I’ve listened to two speeches in the last few days. One motivated me to redouble my efforts to support a cause I’ve long supported. The other left me depressed and worried about the future direction of our country. It was a rather dry lecture from a philosopher that gave me hope. It was the Prime Minister who gave me cause for worry. Prof AC Grayling told an audience in Bristol that Brexit was a national emergency to which we should respond with all forms of peaceful resistance. Theresa May set out her Brexit plan and it’s much harder to bear than I feared.
After losing my seat in the 2015 general election it would have been easy to have melted into the political background. But the calling of the EU referendum meant that I quickly rediscovered my political mojo. I threw myself into campaigning for a Remain vote in Bristol. I worked with Liberal Democrat colleagues but also was one of the founders of Bristol Stronger In. Working with people from other parties and none was uplifting. But in the early hours of 24th June I was despondent again. The ballot papers in front of me showed that Bristol had voted comfortably (62%) for Remain and my former Bristol West constituency had done so with an emphatic 80% vote. But the TV screens at the counting centre told a different story. Once again I was to leave a count just after dawn with a heavy heart.
What came next took me by surprise. First there was an influx of new members into Bristol Lib Dems. Then I was asked by a Labour member if I would meet with some people who wanted to fight together against the madness of Brexit. In the last six months I have been involved in the growth of a small band of people meeting every Friday evening to plan protest rallies, a march and petitioning. Some of the core group were political animals, most were new to politics. Now Bristol for Europe has over 2000 signed up supporters. At our Saturday street stalls we meet people with a real worry about where our country is going and a desire “to do something” to stop a hard Brexit. There’s also the occasional row with an unforgiving Leaver, which livens things up!
Hundreds of people have turned out to our rallies on Bristol College Green to hear speeches from me and Labour and Green Party representatives. We brought Bristol City Centre to a halt with our march, well supported despite the torrential rain. Last night we held our first evening speaker meeting. I was sceptical as to whether people would turn up to listen to a philosopher and what’s more, pay £5 to get in. But the Lantern Room at Bristol’s Colston hall filled to its 250 capacity and we could have let in many more. The lucky audience got quite a treat.
Prof Anthony Grayling is a well-established philosopher and media commentator. He is Master of the New College of Humanities, a London college set up as a result of the reforms put in place by Vince Cable and David Willets during the Coalition. Being his own boss clearly gives him the freedom to speak clearly and fearlessly, without the “on the one hand and then on the other” guff we often gets from academics worried about institutional reputation.
Grayling certainly spoke his mind. Each sentence was “like a perfectly crafted arrow” directed at our government, as someone put it to me in the bar afterwards. Grayling speaks with a soft voice so a velvet fist might be a better description of his duffing up of Theresa May, her government, the Labour Party and indeed the majority of the political class. His main charge was of the cowardice of Parliament to stand up for its own sovereignty. The referendum was advisory. MPs had been told so by the (superb) House of Commons Library. Now every letter he writes to MPs, asking them to do their jobs, is met with replies of “the country has voted” or “the people have spoken.”
But Grayling believes that the people have not spoken, at least not in sufficient numbers to force MPs to capitulate and wave through Brexit. He quoted the statistic that only 37% of “those given the opportunity to vote” had supported the Leave option. He went on to say that the opportunity to vote was denied to millions of people who would be profoundly affected by the outcome. These included 16 and 17 year olds (many of whom had voted in the Scottish independence referendum) plus EU nationals living in Britain and many British ex-pats living elsewhere in the EU.
So on the basis of an advisory vote that excluded many people and showing minority support for Vote Leave, Grayling said “Britain is being hustled out of the EU with undue haste” by Theresa May’s government. He went on to say that we are all “being hijacked by our own government!”
Grayling believes the rush to the Brexit door is a national emergency. In a democracy those of us who disagree have the right and the responsibility to offer peaceful resistance. He offered three approaches. First, bombard all MPs with letters. He believes MPs and Ministers eventually crumble under the weight of correspondence from angry constituents. Governments, he said, were like the Wizard of Oz, all sound and fury. But behind the Whitehall curtain lurk some less formidable people.
Second, there’s the recourse to law via the courts. At the time of writing we await the Supreme Court’s verdict on whether MPs must be given a vote on the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the opening of our departure negotiations. His third suggestion was less orthodox. He would like to see various forms of civil disobedience. He was not advocating a general strike, as had been reported in the press. Indeed, he joked that many of us in the audience probably did things that might not be missed by the public if we went on strike. Perhaps he thought we were mainly academics…
There is something in Grayling’s third suggestion. He pointed out that the communist regimes in Eastern Europe crumbled in the face of civil disobedience that often started with a regular city centre gathering of dissidents that grew into an unstoppable force. I have explored this with Bristol for Europe colleagues at this week’s meeting. Watch this space!
However, my personal experience makes me doubt the impact of Grayling’s plea for mass letter writing. This may once have been true. In my early years as Bristol West’s MP I read most of the incoming letters. That was because they were usually paper based and signed by a constituent. But soon the volume of emails became too great for me to read more than a selection. The staff team read them all and drafted replies that came from me. Once the likes of 38 Degrees started to bombard MPs’ offices with standard emails and repetitive phone calls I think MPs became immune to the force of numbers and saw it as simple bullying. The Wizard needs a different approach if we are to avert being blown away in a Brexit twister.
After the meeting I advised Anthony that it was far more effective to meet MPs in person, in their surgeries or Central Lobby. Remain supporting MPs will appreciate the personal encouragement. Leavers or those Remainers resigned to the finality of Brexit, need to see the whites of the eyes of constituents whose lives will be blighted by Brexit. He promised to incorporate this advice into his next talk.
Grayling gave me renewed determination to resist Brexit. On Tuesday morning I listened live to Theresa May, speaking at Lancaster House. My mind flashed back to 2014 when I spoke in the same room, as Communities Minister welcoming the President of Bosnia. I spoke of how a war ravaged Europe had come together, how the communist East was now in the EU and that the Balkans were now joining too. Peace and economic prosperity are the huge achievements of the EU.
