Recently, an active and experienced Liberal Democrat campaigner challenged me over the party’s messaging on Brexit. He suggested that this was coming across as confused. My first instinct was to defend what we have been doing, but on reflection, I think he has a point. The aim of this article is to ask the question a little more widely.
From the inside
My impression is that the Liberal Democrat parliamentarians and media office have been doing an outstanding job in trying to hold the government to account in the mess over Brexit, and of making people aware of this. I was in the debate at Conference which affirmed the Liberal Democrat policy of seeking a referendum on the deal, and can see the wisdom of this, but can also see that it can need explaining — which is a hostage to fortune.
From the outside
But, I’ve had people on street stalls ask me what our position is before signing a petition for a people’s vote on the final deal. I’ve had people read that text and still want to check that this means they are signing something against Brexit. That comes across as a measure of the anxiety and paralysis Brexit is inducing.
Recently a friend and Liberal Democrat activist showed me an email from Labour Remain — formed at the start of 2018 and claiming significant support. This comes on the back of a survey showing that 78% of Labour members disagree with Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to a referendum on the terms of Brexit How should Liberal Democrats respond?
Brexit is a profound threat to British values, the economy and the very integrity of the United Kingdom. In that sense it needs us all to pull together.
The country is in a crisis. We have been so intertwined with the rest of Europe, for so long, that the referendum result has had a deeply destructive effect on public life. Parliament seems paralised. Andrew Adonis has written of a Brexit-induced “nervous breakdown” in Whitehall. The Conservatives and Labour seem massively dysfunctional. There are stories of moderate councillors in both parties being de-selected. Most of the pro-Remain majority in the Commons is silent or vanquished. My excitement over the formation of Labour Remain is more than a little tempered by the lurch to the Left in their recent National Executive Committee elections and stories of MPs being threatened with de-selection. Faced with Brexit, ths has all the wisdom of re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. We need to think differently.
I don’t claim to know the inside story of Tim Farron’s resignation, but two things are exercising me about the way it is being reported. One is the perception that this is about Christianity being unacceptable in public life (it isn’t). The other is about the changing sense of where things are for LGBT people in public life (much better than they were). The two are entwined because of the suggestions that Tim’s perceived position on LGBT rights and abortion lay behind pressure for him to resign.
I’ve only met Tim Farron once, and am in no position to comment on his actual views on either of these things. I’d be surprised if someone became leader of the Liberal Democrats who was strongly opposed to either of them, but the perception that Tim is lukewarm on gay rights kept coming up in the 2017 General Election campaign. My sense is that it reached the point when there was nothing he could say that would lay this one to rest because denials were being heard as evidence that there was something to deny.
The Christianity bit
There are plenty of Christians who use their faith to legitimate anti-gay positions, and plenty who do the opposite. A particularly affirming moment in the 2015 campaign came when Adrian Hyyrylainen-Trett, LibDem Candidate in Vauxhall, gave an interview in which he spoke candidly of how he had come to be HIV+. It came across my radar when LibDem president Sal Brinton, Vice-Chair of Christians in Parliament, posted a link to it on Facebook, with an expression of her full support for him.
A stream of polls show the wafer-thin support for Brexit edging away. There’s little evidence that Theresa May’s government has a plan for Brexit, never mind a credible one. Meanwhile the political tremors from Trump’s election in the USA are a reminder of the political value of a stable European union.
Over Christmas I spoke with an elderly couple who vote Leave. A months ago they were buoyed up: they had bought the stories from the Leave campaign, been worried about the number of immigrants when they saw a television programme from the place where they grew up (and haven’t visited in a long time), and were excited by the optimistic stories in some of the pro-Brexit papers. Now things are different. They had thought we would be out of the EU as soon as the vote happened — like resigning from a club — and are waking up to the sheer complexity of leaving. They are worried, particularly for young people.
Though it is uncomfortable, there are lessons to be learned from Trump’s campaigning — some about how to be more effective, and some about doing the opposite of Trump, and acting in a way that doesn’t undermine democracy or truth.
The day after the US electoral college chose Donald Trump to be their new president, Huffington Post ran an article on his use of digital campaigning, where Brad Parscale, the digital director of the campaign explains:
The result in the Witney by-election was a substantial swing to the LibDems, jumping from fourth place on 6.8% to second place on 30.2%. Liz Leffman and her team did an outstanding job, and the party was clearly ready to rally to the cause.
Over the next few days there were speculations about what that would mean if replicated at a General Election, with estimates of the number of seats likely to switch from Tory to LibDem put between 26 and 51. The statistician in me is wary of those extrapolations: there are lots of unknowns at by-elections, and British politics is especially turbulent at the moment.
On the other hand, political parties usually spend a long time building up profiles of voters. Lots of volunteers flooding in at the last minute is not a good substitute for that prolonged work, so there is more to the surge in Witney than simply the number of people who came to campaign. In fact, it will be far easier to win back people who voted LibDem in 2010, now they are able to see the difference between the Tories on their own and the Tories in coalition with LibDems.
Grieving is a natural process for dealing with loss. It can be painful. People often also deny reality, which lets us deal with it gradually. Ultimately grief is a healing process which enables people to process losses and move forward in a healthy way. Owning some of the griefs Liberal Democrats have experienced could be important as part of the journey ahead.
As LibDems, we’ve had a lot to grieve in the last few years. Between 2006 and 2015 each local election seemed to bring losses. Some of the compromises of the coalition were painful. The elections to the European Parliament, the General Election and the EU referendum were excruciating.
We shouldn’t let the language of ‘LibDem fightback’ disguise the fact that we have taken a pounding, even as we welcome new members.
It has been an astonishing few weeks: shock waves from the Brexit vote have been echoing round the world, our two largest political parties in turmoil and a string of resignations. The spotlight has been shone on wealth inequalities, racism and xenophobia in British society. As a party, we’re right to be getting things in order in case there is a snap election.
I campaigned for a Remain vote — both as a Liberal Democrat and in Cambridge for Europe. Remaining in the EU is profoundly important for all of us. I very much agree with Tim Farron’s comment made soon after the referendum, that we should campaign to reverse Brexit in the next election, though quite what that means will depend on whether the formal process of leaving under article 50 of the Lisbon treaty has been triggered by then.
Between the start of the year and the referendum I knocked on just over 2100 doors. Each time I have asked the Europe question. What strikes me is how many of those who said they’d vote Leave who were doing this for reasons which had nothing to do with the EU — reasons that were to do with frustrations with life or politicians. When the EU was mentioned, people knew chillingly little about it.