Winning in the North: Your chance to help make it happen

It was around 3am at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield when our worst fears were confirmed. Nick had lost. He was the better candidate and had served his constituency, our Party and our country with distinction. It was a crushing feeling for all of us who were there and had worked so hard over the previous weeks to re-elect our former leader as the MP for Sheffield Hallam.

Two and a half years later it was me up there on the stage at the Harrogate Convention Centre having stood as the candidate for Harrogate & Knaresborough. It remains a seat with a strong liberal tradition, not least thanks to the incredible hard work of Lord Willis who was our Lib Dem MP between 1997 and 2010. Phil Willis was the epitome of a great constituency MP, having successfully led the local Council before being elected to Parliament. He linked our proud traditions of community politics and campaigning at the national level for our liberal values.

I was up against a beatable Conservative candidate in an area that, unusually for our region, had voted to remain in the EU. On that same night in December last year, my friend Laura Gordon was the candidate facing a beatable Labour candidate in Sheffield Hallam. It was a similar story for other strong candidates in our region like Lisa Smart in Hazel Grove and Tom Morrison in Cheadle.

Why was our movement not able to win these seats despite strong local campaigns and investment of resources from across the country?

We didn’t always struggle to do this.  From Withington to Westmorland and Burnley to Berwick, in 2010 we elected Lib Dem MPs all over the north of England, but now we only have Tim Farron representing our cause at Westminster.

In the decade or so leading up to the 2010 election we experienced huge success at local government level, running councils including Hull, Sheffield, Liverpool and Harrogate. Today we still have many fantastic local councillors who are making a difference representing their communities and we are still running authorities including York and South Lakes. But we should be doing so much better.

We need to convince those who share our liberal values that we are the people to lead their communities, representing them at the local and national level. That is what the Northern Liberal Network has been set up to achieve.

We want to hear your ideas about how we can make this happen.

So join us next Tuesday evening (21st April) on Zoom for our launch event when you can hear from Liberal Democrats from across the north and share your ideas and opinions. Our panel will be made up of Dick Newby (Lib Dem Leader in the Lords ), Lisa Smart (Hazel Grove), Laura Gordon (Sheffield Hallam) and Kamran Hussein (Leeds North West).

Any member of the Liberal Democrats with an interest in what happens in the north of England is welcome to join us. Sign up to be part of the launch here.

* Judith Rogerson was the Parliamentary Candidate for Harrogate & Knaresborough at the 2019 General Election and is a barrister specialising in healthcare law. She grew up in South Yorkshire and lives in North Yorkshire. She is a member of the Northern Liberal Network Committee.

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25 Comments

  • It’s so depressing. The continued affection for Nick Clegg when he destroyed the party is not going to serve the party well. The Lib Dems seem unable or unwilling to move on. The loaylty and passion to the dreaded Coalition from many in the party is just plain strange.

  • Sue Sutherland 18th Apr '20 - 3:36pm

    Martin, many of the traditional Labour voters who voted Conservative did so to “Get Brexit Done”. They will still only be judging Boris on that narrow point. This is why the Government won’t think about an extension to the discussions because of Covid19. It has the additional advantage of muddying the waters between the economic effects of Brexit and that of the pandemic.

  • Tony Greaves 18th Apr '20 - 3:55pm

    This seems like a real step forward (and ignore the first paragraph about Mr Clegg – he is history). I won’t be able to join in because I can’t do things like Zoom though I suppose I’m going to have to try. But Liberal Democrats in the North of England will stand or fall together. Amongst many other things we have to stop the party trying to withdraw into the so-called “new list of winnable seats” in London and the South East (broadly defined).

  • I’m fed up with hearing about ‘winnable seats’ that weren’t…I almost won the lottery last week; I just didn’t required standard by buying a ticket…

    I note that it was Corbyn’s fault and not the fact that the ‘Red Wall’ seats were among the strongest ‘Leave’ areas …Sue Sutherland is right; by promising to disregard the 2016 EU referendum result this party signed its death warrant in those areas. To pretend otherwise is foolish..

  • Paul Barker 18th Apr '20 - 5:24pm

    Some odd stuff in the article & most of the comments.

    There is no mystery about what went wrong, we joined The Coalition & became invisible to most of our potential Voters. We made that decision overwhelmingly & by & large we stuck by it. We made a big mistake & we made it together, it makes no sense to pick on a few well-known MPs. We could have changed our minds & left The Coalition, We decided not to. Lets own our mistakes & move on.

    Since our low point in the Summer of 2017 we have made a slow recovery & we have shown that we can still make temporary gains on top of that, as we did last Summer.

    This initiative seems like a fine idea, lets just stop looking for scapegoats.

  • Paul Pettinger 18th Apr '20 - 7:15pm

    All power to your elbow Judith, but the Clegg worship is delusional. We can keep the Party ticking along as a museum for Clegg and the 2010-15 coalition, or we can start rebuilding, but we can’t do both

  • marcstevens 18th Apr '20 - 7:55pm

    I agree with Silvio here but many local party activists and members in my area do not share this enthusiasm or any affection for Nick Clegg and the coalition. It must just be some individuals on this site. Interestingly Tim Farron, the sole standard bearer as an MP for the Party in the North, is not even represented on this panel. Could it be as a social liberal he is unwelcome?