Theresa May’s vision was rather more bleak. But at least she finally gave us some details of her plan. Her words were so damaging that she has had even more of an effect on me than Grayling. We know now that we are to jump out of the Single Market and probably the Customs Union too. Yet the Prime Minister says she wants a comprehensive free trade deal with the EU. Is she really so blind to the fact that our existing arrangement is the best deal we could possibly hope to secure? She went on to say that we would refuse to abide by European Court rulings on trade rules and that we would not pay (like Norway and Switzerland) for market access. This is a cake and eat it negotiation opening gambit. It will surely be met by a giant raspberry from the other 27 EU members.
So Theresa May’s new mantra is Brexit means Hard Brexit. Those of us who think this is a dangerous threat to the liberties of our citizens and will undermine our national prosperity, cannot stand idly by. Hard Brexit must be met by Hard Resistance.
A shorter version of this blog was published by Lib Dem Voice at http://www.libdemvoice.org/a-tale-of-two-speeches-52995.html
The report of the independent enquiry into Bristol’s year as European Green Capital is a big disappointment. In fact it could be described as limewash, covering over the cracks in the financial credibility of the council and the company it set up to deliver the programme of events in 2015.
It was a year ago that I first started asking questions about how the council and its company, Bristol 2015 Limited, had spent over £8million pounds of taxpayers’ money. I was alerted to the fact that various people had been rebuffed when making quite routine freedom of information requests about the awarding of contracts by the company. The company and the council were refusing to disclose details of expenditure. The vast bulk of the expenditure was financed by a £7m grant from the coalition government. As I had been instrumental in obtaining this grant for Bristol, I had a legitimate reason for putting my own questions to the council. But I got stonewalled too. But I persisted and I was pleased when the new Mayor, Marvin Rees, announced he would appoint an independent person to look at the issues.
Mayor Rees was as good as his word and last November I gave oral and written evidence to retired senior civil servant Steve Bundred. I stressed that my sole concern was the lack of financial transparency. I was always a keen supporter of Bristol Green Capital and the hundreds of activities that it spawned. I just wanted all the facts out in the open.
Unfortunately, today’s report does nothing to clear up concerns about the spending of our money. This may not be Mr Bundred’s fault. He was hampered by terms of reference that did not include the company’s financial practices. In the most telling phrase in the report Bundred admits that his focus was not on the finances but rather it was on “learning from successes.” In other words, he was pronouncing the year itself a great achievement, which I have never doubted, with the finances just a minor issue. Bizarrely, he asserts that “suspicions were wholly unfounded, as the council has subsequently established.” He offers no evidence for the council’s finding that all was sound on the money front.
Bundred does acknowledge the central point of my complaint, that the company should have anticipated requests for transparency. He goes on to say that he beleives that “avoidance of freedom of information responsibilities can never be a legitimate objective of a public body.” This rather leaves hanging in the air the question whether the company was set up expressly to avoid financial scrutiny. He does at least say that future big projects that involve the private sector should have transparency embedded from the start.
So what have we learned? Not very much. We still don’t know who were the beneficiaries of some very lucrative contracts for PR and digital comms. If the money had been spent directly by the council then we would know about every £500. As it is, we are still in the dark. Bundred’s report could have shone a light, recommending that the council publish all the information that it holds. But he didn’t, so all we can hope for now is that some public spirited whistle blower does the right thing.
This is all a great shame. I am proud of the fact that Bristol won the award of green capital. Some great things were done in 2015. Thousands of school children know more about how to live in a sustainable city. Many community groups delivered great local projects. Thousands of people volunteered their time. Sustainability and transparency should go hand in hand. The public expect both from their political leaders. But in 2015 only one of them was delivered.
You can read more about the questions I asked in my blogs in January, February, March and June 2016.
This is the link to Bundred’s report https://www.bristol.gov.uk/bristol-green-capital
One hundred years ago today David Lloyd George became Prime Minister. He was Britain’s greatest radical leader. His liberal radicalism was unchecked by any vestiges of class background and little dimmed by religion. He is, so far, the only Welshman to lead our country (though Cromwell was of Welsh descent) and was the first from humble origins. He stormed the heights from outside the political establishment, without any of the advantages of family background, schooling, wealth or military accomplishment. His ascendancy a hundred years ago, when Britain was at the height of its imperial power, looks all the more remarkable when you look at the backgrounds of most 21st century leaders.
He is remembered for his achievements in both peace and war, unlike his colleague and friend Churchill who has eclipsed him in popular memory but is celebrated solely for his wartime leadership. In peacetime as Chancellor he worked in partnership with Asquith to give us old age pensions and payments for sickness and unemployment, financed by the scheme of national insurance that endures today. As Prime Minister of a war time coalition he delivered votes for all men over 21 and women over 30. He built the first council houses and wanted all new homes to be “fit for heroes”. As a Liberal coalition housing minister myself I visited the Building Research Establishment that he founded.
As Prime Minister during a war crisis he was the most powerful man in the land. The establishment needed his dynamism and leadership, yet he had nothing but contempt for most of them. He paid little heed to their rules of etiquette, having an active sex life outside an otherwise loving and long lasting marriage to Margaret. He railed against the House of Lords when it blocked his 1909 “People’s Budget”, using language about the men “drawn at random from the unemployed” that outraged polite society. Later he would sell peerages and honours to raise money for political funds. A parallel may be drawn with King James I, a ruler from the Celtic fringe who also had little time for English manners.
Lloyd George spent 55 years unbroken service in the House of Commons and was a minister in continuous office from 1905 to 1922. He was ousted at the height of his abilities, with so much more to give but never again given the chance to lead. He was kept out of office as the non-Conservative forces fragmented around Asquith’s pride and stubborn refusal to stand aside and MacDonald’s determination for Labour to supplant the Liberals, at all costs. The 1920s echo nine decades later.
It is a shame that the most significant years of Lloyd George’s career were before the age of film and sound recording. He was a great political showman, taking a pride in his appearance as well as care with his words. His oratory, read today off a printed page and imagining the cadence and style of delivery, is stunning. His ability to deploy words as a political weapon probably owed much to childhood listening to chapel sermons (many from the uncle who brought him up in Llanystumdwy) and close study of fellow political orators. His verbal dexterity may also stem from his bilingualism, with his famous words delivered in his second language.
