed that. If May were to advocate some combination of EEA IN EU OUT with some sort of tightening of free movement what would the LDP response be? I’ve seen articles that suggest a non-trivial part of the remain vote would have liked SOME sort of control on immigration so in electoral terms the question is more than theoretical.

    Some people on here talk about prosperity – that’s fair enough. But surely what the referendum showed up was that prosperity isn’t a nicely distributed thing? It all just feels a bit like the attack lines have become a displacement activity for confronting tough questions (and to be clear I say that of all parties).

    So whilst I agree with the point about strength, I have to ask – the Strength to do what?

  • Bill le Breton 26th Apr '17 - 6:20am
  • Arnold Kiel: (TM) ‘Not a good choice for “a global Britain” in the 21st century.’
    But a good choice to get us out of the EU!

    Malc: I also hope she gets a convincing GE majority and can move ahead with confidence to take tough decisions in negotiations with the EU.

  • The problem is that Northern Ireland and Scotland wanted to Remain. If the worst of the worst scenario, an united Ireland and an independent Scotland, happens, May would be forever remembered for breaking up Britain, and there would be absolutely no chance to revive the UK even if England and Wales rejoin EU. The rump England & Wales would be no longer a major player of the world order.

  • Jayne Mansfield 26th Apr '17 - 8:53am

    @ Bill le Breton,

    I am an ‘accepting pragmatist’ , and the information that you provide accords with personal experience.

    I can’t for the life of me understand how anyone could put their trust in Mrs May and the the Conservative Party to get us out of the current mess. I have already found that there is mismatch between the Britain she claims she wants and the policies she intends to pursue which will have the opposite effect. One only has to look at the expensive chaos of free schools to realise that we will not end up with a fairer Britain.

    I will have left the country on election day, and I don’t think that I can bring myself to organise a postal vote. It is that bad.

  • Setting aside, for one moment, the use of the word ‘insight’ in the same sentence as ‘Tony Blair, can I remind all politicians of one thing.

    ‘Brexit’ is a media/geek word coined by journos and politicians for journos and politicians. Over 90 per cent of the public could not tell you the difference between a ‘hard Brexit’ and a ‘Soft Brexit’ if you gave them a team of tame professors to help them out.

    Any message to the general public couched in such jargon has about as much chance of getting any traction with the not-already-clued-up-and-committed members of the UK public as if it were being written in Mongolian.

    If one wants to win votes on this issue, one needs to pull out some tangible issues which are consequential upon ‘hard Brexit’ or ‘soft Brexit’ and communicate these.

  • Katharine Pindar 26th Apr '17 - 7:29pm

    Tony Dawson, you are right of course, the different Brexit terms do need explaining, and I’m sure they will be as the campaigning gets under way. Equally we will need to point out to people the hollowness of Theresa May’s promises, her failings as PM (ably set out above), and her fantastic notion that there can be free access to the EU internal market while restricting needed EU migrants coming here to work.

    I think also you are right, Thomas, that the threat to the Union from Scotland possibly leaving is one to be reiterated, as it is a real weakness in the Tory approach. Bill, nothing unexpected in that report, and nothing that can’t be changed. Jayne, don’t despair, but come back as soon as you can! Thanks to Joe for setting off such a worthwhile discussion here.

  • David Allen 26th Apr '17 - 8:30pm

    Bill le Breton,

    Yes, many people think it is mature and sensible to “accept it and move on”, rather than keep fighting Brexit. No doubt in the Warsaw ghetto of the 1930s there were many people who thought that the sensible thing to do was to get on with life, make the best of things, learn to tolerate the Nazis, and not do anything overdramatic and psychologically unhealthy, like abandoning your property and running for your life!

  • Jayne Mansfield 27th Apr '17 - 7:29am

    @ David Evans,
    I find your analogy inappropriate.

    It is a pity that as a party ( made of of some obviously fine individuals), you still don’t get it. Many of us are worried about the consequences of Brexit, but despite doing our homework, which makes us even more worried, unconvinced that the Liberal Democrat Party has much to offer.

    I am sorry to be brutal, but the more one reads, the more one feels that the concentration of the party on one issue, a second referendum on the terms of Brexit, has more to do with forging a ‘separate identity’ that is about garnering votes than concern for the outcome of the referendum. What plans do you have if following such a referendum on the terms of ‘Brexit’, the electorate still decide to go for ‘Brexit’ that the party finds harmful?

    My concern stretches beyond a single issue, to the sort of defence policies, health and social care service we will have, the sort of education service our grandchildren will have, will they have jobs that offer them financial security, allow them to buy or rent a home, rely on a welfare system that cares for them if they fall on hard times welfare system etc., etc. Arguing that these important issues hinge on whether we are within the EU, or will be determined by whether we have a hard or soft Brexit doesn’t have much traction when, thanks to political decisions, we have seen a deterioration and steady destruction of them whilst still being in the EU.

  • Katharine Pindar 27th Apr '17 - 10:05am

    Jayne, we already have a strong separate identity and policies. We need to fight this Tory government which is wrong in so many of its attitudes, shown by its espousal of a ‘hard Brexit’, its contempt for Parliamentary democracy, and its bias towards the rich and fortunate and uncaring attitude towards the poorest. Which is the briefest of summaries, not adequate to express the ills which we have to face and fight in these elections and beyond them.

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