Click below to read my letter to The New European, dated 29 November 2019.
The need to strengthen our message on citizenship and what it should mean to be a British citizen today…
Should Sedgefield and Bolsover flip tomorrow night, it would represent a historic loss for the Labour Party. Sedgefield, once the home of Tony Blair from 1983 to 2007, could reject Labour for the first time in eighty four years. Coupled with the possibility of losing Bolsover (also to the Conservatives), this election could see a serious disintegration of support for the Labour Party in the north of England.
Dennis Skinner has served as Bolsover’s MP since 1970.
The Brexit Party are fielding candidates in both seats. The possibility of a divided right successfully executing such aggressive campaigns highlights the extent of the challenge facing Labour.
For the past twenty years, commentators and party strategists have commented on the general migration of working-class votes away from the Labour Party to both the SNP in Scotland and Conservatives in the north of England. It’s nothing new. But tomorrow night, the shift might be enough to swing some of the major seats in the region.
Although an unexpected and late win for the Labour Party in 2017, Canterbury could hold for Rosie Duffield. In recent years, the city has evolved to become part of the London commuter belt and many political commentators have remarked upon the influx of younger, affluent and more liberal-minded residents to the area. Duffield however, is defending a 187 vote majority. Should she increase her margin, Canterbury could, like Bolsover and Sedgefield, mark a point of no return in the changing nature of Labour’s core vote.
In November, Liberal Democrat candidate Tim Walker stepped down in favour of Duffield and encouraged fellow Liberal Democrats to vote tactically. Although replaced with another candidate, Walker’s decision to stand aside may have been enough to encourage local activists to vote defensively tomorrow.
As with every election, the success of the Liberal Democrats depends almost entirely on the high marginals. Sheffield Hallam and Cheltenham, two former Lib Dem strongholds could well return to the party. Recapturing the former would be particularly historic for the Lib Dems, as it was held by Nick Clegg from 2005 to 2017. In Cheltenham, the Conservative Alex Chalk succeeded in unseating Martin Horwood in 2015 and successfully fended off a strong Liberal Democrat challenge two years later.
The seat has bounced between the two parties since 1832.
Richmond Park, St Albans, South Cambridgeshire and Winchester are also likely to return Liberal Democrats to the House of Commons. Should all six seats change hands, about 40% of Liberal Democrats elected tomorrow night would serve their first term in the next parliament. Although over the course of the next parliament, this could represent an opportunity for the party, it could also pose as a short term challenge.
Possibly the most talked about swing seat of this election, Esher and Walton has returned Dominic Raab to the House of Commons since 2010. As Johnson’s Foreign Secretary and First Secretary of State, he is a leading target for the Liberal Democrats. Although he has never lost a constituency-wide poll, the lead has often fallen within the margin of error. For anyone in need of a ‘Portillo moment’, this is the seat to watch.
Iain Duncan Smith, former Leader of the Conservative Party, leave campaigner and champion of Universal Credit, has faced unusually stiff competition from Labour candidate Faiza Shaheen. IDS has represented Chingford and Woodford Green since 1992. At the last election, IDS held on with a 2,438 majority.
In early September, the Labour candidate was subject to a Guardian video report. Two months later, the Green Party candidate withdrew in support. Should Raab’s 23,298 vote majority hold firm, it might be wise to save the champagne for this north London seat.
This year, the Conservatives could see a quiet victory in Wales. A YouGov/Cardiff University poll (6-9 December; Sample 1,020) gave the party 37% support, just three points behind Labour. A result of this size could award the Conservatives sixteen seats, four short of Labour’s total.
But there is cause for concern for some Conservatives. Stephen Crabb, MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire since 2005, could lose to Labour’s Philippa Thompson. In 2017, Thompson’s vote increased by 14.5 points, cutting Crabb’s lead to just 314 votes.
But thanks to the Brexit Party’s decision not to put forward a candidate, I suspect the constituency will turn out as a Conservative hold.
At 20:00pm, for ninety minutes, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Conservative leader Boris Johnson will face a live studio audience as they will set out why they should be the next Prime Minister after the 12 December poll.
Following an unsuccessful high court bid, the Liberal Democrats and SNP will not be represented on the platform. The ruling was made on Monday.
This is the fourth UK general election featuring televised debates. The first began in 2010 with Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg.
Both participants started the election campaign with low overall approval ratings. Tonight’s debate will serve as an opportunity to put that right. The ninety minute programme will also allow the two parties to set out more clearly, a stronger election narrative that extends beyond Brexit.
With the debate limited to the two leading candidates for prime minister, Boris Johnson will likely want to appear much more statesmanlike and measured than usual. Expect constant use of the phrases ‘let’s get Brexit done’, ‘coalition of chaos’ (in reference to a possible centre-left coalition deal) and ‘dither and delay’.
Having turned the Conservative Party’s fiscal objectives on its head, Boris Johnson is likely to boast of additional money going into hospitals and schools. In fact, unlike past debates, Labour and the Conservatives will argue not on whether the state should increase spending, but by how much.