As a liberal politician from a Welsh background I have always revered Lloyd George. The history books have not always been kind to him, highlighting his sex life, cavalier attitude to money and a tendency for political shiftiness. But which great political career did not feature elements of betrayal and vice? When his nation needed him, with 1916 being as critical a time as 1940, he did not flinch from the task.
There is a song “Lloyd George knew my father” but in my case they certainly never met. But I did have the pleasure of meeting one of his daughters (by his first wife) Lady Olwen Carey Evans. Thirty years ago she was the guest of honour at a Welsh Liberal SDP Alliance conference. She was the oldest attendee and I was the youngest and we were photographed together. Unfortunately I never got a copy. Lloyd George himself, a great moderniser, would have been a star in our current age of social media.
A century after he became Prime Minister David Lloyd George deserves to be remembered as one of the great holders of that office. As a war leader he is up there with Pitt the Younger and Churchill. As a radical reformer he matches Gladstone and surpasses Attlee. Much of what he achieved endures today and all modern liberals, radicals and progressives should celebrate his life and legacy.
Liberals on both sides of the Atlantic will have their heads in their hands today. How on earth could one of the best prepared candidates in American history be defeated by a loud mouthed, pampered extremist with no government experience? On the back of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union 2016 is going to be the year two liberal nightmares became reality.
This is a rude wake up call for every liberal, progressive centre left politician and commentator in the USA and Europe. Liberal and social democrat (let alone socialist) parties and governments are struggling everywhere, with the notable exception of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party government in Canada. Brexit and Trump’s victory has shattered the cosy consensus among the political establishment, including for this purpose the centre right conservative and Christian Democrat parties, that globalisation and mass immigration were necessary and beneficial for all advanced economies. It also exposes the feeling of many people, especially white straight men, that the equal rights given to women and various minorities are a challenge to their status. Many people are fed up with being told what they can’t say and do. Rather like at the end of Gladstone’s great reforming ministry in 1874, the people may have “grown tired of being improved” by their liberal masters.
What are the lessons that must be learned by liberals and other centre left thinkers? I think the main one is that we should listen more to and understand more about people’s concerns, as they feel them and choose to express them. If you are well educated then rapid change in the economy and society is something that you’re well equipped to adapt to. You may even find it exhilarating. But if your formal education stopped at school leaving age then rapid change is more of a challenge. It’s something that alarms you, rather than something that you want to embrace.
Globalisation has brought about a collapse of extractive and manufacturing industries in many communities such as my own native South Wales or Tyneside in north east England. The same is true in parts of Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Trump and Brexit campaigners exploited the resentment that jobs that were once secure and generally well paid had been offshored to China and Eastern Europe. Globalisation has also seen a massive expansion in financial and ancillary services. But these jobs are in London and New York and are for the well-educated. When they had an economic crisis in 2007-10 they were bailed out by the taxpayer. When steel, mining and manufacturing faced a challenge the result was closure, unemployment and boarded up shops.
Liberals need to say loud and clear that they know some groups have been hurt by rapid economic change. An interventionist industrial policy should spread the new jobs that come from the digital economy and other new industries to parts of the country that have felt the loss of traditional jobs. Trump will soon be exposed for not being able to “bring back the jobs” that have been lost to Mexico or China. But if he’s as “smart” as he says then he will put in the infrastructure spending and tax incentives to get new well paid jobs to Detroit and Pittsburgh. In Britain the Coalition government made a start on developing regional centres and Vince Cable developed a series of industrial strategies, seeking to copy Germany. The new Tory government will have to go further to make sure Brexit doesn’t widen Britain’s economic divide.
Liberals also need to appreciate that some people are troubled by the rapid social change of the last few decades. We shouldn’t retreat from advances made for women and minorities. Overt sexism, racism or homophobia must be faced down. But if people complain about housing allocations, school places, waiting to see a doctor or say they don’t like the way some immigrants don’t integrate, then their concerns should not be ignored or dismissed as racist or ignorant. We must understand some people feel that others have seen their status rise while their own self esteem has fallen. In ‘Mississippi Burning’, the film about racism in the deep South, Gene Hackman’s FBI character tells a colleague that his daddy poisoned a black farmer neighbour’s cow as if he “wasn’t better than a negro, who was he better than?” Resentment can lead to prejudice and bad behaviour. But the cause of the resentment needs to be addressed, as well as telling someone that prejudice is wrong.
Finally, the behaviour of liberals themselves has made it easier for demagogues to succeed. Liberals, social democrats and socialists are pretty vicious to each other. If a progressive in government compromises in order to get most of a policy into law or fails to achieve 100% of a manifesto then it must be a betrayal and a sell-out. The British Labour Party in 2016 prefers to be led by the purist Corbyn and largely disowns its most successful leader Tony Blair. Bernie Sanders helped make Hillary Clinton toxic to many young voters.
When the comrades aren’t stabbing each other in the back they like nothing better than to dance on the grave of a liberal. Seeing off progressive rivals is often seen as a higher priority than defeating conservatives. I understand this is jokingly referred to as “business before pleasure” inside Labour. This attitude will make it harder for the Liberal Democrats to defeat the Brexit supporting Tory Zac Goldsmith in the Richmond Park by election. The local green party have behaved more constructively than their American standard bearer Jill Stein whose candidacy in Florida and New Hampshire has helped Trump in the same way as Ralph Nader helped Bush in 2000. We must all learn that belittling and toxifying each other only helps the conservatives in politics.
So if liberals and other progressives are to recover the political initiative then we need to listen to people’s concerns and reassure them where they are valid. When the concerns are wrong or the benefits of globalisation in terms of cost of living, new products and new opportunities are not appreciated then we should redouble efforts to stand up for the benefits of a more open society. We must have credible answers that deal with their anxieties about their social and economic status. And we must find ways of cooperating with like-minded politicians and thinkers, abandoning petty tribalism. If liberals don’t respond quickly to the rise in support for demagogues then the likes of Trump, Farage and Le Pen will set the agenda for the next decade.
