The Brexit Myth

The recent success of the Liberal Democrats at the 2019 Local Elections is something which, undoubtedly, has brought a great amount of joy to all of us who have weathered this five year storm. However, a narrative has already taken shape, one that threatens future momentum and growth – that this is attributable only to Brexit and Brexit related issues. This is a reading that is surface level. A little thought and a cursory digging dispels this myth.

First of all, we must look at who benefited most from the Conservative and Labour defeat. Of course, at a gain of 704 we have come first, with independents taking second, Greens third, and Residents Associations taking fourth, with smaller parties making up the rest. This break down is important. Surely, if this was an affect only of a Brexit backlash then RA’s would not have done as well? Indeed, the SDP came second in the wards they ran in, and independents fly under a myriad of different banners. Even the Brexit supporting Liberal Party gained a councillor in Liverpool and regained prominence on Pickering Town Council. The question, then, is this – what do these groups have in common? The trend seems to be one of a yearning for community, with each grouping possessing a strong communitarian streak. The Liberal Democrats were the forerunners of community politics, independent candidates tend toward community issues, and RA’s are based in this kind of thought. The SDP also describe themselves as “nation state communitarians”.

The second important indicator is the local election results in Northern Ireland, with the performance of the non-sectarian Alliance and Green parties. Though the DUP and Sinn Fein still retained the majority of councillors, both experienced a drop in seat share. The UUP experienced a drop that was more akin to the Tories, with Alliance being the main beneficiary. That non-sectarian parties are finally expanding their influence on the local level, even if the hegemony has not been broken, is indicative of the same trend seen in England – people are looking for community-centric alternatives who act in the interests of all who are living in the immediate area.

The party cannot afford to fritter this new found life away in a potentially misguided direction dictated by others. It has been given a second chance not because of the stance it takes on a single issue but, rather, because the people believe that it is the party of community, fairness, and good local governance. This new found integrity will be compromised if we allow for the Brexit myth to persist. We only need to look at the state of UKIP to see what happens to parties that allow for one issue to overtake all others. This situation only benefits the two main parties. If we stand aside and accept the idea that the phenomenon of the 2019 Local Elections was simply the result of protest then we will kill our own momentum, handing permanent victory to Labour and the Conservatives.

It is clear, then, what kind of message the party must instead put forward – community empowerment, action, and care. Having control of 15 councils, and being the largest party in still more NOC administrations, gives us that opportunity. After the European Elections it would be nothing short of a wasted opportunity if we did not use the power that has been afforded to us and let a misreading of the election direct us to nowhere. We are now, on the local level, in an era of multiparty politics – let us take the lead.

* Edwin Black is a keen Lib Dem activist in Sheffield whose interests include reading, writing, amateur cartooning and research into the history of British politics.

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18 Comments

  • chris moore 8th May '19 - 8:56am

    As a point of fact, Lib Dems have majority control of 22 councils.

  • Bill le Breton 8th May '19 - 8:57am

    This is a very good piece and makes an important argument.

    It should help us reconsider the old debate about a core vote, where it exists and how to organise and lead it. I never gave much credit to the ‘search for a new core vote advocated by some over the last dozen years. I would always point to the fact that we had a core vote and one that was slowly but steadily building over time between roughly 1970 and 2007 before it was abandoned.

    That ‘community’ and its values is identified in this piece.

    Just at the time when the modern world was turning away from one set of values to the ones we represented, the Party deserted that cause and went in search for something new and shiny.

    In another piece on this site by Paul Holmes a not unrelated argument is being made.

    People might also be interested to look at the work and ideas of Ian Warren – see him on twitter @election_data where he is mapping the spread of 30-40 year-olds out of London in recent years and into certain communities in which we also did well last Thursday beyond our old areas of strength.

    The Party faces a big choice this summer following the expected departure of Vince from the leadership. Some candidates will favour the continued pursuit of the post 2007 core voter. I hope at least one candidate offers an alternative representation of a set of values which is loyal to the Liberalism expressed by our practising community politicians (where the word community is not restricted to a geographical one.)

  • Paul Griffiths 8th May '19 - 8:59am

    There is a lot of truth in this analysis.

  • John Marriott 8th May '19 - 9:14am

    If Mr Black is saying that’s there’s more to life than Brexit then I’m 100% behind him. However, until we can reach a modus vivendi on this tortured subject we will not, as a nation, to use that hackneyed phrase, be able effectively to ‘move forward’.

  • What John Marriott said

  • Sue Sutherland 8th May '19 - 1:53pm

    Judging from the reception on the doorstep that many people were reporting from different parts of the country, voters were very pleased that the Lib Dems were there to vote for. We seem to have got back our popularity in local elections and I agree that this wasn’t just because of Brexit. Working for the local community and enabling people to have power themselves has been something that Lib Dem councillors have strived to do and it works.
    So, why haven’t we adopted this approach at National level? It’s pretty obvious to everyone that Parliament isn’t working properly. It’s letting down both Leavers and Remainers. We should be aiming to reform the way Parliament works and we have policies that go some way to achieve this. However, this isn’t just about PR and reform of the HoL, the way Parliament interacts with the general public through petitions seems like a joke. Matters are debated in a small room and then everyone carries on as before. The Referendum itself was another joke, both advisory only and at the same time an instruction to Parliament, it has caused chaos. There should be rules on the conduct of referendums.
    In many councils members of the public can speak in support of their petitions. Would it be so strange to allow ordinary people to speak to Parliament? We need a better process too to deal with the all too frequent occurrence of people’s lives being damaged, maybe destroyed, by the decisions of government departments like the Home Office and DWP.
    This seems to me to be something we should have in our Manifesto for the next election. For the first time in recent history the general public might agree with us.

