We must fight Witney hard

Invitations have gone out to approved parliamentary candidates to stand in the Witney constituency by-election, caused by David Cameron’s sudden resignation from Parliament. It’s important the selection goes ahead quickly and the very best person is appointed as this is a contest we should fight with maximum resources, energy and determination. There is no time to lose as rumour has it that the by-election may be called for 20 October.

Although the Liberal Democrat vote fell back sharply in 2015 (as in so much of the rest of the country), the party’s candidates (respectively Dawn Barnes and Liz Leffman) came second in both 2010 and 2005. Yes, a distant second, but just consider the extraordinary circumstances in which this by-election is being held. Cameron unintentionally landed Britain in its current Brexit mess and the terrible trio that Theresa May has put in charge of “delivering Brexit” haven’t a clue what it means in practice, how it will be done or when. The Conservatives like to say they are competent, but this is incompetence on a colossal scale.

As for Labour, next week Jeremy Corbyn will almost certainly be re-elected leader of the party, despite the fact that he does not enjoy the confidence of the vast majority of his MPs and Labour is riven by internecine warfare. Not exactly in a position to make a big leap forward in Witney. Indeed, if the recent Sheffield council by-election is anything to go by, quite the opposite.

However, the real reason why I think a clarion call must go out to Liberal Democrats to pour into Witney in the way that used to happen in parliamentary by-elections prior to 2010 is because this is the first chance the party has to proudly show itself as pro-EU. Tim Farron and others will be making that position clear in Brighton in a few days’ time, but it needs to be taken on to every doorstep in Witney.

In West Oxfordshire (in which Witney is the seat of local government) 53.7% of voters backed Remain on 23 June, which means that a sizeable part of the electorate is likely to be susceptible to a pro-European message. Indeed, some of Witney’s residents took part in the March for Europe in Oxford and London. That means that many usual Tory voters could be tempted to vote for the Liberal Democrats, and helpers even from outside the Liberal Democrats could rally to the campaign, in which crowd-funding could play a significant role.

* Jonathan Fryer is Chair of the Federal International Relations Committee.

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53 Comments

  • Greg Foster 14th Sep '16 - 4:33pm

    I’ll just leave this here: http://libdems.org.uk/witney

  • Matt (Bristol) 14th Sep '16 - 4:38pm

    And also, should a Witney LibDem candidate be pushing the message that Cameron’s views on grammar schools are now not shared by his own party?

  • Glenn Andrews 14th Sep '16 - 4:45pm

    We should say to Witney that seeing as their former MP confessed to his proudest achievements as coalition prime minister was everything the Liberal Democrats did – voting for us would be a fitting tribute.

  • I endorse every word of the article

  • Matt (Bristol) 14th Sep '16 - 5:17pm

    Any chance Labour will decide not to fight Witney? Their candidate very likely to be elected on the same day in Batley…

  • Richard Underhill 14th Sep '16 - 6:21pm

    Tory peer Daniel Finkelstein writes in The Times today (£) about David Cameron.
    “In 2010 he moved decisively to offer the Liberal Democrats a full coalition, persuading both them and his own party of this course. The country benefitted hugely from this act of leadership and imagination. At a moment of great economic and political danger, a stable government was formed that lasted for five years and took the nation safely beyond the crisis.”
    The headline was “Gambler Cameron’s luck was doomed to run out”
    “He took risks on his leadership bid, on forming a coalition and on austerity, but he couldn’t beat the odds for ever”
    There is no mention of the convention that a former Prime Minister would be offered a peerage. Winston Churchill and Edward Heath did not accept.. John Major has not done so, so far. Antony Eden and Harold MacMillan did.

  • Richard Underhill 14th Sep '16 - 6:36pm
  • jedibeeftrix 14th Sep '16 - 7:45pm

    Food for thought: if the tory’s keep witney by a similar margin, would it suggest that a proportion of Oxfordshire’s 53% voted out of fear rather than love?