Brexit has changed the face of Britain before it even takes effect. An ugly face of our country has been unmasked and dark forces unleashed. The 16 million who voted to Remain in the European Union have been branded traitors by the more hot headed Brexiteers. Foreigners have been abused on public transport and businesses owned by east Europeans have been vandalised. The Home Secretary, who voted remain, announced an outrageous plan to force businesses to draw up lists of non-British employees. Anyone with just the slightest grasp of European history should have alarm bells ringing in their head.
Now the right wing press, cheerleaders for Brexit, has turned its fire on British judges for upholding the right of Parliament to vote on government plans that affect the rights of every British citizen. “Enemies of the People” screams the front page of the Daily Mail, with pictures of the three High Court Justices who ruled that Parliament must vote on the triggering of Article 50, against the wishes of Theresa May’s Brexit-Tory government. The Sun says that a “loaded foreign elite” led by a “foreign born multi-millionaire” are attempting to dictate to the British people. No, the editor has not gone on a suicide mission to attack his Australian born, USA citizen, billionaire media mogul boss Rupert Murdoch. He’s actually attacking Gina Miller, the Guyana born but British citizen and London based fund management entrepreneur who led the legal challenge against the government’s intention to deny MPs a vote on Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. The Express, not to be outdone, says we are in a crisis “as grave as anything since the dark days when Churchill vowed we would fight them on the beaches.”
All three tabloids have a long record of stirring up hatred of foreigners and immigrants. They now must be deliberately trying to deepen the division in society after the vote to leave the EU. Of course judges or anyone else in authority should not be above criticism. Questioning the decisions of our rulers is essential in a liberal democracy. But branding whole groups of people “traitors” or “enemies of the people” comes from the language of totalitarian dictators, not a free press. During the French Revolution, before sending enemies to the guillotine, Robespierre said that the “revolutionary government owes nothing to the enemies of the people but death.” Lenin used much the same language during the Russian Revolution. Our high court judges are, I assume, pretty well protected but others who want to defend the rights of British citizens in the European Union will have no protection from verbal and physical abuse.
A sense of irony is presumably lobotomised out of all tabloid editors, such is their need to pander to all sorts of competing prejudices and conflicting viewpoints. But these are the same papers that took up Boris Johnson’s cry that the referendum was all about “taking back control” from European law makers and European judges, so that the British Parliament became sovereign and only British judges adjudicated on our freedoms. I’m fed up with Theresa May’s parroting of the vacuous “Brexit means Brexit” but surely if Brexit means anything it means Parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of British law?
The three judges were doing their job, upholding British law. The rights and freedoms of British citizens cannot be taken away by the executive, or the “crown” to use its original name. This has been the British constitutional settlement since the 17th century, with Charles I and his second son James II both being despatched in order to establish the sovereignty of Parliament. Our MPs (plus the anachronism of unelected Peers) stand between us and an over-mighty government. The triggering of Article 50 in order to begin the negotiations to leave the European Union is a fundamental act that will affect the rights of every British citizen. Article 50 is a clause of the Treaty of Lisbon. As an MP I voted to ratify that treaty in January 2008. Triggering the clause must surely be done by the government only after it has obtained the authority of Parliament.
Yet we do not know what terms the government is seeking from our current European partners. I for one do not want to be stripped of my European Union passport. It gives me the right to travel freely, without the costs and restrictions of visas, around most of Europe. I don’t want to lose the right to work in Paris or Berlin. I don’t want the children of my friends and family to be stripped of the right to study in Europe. I don’t want the entrepreneurs who make our economy hum to be stripped of access to the world’s largest single market. If Theresa May intends to surrender all of these rights that belong to me and my friends then of course our Parliament must be able to vote on whether those terms are acceptable. I do not understand how anyone can rationally defend a position where a government (which did not have these threats to my freedom in its election manifesto) can contemplate throwing away our rights without authority from Parliament.
Even worse would be keeping us all in the dark about the government’s intentions. Ministers say that this is to protect their negotiating hand. But Brussels is not Las Vegas and my rights are not a game of poker. In a free society we have the right to know what the government is doing in our name and our Parliament has the obligation to defend those rights or at the very least not surrender them without question.
Of course when it comes to it, Mrs May will get her Article 50 trigger through Parliament. Tory MPs will mostly vote for it. Labour MPs, looking over their shoulders at Brexit voting constituents in a majority of their seats, will hold their nose and vote it through. If I were still an MP I would firstly want to bind the government to a negotiation objective that secures the best of the European Union. But if the government were intent on a hard Brexit then I would vote against Article 50 as I believe it would harm the interests of all citizens, including those who voted to leave. As a Liberal Democrat I believe there must be another referendum in 2018 or 2019 on the final deal negotiated by the government.
We are living in dangerous times and it is the duty of all of us who believe in freedom and the rule of law to make our voices heard. I may be branded a “remoaner” or even a traitor but now is not a time for liberals to be bullied into silence.
(This blog has been updated to include the gain of Richmond Park on 1st December 2016)
The Liberal Democrats claim to have thrown the party’s kitchen sink at the Witney by election. Buoyed by the strong showing there they will now throw the whole liberal house at the Richmond Park by election, which is much more promising territory. Victories and strong showings in parliamentary by elections used to be strongly associated with the Liberal Democrats and its predecessor parties. Spectacular gains such as Crosby, Bermondsey and Brent East gave the party a major boost, often rejuvenating flagging political fortunes. But the party last gained a seat in a by election over a decade ago.
Long established Liberal Democrat members will have fond memories of the exhilaration of a by election win, particularly when the campaigns used to get extensive daily TV and newspaper coverage. But with the exception of the false hope brought about by the retention of Eastleigh in 2013, there has been nothing to cheer since the party went into government in 2010. The Witney campaign may be the sign that the party is rediscovering its lost by election magic.
