It feels as if we are in a very different place from this time last year. Sophie Bell’s super victory in the Watton-at-Stone by election means there is now an oppostion party on East Herts District Council. In Sawbridgeworth, Annelise Berendt Furnace has been doing a brilliant job on the Town Council. Seeing what she’s done in that role, the people of Sawbridgeworth would be daft not to elect her to the District Council in May. The action day in support of David Payne in Goffs Oak on Saturday is another step along the way — in the last elections there we’d gone from fourth to second and are working hard to go further. I won’t be at that action day — instead I’ll be with the people canvassing as part of Terence Becket’s campaign in the by election in Meads ward, Bishop’s Stortford — another place where we have a real prospect. Plans are coming along well for the District Council elections in May.
Those with longer memories can think back to a time when we had many more councillors here. We were hit hard by the loss in popularity that resulted from the coalition. When the coalition was formed, it was obvious that the fallout of the financial crash meant that the country needed a stable government. It was also obvious that we would pay a heavy price at the ballot box. I am proud of the way in which we put the national interest ahead of party interest. With the mess going on now around Brexit, I wish the front benches of the Conservatives and Labour would do the same.
For me, the EU agenda and the local one go together. As Liberals we seek power to give it away. We think that decisions are best made as close as possible to the people affected by them. That’s why local councils and local elections matter. The time when that becomes difficult is when there is a big external threat — whether that is the threat of war, or economic shock.
In the EU we have something that brings us together across the continent, drawing on our shared values, even if that does include the legacy of fighting with each other: the two world wars make most sense if they are thought of as having the brutality of civil wars — civil wars within Europe. There’s a story that all the key figures in the founding of what is now the EU had either themselves fought in the battle of Verdun, or had fathers who had fought there. It was a project to make “never again” real. There’s something deeply saddening about people celebrating the centenary of the end of the Great War while trying to extract us from the body that exists to stop it happening again.
Economically, we face turbulent times. We are far better placed to face those from the inside of the world’s largest single market.
Our local elections matter. They matter as the place where local democracy can happen, thanks to the peace and stability brought by the EU. It is a big mistake to imagine that threatening that would do anything other than disempower local people — including the ones who voted Leave because they already felt disempowered.
In his resignation letter, Andrew Adonis spoke of a “Brexit-induced nervous breakdown in Whitehall”. The only sense in which I disagree with that is that I don’t think the nervous breakdown is confined to Whitehall. It’s a scary time.
On Friday I was at a conference where several people asked me my prediction of how the Brexit crisis resolves itself. Recalling John Major’s words that this is the biggest peacetime crisis in a very long time, I said the path I was hoping for was a government of national unity under Ken Clark. At the end of her keynote speech to the conference, Gina Miller said the same thing.
Yesterday, Jo Johnson gave a speech in the House of Commons which challenged the government to release its reports on the likely economic impact of Theresa May’s Brexit deal, a no-deal Brexit, and remaining in the EU, and to lay those choices before the British people in a People’s Vote. His words were wise, and had the manner of a statesman. I found myself wondering if I had just heard our next Prime Minister.
In London this afternoon, I was seeing the Evening Standard headline about pressure now on both Labour and Conservative front benches over the People’s Vote. The news feed on my phone showed something from the New European suggesting that many of the leading Brexiteers had seen it all as a political game which they had not expected to win. That’s shameful. Most of those are Tories. This should make them unelectable. But for them to be unelectable, we need to be there as the alternative.
But the news feed to my phone also brought an article saying there had been a marked increase in the prescribing of anti-depressants since the referendum. That’s a stark reminder of the harm it is doing.
What can we do?
Part of the answer is to focus on the local. Getting good people elected as councillors matters whatever happens over Brexit. But if the Tories are to become unelectable over this fiasco it needs there to be another party to be there: we need to be the credible alternative. But in the very near future, being likely to take seats off the Tories at the next election should encourage them to think again. The ideal is that, when Conservative Central Office rings up their local party, they discover that they are worried.
There’s talk of a People’s Vote and of a General Election. Of the two, my instinct is that the People’s Vote is more likely, not least because the chaos over Brexit would make it hard
for any party to fight a credible election campaign. But we must be ready for either.
If we are facing a People’s Vote, then normal Liberal Democrat targeting would need to happen differently. As all votes count equally, it will be in places like Hertford and Stortford that we can make a big difference because people are less used to hearing from us.
But the mechanics are complicated. It took a year to draw up the legislation for the 2016 referendum. It could take a similar time now, particularly if there’s energy to sort out some of the problems with that referendum. But there is also a case for running on the same rules — and the urgency of the Brexit process might force that.
If we are running on the same rules, then a key part of that stops co-operation between campaigns. In 2016 that was a rule that we followed scrupulously, and Leave didn’t. I anticipate that means using Connect data to knock on doors as Liberal Democrats. That will challenge us to do as much as we can here.
And a General Election? I don’t think a General Election now would be wise, but things are so unstable at the moment that that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. The DUP haven’t formally ended their arrangement with the Tories, but haven’t been voting with them recently. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act doesn’t make this as unstable as it would have been previously, but it’s still a very fragile situation.
The present chaos means we need to attend to the local and be prepared for a People’s Vote or a General Election. But looking outside that immediate crisis, the deep divisions exposed by the referendum have not gone away. If anything, the government’s focus on Brexit rather than this makes the situation worse. Lots of Liberal Democrat policies speak directly to this, from a commitment to devolving power away from London, to promoting a vision where we are “not enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”, to listening to those struggling to get by. There is a lot to do. The hope is that, on the other side of the shambles that is the Tory Brexit, there is scope for Liberal Democrat values to improve life in the UK.