  • paul barker 14th Sep '16 - 8:24pm

    It would also be good if we could stand a woman again, ideally someone with strong links to the area.

  • “Invitations have gone out to approved parliamentary candidates”

    What is an “approved” candidate and who is sending out invitations and why? Sounds like a private party.

  • I agree with Theakes!

    Thanks to Greg Foster for the link, I’ve made use of it.

  • Zack Polanski 15th Sep '16 - 12:08am

    Agree with the article.

    What a shame that one of the three criteria is ‘to be a credible candidate for the constituency.’

    This is the same nonsense that was used for the snap elections – justified as temporary.
    And once again for byelections. How many times does this potentially discriminatory, non objective criteria have to be used, that wouldn’t be allowed in an employment tribunal, before the party changes it to something fair and transparent?

    The party needs the strongest candidates it can field. This system is not the way to do that.

  • The opportunity in Witney is enormous. A strong showing and the media narrative will be the end of Theresa May’s honeymoon, Tories in trouble on Europe and grammar schools, underperforming in Cameronland and afraid to call an early election because vulnerable MPs fear losing their seats to the Lib Dems. It’s all to play for!

  • Paul Murray 15th Sep '16 - 8:26am

    @Jedibeeftrix – well, quite. The “Remain” campaign ran strongly on the message “the value of your house will plunge and your pension will be worthless”. Witney is exactly the sort of prime Tory territory where this will have had resonance.

    But houses prices have remained stable and the value of pensions significantly increased – because the reduction in the exchange rate has increased the nominal value of investments in foreign markets while domestic markets have also gone up.

    It will be interesting to see how well a pro-EU message will play with an electorate that might feel they were misled in the recent campaign.

  • Spot-on Jonathan!

  • The question I as a voter would ask is, “If the government calls an immediate parliamentary vote to implement article 50, how will you vote?”

  • Paul Kennedy 15th Sep '16 - 10:27am

    Given demographics, here’s my current estimate of the min-max range of possible outcomes for each of the main parties – although it could depend on who the candidates are of course:
    Con 30-60%
    Lab 5-15%
    UKIP 5-15%
    LD 5-40%
    Green 0-5%
    So, yes, let’s go for it, although getting organised to achieve our best across such a large area will be a big ask.

  • Richard Underhill 15th Sep '16 - 10:54am

    “Theresa May’s honeymoon” might be measured in opinion polls and focus groups, but it might be over already. At Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday she was told off by the Speaker for making slow progress, leading to an extended PMQ of about 45 minutes. In recent times all Speakers want to help backbenchers, which they do by allowing questions and criticising noisy barracking.
    The FO was not noisy, but he was chatting to his neighbours all the time while the PM was speaking. His facial expressions and body language told a tale. An aide was sitting behind her with a file of papers open. He was presumably not doing his constituency casework because he passed notes to the Chancellor, presumably to help the PM.
    Opposition MPs will often try to surprise a PM, but when her own party does not give her warning of a question viewers should assume a critical attitude.
    On three occasions he needed to say to an MP that she “will write”, which implies a lack of understanding of the details and complexities of those issues. As PM Harold MacMillan used to refer questions to departmental ministers, but from Edward Heath onwards preparation for PMQ was used as a means of finding out what was happening in departments, and, as David Cameron said, “put a stop to it”.
    The PM is committed to the policy on grammar schools, but it does not unite Tory MPs. A distraction can be caused by “throwing a dead cat on the table” but this one also helps to unite opposition parties and gives Jeremy Corbyn a chance to score points at PMQ.
    The policy on grammar schools only applies to England. David Cameron did not introduce it between 2015 and 2016.

  • Stevan Rose: Perfectly normal procedure. All party’s vet their candidates to some extent or other, to establish their bona fides, skill and abilities. More info about the Lib Dems procedures here: http://www.libdems.org.uk/become_a_candidate

  • *Parties*, sorry!