By elections are far more important to the Liberal Democrats than they are to either Labour or the Conservatives. A spectacular by election performance gives the party the oxygen of positive publicity denied to it by the media for most of the electoral cycle. They have given the party victories on the back of strong campaigns against unpopular government policies such as the poll tax in Ribble Valley in 1991 or VAT rises, as in Christchurch in 1993. The victory in Brent East in 2003 showed that the party was right to oppose the Iraq war, giving Tony Blair his first electoral bloody nose. It may well be that the spectre of Brexit will propel the party to victory in Richmond Park. Previous by election wins have given a jolt to party ratings in the opinion polls. The party needs that by election shock therapy more than ever at the moment.
While by election successes are part of the history of the party and a contributor to its perception as a winner by the media, they also leave a strong internal impression. A win obviously leads to a massive morale boost, leading to more people joining and more members becoming active. Success breeds success. The feel good factor is often temporary but a succession of wins such as during the 1990s can build the momentum for sustained success in general elections. Many by elections have been false dawns, damned by that overused post by election phrase, “if this swing were repeated at a general election…”, which of course it can’t be. By elections enable the Liberal Democrats to assemble all its Davids to take sling shots at Goliath. In a general election the concentration of effort cannot be replicated. By election wins have led to false expectations of a party that has fewer people on the ground, less national money and hardly any media friends compared to both the other major parties of government.
By elections assemble people for a common endeavour. The Liberal family comes together, rather like at party conferences but with an immediate practical electoral purpose. Like all family gatherings they can be happy and sad. In the 2010 Parliament they felt like a procession of funerals. In the 2015 Parliament I think that the party, smashed and left for dead in the general election, can quickly recover and by election success will be part of the journey. They can make politics enjoyable again. New members can learn some old campaign tricks and our professional campaign staff will trial new ones. Local council by election wins are already having a positive effect, with over 20 gains since May 2016.
Since 1981 the SDP has gained 4 MPs in by elections, the Liberal Party also 4 and their successor Liberal Democrats have gained 11 prior to Richmond Park. The Liberals have held one and the Lib Dems two. There have also been several near misses, the most recent being Bromley and Chislehurst, lost by just 633 votes in 2006.
I’ve helped in 27 by elections, with Richmond Park now my 28th. My first, by pure chance was in my home seat of Cynon Valley in May 1984. In a safe Labour seat, it doesn’t feature in anybody’s history of significant by elections. But as a 17 year old I was standing in my school mock election as the SDP candidate. I turned up at the SDP campaign office in Aberdare to ask for some posters and a rosette. I was asked if I wanted to try some real campaigning. I was given a clipboard (a piece of wood and a bulldog clip with a pencil attached by string, nothing flash) and told to go and ask the people on the list for whom they intended to vote. This was the beginning and the end of my canvassing training. But I enjoyed it and I’ve now being doing it for 32 years. I’ve trained dozens of new canvassers in my time, hopefully without throwing them straight into the deep end. I also won my school election and then had to wait 9 years before I won a real one!
Here’s my own list of the most significant by elections for the Liberal Democrats and their predecessor parties after the formation of the SDP and the Alliance with the Liberal Party in 1981:
Warrington (16th July 1981)
The first by election since the formation of the SDP and contested by Roy Jenkins, the grandee of the Gang of Four. The Liberal Party had secured only 9% of the vote in the 1979 general election. Having agreed broad terms of a national pact in the previous month, the Liberals stood down, giving Jenkins a free run. The result was an electoral earthquake. Jenkins won 42% of the vote with Labour holding on with just 48%, down from the 62% in the general election. The result propelled the SDP-Liberal Alliance to giddy heights in the opinion polls. Jenkins himself said that though it was his first defeat in an election, it was by far his biggest triumph.
Croydon North West (22nd October 1981)
The Conservative MP Robert Taylor had died before the result of Warrington and the Liberal Party already had a candidate in place, William Henry (known as Bill) Pitt. Bill Pitt had fought the three previous general elections and neither he nor the local Liberal association were willing to stand aside for a new SDP candidate. But Pitt became the beneficiary of the SDP’s national popularity and standing as the candidate of the Liberal Party “with SDP support” he gained the seat with 40% of the vote and a majority of 3,254 over the Tory. In all subsequent by elections until 1988 the SDP and the Liberals fought joint campaigns as the “Alliance”. Pitt proved that by elections could be won by candidates who were not household names. He lost in the 1983 general election by 4,092 votes and by 1996 had joined Labour.
Crosby (26th November 1981)
With Bill Pitt contesting Croydon NW it would fall to the SDP to contest Crosby. The seat was one of the most prosperous in the north west and had been safely Conservative on various boundaries since 1918. The Liberals had been third in 1979 with 15%. The Crosby by election became the vehicle for a triumphant return to Parliament by Shirley Williams. She became the SDP’s first elected MP, winning with 49% of the vote. But the triumph was short lived as Williams lost the seat (on different boundaries) in the subsequent general election.
Glasgow Hillhead (25th March 1982)
After Shirley Williams’s return to Parliament the SDP’s priority was to find Roy Jenkins a berth. Hillhead was in many ways tailor made for him, being the intellectual middle class heart of Glasgow. It was the last remaining toe hold of the Conservatives in the city. On a huge turnout of 76% Jenkins gained the seat, returning to the Commons he had left in 1977 to become President of the European Commission. He was then elected as the first Leader of the SDP. He held the seat in 1983 but lost in 1987 to the odious George Galloway. One of the young SDP volunteers in the by election was Glasgow student Charles Kennedy.
Mitcham and Morden (3rd June 1982)
After Hillhead it seemed that the SDP-Liberal Alliance was on course for a breakthrough at the next election. But just a week later General Leopoldo Galtieri of Argentina shattered that hope. The Falklands War transformed the public impression of Margaret Thatcher and the electoral fortunes of the Conservative Party. Bruce Douglas-Mann must be one of the unluckiest by election candidates. The incumbent Labour MP, he had defected to the SDP but unlike all the other defectors resigned his seat to fight a by election under his new colours. It must have seemed a safe gamble but by polling day the Alliance national opinion poll rating had slumped and the Conservative Angela Rumbold gained the seat, a rare example of a governing party gaining a seat at a by election. Prior to Mitcham it looked as though the Alliance would indeed “break the mould” of British politics as both Labour and the Tories were deeply unpopular. After Mitcham, the progress of the Alliance would be much more of a hard slog.