  • Edwin Black 8th May '19 - 6:59pm

    I would just like to thank everyone so far for their comments – they have been a really constructive discussion.

    @Bill le Breton – I can, unfortunately, only partially agree. Yes, we need to regain those types of voters but, also, we must appeal to new ones. Liberalism is, after all, an expansive and free-flowing ideology. It must change with the times just as much as any other, lest it simply become moderate conservativism.

    The work of people such as Mr. Pack, for instance, should not be overlooked. They are the electoral brains and we, as members, are the ones supplying the ideas that drive the party. If we want a community focus, one based in decentralised localism and widespread municapilisation, then we need to support those ideas within the party. Whether it comes from the “radical” wings or the mainsteam, whether the individual proposing them is an adherent to classical liberalism or the municipal libertarianism of Murray Bookchin (Of which I myself am a proponent) it is up to us to decide what direction we take.

  • Edwin Black 8th May '19 - 7:01pm

    I do apologise for the typo in my previous comment – “municapilisation” is supposed to be “municipalisation”.

  • Locally in East Cambridgeshire (where we gained 10 seats – from 3 to 13 – and the Conservatives lost 20, on new boundaries: the council is now 13 LD, 15 Cons), there were two factors at play. People voted for us mainly because we worked hard and offered a strong message about local candidates supporting local services and affordable housing – and because we were the clear alternative to the Conservatives. They voted AGAINST the Conservatives because they saw them failing to manage well at both local and national level – our county’s Conservative Mayor with his grandiose spending plans that seemed to mainly help his mates was a key campaign point.
    However Brexit DID play a part, in two ways. Firstly, our position on the EU enthused people who had campaigned for REMAIN, and to stop Brexit; several of them joined, liked what else we stood for, and some became hard-working candidates – some now Councillors too. Secondly, Brexit has paralysed the government, destroyed the Conservatives’ (false?) reputation for competent management, while Labour’s contortions to face both ways have gained then no friends either. Many normally Conservative voters stayed at home.
    Now we have the Euro elections. Here, our very clear and unambiguous REMAIN position is a welcome change from previous Euro elections where we were scared to admit how much we liked the EU. Our campaign rightly covers other issues too. Locally Community Action means fix the potholes, build affordable housing and improve the schools; across Europe, it means prosperity for all not just the few, protecting the environment, and combatting climate change. These policies will still be needed long after Brexit is over – whichever way that goes.

  • David Le Grice 8th May '19 - 9:10pm

    It’s important to note that several of the council’s we won are in leave voting areas (especially in the south west). Whilst we shouldn’t start behaving like labour over Europe, we also can’t have a repeat of the 2017 election where we use most of the airtime and election broadcasts we get to bang on about a second referendum rather than place the focus on things that everyone minded to vote for us will support. And it’s a big mistake to think that leave voters won’t vote for us as people care far more about issues that affect them directly.

  • Charis Pollard 9th May '19 - 8:21am

    I agree with the author that political results – like more or less everything in life – are A Bit More Complicated and that Brexit isn’t the only story or the only thing to take away from the results.

    But I’d equally say that the local/community action aspect isn’t the only story or thing to take away. They’re both pieces of the puzzle and will have had different salience for different people (different people in the same area, let alone across the country).

    We need to get the balance right of both in the right places. My experience, which is VERY limited, echoes to some extent the comments of the person from Cambridgeshire. The clear, Remain, Brexit message is resonating at a national level, and creating a more positive impression, that means the doors are slightly more receptive to hearing the local messages local campaigners can deliver.

  • David Garlick 9th May '19 - 8:27am

    Whilst it is not always the case Independence has been a traditional hiding place for conservatives wishing to avoid the problems associated with the National Conservative Party and other conservatives with a small ‘c’. Brexit is the most important issue for the next few weeks but you are absolutely right that there so much, much more that is important to people than that. We have to have a vision that gives clear, honest and strong leadership whilst building trust. Most importantly of all it needs to give hope and show how good the future can be under Liberal Democrat Government.

  • Peter Hirst 9th May '19 - 1:18pm

    While we campaign on issues that seem important to us, the electorate might vote on completely different ones depending on local resonance. There is no substitute to talking to real people on their door step about what is interesting them at the moment. It takes a lot of campaigning to divert people from what is on their mind politically. Until Brexit is settled, plenty of people will vote on that, independent of what we put in our leaflets.

  • Nigel Jones 9th May '19 - 4:43pm

    Belief in localism is a vital ingredient for Lib-Dems and should be presented as national policy. This does not contradict the Brexit issue in principle, since every EU treaty has a paragraph saying that decisions should be made as close to the people as possible. The EU had significant funds that went direct to local areas.
    So John Innes, you are wrong to dismiss this article, which does not contradict the view that Brexit was one major factor in the election results. On the contrary we must build on the view that our own government is not only in a mess but is too centralised.

  • Edwin Black 10th May '19 - 9:38pm

    Mr. Breton – I am a great admirer of Sheffield Liberals. Indeed, the local Liberal Party was one of the few that actually stayed together during the great schisms of the 1930’s and won seats in the 1960’s, managing to disentangle itself from the conglomerate Municipal Progressives. Peter Moore is still talked about in party circles and, though I have never met the man, I do hold him to some degree of respect. I am not an admirer, however, of condescension.

    If you look at my article history you will see that I have been rather critical of the “expert” view for quite some time, having written critiques of centrism and moderation, both being positions that are seen as the most electorally optimal.

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