  • Paul Murray: But houses prices have remained stable and the value of pensions significantly increased..

    As has been said by many, we are still in the EU and no one, least of all HM government, knows what ‘Brexit means Brexit’ means yet.

  • Lapsed Member 15th Sep '16 - 4:46pm

    Is a strategy focussing mainly on the EU the right one for Witney?

    Not all leave voters were naïve enough to believe some of the ridiculous rhetoric that the Leave campaign promoted. Maybe some actually looked at the current state of the EU and came to the conclusion that on balance the UK would be better in the long term to leave. I am not sure how you are going to convince them at this stage that they were wrong. In 18 months if Brexit is seriously damaging the economy then of course people may well change their minds.

    Not all remain voters were 100% behind the EU, but believed on balance that the UK would be stronger in than out. Not sure how the LibDem position of EU membership at any cost (free movement of people, further enlargement/integration no meaningful reform etc) is going to persuade many Conservative remainers to vote LibDem especially as the predicted economic catastrophe has yet to happen.

    A local candidate with an understanding of local issues would I think be the best bet for success. For instance Oxfordshire county council has cut subsidies to bus services resulting in the loss of many routes. Attacking the Tories on economic competence and austerity, promoting liberal ideas of fairness, co-operation with Europe (Witney is twinned with towns in France and Germany) would surely be a better plan than appearing to want to change the referendum vote.

  • Timothy Jones 15th Sep '16 - 8:42pm

    Not my constituency, but good luck from London. The Tories need to be levelled up in the Houses of Parliament and one less Conservative seat would be a good start.

  • Stevan Rose 15th Sep '16 - 9:28pm

    @ Ian & GP. Thanks, so it is parties inviting their own pre-approved candidates not the Returning Officer doing any inviting and approving. Fair enough.

  • A local candidate is crucial but I’d argue only a Brexit-focused campaign will have any impact.

    This seat was 60% Conservative last time, the Conservatives have a new PM with strong approval ratings, and presumably David Cameron will campaign personally for his successor. The ceiling for local issue protest votes is going to be fairly low.

    But a campaign that says ‘the views of Remain voters mustn’t be forgotten, tell Teresa May and the Brexiteers they don’t have a mandate to wreck the economy’ could draw a much broader vote. It could also negate Cameron – what does he say to that?

    Add grammar schools to the mix, telling parents near potential secondary moderns what is going to happen to their local school, execute with a lot of vigour, and you have the ingredients for a political impact even in defeat.

  • Andrew McCaig 16th Sep '16 - 10:31am

    We know that a small majority of Witney voters support Remain.. We also know that a much larger majority (in Britain as a whole, and presumably in Witney) support grammar schools. It seems pretty obvious which issue we should focus on if we want to maximise our vote.. What is more, on Europe we can be distinctive relative to Corbyn’s Labour, but not on grammar schools..

  • Richard Underhill 16th Sep '16 - 8:49pm

    Resigning a seat in the House of Commons is illegal, so those who wish to do so apply for an office of profit under the Crown, which, if and when granted, leads to a conflict of interest and therefore disqualification from the Commons. The office of profit that David Cameron has assumed is an unpaid sinecure and therefore not an office of profit in reality. There are no duties either. This farcical anachronism does have several famous holders, including Enoch Powell, who became an MP in Northern Ireland and Gerry Adams, the President of Sinn Fein, who was elected to the Dail in a multi-member seat. The Irish Times reports that he plans to retire some time in the next ten years, but does not want to announce the date yet. It is unlikely that he would want a peerage.
    The House of Lords has more recent legislation allowing voluntary retirement, thanks to an Act promoted by David Steel, so a life peerage need not be for life..

  • The Professor 16th Sep '16 - 10:47pm

    The maximum expense limit for the regulated period for a Parliamentary by-election is £100,000. It will be interesting to see how much the Liberal Democrats and indeed other parties actually spend.