Bermondsey (24th February 1983)
One of the bitterest by election contests of all time, Bermondsey was a contest between the Liberal Simon Hughes and Peter Tatchell, then seen as a representative of the Labour hard left. The local Labour party split, with the former MP Bob Mellish (Chief Whip under Harold Wilson) backing the “Real Bermondsey Labour” candidate and former Southwark Council Leader John O’Grady. Tatchell was known to be gay and O’Grady used this against him. It is current Labour folklore that the Liberals exploited Tatchell’s sexuality but the homophobia came mainly from O’Grady, with one of his campaign ditties saying that not only was Tatchell an Aussie but he wore his trousers back to front. The result was a 44.2% swing, the biggest by election swing in history, propelling Hughes into the Commons and giving the Alliance a pre general election boost. I met Peter Tatchell several times while I was an MP, sharing several platforms on gay rights. In 2007 we spoke on the same side in an Oxford Union debate, massively defeating the motion that “this house believes that marriage should be between men and women only”, six years before I led for the Liberal Democrats on the legislative stages of gay equal marriage!
Portsmouth South (14th June 1984)
To some, an unexpected gain for the SDP but demonstrating the strength of a candidate well rooted in the constituency, Mike Hancock was a long serving Labour then SDP councillor. Labour’s candidate was a CND supporter, an unpopular stance in the home of the Royal Navy. Hancock’s victory was a boost for the continued independence of the SDP, which had been reduced to just six seats in the 1983 election. He suffered two narrow defeats by just over 200 votes in the 1987 and 1992 elections before returning in 1997. Rather like Bob Russell in Colchester, Hancock was one of the few former Labour working class members of the Lib Dem Parliamentary party, often giving Nick Clegg a hard time at group meetings. The Tory he defeated in 1997, David Martin (uncle of Chris from Coldplay) went on to be defeated by me in Bristol West in 2005.
Brecon and Radnor (4th July 1985)
A huge rural constituency, the largest in England and Wales. The campaign took Liberal Richard Livsey from third in 1983 to first in the by election in a tight three way contest, which saw the incumbent Conservatives drop to third place. On the back of major gains in the May county council elections it returned the Alliance briefly to the heady days of early 1982. But it was another false dawn. For me the by election was my first taste of victory. I had just sat my A levels and the constituency was next to my home of Cynon Valley. Apart from the usual leaflet delivery I also got the chance to tour Radnorshire villages in the broadcast car. Loudspeaker vehicles used to be a normal feature of election campaigns but disappeared (at least for the main parties) by the 1990s. I was selected after an audition conducted by the agent who decided I had the most pleasing Welsh accent. I said what I liked in English but stuck to the script in Welsh. “Good Morning Knighton, Prynhawn da Trefyclawdd” was followed by what passed for the campaign soundbites of the day. It was all very “hi di hi” for politics but great fun making people jump when bellowed at while going about their shopping.
Bootle (24th May 1990)
I include this not as an example of party triumph but as a vital contest in the battle for party survival. After the 1987 general election disappointment (23% of the vote but a joint tally of only 22 MPs) the SDP and Liberal Party merged to form what became known as the Liberal Democrats. A minority of activists and serving and former MPs of both predecessor parties refused to accept the merger and continued to fight elections as the Liberal Party or SDP. Prior to legislation on party names and ballot papers in 2000, nothing could be done to stop them. The upshot was that by elections in the first two years of the 1987-92 Parliament were often contested by three liberal factions. By elections that would have been won with a united candidate were instead thrown away while the Liberal Democrats struggled to establish themselves as the main third party of British politics. Bootle was a rock solid safe Labour seat and the official Liberal Democrat candidate John Cunningham got only 3,179 votes, 8.9% of the total. But the unofficial Liberals and SDP were beaten to just 474 and 155 votes each, with the “SDP” having the added humiliation of being beaten by the Monster Raving Loony Party. After Bootle the Lib Dems were free to make their own luck, though local rumps of liberals and social democrats remained in a handful of councils. The winning Labour MP died from a heart attack just 57 days later, necessitating a second by election.
Eastbourne (18th October 1990)
The by election was caused by the murder of Conservative MP Ian Gow by a car bomb planted by the IRA. But the Conservatives did not receive a sympathy vote. The party was unpopular, seeing huge reversals in the May council elections as a protest against the poll tax. By the autumn the party in the Commons was bitterly divided over Europe. The result was the first by election win for the Liberal Democrats and David Bellotti became the first elected Lib Dem MP, taking just over 50% of the vote. The by election was a massive boost for Paddy Ashdown and the party went on to win two more by elections at Ribble Valley (7th March 1991, Mike Carr probably putting the nail in the coffin of the poll tax) and Kincardine and Deeside (7th November 1991, won by Nicol Stephen) giving the party enough fuel to survive the 1992 general election with 20 Liberal Democrat MPs. Sadly, the three by election winners were not among them.
Newbury (6th May 1993)
The first by election of the 1992 Parliament was a huge defeat for the Conservatives, shorn of their reputation for economic competence after “black Wednesday” and the pound crashing out of the European Exchange Mechanism in September 1992. David Rendel won a massive 37,590 votes, 65% of those cast. This is still the record vote tally for the party, though Winchester (see below) surpassed it in percentage terms. Newbury was the first of a string of by election losses to the Lib Dems and Labour that robbed John Major’s government of its Commons majority. The victory and the scale of it was all the more remarkable as it occurred on a normal May polling day for the county council elections. Liberal Democrat by election wins are usually the result of extraordinary levels of commitment by activists from all over the country. But Lib Dem activists were involved in battles for council seats all over England and Wales. I won my own Cabot ward seat on Avon County Council on the same day but went to Newbury twice. The party made large council gains on the same day. The subsequent three by election wins in Christchurch (29th July 1993, won by Diana Maddock), Eastleigh (9th June 1994, won by David Chidgey) and Littleborough and Saddleworth (27th July 1995, won by Chris Davies) gave the Liberal Democrats bursts of good publicity and continued electoral credibility. They were also important in establishing the importance of tactical voting to defeat the Conservatives, vital in seeing the party win 46 seats in the 1997 general election.
