Although a week is a long time in politics, I doubt there is anyone who is politically involved in the UK who can forget election night 2015, when after 5 years of being sat in the baby seat of the Conservatives’ right veering trolley of hardcore austerity and tripled university tuition fees, Nick Clegg led the Liberal Democrats into what can only be described as a “damn-good thrashing”.
And it wasn’t just nobodies who lost their seats, I remember vividly watching as the big names fell… Vince Cable, Danny Alexander, Ed Davey, David Laws, Simon Hughes and Charles Kennedy; all ousted from their seats as polls predicted they would be.
For Simon Wright, elected Lib Dem MP for Norwich South in 2010 it was particularly brutal, as he placed 4th in 2015, down 15.7% and a lot of self-esteem.
Just 8 Lib Dem MPs held on to their seats… and amongst those 8… kept in by tactically voting Conservative and UKIP voters… was a suicidal-looking, resignation-ready Nicholas William Peter Clegg.
I, as I’m sure did many others on the right, watched Lib Dem loss after loss and said to myself and others “well they aren’t going to come back from this”… but alas, it looks like we were wrong!
Under the new leadership of Westmorland and Lonsdale MP Tim Farron, the Lib Dems charged into the EU Referendum firmly in the Remain camp, and I’ll credit them with fighting hard and fighting well. It was however what they did after the referendum that has made for their recent successes. When the vote went for Leave, they watched as UKIP, the Conservatives and more recently Labour charged after the 52% to represent the will of the people… and they saw 48% with no one to vote for, but with a newly-created anger for the political system, the referendum outcome, and most importantly, a desire to vote for change.
As the Lib Dems pushed for a second referendum, and those on the winning side described them along the lines of threats to democracy, betrayers of the working class, London-centric elitists and others name I shan’t put into text, 48% of the voters saw them as championing their views, and soon the votes began to pour in for them.
October 20th 2016 was the first sign for me that “The Fightback” had begun. The Lib Dems took St Mary’s ward in the East Riding of Yorkshire with a 28.7% vote increase, and came within 6’000 of taking David Cameron’s former seat of Witney in the by-election to replace him, an increase of 23.4%. The sceptics claimed it was a fluke, or strong local campaigns, and highlighted that in a Vale of Glamorgan council by-election on the same day, the Lib Dems had only amassed 7 votes (0.8%).
But then came a hit so large it couldn’t simply be ignored… and that hit was the Richmond Park by-election of the 1st December 2016. The Lib Dems’ new poster girl Sarah Olney ousted former Conservative then Independent Brexiteer Zac Goldsmith in his heavily Remain voting seat. Whilst it was wrong to think the result meant we must look again at Brexit, it did mean we must look again at the Lib Dems.
From there the local council gains have been unstoppable; Sunderland, Kettering, West Oxfordshire, Wokingham, Cotswold, North Norfolk the list goes on.
To make it more impressive, the % vote increases aren’t exactly small. West Oxfordshire saw a 34% Lib Dem vote increase, Kettering was 57%, Wokingham 22.6% and Cotswold 40.2%. Stuck in my head the most however was the by-election for the Brinsworth and Catcliffe ward on Rotherham Borough Council, a ward neighbouring where I stood in 2016 and adjacent to my parent’s house in Sitwell. In 2016 it elected 2 Labour councillors and a UKIP councillor, and in the referendum, it was one of the strongest if not the strongest ward for Leave voters.
When Labour councillor Andrew Roddison was forced to stand down because he failed to keep his hands to himself the Lib Dems began to work the ward, whilst Labour and UKIP thought it was a 2-way fight between them. I warned UKIP to focus on the Lib Dems, but they didn’t listen, believing instead that the Lib Dems were fighting for third, and no Lib Dem would be elected in Rotherham now as there hadn’t been this century.
At the count, the votes piled up and the results came in:
UKIP 389; Labour 519; Liberal Democrats 2’000
The Lib Dems had excellent local leaflets, a local candidate and a strong forward moving momentum… UKIP had no momentum and Labour had an extreme left-wing one that they continue to squabble with.
The Liberal Democrats are playing politics to their advantage. They have excellent ground campaigns, know the value of local leaflets and focusing on local issues, and appeal to everyone and anyone. Their leader talks the talk of the 48% and has played the loss of the former cabinet members, some viewed as Tory-Lite, to his advantage.
Until the other parties realise they need to start to fight against the Liberal Democrats to hold power, it is less a Lib Dem fightback… than a Let Dem fightback.
Article by Matthew J Eyre