A small, yet significant shift in the state of British politics.
This may explain the timing of the Prime Minister’s announcement at the CBI conference yesterday that his party would abandon a corporation tax cut in favour of an additional £6bn for the NHS.
Another key playing card for Boris Johnson is the ongoing issue of antisemitism in the Labour Party. Although the issue itself is not expected to feature as a main talking point tonight, it is a very cheap and easy shot for the Conservative leader to make and perhaps a difficult one for Jeremy Corbyn to answer.
The central objective of the Labour leader tonight will be to question his opponent’s character. In 2017, Corbyn performed relatively well after his last minute appearance at a multi-party BBC debate. Strangely, of the two men, Jeremy Corbyn appears the most at ease in televised debating environments and no doubt, his team will hope this relaxed nature will win over wavering voters.
Corbyn will want to portray Boris Johnson as fundamentally untrustworthy, selfish and reckless. For that reason, expect a focus on the way in which the prime minister shut down parliament earlier this year and his relationship with businessperson Jenniger Arcuri.
Depending on Boris Johnson’s own performance, I am unsure whether the Labour leader will use his time to highlight the flaws of his opponent, or instead, focus on the pros of a Corbyn administration.
The Conservative Party’s message is that Corbyn has much more to lose from a bad night than Boris Johnson due merely to the current state of the opinion polls. But in an election where many party activists, let alone voters, are finding it difficult to find the energy for the fight, the stakes are very high for all.
At election time, the party with the strongest narrative wins. It must be personal, appeal to a wide demographic and relate to a voter’s daily life and sphere of existence. I believe the best political narrative for the Liberal Democrats in this election is one based on personal empowerment and giving people the skills and resources they need to make the most of their citizenship. Here, I shall explain why.
The three dominant topics of this election are Brexit, the future of our Union and climate change. Other significant topics include regional imbalances in infrastructure, the need to properly fund our children’s schools and to give young people and families the chance to own a warm, safe and affordable home.
These issues result from and share a concern for the extreme imbalances of power that exist in the UK. These imbalances have led to a loss of civic pride as voters believe they do not have any influence in a dysfunctional political system. Some have responded with apathy, whilst many others with anger. But one thing is certain. In a moment of political paralysis, the electorate wonders what it means to be a citizen today?
So far, the party has made some major policy announcements on achieving 80% renewable energy by 2030, investing £11bn into mental health services and securing a £50bn ‘remain bonus’ if Britain remains a member of the European Union. Although the policies themselves are ambitious, rational and appropriate, they lack a broader foundational narrative.
This can and must change.
As internationalists, the Liberal Democrats have long had a difficult relationship with the language of patriotism as it is left often to the abuse of the far-right. But it is time the centre takes back control of what it means to be British. The right believe we should be proud of being British. As Liberal Democrats, we too are proud of our citizenship, but have a plan to make our citizenship count for something. We truly value our citizenship when we are supported in taking risks in starting a business, raising a family and developing new skill sets and hobbies. The right see patriotism as an emotion, but as Liberal Democrats, we know patriotism as action.
For Labour, the state is the dominant agent of change. Though state action is important, an over reliance robs citizens of their rights and responsibilities. This has the effect of furthering a sense of powerlessness and weakening community identities. So as the gulf between portions of the electorate seems to grow every day, we must remember: support and opposition for Brexit, Extinction Rebellion, Scottish independence and votes at sixteen shares a will to reinstate some meaning and value to citizenship in this country and a hope to redraw the rights are responsibilities of the citizen. There is therefore, universal interest in strengthening the role and meaning of citizenship.
On this issue, the Liberal Democrats can and must lead.
On Friday 25th October, I attended the Yorkshire hustings for the Liberal Democrat presidential election 2019. Both Mark Pack and Christine Jardine were present. Although both offer a radically different vision for the party and for the role of its president, they share a will for major reform.
In Christine’s pitch, she emphasised the need for the party president to act first, as a voice for the membership. Jardine was questioned on whether her existing job as Member of Parliament for Edinburgh West would inhibit her ability to act as the membership’s spokesperson, a question she said was frequent at the regional hustings. To Jardine, a president embedded in the parliamentary party would have a greater influence over the leadership and party policy than any member president. In fact, the electoral experience of having won a seat from the SNP was ideal for the next president as the party looks to grow its elected base.
This led onto another major difference between the two candidates. Whilst Mark Pack emphasised the need for the president to leave matters of policy to the leadership, Christine Jardine argued that policy consultations and recommendations are part of a wider programme of listening to the needs and wishes of members.
With Jardine’s strength being an elected MP, Pack was able to explain what he had done as a campaigner to ensure Liberal Democrat wins on all levels of government.