Winchester (20th November 1997)
Mark Oaten had scraped home to victory by just two votes in the 1997 general election, becoming the 46th Liberal Democrat MP elected at that election. The defeated Tory, Gerry Malone, over turned the result with a court challenge. It was a big mistake. The Tories had crashed to a terrible defeat and the new Blair government was in a long honeymoon. The public were in no mood to help out the Tories. Of all the by election campaigns I’ve helped in, Winchester was the most friendly to canvass and easiest to hand out orange diamond window posters. Mark was re-elected with 68% of the votes cast, a Lib Dem record. Next door Romsey (4th May 2000) was the only other Lib Dem win of the 1997 Parliament, with Sandra Gidley joining Oaten and Chidgey in a strong Liberal Democrat corner of Hampshire.
Brent East (18th September 2003)
While previous Alliance and Lib Dem by election triumphs had mainly been at the expense of the Conservatives (Bermondsey and the SDP’s Rosie Barnes in Greenwich being the exceptions) Brent East was a major victory against Labour. It was the first by election loss for Tony Blair’s government and a vindication of Charles Kennedy’s decision to oppose the Iraq war. Sarah Teather went on to become one of the party’s star performers in the media and held the seat in 2005 and its successor (with a massive boundary change) Brent Central in 2010.
Leicester South (15th July 2004)
This by election has its place in Liberal Democrat history as being the only seat so far to elect a non-white Lib Dem MP. Parmjit Singh Gill gained the seat from Labour on a 21% swing, in similar circumstances to Brent East. He did not establish enough of an incumbency advantage to hold the seat at the general election nine months later. On the same day as the by election the Lib Dems came within 460 votes of winning the safe Labour seat of Birmingham Hodge Hill. This was a repeat of the disappointment in May 1986 when the Liberal Alliance candidate Elizabeth Shields won Ryedale in Yorkshire by Chris Walmsley fell short in West Derbyshire by just 100 votes.
Dunfermline and West Fife (9th February 2006)
This was the last by election gain for the Liberal Democrats for a decade and was won in extraordinary and not very promising circumstances. Charles Kennedy had lost the confidence of his Parliamentary colleagues and had resigned as Leader in the first week of January 2006, before the return of Parliament from Christmas recess. The Labour MP for Dunfermline died on the same day. MPs dutifully trooped north to help in the by election, partly to raise our morale and show we were still in business. I recall being freezing cold walking round a snow bound housing estate delivering leaflets with Nick Clegg and Ed Davey as we chatted about how the party could re-establish itself as a serious outfit in the eyes of the public. Ironically, Charles Kennedy himself helped rescue the situation. To his supreme credit, he turned out to help in the election. I walked down the high street with him, surrounded by journalists and cameramen. It was clear that he was still hugely popular with the Scottish public. Willie Rennie pulled off a most unlikely by election win by a party without a leader.
Oldham East and Saddleworth (13th January 2011)
I include this by election as it was the first electoral signal that the Lib Dem decision to form a coalition government with the Conservatives would cause a haemorrhage in support in Labour facing constituencies and among left leaning voters. The reception on the doorsteps from many previous Lib Dem voters was as icy as the winter weather. The election shows the often personal unfairness of politics. The Lib Dem candidate Elwyn Watkins had fallen short by just 103 votes in the 2010 general election. The court overturned the result as Labour MP Phil Woolas was guilty of “knowingly making false statements” in campaign leaflets. In normal circumstances Watkins would have secured the result he had deserved in the general election but Labour held the seat with a majority of 3,558. The Lib Dem vote did in fact increase by 0.3% but this was as a result of huge tactical voting by Conservatives.
Eastleigh (28th February 2013)
A rare by election in a seat held by the party or its predecessors, the last two in this survey being Cheadle in 2005 and Truro in 1987. Triggered by the resignation of Chris Huhne, pleading guilty to motor insurance fraud, the by election was critical to the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats. Support for the party in council elections and other parliamentary by elections had plummeted. Party HQ and nervous MPs clung to the hope that well entrenched incumbent MPs would withstand the fall in support elsewhere. Eastleigh would put this theory to the test. The party made a huge effort, supporting one of the most successful local party machines that had built an overwhelming domination of council seats. Local councillor Mike Thornton came out on top of a tight three way split, with UKIP pushing the Conservatives into third place. MPs and party strategists heaved a sigh of relief. But two years later no amount of local goodwill and incumbency advantage could withstand the tidal wave that swept all but 8 defending Lib Dem MPs out of office, including Thornton. Eastleigh stabilised the party at the mid-point of the coalition but ultimately it gave false hope.
Witney (20th October 2016)
This was the first by election since the days prior to the 2010 coalition formation when the party came together to fight a major campaign, hoping for a strong advance rather than avoiding embarrassment. The shock of the 2015 general election reversal and then the referendum vote to leave the European Union had resulted in an influx of new members into the Liberal Democrats. The Witney by election saw many of these “newbies” join by election stalwarts in trying to pull off a spectacular result in one of the safest Tory seats in the country. For those of us who are by election veterans it indeed felt as positive as the old days and it was a big learning experience for new members. In the end the excellent local candidate Liz Leffman increased the party’s vote share by 23.4% and jumped to second from the miserable fourth place secured in 2015. Witney showed that the voters were once again prepared to switch to the party in large numbers. It was also a major morale boost to the party, showing that the party could, in the right circumstances, win again and even enjoy by election campaigns!
