Winning back former south-western strongholds: looking beyond Brexit

As a member in the south-west of England I am acutely aware of how we have fallen behind in the rural areas of England where we used to be able to garner a large amount of support. The south-west has a quite rare mixture of very rural communities and a long liberal tradition. In fact, my own constituency of Tiverton and Honiton (now a deep blue Tory area) was once partly represented by Lord Palmerston who was the MP for Tiverton while Prime Minister. Given the past support in the south-west I think it would be very worthwhile to now consider how we can win back such areas across the country in the long term.

The south-west voted slightly more in favour of Brexit than the rest of the country and some of our former seats were even more in favour of Brexit than the rest of the region. For example, North Devon voted 57% in favour of leaving the EU. As a result, our Brexit policy is likely to be less attractive in this area, so it would be worthwhile to look to our other policies to win back support. There are a few policy areas where we are leading the way already which would be very impactful and confront some of the main issues facing the region. The main issues as I see them are a feeling of a lack of political representation by Westminster, lack of investment in transport infrastructure and a very stretched healthcare system.

The party’s longstanding support for localism and further devolution should help us to reverse the feeling of political disenchantment in the region and should serve us in good stead to reverse our losses in the south-west. Given the large spaces between communities empowering the individuals living there to have a larger say in the running of their communities is even more important. This is because those communities are often very isolated, so they do not get as much attention from the stretched local councils. Further devolution of powers for local councils and hopefully further funds will also allow us to devise a better local transport strategy to improve rail and bus services. These transport links are vitally important for people of all ages as being unable to easily get around their local area will drive loneliness and isolation.

Our policy on raising income tax to fund the NHS going forward will help to improve the healthcare provision across the country, especially in rural areas where the resources are already very stretched. Once again, more powers for local communities will help to develop a more nuanced, locally focussed approach to healthcare, rather than applying similar policies across the board without much focus on the area in question.

Given the impending end of the Brexit process now is the time to start thinking about how we, as a party, can develop policies beyond our opposition to Brexit to win back our former voters who we have lost since the coalition.

* Luke Jeffrey is Vice-Chair of Devon and Cornwall Young Liberals and the Youth Development Officer for Tiverton and Honiton Liberal Democrats.

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  • Glenn Andrews 21st Jun '18 - 10:15am

    On the list of main issues in the south-west surely the fact that the average house price is about ten times the average salary needs addressing….social housing and more affordable housing for rent should be a priority.

  • Trevor Stables 21st Jun '18 - 10:33am

    Brexit will adversly affect rural and distant Communities, Farming etc for decades. Our opposition to it will be a huge plus in the future.

  • Luke Jeffery 21st Jun '18 - 10:36am

    @Glenn Andrews
    I absolutely agree that housing is an issue in the area, and we should be working to make having a home more affordable. The 3 issues in the article were the issues which I believe would resonate the most in the area, and in which we are already leading the way in terms of policy. In order to show we shouldn’t forget the quality of many of our policies in winning back these former strongholds. As I have heard many people believing, incorrectly, that these areas are lost to us because of their slightly more pro-brexit stance

  • Luke Jeffery 21st Jun '18 - 11:02am

    @Trevor Stables
    I fully agree that Brexit will be disastrous for those communities in the long term and that our national campaigns against it will prove us right in hindsight. However, this will not happen for some time and within the southwest at least I think focussing on the issues raised in the article (and indeed housing) may well allow us to more effectively win back support. Not to say we shouldn’t campaign on brexit in the area, over 45% of people still voted remain of course, but it should not be our sole target as someday (I hope) brexit will be finished one way or another, starting to look beyond it now will help set the groundwork for the future

  • @Luke Jeffery. The impact of Brexit could be immediate as the borders close, flights are grounded and import export becomes extremely difficult. There are no signs that our Tory government even recognises never mind understands this. We should be ready if this happens to seize the opportunities it will present esp. in the West Country.