  • “We didn’t always struggle to do this. From Withington to Westmorland and Burnley to Berwick, in 2010 we elected Lib Dem MPs all over the north of England”

    None of which are represented on the panel you have. This isn’t to sound bitter but no-one has ever asked me to give a talk or write about how/why we won Burnley. And some of those lessons – how do you turn an opportunity when all the headwinds are in your favour but you don’t necessarily have the ‘classic’ organisation to win – could have been really useful in 2019. How many other cases are there where that knowledge has been learnt, lost, relearnt and lost all over again.

    “Why was our movement not able to win these seats despite strong local campaigns and investment of resources from across the country?”

    A really important point, this was true about seats even back in ‘the good old days’ of 2010. Objectively strong local campaigns, plenty of money raised, activity KPIs met over and over again – but not winning campaigns.

    “I was up against a beatable Conservative candidate”

    Why do you say that? In both 2017 and 2019 he polled 50%+. There’s no obvious scandal attaching to him. His post referendum Brexit views perhaps put him at odds with how his constituency voted but that is a terrible predictor of MPs losing their seats. One really bad tendency of Liberal Democrats is to perceive their opponents as weaker than they actually are just because we don’t like them very much. When you dig into things the attack lines on them are actually quite weak and don’t have much salience.

  • There are a combination of reasons why we failed to make headway in general and in the North in particular.

    First is the continuing bitter legacy of Clegg and the Coalition which hit even harder in ‘the North’ although we should also remember the 2017/19 wipeout in Wales, Devon and Cornwall too. That legacy is less than 5 years old lets remember and still having a direct, practical, negative effect on peoples lives today. Then there was Revoke which hit even harder in the more Leave voting North and which made us seem an irrelevant one trick pressure group to those voting on much wider issues in a General Election. Yes somewhere like Sheffield Hallam is affluent and Remain voting but it doesn’t exist as an island within an area like Sheffield let alone like South Yorkshire.

    Then there was the unprecedented level of bland centralised campaigning which deluged Target Seats with mailed in central messages about Revoke/Swinson for PM. This sort of campaign was unrecognisable compared to the locally sensitive messaging and campaigning that Phil Willis, Richard Allen, Patsy Calton or Andrew Stunnell delivered (with Campaign Department help and support not dictat) when originally winning Harrogate, Hallam, Cheadle and Hazel Grove.

    So how do we do better next time? Well the passage of time can help. It took Labour a decade and a half to recover from the defeats of 1979/1983 and the Cons likewise from 1997. But recovery is not inevitable. If we continue with a Core Vote and Pivoting strategy that concentrates on issues that (supposedly) appeal to educated, urban, middle class professionals who are concentrated in particular niche areas, then we are not going to thrive in FPTP elections nor will we regain any appearance of relevance across the UK let alone in ‘the North’.

    At least that’s how it appears to me as someone who grew up on a Council Estate in Sheffield, won Chesterfield from Labour for 9 years, currently leads 17 Cllrs and whose colleagues ran Chesterfield Borough Council with 37/38 Cllrs out of 48 until the Coalition intervened and reduced them to 14 in 2011 and 9 by 2015.

  • An honest question or two which Judith needs to answer. Who are the people on the “Northern Liberal Network Committee” and who elected them or were they selected and if so by who? Do they include people from Westmorland and Lonsdale, Burnley, Redcar, Berwick, Southport, Withington, Chesterfield or Bradford?

  • “(Nick Clegg) …was the better candidate and had served his constituency, our Party and our country with distinction. It was a crushing feeling for all of us who were there and had worked so hard over the previous weeks to re-elect our former leader as the MP for Sheffield Hallam”.

    Apparently after twelve years of knowing him the electorate had reached a rather different opinion…… and not just in Sheffield.

  • We are nothing without a LEADER. Let us get moving on this now. Use the Internet for a forum with the candidates and send out voting papers. More would watch on the Internet than would go to a meeting. Come Lib Dems let’s demonstrate we are back in the game, not the silent fringe..

  • Max Wilkinson 19th Apr '20 - 1:45pm

    This is a well-written blog that raises key questions and proposes the start of a solution to some of the party’s problems. It’s a shame that some readers are so triggered by any mention of Nick Clegg that they’re unable to engage with the substantive points.

  • Daniel Walker 19th Apr '20 - 2:59pm

    @David Evans “An honest question or two which Judith needs to answer. Who are the people on the “Northern Liberal Network Committee” and who elected them or were they selected and if so by who?

    David, the Northern Liberal Network is a very new organisation. The current committee are therefore co-opted. The intention was to have the inaugural meeting, with voting etc., at Spring Conference, which obviously didn’t happen.

    Follow @NorthLibNet on Twitter for more details.