Richmond Park (1st December 2016)
The contest was triggered by Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith resigning after the government announced it was proceeding with a third runway at Heathrow. Goldsmith must have felt confident. He was honouring a campaign promise to resign and fight as an independent and he was cushioned by a 23,000 majority over the Lib Dems in May 2015. But his gamble ended in disaster. The constituency had voted about 70% to remain in the EU, whereas Goldsmith was one of the most ardent Brexit supporters. His 23,000 majority was also flattering and not a real reflection of the strong Liberal Democrat support in the seat going back decades, including three victories in 1997, 2001 and 2005. Buoyed by the huge swing in Witney, and smelling Brexit blood in the water, the party poured in resources. Hundreds of members turned up every day (I went 4 times) to knock on doors and deliver leaflets. While Goldsmith wanted the election to be fought on the single issue of Heathrow the Liberal Democrats focused on resisting a hard Brexit and calling for a new referendum on the eventual deal with the EU. Three parties decided not to field a candidate. The Conservatives and UKIP stood aside to help Goldsmith. The Green Party pulled out to help the Lib Dems in a “progressive alliance”. Labour insisted on standing and no doubt would have preferred a Goldsmith win in order to stymie a Lib Dem revival. The result was a Lib Dem triumph, with Sarah Olney defeating Goldsmith by 20,510 to 18,638 votes and Labour crashing to 1,515 and a lost deposit. Olney was one of the thousands of new members to have joined the party since 2015. Her win will restore the morale of campaign veterans, excite her fellow “newbies” and no doubt lead to a rise in support for the party. It also plots a path back to success for the party, as the clear voice for the 48% who voted to Remain in the EU and probably for a few more who now have doubts about the sense of a hard Brexit.
And finally this is my own by election roll of honour, 28 campaigns, including Richmond Park:
May 1984 Cynon Valley (Lab hold, SDP 2nd)
July 1985 Brecon & Radnor (Liberal gain from Tory)
February 1987 Greenwich (SDP gain from Labour)
February 1989 Pontypridd (Labour hold, Social and Liberal Democrats 4th, continuing SDP 5th)
March 1991 Ribble Valley (Liberal Democrat gain from Conservative)
May 1991 Monmouth (Labour gain from Con, LD 3rd)
May 1993 Newbury (Lib Dem gain from Con)
July 1993 Christchurch (Lib Dem gain from Con)
February 1995 Islwyn (Labour hold, LD 3rd)
July 1995 Littleborough and Saddleworth (Lib Dem gain from Con, Lab 2nd)
November 1997 Winchester (Lib Dem gain from Con after GE result void)
May 2000 Romsey (Lib Dem gain from Con)
November 2001 Ipswich (Labour hold, LD 3rd)
September 2003 Brent East (Lib Dem gain from Labour)
July 2004 Leicester South (Lib Dem gain from Labour)
July 2004 Birmingham Hodge Hill (Labour hold, LD 2nd)
September 2004 Hartlepool (Labour hold, LD 2nd)
July 2005 Cheadle (Lib Dem hold, Con 2nd)
February 2006 Dunfermline and West Fife (Lib Dem gain from Labour)
June 2006 Bromley and Chislehurst (Con hold, LD 2nd)
July 2007 Ealing Southall (Labour hold, LD 3rd)
May 2008 Crewe and Nantwich (Con gain from Labour, LD 3rd)
June 2008 Henley (Con hold, LD 2nd)
July 2009 Norwich North (Con gain from Labour, LD 3rd)
January 2011 Oldham East and Saddleworth (Labour hold, LD 2nd)
February 2013 Eastleigh (Lib Dem hold, UKIP 2nd)
October 2016 Witney (Con Hold, LD 2nd)
December 2016 Richmond Park (Lib Dem gain from Con)
So after a couple of decades of delay, the Conservative government has announced that Heathrow Airport will be expanded with a third runway. This will lead to thousands of extra flights in and out of London, already one of the world’s busiest airports.
This is a terrible decision. It’s bad for the environment as extra flights will lead to more localised pollution and atmospheric damage. Congestion will increase on the M4 and M25. It’s bad for the nations and regions of the UK as yet another infrastructure decision favours London. The economy will be further unbalanced. It’s bad for politics too. The Conservative Party fought the 2010 and 2015 general elections opposing the original Labour plan for a third runway. The Coalition kept that promise. The current Conservative government has a Commons majority and the current and former Prime Minister both made strong personal pledges to block a third runway. People will now become even more cynical about politicians.
I know that Heathrow has problems, running round most of the clock at full capacity. But instead of increasing that capacity, why not reduce the demand for using Heathrow? This could be done in at least three ways:-
1. Divert more flights to regional airports. If I want a direct flight to New York I can’t go from my nearest airports at Bristol or Cardiff. For all the popular long haul destinations I have to go via London Heathrow. Travelling to busy west London is a major inconvenience and is even worse for people from the far south west of England or South Wales. Why can’t we reduce the pressure on Heathrow by having more direct links to the world’s leading hubs from Bristol, Cardiff, Birmingham and Manchester? It would be no threat to Heathrow’s status as one of the world’s hub airports. But it would be a major boost to regional economies outside London and the overheated South East. To force airlines to make the shift and make it attractive to passengers there should be a major tax incentive. Long haul air passenger duty is currently £150 per passenger. Halving it for non South East airports and increasing it for London would surely lead to a major change in behaviour by airlines and passengers.
2. Switch air freight to regional airports. About two thirds of the UK’s import and export of physical goods by air currently goes via Heathrow. This is mad. Smaller goods go in the holds of passanger aircraft so a passenger switch would also facilitate a goods shift. Larger goods with dedicated flights should also be switched, either by a new tax or legislation on landing fees. Again, this would be a major boost to the regional economies outside London, with growth in logistics management.
3. Switching aircraft maintenance away from Heathrow. More capacity could be freed up at Heathrow’s existing two runways and other on the ground facilities if non immediate repairs and maintenance were shifted to other locations. The aircraft maintenance, repairs and overhaul business is worth billions to the UK economy. The West of England and South Wales is already the main alternative to London. Why not switch most of the business to areas that already have a strong engineering skills base in aero-engineering?
There’s a much wider debate about the crazy economics of aviation and the environmental implications of expanding flight capacity. The taxation of aviation fuel, the charging and allocation of landing slots and improvements in air traffic control to reduce delay and excessive fuel burning can all play a part.
But today’s decision to expand Heathrow will lead to more flights in order to justify the billions that will be spent on building a third runway. This will be bad for the UK as a whole, further unbalancing our economy and undermining our climate change reduction obligations. It’s a decision that was avoidable and must now be resisted.