Where are the Liberal Democrat journalists?

As a nation, we are pluralist, but the print media seem to be lagging 20 years behind.

As a fellow sufferer, I love the Catherine Tate sketch where people are in a refuge for redheads called Russet Lodge. If you are a journalist who is a card-carrying member of the Liberal Democrats, I think it must be similar.

"No wonder," I hear you scream. "It is a result of the utter betrayal of the past year." But this blog is about the past 20 years. So let me ask just one simple question. Given that roughly one in five people has supported the Liberal Democrats, or their predecessor parties, over the past 20 years, where are the well-known Liberal Democrat columnists? Why have editors passed up the opportunity of hiring one?

Halfway through the 2010 general election someone at editorial level of a broadsheet phoned me. "I need to understand about the Liberal Democrats, their philosophical base, how they got here, where they are in policy terms." I instantly sent him in the direction of Julian Astle, who at the time was director of CentreForum, the liberal think tank.

I admired this journalist for his honesty and for his genuine interest. I think that many opinion-forming journalists, pre-2010, had a tendency to consider us useful only when we were a moderate influence on Labour's excesses on civil liberties or constitutional reform. They rarely took a good look at us for what we were in our own right: a party with a strong philosophical base of liberalism, however heated the debate between the "social" and "market" strands.

The dismissive approach of the papers on the right barely needs explanation. Or rather, it was explained by David Yelland, in a brilliant piece written during the election. The sense from him was that if the Liberal Democrats ever got into power, editors would have no idea who to pick up the phone to, although his account includes a bit of exaggeration.

Always take the weather with you

When I asked on Twitter for people to name a columnist at a paper who is the Liberal Democrat equivalent of Daniel Finkelstein at the Times, or Kevin Maguire at the Mirror, there were no answers.

Someone mentioned David Mitchell, another Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, but neither matches what I am talking about.

I do not mean someone who views us as a tactical convenience. I mean a fully declared, card-carrying member of a political party – it may be an often critical friend, but one who will continue to support and explain that party, through thick and thin.

For the Tories: Matthew Parris, Andrew Pierce, Matthew d'Ancona, Fraser Nelson – the list is endless. For Labour, there's Jackie Ashley, Polly Toynbee, Steve Richards and others. Of course, there are those who are rabidly opposed to all parties, those who are truly objective, and those who follow the political weather, snuggling up nicely to the next lot in power in order to ensure that they have good access with each new government.

Right now, I can think of five journalists, all working in print media, all of whom at some point have been part of the Liberal Democrat party, but who would run a million miles before declaring themselves long-term supporters. Is it that career-destroying? Or is it, as I suspect, a sad fact that while the UK has moved to a scenario where we are a pluralist nation, the print media remain 20 years behind?

Therefore, credit to the Telegraph, which currently has Julian Astle blogging for it, and to the New Statesman, which asked me to give the Liberal Democrat view, and to the FT, which publishes Miranda Green. But we are rarely in print. (By the way, this is not a pitch for a column – I struggle to keep up with my small commitment to this blog. It's a pitch for others.)

No wonder that, when we are written about, by columnists from other parties, our story is viewed through red or blue-tinted spectacles, never yellow. Inevitably, it rarely reads well.

So this is a direct question to the editors of all the print media. You employ people from Labour or the Conservatives, who then appear in the broadcast media with insights about their respective parties. Why no Liberal Democrats? It can't be that difficult, especially when you have a readership that's gone beyond the two-party system.

Come on, Alan, Simon, James, Tony and Lionel. Isn't it time you caught up?

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.