  • Luke Jeffery 21st Jun '18 - 12:02pm

    @Mick Taylor
    Of course should this scenario come to pass it would be awful and we should be campaigning strongly against it. Our Exit from Brexit campaign should continue across the country as it is one of our stronger policies. That being said, we should be looking for strategies beyond talking about Brexit and looking for policies which can from a good strategy for this region (and others like it). It does not devalue our Brexit campaign to start talking about alternative issues in areas where we have former supporters, as they are probably more ready to listen to what we’re saying than most.

    I think that this is another example of where the leave campaign as made promises over issues without thinking it through at all. I agree that this does seem like a good opportunity to push for more regional funding, and this should be a popular policy as well!

  • Sandra Hammett 21st Jun '18 - 3:21pm

    Perhaps we should start by recognising that support collapsed in 2015 not after the EU Ref and address where we went wrong then.

  • Luke Jeffery 21st Jun '18 - 3:33pm

    @Sandra Hammett
    I agree wholeheartedly, while Brexit affects all politics these days we as a party need a plan which looks to issues beyond brexit to rebuild support

  • Some of the comments here are depressing. We as a party need to think beyond March 2019 and have policies ready for when we have left the EU. So we need to have policies regarding how the UK will fund the support currently provided by the EU: be it for agriculture; or as regional aid. With regard to regional aid we need firstly to increase overall spending in this area and then consider if once we have left the EU and it rules we can have a more effective system of bringing the economy of the regions up to the level of south-eastern England.

    And as Glenn Andrews states we need to have policies in place to fund a huge expansion in social housing for rent and consider if 300,000 new homes a year is really ambitious enough.

    Maybe it is time we had a policy to stop the reduction in the number of councillors. When ward or division boundaries are considered it seems because of the cabinet system (and I expect in the future “regional” mayors) the number of councillors is reduced. Could we have policies that bans the number of councillors being reduced when considering ward and division boundaries as well as scraping the cabinet system and directly elected mayors?

    If we think the transport infrastructure in the south-west needs improving we should have concrete plans on how we are going to do this. Do we need to extend the M3 to Plymouth? Do we need to have an “M303” and/or an “M35”? What about a motorway for north Devon and north Cornwall? Do we need a north coast rail line? Do we need a south coast rail line (maybe from Weymouth to Exeter)?

    Do the Clinical Commissioning Groups cover the right geographical area? Are they too large? Should we have policies to make CCG boards directly elected?

  • The main reason we used to be successful in the South West of England was because we were traditionally the “Not the Tory” Party. For social, cultural and historical reasons we had a core vote as a result. By going into coalition with the Tories in 2010 we handed that role over to the Labour Party (and to a lesser extent the Green Party). In an era of weakening loyalties to party, class and religion it is going to be very hard for us to regain that core vote, and a few attractive policies are not going to be sufficient.

  • Andrew Tampion 22nd Jun '18 - 5:15am

    As far as EU funding aid if I was Cornish I might say that the EU has been pumping in money for 20 years and more so if Cornwall is still one of the poorest parts of the UK then maybe the money hasn’t been well spent. Perhaps these improved roads mainly benefit rich people from other parts of Europe who can buy Cornish houses and use them for holidays or weekends which is perhaps why the price of houses is 10 times the average wage.
    I am not Cornish but I do come from East Suffolk an area badly hit by the decline of fishing. Perhaps I might prefer rather than receiving EU aid to have 80% of the catch in the UKs economic zone rather than less than 50% as it is at present so that I could earn a decent living instead of relying on aid.

  • William Fowler 22nd Jun '18 - 6:41am

    My brexit supporting neighbours, fairly typical of the aged population in the SW, aren’t racist or anything as they are in favour of sending British welfare recipients who have descended on the area from up north back home so don’t think they are going to be voting Liberal any time soon. Similarly, a lot of low skill workers are quite close to a state of rage over what foreigners and welfare people get away with – just reporting what I see in the area – and are more likely to go for a reborn Ukip than LD’s. Logically, they should be raging against the system rather than other people at the bottom of the heap but that would require more common sense than emotion. There is an awful lot of seething rage going round that both Labour and Conservatives have tapped into which might explain the LD’s disappearing vote – the price of being the Nice Party?

