After the 2017 General Election, I wrote a pamphlet for the Social Liberal Forum entitled “Northern Discomfort”. It set out how the Liberal Democrats had advanced in London, South East England and Scotland, but gone backwards in the North of England, the Midlands and Wales. The party also lost three out of its four seats in the North, its only seat in Wales, as well as many of its few remaining second places in these regions too.
Having reviewed the results of last December’s general election, it looks sadly like more Northern Discomfort for the Liberal Democrats, with the party continuing to make very little impact in these parts of the country. Again, the Liberal Democrats only won one seat out of the 303 in the North, Midlands and Wales – Tim Farron’s hold in Westmorland and Lonsdale. Yet, in only our recent past have we been competitive, and elected MPs, in large parts of the North, Midlands and Wales.
This article starts by looking at how bad the situation is for the Liberal Democrats in these areas. It will then examine how we have done well previously in general and local elections and continue to see how the party can do better going forward.
Much was made after the 2019 general election of the Lib Dems securing 91 second places. Whilst this was progress, these second places were heavily concentrated, particularly in affluent southern seats. In just 11 of the 303 seats in the North, Midlands and Wales, did Lib Dems finish second. So, in just 12 of the 303 seats in the North, Midlands and Wales, just under a mere 4%, did Lib Dems finish in the top two places. Given this is an area covering nearly half of all seats in Britain, it is a huge challenge for a party aspiring to be a national force.
In the north we have Tim Farron in place but nowhere else were we in the top two, even in long held Berwick on Tweed (Liberal 1973-2015) the party remains third. There were just three second places in the North West, two seconds in Yorkshire and Humber, four in the West MIdlands and two in Wales. There were no new second places picked up in the entire North of England at this election and our second place in Leeds North West was lost. (And we fell to third in Ceredigion which had been our only Welsh Seat in 2015. Meanwhile in Southport, again a rare seat we had held in 2015 we ended up on just 13.5%).
In the East MIdlands we sadly managed no first or seconds, although in Bosworth we were close (683 votes) to retaking second again. Fortunately, this was not always the case.
2005 was our most successful general election of recent years, when we elected 62 MPs, in seats spread right across Britain. 18 Lib Dem MPs, 29% of the total, came from the North, Midlands and Wales. Whilst in 2005 we came first or second in 96 seats in the North, Midlands and Wales (A third of all the seats in those parts of Britain). In 2010 16 of our 57 MPs (28% of the total) came from the North, Midlands and Wales and we were first or second in 112 seats (37% of all seats in those areas).
So how can we return to these times? Well, the positive news is we have shown we can win in these areas in local elections. Take the East Midlands, for example. Whilst we have no first or second place at Westminster, in local elections we have had success. In the 2019 local elections we held Oadby and Wigston in Leicestershire with a massive majority, gained Hinckley and Bosworth with a comfortable majority, whilst in Chesterfield we gained 9 seats. Elsewhere the party was able to gain councillors and in some places, our first councillors for many years (East Midlands: North East Derbyshire, Broxtowe, Gedling, Bassetlaw etc.)
How can the Liberal Democrats gain councils and councillors in these areas again? In large part through local FOCUS newsletters and other literature. Where we win the literature tends to concentrate on the big issues that concern local people. The state of local services, health services, schools, libraries, Sure Start Children’s Centres, the local environment, youth services, public transport, the state of local roads.
Where we take up the issues that matter to people we can still win. There is no reason why we shouldn’t take the keys to winning local elections and apply them to national campaigning. We must take the issues people are most concerned about and, with a laser like focus, repeat them in our national campaigning.
In the 1997, 2001 and 2005 general elections, we made big breakthroughs because we concentrated on the big issues that mattered to people in our national campaigning. The NHS, schools, policing, the environment, fair taxation, and care for elderly people. Going forwards, to win again right across Britain, we must learn the lessons of these local election wins and past successful general election results. Our national campaigns need to be on the issues that matter most to people in their communities. Often, we have given the perception of a party interested in issues that relatively few people are interested in. We need to change this in our party political broadcasts, national media opportunities and on social media platforms.
This doesn’t mean dropping policies that are only of interest to a small percentage of the population. Issues which may only be of interest to 0.5% of the population still have their place and should still be there in the Liberal Democrat shop where we set out our policies to the public. But we can choose what policies we put front and centre. At times, particularly on the national party’s social media accounts, we concentrate on issues very few voters would consider their main concerns.
As a party we have two groups we need to appeal to to succeed. First, activists who devote many hours a week to the Liberal Democrats. They will rightly expect us to have a broad set of policies encompassing all issues. They want a consistent liberal philosophy to champion and to make it worthwhile going out in the wind and rain and cold delivering leaflets and knocking on doors. But at the same time, we need to appeal to the bulk of voters – to people whose lives are mainly concerned with work, making ends meet, relaxation, family, friends, hobbies and interests (which for most people don’t include party politics). They may pay 15 seconds attention to the Lib Dems. To win their support that 15 seconds, whether its seeing a clip of a Lib Dem on the news, or seeing a tweet from the party account retweeted, or seeing a friend share a Facebook post from the party account, needs to be the Lib Dems talking about things that will matter to them, their family, their community, a message seems to be in touch with their everyday lives, if we are to have a hope of winning their support at election time.