  • Rodney Watts 19th Apr '20 - 4:52pm

    May I repeat some parts of comments that I placed on the previous posting by Tom Purvis. At the time I was a member, but since April 3rd have not renewed for the meantime.
    @Paul Holmes mentions the wipeout in Devon, and as a parish councillor in N.Devon in 1992 when we replaced a Tory with Nick Harvey the current situation doesn’t fill me with joy. My wife and I have now lived in the Durham area for 13 yrs. My wife was born in Bradford E, and had a great grandfather who was a miner in Bishop Auckland. So we do have some Northern connections. For some years we lived in a mining village, where the folk were friendly but blamed the EU immigrants for taking British jobs. They helped to oust the unpopular labour MP and elect a conservative, but this may present a future opportunity for LibDems.

    In N. Devon, as elsewhere, it was hard work and our community emphasis that paid off. Newcastle upon Tyne Council opposition leader is bowing out in May to give younger councillors an opportunity, and also to get back into more community work. Issues to do with the Bedroom Tax.(Particularly bad in NE) Poverty and social welfare will also have to be seriously addressed.

    After 37 years as an activist I stopped membership in 2011 and joined again last April because of Brexit but deeply disappointed by leadership. Another leadership failing, that needs addressing, which has affected the North is the amplification/weaponisation of accusations of anti-Semitism (AS) against Labour and the way accusations have been handled internally. As I am Jewish, I did write to Tim Farron, saying that though David Ward in Bradford East said things that could be construed as anti-Semitic, he was certainly no anti-Semite. I was ignored. The Conservative leaning Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD) and the so-called Campaign against AS, who are both more interested in defending the actions of Israel than rooting out genuine AS, prevailed.

    In the Blaydon constituency, one of the GE leaflets was based on accusations of Anti-Semitism against Labour and I did protest, pointing out that the large Charedi Jewish Community in Gateshead (6-8000) do not recognise the BoD and would support Corbyn. We do have an excellent Labour MP, and she was re-elected comfortably. As mentioned by others I feel that leadership tactics in this area were utterly wrong and that we should have been trying to cooperate with Labour, not vilify it.

  • Paul Holmes 19th Apr '20 - 9:47pm

    Max I’m puzzled by your comments. The article proposes a Northern Group and holding discussions about how we can win back people’s support in the North.

    The following comments seem to me to be very much engaging with the questions of why we failed in 2019 (and 2017 and 2015) and how we start to move forward.

    If the starting point is that the electorate ‘just didn’t appreciate’ all Nick Clegg did for them then we will never move forward.

  • Max Wilkinson 20th Apr '20 - 8:23am

    Hi Paul
    I didn’t read the article as being about Nick Clegg. I thought it was a general discussion about the party’s future success in the north. Given that Nick Clegg was an MP in the north and that he lost in 2017, it seems a fair example to use – particularly given the fact that the writer was apparently there when it happened!
    Max

  • Katharine Pindar 21st Apr '20 - 9:47pm

    Just attended the first virtual meeting of the Northern Network Group, one of 75 people doing so on Zoom, and found it an enjoyable and heartening experience. It was well led by Laura Gordon, with a good balance kept between the leaders and contributions from the rest of us, and I particularly liked the flowing chat column you could read and contribute to at the same time as we listened. This is a really good idea. For us in our rather derelict double constituency of Workington and Copeland, it will be a useful spur and contact means, I feel sure. Thank you Laura and colleagues! Good to have our leader in the Lords Dick Newby one of the panel too.

  • Katharine Pindar 21st Apr '20 - 9:53pm

    PS – absolutely agree with Paul Holmes’ assessment of our problems, in his morning comment. Some of that will come out in the Thornhill Review of the GE, I expect, Paul.

  • The issue for me isn’t a North/South split, more Rural/Suburban/Urban split. A lot of our candidates nowadays… seem to be cookie cuttered from central office, and not… of the community, for the community, by the community.

    The result is that I wonder if our powers that be know that… many of the most visible in the party seem… terribly middle class, and have forgotten how to talk “urban working class”.

    The more visible nationally need to sound more David Penhaligon, and act locally more like Simon Hughes or (dare I say it) Mike Hancock, both of whom drilled into me the importance of going out, knocking on doors, finding out what the local issues were and doing something about them.

    Like it or not, that’s the way we’re going to represent people in the future. It’s hard work, but that’s how we’re going to build our future.

  • suzanne fletcher 22nd Apr '20 - 9:03pm

    I am making not comment on the rights and wrongs of Nick Clegg, but to say that I made over 1,000 phone calls in the north in the December 2019 GE. Not one person mentioned NC or anything to do with him.
    Continually pick spots about people in the past helps nobody. learning the broad lessons does. Most important I think is that we are a team of people wanting to move together forwards and upwards. supporting each other on the way. yes we will make mistakes, but demonizing each other ( meaning people in our own party) is just scratching a sore.

  • Well for my part I listed Clegg and Coalition; Revoke and Swinson for PM and a massively over centralised campaign that overwhelmed local candidates and issues.

    So no it certainly isn’t just about Clegg. But in the media debates and interviews that she did get, Jo had to spend an awful lot of effort trying to fend off media questioning and Labour, SNP, Green, Plaid attacks over her role as a Coalition Minister and its legacy.

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