“I’m not predicting that we’re going to win the seat,” sighs Andrew George, Lib Dem MP for St Ives for 18 years before losing in 2015. “It’s quite a tough one to win really. But we’ll give it our best shot.”
Spare a thought for the Lib Dem candidates trying to regain their lost constituencies this election. Particularly for those, like George, in Leave-voting constituencies.
The Lib Dem Surge That Never Was has been haunting their final days of campaigning. The party took a gamble on the idea that Remain voters in both pro- and anti-Brexit seats would look to them as the pro-European party. But it hasn’t really worked out that way, and has damaged candidates’ chances in areas they lost to the Tories in 2015.
Nowhere is this starker than in Cornwall, where the Tories swept to power in all six constituencies last time round – taking three from the Lib Dems. One of the MPs they ousted was George, a proud Cornishman who was the first to take the Commons oath in Cornish and to use the language in his maiden speech, when he was elected in 1997.
Now George is attempting to make a comeback in St Ives – but is finding it a struggle partly because of his own party’s messaging.
The Lib Dems have positioned themselves as the anti-Brexit party, pledging to push for a second referendum on the final deal. This is a tricky sell in Cornwall, which voted by 57 per cent to Leave. It nevertheless relies on an average of £60m of EU funding a year, as one of the less developed regions in the EU.
It is one of the top 85 poorest regions in the whole of Europe, according to the latest figures by Eurostat that measure by purchasing power, which mean there are areas in Slovenia, Poland, Bulgaria, Greece and Hungary that are better off than Cornwall.
All photos: Getty
I meet George when out reporting in the Tory/Lib Dem marginal, joining him for a cup of tea in his living room, where I vie with a big black cat for armchair space. He lives in a picturesque pink house with sash windows in Hayle – a 20-minute bus ride from St Ives – which is no longer part of the constituency. Outside ripples a tranquil stretch of water called the Copperhouse Pool. Pink roses grow neatly up the side of the house, and there is a picnic bench on the lawn.
“I think I’ve achieved work-life balance over the last couple of years and so the election has come at a difficult time, really, because everything is pretty good,” he sighs, sinking into the sofa. “As you can see, the garden is growing out – lots of work needs to be done in the garden and I can’t do it at the moment. Apart from that, I’m trying to put all my spare time into the election if I possibly can.”
Although he believes voters won’t give the Lib Dems the same “punishment beating” for being part of the coalition government as they did last time, he now sees the Lib Dem manifesto as a new obstacle to victory.
“The narrative that apparently is working well, which is the Tim Farron narrative, which is aimed at the metropolitan area, or the London area at least, that we should have second referendum and so on, doesn’t play well here,” he says, raising an eyebrow. “So I’m sort of distancing myself from that position… he’s taken a line which I think plays well in certain areas and is not helpful in areas like this.”
George has told Farron where he stands on basing the campaign around a second referendum. “It’s not helping here,” he says. “I don’t think that is a response to the problem; I think it’s part of the problem, really.”
In general, the former MP believes some of his colleagues have drifted too far from connecting with the electorate’s concerns. “In my own party, there’s a kind of remote dinner party set who don’t understand what it’s like to talk to folk on the doorstep,” he says. “Who were stuffed in the House of Lords and other places, who I’m sure have very meaningful and intellectual conversations and resolve all the world problems from their remote, unattached place.”
These colleagues come out with “polysyllabic concepts” which “sound good in speeches in the House of Lords”, and other such “ivory towers”, he says, but “mean virtually nothing unless you can translate it in meaningful language on the ground”.
He adds: “It’s one of my bugbears in my own party and in politics generally – the remoteness of the lofty elite.”
Following the election, the Lib Dems will need to reinvent themselves in the face of the “Re-Leavers” phenomenon. Recent YouGov polling showed that most of those who voted Remain have now accepted the EU referendum’s outcome.
“I suppose I’m one of them, rather reluctantly,” says George, who campaigned to Remain. “My narrative is, we lost – OK, only marginally and rather frustratingly, and a lot of lies and all of that stuff – but that was the result.
“I’m a democrat, we have to accept it, and dust ourselves off and get on with it, and try and make it the least damaging we possibly can. There’s a lot of people on the doorstep, people I meet and speak to, who take the same view.”