  • William Fowler
    Welfare people get away with claiming benefits but maybe they are entitled to them.
    I like to know what foreigners get away with. Maybe hard work.

  • William Fowler 22nd Jun ’18 – 6:41am….There is an awful lot of seething rage going round that both Labour and Conservatives have tapped into which might explain the LD’s disappearing vote – the price of being the Nice Party?

    We lost the noce party’ medal in 2010 and, as Sandra Hammett points out, our support disappeared long before the EU referendum.
    As a ‘Dorset lad’ I count myself a Southwesterner and, from Dorset on west, second home owners and retirees far far outnumber farm workers.
    It is little use hoping for a post ‘Brexit’ revival because, already, any problems with leaving have been laid at the door of ‘Remoaners’ undermining a good deal; afterwards, I’ll wager such blame will intensify rather than fade.
    These improved transport links; where will the money come from? Who will build these affordable homes when big profits can be made from ‘incomers’ willing to trade £££££ SE homes to retire to the SW?
    The Tory offer of ‘more of the same’ is far more attractive to the comfortably off than supporting council tax hikes for services and affordable homes that they neither need nor want.

  • Nonconformistradical 22nd Jun '18 - 8:34am

    @Adnrew Tampion
    “Perhaps I might prefer rather than receiving EU aid to have 80% of the catch in the UKs economic zone rather than less than 50% as it is at present so that I could earn a decent living instead of relying on aid.”
    Well maybe – provided you can catch and sell different fish from what Brits prefer now…. when climate change has resulted in fish which prefer the moderate sea temperatures around the UK movng further north – so you either catch and sell something else or put up the costs of travelling to catch the usual sorts….

  • Peter Martin 22nd Jun '18 - 9:34am

    “…… a lot of low skill workers are quite close to a state of rage over….”

    This isn’t peculiar to the SW of course. But why? It largely comes down to the kind of economics that we have pursued for the last few decades. No party is blameless. Governments have tried to convince us all, and have been quite successful too, that they should only spend what they receive in taxes. They’ve tried to minimise their borrowing.

    At the same time they’ve let the pound float. Capital has flowed in to the country and raised the pound to higher than optimum levels. This has resulted in a high current account trade deficit which someone in the UK has to borrow to fund.

    Govt trying to squeeze the public finances has meant that the economy has been sluggish. People don’t have the spending power to keep it going unless they borrow. Govt has been quite happy to encourage everyone else to borrow more, especially in the housing market, so they can borrow less. That has resulted in, as Glenn Andrews put it:

    “the average house price is about ten times the average salary”

    So we have a sluggish economy kept just about going by high levels of private and personal borrowing. Over on the continent we have had an even worse situation where the economies haven’t just been sluggish they have been in near depression. So Cornwall and Devon, even though the economy isn’t great, don’t look too bad by comparison to young people looking for somewhere better. Businesses and farmers welcome the new arrivals. They aren’t doing great but they still need workers. Preferably cheaper than the workers they used to rely on.

    So looked at from the POV of a low skilled worker in Cornwall, we have a situation where houses are unaffordable, rents are high, wages are low, are jobs can be handed out to immigrants from the EU in preference.

    And the end result is a vote for Brexit and, more generally, what we are discussing now.

  • David G Fawcett 22nd Jun '18 - 10:02am

    The Liberal Democrats anti-Brexit stance isn’t necessarily a hindrance to winning in pro-Brexit areas. In the most pro-Brexit council in the North East, Sunderland, the party has moved from zero seats 2 years ago to 6 seats now. It can be done by identifying the issues that are important to people and campaigning bloody hard on them

  • Peter,

    the high current account deficit is a consequence of the lack of investment in manufacturing and a large switch to import of consumer goods. The replacement of high wage manufacturing jobs with low wage service jobs has depressed consumer purchasing power.
    Government deficits are a consequence of under-investment by UK firms. Excess savings arising from retained profits accumulated by firms is not invested in physical capital due to lack of wage demand. Instead it is recycled by the financial services industry into rent-seeking activities, particularly land but also the financing of public debt. This exacerbates housing inequality and keeps both wages and aggregate demand at low levels.