Before the meeting, I was unsure how I would cast my vote. Ultimately, I left having decided to back Mark Pack for the next three years. Whoever wins has an exciting, yet challenging few years ahead. Some of the major tasks include:
The hustings was full of great energy and cheer.
For campaign websites, please use the links below:
Christine Jardine – https://www.cj4president.org/
Mark Pack – https://president.markpack.org.uk/
Below is a summary of the second half of my time at the Lib Dem conference in Bournemouth.
On Monday morning (16th), the conference floor debated climate change and biodiversity. The session concluded with a speech by deputy leader and Shadow Chancellor Sir Ed Davey MP, who set out his plan to ‘decarbonise capitalism’ by 2045 – later than the 2025 target of Extinction Rebellion, but costed, unlike the Conservative Party’s 2050 gesture towards carbon neutrality.
Immediately following this session, I attended an education fringe meeting, hosted by Layla Moran MP and former Chief Secretary and education minister David Laws. The fringe was well attended and covered issues such as increased academisation and the state of the pupil premium. Layla Moran spoke well and is clearly very informed and confident about her brief.
Later in the evening, I met up with other members of the Sheffield Liberal Democrats for a meal. Later, we were joined by new MP Angela Smith (formerly Labour Party MP) and the Lib Dem’s new Yorkshire and Humber MEP Shaffaq Mohammed.
Jo Swinson’s speech this afternoon had two objectives. The first was to assert her position as the party’s new leader. Second (and more importantly), she set out why she is a legitimate alternative to Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson as British Prime Minister. There was a clear focus on the importance of the Union, where Jo Swinson seemed to confirm the party’s primary electoral targets are the SNP in Scotland and the Conservative Party in the south of England.
As we approach the mid-point of the Liberal Democrat Party conference in Bournemouth, I thought I’d post an update on my time so far.
I first joined the Lib Dems in May this year, having spent nine years as a member and supporter of the Labour Party. With over 5,000 attendees, this conference is certainly the largest in the party’s thirty-one year history.
On Saturday morning, party members discussed business tax reform in the main conference hall in the BIC. The hall was packed, with many valuable contributions coming from ordinary party members and members of the House of Lords.
At 1pm, Will Hutton, the political economist and Principal of Hertford College, Oxford, gave a two hour talk at the Marriott Hotel on advancing the ‘Social Liberal Agenda’. Hutton’s central message was for the party to develop a strong and better defined political philosophy on which its core policies on house building, stopping Brexit, reforming our constitutional arrangements and decarbonising our capitalist model could evolve.
Storytelling is an important, if often undervalued, part of successful political campaigning. Yes, ‘Stop Brexit!’ and ‘Bollocks to Brexit!’ may help cut through the monotonous haze of Westminster politics, but in arguing against Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, the Liberal Democrats should not lose sight of its wider socio-economic vision, which (if taken care of) can form the backbone of a successful election campaign.
At the end of this year, Party President Baroness Sal Brinton will leave her post after four years. It was a real joy to meet her just before she went on stage to give her farewell speech.
Two things stand out to a newcomer like me, in comparison with the Labour Party conference experience. First, Lib Dem elected representatives and party figures are far more approachable and willing to talk to ordinary members and conference goers. Second, is how male the conference attendees are. Sadly, there are not enough younger members and women able to attend conference. However, it was promising to see various fringe events focus on that very issue.
This morning (Saturday), I sat through further debates in the main hall. The topic was mental health and social care, something on which the Liberal Democrats took an early lead in the House of Commons, due to the work of Sir Norman Lamb MP. My time in the conference hall concluded with a farewell speech by Sir Vince Cable MP, who I met later on outside the Bourne Lounge.
In the early afternoon, I heard Chuka Umunna speak at a fringe event hosted by think-tank Progressive Centre UK. He was well briefed and confident in front of the audience and was able to answer my question to him on what Liberal Democrat members and MPs can do to attract more defectors from the two largest political parties in Westminster. (See picture above).
As Vince Cable prepares to step down as leader, what next for the Liberal Democrats?
As another Conservative prime minister has fallen to Europe, fellow Conservative MPs are already queuing up for what should be the most unpopular job in Britain. As the Lib Dems see their own leader depart (albeit in a more orderly fashion), what lies ahead for the major liberal force in British politics?
Three years after the EU referendum, the Liberal Democrats have successfully reinvented themselves as the only major party with a clear position on the issue of a generation. Going into Thursday’s election, their message was simple: “Bollocks to Brexit”.
The Lib Dems, like the Greens, Scottish Nationalists, Change UK and Plaid Cymru, believe Britain should remain in the European Union, via a confirmatory referendum/ ‘People’s Vote’. As Liberal Democrat MPs return to parliament on 4th June, they have reasons to be cheerful, thanks to the party’s success at the local elections, along with projected gains in the European elections, supported by a growing and energised membership. But though its message is clear, the Lib Dems cannot risk becoming the party of the status quo.
In short, the party can only profit from its Brexit gamble if it can answer many of the valid questions leave voters had in 2016. