Tag Archives: Liberal Democrats

What on Earth just happened in Sunderland?

What on earth just happened in Sunderland? The Liberal Democrats came from a very poor fourth place to take what had previously been a safe Labour seat on a 40% swing. And this for a pro-remain party in a region that voted 60/40 in favour of Leave. What is going on?

No, you shouldn’t read too much into a single local council by-election, but you can see trends. And it’s looking very, very bad for Labour. Is their strategy of backing a so-called “Hard Brexit” to cut immigration in order to protect their flank against UKIP seeing their pro-remain vote defecting on masse to the Liberal Democrats? Are Labour in the English regions about to go the way of Labour in Scotland?

And today comes the news that Tristram Hunt is leaving Parliament for a more rewarding job elsewhere, forcing a by-election in Stoke-on-Trent Central, a constituency that politically looks a lot like Sunderland in many ways.

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Richmond Park

Congratulations to Sarah Olney for winning the Richmond Park by-election and becoming the first woman Liberal Democrat MP of this Parliament. While it looks like a major upset it’s actually consistent with local government by-election results up and down the country, which have frequently seen 20% swings to the Liberal Democrats.

Commiserations for Labour candidate Christian Wolmar. I’m sure he’s a decent bloke and I respect him as a transport journalist and writer even if we disagree on HS2. But Labour fought a confused campaign with the party leadership on a completely different page than the candidate on the one central issue the election was about. Still, a lost deposit has got to hurt.

Kudos to The Green Party for choosing not to field a candidate in order not to split the vote.

And as for the losing former MP Zac Goldsmith, good riddance to bad rubbish. He forced the election for reasons of personal vanity and got hoisted on his own petard in spectacular fashion. And we haven’t forgotten the awful dog-whistle racism of his losing campaign for Mayor of London. In a year when the populist right has been in the ascendancy, he’s managed to lose twice.

It’s too early to tell how much this one by-election will affect the wider political landscape. It may well succeed in moving the Overton Window slightly further away from a hard Brexit. It at least ought to bring the Liberal Democrats back into the national political conversation. It’s time for the media, especially the BBC, to stop acting as if UKIP were the only third party that matters. While it looked like it would take a generation for the LibDems to recover from the electoral disaster of 2015, politics is far more volatile now, and those who wrote off the party might now have words to eat.

If it’s the start of a national revival for the Liberal Democrats, it’s potentially very, very bad for Labour. Ever since the EU referendum, they have been acting like rabbits in the headlights, unsure of which way to turn. This is a parry whose own electoral base is split; the traditional small-c conservatives working class in their post-industrial heartlands have little in common in either cultural or economic interests with their voters in the cosmopolitan cities. With a resurgent Liberal Democrats on one side and Paul Nuttall’s UKIP targeting the traditional Labour supporters on the other, they cannot triangulate without exposing the opposite flank. They’re probably too entrenched in their strongholds for Scotland-style wipeout, at least on a national basis, but it’s hard to see them as a potential party of government any time soon. Their problems go way, way deeper than their awful leadership.

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Heathrow and Richmond

What’s the difference between HS2 and Heathrow expansion? One is an expensive and environmentally disastrous project that contributes little towards Britain’s transport needs, and the other is a railway line.

I have nothing more to say about Heathrow; I’ve blogged about it before, and my views haven’t changed.

The Richmond by-election, through, is something else. On the surface, it looks bizarre. The sitting Tory MP Zac Goldsmith resigns his seat to fight it as an independent in protest to the Heathrow decision, but the Tory party aren’t putting up a candidate to oppose him, giving him a clear run against the Liberal Democrat challenger. What is going on here?

My best guess is that Theresa May fears a Liberal Democrat revival far more than she fears disloyalty and division within her own party. Richmond is a Liberal Democrat target seat; they held the seat up to the 2010 general election, and will win on the sort of swing we saw in Witney. Richmond is on the doorstep of the London-based media, and a LibDem victory will put the parry and their policies centre stage.

It’s true that a Tory challenger to the disloyal former MP will split the vote and hand the LibDems almost certain victory, so there is a certain tactical logic here. It’s not a safe seat like Clacton. But it does send the message that defying the party won’t be punished that severely. Will that be a decision Theresa May will end up regretting?

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Back in Play?

Even though Liz Leffman didn’t achieve what would have been an improbable victory, the Liberal Democrats still did remarkably well in the Witney by-election. To come from a poor fourth place to a strong second and slashing the Tory majority has put the party back in play in British politics. It’s also heartening to see The Greens beat the repellent UKIP into fifth place.

It’s not an unexpected result either. Although the Liberal Democrats have been stuck in single figures in national opinion polls they’ve been winning council by-elections on double-digit swings all over the country, but especially in Tory heartlands. One or two such victories might be explained away as flukes influenced by local personalities, but there have been enough of them lately to show a clear pattern. The party gets little attention in the national media, but on the ground in actual election campaigns voters are receptive to the party’s message.

The Tories should be worried. Under Theresa May’s leadership they have pivoted into an English nationalist party with the intention of destroying UKIP and peeling working-class social conservatives away from Labour. But that strategy only works in the absence of a viable Liberal Democrat challenge to their opposite flank. There is far lower-hanging fruit that Witney, and a Libdem revival will cost the Tories seats.

David Herdson of Political Betting thinks otherwise, suggesting it’s a reversion to the early 90s with the Libdems merely displacing UKIP as the protest vote party. But it could be more than that; they are the only party with a clear and unambiguous position on what has to be the most important political issue of our time.

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Are the Tectonic Plates of British Politics Shifting?

Jonathan Calder thinks nobody knows anything about British politics any more.

In April I wrote:

“That party membership is such a minority taste now suggests that the 19th-century model of political parties we still embrace is hopelessly outdated.

Yet no politician has the vision or overweening ambition to wrench it apart and allowing something more attuned to our needs today to take its place”.

Party membership is growing again, so I was wrong about that. But maybe the tectonic plates really are moving.

Already, Remain and Leave across the UK, and Yes and No in Scotland, seem more vital and more coherent identities than the old party labels.

There is a high probability of a significant realignment happening within the next few months, and not just on the left. “Left” and “Right” no longer describe the real political faultlines in England, the big divides are more cultural than economic.

Labour is fundamentally split between its middle-class activist base and its working class roots to the point where there is no reason to exoect white working-class small-c conservatives to vote for a party more concerned with middle-class identity politics. And that’s before you throw the cultish behaviour of the old-school hard-left into the mix. Do you really expect people in Rotherham to support a party who seem to care more about Palestine and Venezuela than the north of England?

The Conservatives are just as split, between neo-liberal internationalists and little-England social conservatives, with cultish Randite libertarians mirroring Labour’s Trotskyite left. It may be that Theresa May will win the leadership election and hold the party together in the short term. If Andrea Leadson wins, all bets are off, and the chances of the party splitting are high.

The Liberal Democrats are seeing a surge of membership as one party who do still have a coherent idea of what they actually stand for. But in the longer term will liberal values be served by a small dedicated party, or as a faction with one of the new parties that may emerge from the breakup of Labour and the Tories?

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Election entrail-readings

Britain had mid-term elections on Thursday. Some in the media used the horrible Americanism “Super Thursday” to describe the combination of elections for the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the election for the Mayor of London, local government elections throughout England, and a couple of parliamentary byelections thrown in for good measure.

It was a mixed night for the Liberal Democrats; modest gains in the English council elections and just about holding on in Scotland, but very poor results in London and in Wales. One extrapolation of the results into a possible parliament puts the party on 19 seats, an improvement on the eight in the current parliament, but a long was from the 57 of the last one.  It’s a small step on a very long road to recovery.

It was just as mixed for Labour, with Sadiq Khan roundly defeating the disgusting dog-whistle racism of Zak Goldsmith in London, but at the same time the Scottish Tories have come back from the dead and pushed them into third place in Scotland. Scotland now has very different politics to England, and what was once the dominant party is facing a third-party squeeze. Scotland may be heading towards a two-party system, and Labour won’t be one of them. That has huge implications for British politics as a while.

Writing in Politics.co.uk, Ian Dunt minces no words, and says the zombie result is worst possible outcome for Labour.

So this week’s elections might just be the worst possible result for the party. There’s enough there for Corbyn supporters to pretend everything’s fine and that arguments to the contrary are a product of media conspiracy, but not so much that they might, you know, actually win a general election.

Dunt thinks Labour are dead, but like Zombies, they don’t know it yet.

Meanwhile Jonathan Calder asks why via Labour did surprisingly well in the south of England, and talks of his expreriences campaigning in Richmond & Barnes in the 1983 general election.

On the last weekend of the contest the young activists (this was a long time ago) were sent out to call on the Labour supporters identified in our canvass and ask them to consider a tactical vote for the Liberals.

This approach received two distinct reactions. Working class voters were generally happy to consider the idea, even if they had a Labour posters in their window.

Middle-class Labour voters, typically teachers, however, were often offended to be asked. You had to vote for what you believed, they told me, even if your candidate had no chance of winning.

It is this second group of voters, I suspect, that Jeremy Corbyn appeals to. Which means that he may well be surprisingly successful in maintaining his party’s Southern outposts.

But it also means that he may struggle to resist the appeal of Ukip to working-class Labour voters.

And speaking of UKIP. reports of their death appear to have been premature. Seven seats in the Welsh Assembly and second places in both byelections suggest that their rightwing populism is going to be around as long as nobody else is willing to address the concerns of the traditional working-class vote. More ominously, the odious BNP came within a whisker of winning a council seat in Pendle, Lancashire, which went to the Tories with Labour a distant third.

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Will Oldham be Labour’s Eastleigh?

The Oldham by-election is going to be interesting. I’m not going to try and predict the result; maybe Labour will hold on with a much-reduced majority, or maybe Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour will get a very bloody nose at the hands of UKIP. Labour activists are speaking of his unpopularity on the doorsteps, and some Corbyn loyalists are shooting the messenger. Labour Twitter is ugly at the moment.