    Government deficits are a reflection of the under-investment of capital accumulated by the financial sector and firms. Household borrowing is a reflection of low wage growth and soaring housing costs.
    The outcome of a failure to collect adequate taxes on rent-seeking activities in the economy is plain for all to see. Where a generation ago a single wage-earner could support a family, now it takes two wage earners to pay for a converted flat in what was formerly a family home that single wage earner could afford.

    Increasing government deficits for current spending only exacerbate these problems. Government borrowing needs to be focused on physical capita investments and industrial skills development. Taxes need to be levied against rent-seeking activities like land investments and interest on finance for land investments, while at the same time reducing the burden of tax on wage incomes and investment in physical capital.

  • Peter Martin 22nd Jun '18 - 1:45pm


    The general opinion in Britain is “the higher the better” re the pound’s value. We’ve seen plenty of comments on LDV bemoaning the fall in the exchange rate after Brexit. Hardly anyone has expressed the opinion that it might be a good thing and will help our exporters. Why would anyone want to invest in UK manufacturing when it’s much cheaper to make things overseas?

    The big net exporters of the world all, without exception, have an exchange rate policy. If they are ‘managing’ their currencies downwards to help their exporters, and so run a surplus, then anyone who lets their currency truly float (UK, Canada, USA, Australia) will inevitably run a trade deficit.

    It’s just simple arithmetic.

  • @ expats
    “These improved transport links; where will the money come from? Who will build these affordable homes”

    I recall watching a TV programme where one of the characters said, “that is defeatist talk”. We accept that the government should borrow money to invest, so we should know we can just borrow the money to build improved transport links and social housing.

    Only 57% of construction sector employers provide training (, so perhaps it is the fault of the industry that there are not enough UK people being trained. The answer is for the government to ensure more training is provided and that the industry makes it an active sector to be employed in.

  • Peter Martin 22nd Jun '18 - 5:46pm


    Of course, if you don’t look after your manufacturing industry you do descend into a poor situation, where a lowering of the exchange rate won’t have the desired immediate effect. But you have to start somewhere.

    Th situation isn’t hopeless. The exchange rate isn’t the only factor. We are tied into a trading bloc which consists of depressed economies and mercantilistic economies. Once we are less dependent on them the situation should improve. We have a big deficit with the EU but are actually in surplus with the ROW.

    If capital inflows are a problem, especially with respect to property and land, we can legislate residency and nationality requirements to prevent those speculative purchases.

    I don’t fully agree with Larry Elliot’s analysis but the numbers are interesting:

  • Manufacturers found a low pound often as difficult as a high one, because of the high proportion of imported factors: components, commodities, fuel, licences, or services such as design.
    Most UK built cars are essentially assembled in the UK and have about 60% average foreign content value, mostly paid for in the Euro. So a low pound is a negative, as it is to my niche small manufacturers and to even as small as a one man guitar makers.
    We live in a heavily interconnected world and old thinking from 1960’s economics text books does not necessarily work

  • Going beyond particular issues, I think persistent Liberalism in the south-west relied on five pillars – the nonconformist churches, the large anything-but-Tory vote, a Liberal and nonconformist culture of group self-help, resentment of distant and uncaring government and being for the small man/woman, against the establishment. Of these, nonconformity has vastly declined and this also weakens the group self-help element. The region (Somerset less than the rest) has experienced massive immigration of prosperous elderly people who are certainly worth cultivating, but who are in many ways natural Tory voters and who lack the traditional Westcountry reasons for voting Liberal. Our ability to garner a (sometimes tactical) anti-Tory vote was devastated by the coalition and is only gradually recovering. Distant government is still an issue, but less so in the internet age and our party has relegated devolution within England to the back-burner, very unlike the Grimond and Thorpe Liberal days. Both the coalition and support for the EU looked to many in the Westcountry like siding with the establishment.

    However, a firm stand for social justice and against concentrations of power and wealth, a record of promoting and standing up for local community action, a re-emphasising of devolution with a consistent policy and stress on how Brexit concentrates, not returns, power and wealth – and the potential is still there.

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