  • Simon Banks 17th Sep '16 - 2:12pm

    Stevan: rather strange question. As with most parties, we have a list of candidates who have gone through a process (agreed democratically by party members in our case) to ensure they’re suitable to stand. This hopefully weeds out people who would be unable to do the job properly, who are ignorant about policy, who are fundamentally illiberal etc etc. Any party member can apply to go on this list. Once someone is on that list, Party HQ will notify all of them of opportunities like this. Then in most cases it’s up to the local party to select someone and the possible candidates to make their case. With by-elections there is an extra hurdle of a more searching interview because of the intense media attention and other exceptional pressures. Again, the process is no secret and it’s not closed to anyone.

    Oh and yes, in a sense it is a club, though not a closed one. To be a Liberal Democrat candidate you need to be a member of the Liberal Democrats. But that’s OK: we’ve got about twice as many people in that category as we had before the last election.

  • Paul Holmes 17th Sep '16 - 2:50pm

    I agree very much with @Lapsed Member about the wisdom of concentrating the Witney By election campaign (or any election campaign) on the Brexit issue. I was therefore delighted to see the first Witney leaflet centered on the NHS which is in danger of drifting back to the absolutely dire straits it reached prior to 1997.

    I canvassed in a Council by election (that we won) in an affluent Conservative facing area last June and July. During the Referendum period there were more than a few voters who clearly stated they were voting Leave before going on to say that they would vote Lib Dem in the forthcoming by election. After the Referendum that pattern continued with plenty of people who had voted Leave happily saying they would vote Lib Dem while some Remainers were certainly Conservative and Labour loyalists.

    More recently I helped in this week’s successful Tupton by election (in a previously rock solid Labour heartland/ex Pit community) and ongoing Brexit issues -far from being the foremost concern in voters minds – barely received a mention. That was despite the UKIP candidate doing his best to campaign on the issue but gaining just 79 votes.

    We tried the uncritical, unquestioning, ‘Party of In’ strategy in the 2014 Euro elections and lost 11 out of 12 MEP’s.

  • Andrew McCaig 17th Sep '16 - 7:47pm

    Paul Holmes,

    Witney is not Tupton! It is a parliamentary by-election.. the other parties will all be fighting hard, and whatever you think of Cameron he has not had to resign because of biting a teenager on the nose in a pub!

    The first job for us is to try and get ahead of UKIP in Witney.. The next is to get ahead of Labour.. We can do that by appealing to the 25% or so of voters who really care about the referendum result. If we get ahead of Labour then people will vote for us however they voted in the referendum. Of course we campaign on the NHS but we will never beat Labour on that issue..

    If we were starting from second place it might be different.. But we are starting from 4th!

  • Andrew McCaig 17th Sep '16 - 7:49pm

    And we lost all those MEP’s because we were on 8% in the opinion polls and everyone hated Nick Clegg.. He could have campaigned on anything and the result would have been the same..

  • Alex Macfie 18th Sep '16 - 1:52pm

    Indeed, the “Party of IN” strategy was a mistake not because of the message per se, but because (i) it was the wrong message for the election campaign: we should have been having our MEPs saying what they had done AS LIBERALS

  • Alex Macfie 18th Sep '16 - 1:56pm

    to make the EU more liberal; and (ii) the wrong messenger; again the campaign should have been led by our MEPs not by our Westminster leaded, as we should have been emphasising the INDEPENDENCE of our MEPs from the Coalition. We failed to do this, and we also failed to challenge the media conspiracy of silence over what the European Parliament is actually FOR, namely to make laws for the EU as a whole, where there are political, ideological differences of opinion over normal bread&butter issues in the same way as there are in national parliaments. We should have been discussing those, and calling out the wilful ignorance of most of the media and political establishment on EU politics. Instead we went along with it.

