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The Lib Dem fightback comes to Brexitland

Liberal Democrats are performing well in Leave-heavy neighbourhoods in north-east England, while struggling in Cornwall, their old stomping ground.

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In 1970s England, independent candidates regularly won local government elections. Whether in Wivenhoe, Witney or Whitby, established parties were often nowhere to be seen. It was an ode to the power of personality politics at the time, and reflected a valuable feeling of hyper-local “connectedness”: you knew who was standing, even if you were an apathetic sort.

The professionalisation of politics has made it harder for lone, personality-driven independents to make an impact in local elections. However, candidates from major parties remain keen to evoke the hyper-local spirit of their pothole-pointing independent predecessors. 

Building broader traction at a hyper-local level is a tactic that has benefited the Liberal Democrats in the past and, according to those on the ground, may now lead to success in Sunderland, one of Brexit’s most emphatic backers.

John Ault, a former Lib Dem campaigner and election observer, has written and lectured extensively on the subject and why it matters. In one of his works on pounding the pavement, Liberal Democrats in Cornwall – Culture, Character or Campaigns?, Ault notes “constituency campaigning matters more to parties breaking into the postwar duopoly than early political scientists have suggested”.

“Community politics”, he said, was the "foundation" of Lib Dem success in Cornwall.

Ault writes that local campaigning helps in areas when there’s a local personality or champion involved, and a strong regional identity – something Cornwall, or cities such as Liverpool, undoubtedly have.

But that local energy, he said, needs to be more than just intensive door-knocking during the election season; it needs to feel present all year. In his book he cites data showing that numerous leaflet drops outside election time have a significant uplift in potential voting intention for a party.

An appearance of being relevant all year round goes a long way to winning elections, but these local campaigns are only successful as long as voters are willing to hear them out. 

If the Liberal Democrats’ success in Cornwall is a good example of how a party can build support from a very small base, it is also a warning against complacency. The council, which was solidly Lib Dem from the late 1980s until the late 2000s, is currently controlled by a coalition between the Lib Dems and independents, with the Conservatives being the largest party. 

On 6 May this shift could result in a loss of control. Not all votes have been decided, but mutterings from activists are being passed along: the resources are not there, they say; complacency has set in. The enthusiasm found in the more Remain-voting locales of St Albans and South Hams is very different from that felt on the doorstep in Cornwall.

Cornish politics was once intensely independent before swinging Lib Dem and then Tory
Cornwall [county] council election results by share of seats won, 1977–2017

Simply put, levels of enthusiasm around the Lib Dems in Cornwall are yet to recover, and general election results from 2019 and 2017 suggest they’re unlikely to do so for quite some time.

But while the prospects of regaining control of Cornwall may not seem peachy for the Lib Dems, head north to Tyneside and Wearside – territory not typically associated with the orange rosette – and you’ll find a different story.

In 2019 Sunderland’s local politics experienced something not far short of an earthquake. Labour had been the locale’s unchallenged masters for quite some time, and went into the election defending 24 out of the 25 seats up for grabs. Once all votes had been counted, it came away with just 12, down by 50 per cent. Five had been lost to the Tories, three to Ukip, one to the Greens, and four, on quite big swings, to the Liberal Democrats. 

Labour lost half of its seats in Sunderland in 2019
2019 local election results for Sunderland by ward. Changes with 2015

What was once a solidly red area now looks at risk of falling out of Labour’s hands for the first time in decades. And of those expected to be the beneficiaries, it is the Lib Dems who are most bullish.

But how? And, more importantly, why? Sunderland is, after all, meant to be Brexitland, isn’t it? 

The party’s progress there is not an isolated phenomenon, and it is thought that local issues, rather than broader national ones, are the cause.

In 2017, two years before the shock collapse in Labour’s vote in the area, the Lib Dems scored an impressive by-election win in Sandhill, the most Leave-voting ward in the borough. At the time, many on social media were quick to enthuse about the supposed implications of this Lib Dem win: that Leave voters were changing their minds, and that the then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had something to do with it. 

But Ciaran Morrissey, a Lib Dem campaigner in the area at the time, was explicit with me when asked about it four years ago.

“I’m incredibly sceptical of narratives that say this [win] was because of [Brexit] and Jeremy Corbyn,” he said.

“No voter mentioned Corbyn to me at all. Sunderland is mismanaged. We put out an absolutely huge volume of Focus [Lib Dem newsletters], 'blue letters' [hand-written letters delivered just before election day], the lot. Heavily targeted literature plans. Lots of canvassing. We were at it since late November.” 

That 2017 win, Morrissey said, came down not to Brexit, Corbyn or the national picture, but “old-fashioned groundwork”.

Though these comments are four years old, when compared to thoughts on the current campaign from a Lib Dem source on the ground today, they bear a striking and continued relevance.

“People aren’t talking about Brexit,” the source, who does not wish to be named, said. “They’re talking about the wasteful spending from the local Labour council.

“Voters never hear from their current Labour councillors. So when they have us, actually listening to them and their concerns, it makes sense that they vote for us.”

The source is bullish about gains for the Lib Dems in the major metropolitan areas this year: “Our contact level has surpassed that of April 2019. 'Knock up' – contacting supporters to vote/commit – is harder than ever with lots of teams split across many areas and [a] reduced numbers of activists, so this year we’re putting a greater emphasis on [getting out the vote by phone].

“The feeling is most of our key battlegrounds have already either been won or lost on the high [postal vote] returns we’ve seen.”

While this local effort may pay off in the council elections, the prospect of turning this into parliamentary success for the Lib Dems seems somewhat less certain. The party is netting council seats, but could the voters they’re winning now plump for them in a general election?

The source answered without prompt: “These [voters] will more than happily tell us to fuck off at a general election.”

The success of the #LibDemFightback – as it was once termed on social media, to great mockery – varies across England. In Cornwall the party is a key force, but is not guaranteed the slew of gains it once achieved. In Newcastle and Sunderland campaigners are optimistic, but not complacent. They know their limits. They know not to be ideological. They know the benefits of a hyperlocal campaign. But will voters hear them out?

 Ben Walker is a data journalist at the New Statesman