But even if Labour hold on, it will still be their Eastleigh.

Eastleigh, if you remember, was the by-election following Chris Huhne’s resignation, narrowly retained by the Liberal Democrats with the help of the opposing vote being split. But it was a pyrrhic victory, which allowed the party to remain in denial about the electoral consequences of coalition with the Tories and sleepwalk into electoral disaster this May.

A defeat at the hands of UKIP might actually be better for Labour, and for Britain.

Even though the Liberal Democrats have no chance of winning, they’re still taking this by-election seriously. This is a constituency where they came second in 2010, only to fall to fourth in 2015. If they manage to increase the share of the vote it will be a sign of the party’s slow recovery. It’s not inconceivable that they might even push the Tories into fourth place, especially if UKIP manages to squeeze the Tory vote.

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Why I voted for Tim Farron

So Tim Farron has been elected as the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, and the long and difficult job of rebuilding the party following the catastrophic near wipeout in the last general election begins.

There’s a massive contrast between the Liberal Democrat leadership election and that of the Labour Party. The refrain we kept hearing from both Tim Farron’s and Norman Lamb’s supporters was “Both of them would make excellent leaders but our candidate will be better”. Compare that with Labour’s “The party is doomed if that other candidate wins”. The Liberal Democrats, unlike Labour, do have a clear vision of what sort of party they want to be.

It was a difficult choice between two very good candidates, but in the end I voted for Tim Farron. One deciding issue for me was his faith. There were one or two dark whispers early on in the campaign that his Anglican faith made him unfit for leadership of a party devoted to liberal values. For me the very idea that religion is a relic from a superstitious past that must be purged from public life is a profoundly illiberal concept.

The last Parliament saw the historic equal marriage act, which represented an unprecedented liberal shift in the Overton Window. But since then there have been situations that have bought the gay community into conflict with conservative religious groups. The extent to which different communities should have the right to express their own identity and the extent to which they should be required to respect one another’s spaces isn’t as clear cut as some people would make out. Would not somebody who is both a committed Liberal and a Christian be in a better position to recognise where the boundaries lie?

We live in a time when large parts of the left have fallen into a dangerous authoritarianism for whom a vaguely-defined freedom from offence trumps freedom of speech, and sometimes competing sectarianisms seek to drive each other from the public square. A party committed to liberal values must oppose these sorts of zero-sum identity politics, and prevent the right from positioning themselves as the sole champions of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Sometimes it is the liberal thing to defend an unpopular minority against the tyranny of the majority.

So, congratulations for Tim Farron as the newly-elected leader of the Liberal Democrats. It’s a long and difficult road ahead for the party, but he is the right person to lead the party along it.

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What now for the Liberal Democrats?

The result of the 2015 General Election are taking a long time to sink in, especially if you have been a lifelong supporter of the Liberal Democrats.

All my adult life I’d seen the Liberal Democrats, and the Liberals before them slowly but steadily grow in strength. There were setbacks of course; for years the party was good at winning byelections in seats that proved impossible to retain in the following general elections. But they slowly built up from a dozen or so seats in the 1970s to more than 60 MPs in 2005. To see them reduced to single figures is heartbreaking. And the tragedy is that while nobody seemed to see it coming, it was all too obvious in retrospect.

Yes, they made tactical errors in their campaign, failing to emphasise core Liberal values, and let the two bigger parties squeeze their support. It became obvious just how many of their seats had only been held over the years though tactical voting by natural Labour supporters. Once those voters had enough and went back home, swathes of formerly orange parts of England and Wales went blue. And no party survived the SNP steamroller in Scotland. Continue reading

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Time for Nick Clegg to go?

Now that they’ve had a big enough bite of the reality sandwich to go down with severe food poisoning, one or two Liberal Democrats are finally starting to get it. As reported in The Guardian.

In a sign that unease is spreading to normally loyal MPs, Sir Nick Harvey, who was sacked as a defence minister in a reshuffle in 2012, called on the party to put more distance between the Lib Dems and the Tories.

Harvey told The World at One on BBC Radio 4: “There is a perception on the part of voters that we have got ourselves too embroiled with the Conservatives. When they look at things like the NHS changes, Michael Gove out on adventures in the education field; when they look at some of the more draconian benefit cuts, people are asking themselves if there is a point having the Lib Dems in the government. Surely it is to stop some of these things happening.

“We must be willing to say no to the Tories more. When you have a coalition between a larger party and a smaller one it is difficult for the small party to make the larger party do things it doesn’t want to do. But it should be relatively easy to stop it from doing things we don’t want it to do. That does mean that we need to be more willing to say no.”

Yes, Nick Clegg. Nick Harvey has correctly identified why this previously lifelong Liberal Democrat (and Liberal before that) voter supported The Greens in this election. Privatising the NHS, Gove’s reactionary philistinism and the petty vindictiveness of Ian Duncan-Smith’s benefit changes are anathema to the sorts of people who have traditionally voted for your party.

Over to you…

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