Whither the Withered?

19 December 2019

Whither the Withered?

Do the Lib Dems have a future?

By Richard Pooley

photo Robin Boag

It pains me to write it but the best result for the Liberal Democratic Party in the General Election was Jo Swinson losing her seat of East Dunbartonshire.  The worst result for the Lib Dems, though probably not for the country, was the Tories being returned with a massive majority.

That first sentence will probably have any of the forty or so Lib Dems with whom I campaigned in the two seats of Bath and North East Somerset firing off rude messages to me as soon as they read this.  I ask them to stay their fingers and thumbs at least until they have got to the end of the article.

It was an awful night for us.  At the beginning of the election, in a Somerset pub in the company of several Lib Dem canvassers, I predicted the Lib Dems would win 30 seats, up 9 from the 21 we started with if those who had joined from other parties in the past few months are included.  Mine was the lowest prediction by far.  In fact we ended up with 11 MPs, one fewer than we got at the 2017 election and only 3 more than in the 2015 election.

So, what went wrong?  The policy, the strategy and, above all, the leader.

The policy of revoking Article 50 and so remaining in the European Union in the event of a majority Lib Dem government required the electorate first to accept the impossible and then to go through a series of “If then’s”.  “If the Lib Dems win more than 325 seats, we will then have a mandate from the people to revoke Article 50, thus cancelling Brexit and remaining in the EU”.  Try saying that on the doorstep.  Yes, I had a few people tell me that this policy was undemocratic; we were ignoring the result of the 2016 Referendum.  Occasionally, I countered that it was not undemocratic if we had persuaded a majority of people to overturn this decision by voting us into office.  But again, try saying that on the doorstep and not getting a derisive shake of the head.  “It’s not going to happen, mate.  I want to remain too.  But you aren’t going to be the Government, are you?”.

This policy was pushed through by Jo Swinson against the advice of two of her predecessors, Vince Cable and Tim Farron (remember him? The good Christian increased his majority over the Conservatives from 777 to 1,934 and so kept orange that large blob on the electoral map in the north-west – Westmoreland and Lonsdale).  If we had stuck to “Vote for us and you’ll have the chance to vote again on Brexit”, we would have won over far more Remainers in London and the South.

Jo Swinson managed to negotiate a pact with Plaid Cymru and the Green Party to avoid splitting the Remain vote in some seats.  This helped us in Bath where the Greens are strong.  In 2015 their 12% vote share was probably the main reason the Tories took the seat from the Lib Dems.  We squeezed them in 2017 and won the seat back.  This time the Green Party stepped down and Wera Hobhouse increased her majority to 12,322 with one of the highest turnouts in the country (77.1%).

But nationally the Lib Dems and Labour could not agree on a pro-Remain pact.  I experienced the consequence first-hand in Jacob Rees Mogg’s seat of North East Somerset.  Labour had come second to him in the last election and hence local Momentum activists dismissed the idea that the Lib Dems, a further 14,296 votes back, could overtake both them and him.  What’s more, much of the constituency pre-2010, centred on the old Somerset Coalfield, had been rock-solid Labour.  The 18-month work by our candidate, Nick Coates, knocking on thousands of doors, had led to a sweeping Lib Dem victory this year in the local and European elections.  We fooled ourselves into believing that only if Labour got out of the way we could get rid of Mogg too.  Momentum did let slip ten days before polling day that they were going to focus on a seat in nearby Bristol.  Too late.  Mogg returned to Parliament with a slightly reduced majority and Labour just pipped us to second place.

This went on throughout southern England.  Most painful for those like me who saw in him a future Lib Dem leader, Chuka Umunna came second to the Tories in the Cities of London and Westminster, one of the most Remain-voting seats in the country.  The combined Lib Dem/Labour/Green vote was 8039 more than Conservative Vickie Aiken’s winning 17,049.  Labour had not stepped down because they had always beaten the Lib Dems into third place in the seat and were certainly not going to make way for a Labour renegade.  The Lib Dems argued that the charismatic Umunna would attract Tory Remainers who could never bring themselves to vote for Corbyn’s Labour Party.  Thanks, said Ms Aiken.

One particular event early on in the campaign showed how out of touch with reality (and many of her own party members) Jo Swinson was.  Rosie Duffield, an ardent Remain-supporting Labour MP who had worked closely with Swinson in the People’s Vote campaign, was sitting on a majority of just 187 in Canterbury.  The Lib Dem candidate, Tim Walker, stepped down on 12 November, saying he feared splitting the Remain vote and letting the Tories win.  Swinson, furious at such sensible independent thought, insisted on replacing him, even though the Green candidate had also withdrawn.  Duffield increased her majority to 1836 while the Lib Dem vote tanked.  The Lib Dem peer who ran our campaign in North East Somerset, a prominent financial backer of the party, wrote the following to us canvassers on the morning of Friday, December 13: “I’m just leaving… going back to the warm comfort of Rosie Duffield’s Canterbury seat in a few hours.”  Unlike many of the younger members of his team, he expressed no remorse at Swinson’s departure.