As we again finished fourth behind the SNP in terms of seats, national publicity opportunities will be limited. So when we get them we should ensure we show people that we are in touch with their concerns by concentrating on plans for improving and investing in our NHS, protecting the environment, delivering more police, more support for people struggling on zero hours contracts, improving education and training opportunities for every young person. We have distinctive polices on our NHS and social care, being prepared to call for a penny on income tax to provide much needed resources.
A policy of a pay boost for workers struggling on zero hours contract, as some recompense for the lack of security those jobs provide for many people. The skills wallet for people to access life long learning, so that every person can access up to £10,000 of training throughout their adult lives, giving people the opportunity to obtain vocational qualifications later in life. Plus plans to improve railways and other infrastructure in the regions. These are the kind of policies which can have broad appeal and which we should emphasise at every opportunity. Not only do we have to talk about the issues that most concern people, we need to talk about them in a way that conveys to people that we care about those issues.
In recent years we have shown as Liberal Democrats, we can convey passion about wanting to remain in the European Union or about cultural issues. When we can speak with the same passion, with the same caring intensity about the need to improve the NHS in every community, the need to ensure everyone has the best possible education, the need to ensure every community has the services and infrastructure it needs. Then, and only then, will the average person see the Liberal Democrats as a party that is concerned about them, their family and their communities and consider giving us their support,.
Back in the 1960s, the Liberal Party elected few MPs, but it did build up a base of parliamentary strength for a time in the Scottish Highlands and Borders by highlighting the Tories failure to deliver for those regions and setting out special plans for what the party would do to rejuventate those areas. We should prepare an offer for those areas in the North, Midlands and Wales, in particular where people have lost out and feel left out.
Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have made promises to these communities but can he really be trusted to deliver? We need to set out how we will ensure quality jobs, paying a quality wage, take seriously policies like Universal Basic Income, whose time has perhaps come (and well done to Hull Liberal Democrats for backing this early on).
We must promote infrastructure improvements in these regions (I’ve regularly pushed here in Leicestershire, for the electrification of the Midland Mainline rail service. This could be improved right through the Midlands and up to Sheffield). We should be seen as the party that cares about these areas, their services, their people if we are to have any hope of rebuilding support here.
Appealing across the country doesn’t only mean particular regions but also to all demographics too. As a party, much of our strength in the past was in rural and small town England and Wales. In particular the South West of England often contained many such seats, with relatively low incomes and where Liberals were the main challengers to the Conservatives.
In recent years there has been an argument that we should move away from targeting those seats which contained a lot of older, often leave voting people and where there were fewer degree holders and to move towards targeting more degree heavy, younger, more remain voting, metropolitan areas. The challenge with this approach is not only does it mean the Lib Dems abandoning trying to win again in these seats, but it also risks cementing the Conservatives grip on power or creating the opportunity for a new radical right Brexit Party/UKIP type party breaking through. There are 34 rural/small town Conservative held seats in England and Wales which have:
Either elected or come close to electing, within 3,000 votes, a Liberal Democrat MP since 1997.
Voted Leave in the referendum.
Have not elected a Labour MP since 1945.
These are seats Labour cannot win but Liberal Democrats might. To move away from trying to win these seats will mean either the Conservatives permanently holding them, increasing their chances of retaining power. Alternately, with nature abhorring a vacuum, they could become seats where a Nigel Farage Reform Party will have a chance of creating a two-party competition, with Labour and Lib Dems out of the running. Such outcomes are clearly ones Liberals wish to avoid hence the need to continue to campaign hard to win peoples support and trust in these areas.
Boris Johnson received much mocking when he recently got his cabinet to chant about getting 20,000 more police, 40 new hospitals, 50,000 new nurses. It was however, campaigning genius. He promoted an image of a Conservative government focused on the main issues the public are concerned about. The role of the Liberal Democrats though, is to hoist the Conservative on their own petard. To point out, as is likely, when the Tories fail to deliver these improvements our public services desperately need.
The next election will not likely be until possibly as late as December 2024. By then, the Consevatives wil have been in power for nearly 15 years and for ten years, on their own with no one else to blame. We need to spend that period relentlessly pushing the need for improvements to our NHS and education services, for investment in the regions their infrastructure. We must also demonstrate how Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party has failed to deliver for them.
In order to move ahead, the Liberal Democrat’s national campaigns should learn the lessons of successful local action and become the party people see as the one that cares for them, their families and their communities. For Liberal Democrats to be a serious force in British politics, we must craft an appeal to people in the North of England as well as the South, to Wales as well as Scotland to the Midlands and to London. We must become a party for rural and small town communities, as well as urban and metropolitan ones. In the past, at our most successful, the Liberal Democrats have represented all types of communities in all parts of Britain.
To succeed, we must do so again.
Cllr Michael Mullaney has been a Liberal Democrat member since 2004 and is Leicestershire County Councillor for Hinckley De Montfort and opposition Finance spokesman. Michael’s a Borough Councillor and Cabinet member for Housing and Community Safety on Liberal Democrat run Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council. He was Liberal Democrat PPC for Bosworth in 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2019.