  • Paul Holmes 18th Sep '16 - 2:22pm

    A lot of regular Labour voters voted Remain and and so did plenty, although a lot less, of regular Conservative voters. For the most part they are not going to abandon a life times commitment to one Party over a single issue. Just as they were not prepared to forget everything else on the ‘political agenda’ and vote for the ‘Party of In’ in 2014.

    Hackney (like a couple of so called ‘Top Seats’ where we actually lost our deposit in May 2015) was tipped as a potential area for growing our ‘Core Vote’ because it voted Remain. Yet in Thursday’s Mayoral election we slipped back a bit further and barely passed the 5% vote level.

    The first and foremost lesson of Trevor Jones in Liverpool was that you have to find out what concerns are on the minds of the voters and address them. The later architect of our most successful election period (1997-2005) also used to emphasis that we had to talk to voters about what concerned them and not just about our own pet ideological concerns. Certainly, highlighting the splits in the Tory Party over Brexit and the growing evidence of the long term problems Brexit will bring will be a worthwhile Campaign feature in Witney. But so will issues such as the dire state the NHS is sinking into (first leaflet I am glad to say), David Cameron’s mothers views on the negative impact of deep cuts in local services (even in affluent Tory shires) and of course Labour’s civil war.

    Make the campaign in Witney, or at the next General Election, primarily about Brexit and we will not make the electoral progress that is open to us. Long and hard as that recovery is going to be anyway following the near wipe out of 2010-2015.

  • @Paul Holmes
    It’s also true that a lot of Lib Dem voters voted Leave – about 30% of them. In fact the Remain/Leave split was not that different for Lib Dem voters (70/30) as it was for Labour voters (63/37), despite the widely held beliefs that Corbyn had a disastrous campaign, Farron had a decent one, and the Lib Dems are the undisputed “Party of In”.

    So I fail to see why anyone in the Lib Dems would think that leading on an anti-Brexit strategy now might bear electoral fruit. It will brass off not just the 30% of Lib Dems who voted Leave, but also those among the Remain voters who just want to accept the result and move on. If Lib Dems and other pro-EU politicians waste time deluding themselves that they can somehow undo the result, all that will be achieved will be to give the Tories a completely free run in shaping our post-EU future – and that would be a much bigger disaster than the actual referendum result.

  • Andrew McCaig 18th Sep '16 - 3:13pm

    BTW Penrith and the border is a very poor analogue for Witney.. In the 1983 general election we already had 28% of the vote and failing to win it in the by-election with no Willie Whitelaw was tbh a disappointment.

    It is a sign of our current parlous state that in elections since 1950 we never once fell below 15% there….. until 2015 when we got just 8.5%..

    Expectations seem to be ramping up here about Witney.. To be honest if we come third we will have done very well.. We are not going to pick up tactical votes and have to find issues where people will vote for us out of conviction..

    If we are to get anywhere in Witney we need to find issues where we are distinctive relative to UKIP, Labour and the Tories, and which people care about.. Of course we maintain our position on issues such as the NHS (or rather restore it, since many will point out that we voted through the top-down Tory reform that has wasted so much money…). But Brexit is the only issue of any salience right now where we are distinctive and hold a position with significant support.. So we have to use it

  • The Professor 18th Sep '16 - 3:16pm

    Don’t forget that the former MP for Witney wrote a hypocritical letter to the Tory leader of Oxfordshire County Council complaining about the local cuts being imposed by said council.
    Always said that Tory leaflets should be called “Out of Touch”.

  • Alex Macfie 18th Sep '16 - 4:09pm

    Paul Holmes: The reason we did so badly in the 2014 Euro election is we didn’t give people reason to vote for Lib Dem MEPs: we said NOTHING about our specifically LIBERAL vision of the EU, which is the whole point of European elections. “IN or OUT” is a domestic issue, and always was, and it was a mistake to play to Farage’s tune by fighting our Euro election campaign on that.