Jo Swinson has many qualities.  She is bright, ambitious and principled.  She was devoted to her constituents, some of whom she has known all her life.  She worked hard to find solutions to their problems, even in the period between 2015 and 2017 when she was not their MP.  She will want to continue to do so, perhaps as a Lib Dem peer.  It might be better for her sanity though if she were to do something else completely and stay in Scotland to fight for the union.  Not the European one but the British one.  If so, she will need to have a makeover.  Her speaking style is dire.  She is shrill and waves her arms around in a way that has even sympathetic cartoonists draw her as a scarecrow.  “She was squawking like a demented hen”, was how my 92-year old, Tory-voting mother-in-law described one of Swinson’s television performances.  She also seemed unprepared for her interviews.  Surely she knew she would be attacked for the decisions she took when a junior minister in the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government.  But instead of putting a positive gloss on them and arguing how much Lib Dems like her had steered the Tories towards doing good things on tax, education and the environment, she came across as defensive and apologetic.  Ed Davey, now our temporary co-leader and the man who I backed to become leader in July, wrote in a message to party members on Tuesday that he just wished that “Jo had had the chance to debate Johnson and Corbyn: the election result would have been very different.”  Yes, Ed, we’d have even fewer seats.  I tried early on to discover if she had had any coaching. It appears not.  Worse, nobody I spoke to thought it was necessary.

The title of this piece suggests that it would mostly be about the future of the Lib Dems.  But it is clear that if the Lib Dems are to return to being relevant on the national stage we must learn from what went wrong in this election.  As you may have picked up from the foregoing I am not sure we will.

Swinson’s successor will be elected by party members early in 2020.  Sadly, the pool of candidates, the eleven MPs, is very shallow.  Luckily, the process will be largely ignored by the media.  The Lib Dems can choose in peace.  I like the look, sound and background (12 years a police officer) of Wendy Chamberlain, the new MP for North East Fife.  But her seat is still highly marginal; she turned an SNP majority of 2 into a Lib Dem majority of 1316.  And will Scotland still be part of the UK when the next election comes in five years time?  The clever thing to do would be to change the rules and allow any party member to stand.  Those who argue that a leader outside Parliament would have no power have not woken up to the fact that no Lib Dem MP will have any real influence for the next five years.  And have they forgotten the influence on events wielded by a certain Nigel Farage over the past decade?

Whoever becomes leader will need to lead a debate to decide what the party stands for and believes in. We can no longer be the Party of Europe.  If there is an urge to campaign to rejoin the EU, it should be resisted mighty hard.  The Remain cause is lost.  Let’s see what Brexit really means and watch what the EU does to reform itself.  Any Rejoin movement needs at least ten years’ gestation.

I am one among some 120,000 Lib Dem members, many of whom have just campaigned and voted in their first general election.  If the angry and despairing messages of these young people that I have seen are any guide, then good old Proportional Representation will be high on the Lib Dem wish list.  It always is.  And it matters not a jot to most voters.

We should wrap ourselves in the Union flag for at least as long as the union holds.  Boris Johnson may claim to be a One Nation Tory but his nation still looks like England alone.  Despite Swinson’s loss, the Lib Dem vote went up across Scotland, while the blue one dropped.  How certain are Scottish Tories that their party still can truly be called the Conservative and Unionist one?  Look how Johnson repaid Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists’ support.

I would like to see the Lib Dems argue for much greater power to be returned to local authorities.  Council Tax needs to be completely reformed and local government to be given much more financial clout.  Both Labour and Conservative have always been London-centrists.  Take back control from Westminster anyone?

But, in truth, the Lib Dems route out of irrelevance is out of our hands.  If, as so many commentators think, Johnson uses his majority to ignore the hard Brexiteers in the European Research Group and come up with a trade deal with the EU which binds us close to them, and, at the same time, pours taxpayers’ money into the infrastructure and surviving factories of the Midlands and North, thus preserving the jobs of his new friends in Wrexham, Sedgefield and Bolsover, why should any current Tory voter switch allegiance to the Lib Dems next time round?  And if Labour realise the only way they will get back into power is if they choose a leader who is a leader and not just a great campaigner (oh yes, do not deny Corbyn was that) and moderate their policies somewhat (but not too much; many of them are highly popular), why should any current or traditional Labour voter put a cross in the Lib Dem candidate’s box?

The Lib Dem hope must be that either one or both main parties don’t take these paths.  In the meantime we should embrace our irrelevance, tolerate being ignored or patronised, and decide what we really believe in and hence what our policies ought to be.  It could be fun.

Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année


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