  • Martin, As far as I can see the ‘Brexiteers’ want things exactly as they are except we won’t allow free movement of people and we won’t pay any money into the EU…

    I don’t see how the other EU countries could possibly object to that…After all, we are “The UK”…

  • paul holmes 18th Sep '16 - 7:01pm

    The reason/s we did so badly in 2014 are the same reason/s we also did so badly in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015. Proclaiming ourselves the unqustioning ‘Party of In’ did not provide the silver bullet in 2014 and will not do so in Witney, or in 2020 or any other time.

  • Just fight it in the traditional way. People know where we stand in Europe. It should just be one of many things to campaign on. Keep it as local as possible, I believe we went into second place at the last local by election in the seat and recent general elections have come second twice this century. My guess is with the falling Labour and UKIP vote at the ballot box, not in the polls, we are already in second place.

  • paul holmes: As I have said, the reason the “Party of In” campaign was wrong was that whether you’re pro or anti

  • paul holmes: As I have said, the reason the “Party of In” campaign was wrong was that whether you’re pro or anti EU is a PURELY DOMESTIC issue, which MEPs have NO INFLUENCE OVER. The European Parliament does not decide any particular country’s relationship with the EU, as it legislates for the EU as a whole: that is its job. Our mistake was to say NOTHING about what our MEPs had done AS LIBERALS to improve EU law. By agreeing to debate with Farage, Clegg was agreeing to Farage’s terms about how the European election campaign should look. Clegg AGREED WITH FARAGE that MEPs don’t matter, and that the EU is a binary choice between uncritical support and withdrawal. In doing so, we validated the choice to vote UKIP. If our campaign team had been cleverer, they would have refused to have any debate with Farage or anyone else over the UK’s place in the EU, by correctly pointing out that it’s irrelevant to the question of what sort of MEPs we want representing us in the European Parliament. And if we had said more about how useless UKIP MEPs are at doing their job of representing their electorates, we might have been able to expose them as the charlatans they are, and so we might not be in a position where UKIP is the largest UK party in the European Parliament. UK voters have been conditioned over many electoral cycles to believe that European elections don’t really matter, and thus that it’s safe to vote for UKIP and their kind. And our 2014 campaign DID NOTHING to challenge this false notion. It was never anything to do with whether our campaign was too pro-EU.

  • It’s an interesting and really important choice whether it makes sense to focus on: (a) the most salient issue (e.g. NHS), regardless of what we have to offer; or (b) the issue where we’re most distinctive (i.e. Brexit), even if it’s divisive and not the top priority for voters.

    In addition to all the discussion above, I’d offer two further reasons why Brexit is the right choice:
    (1) Remain may currently be the minority and Brexit may be lower salience. But staking out the ground now is preparation for if and when that changes. It’s worth remembering that 54% of the UK population supported the Iraq war in 2003.
    (2) New members are not going to be engaged and energised by a campaign on the NHS but will be by a well-framed campaign (hold the government to account, not rerun the referendum) on Brexit.

    Even if a focus on the NHS were good Witney tactics, therefore, I still think Brexit is better strategy.

  • Most of our new members neither live in Witney, will be going to campaign there or for that matter even read LDV. We must not make the mistake of the Corbynistas who think that 2,500 enthusiasts at a Sheffield rally means they are doing well -yet a few days later the Lib Dems came from fourth place to take a Sheffield by election seat off them.

    To do well in Witney (however you define well) we have to talk to the voters there (not our Members somewhere else who mostly will not even see the election literature) about what concerns them rather than what ‘we’ obsess about. As I have said Brexit is part of that mix but part only.

  • Paul Holmes 20th Sep '16 - 6:18pm

    It would be a strange electoral strategy that abandoned one of the best and most needed campaign issues (NHS) just because another Party was also going to talk about it!

    Pleased to see from Tim’s Leaders speech that he is avoiding an obsession with single issue campaigning. Life, politics and elections are more complex than that.

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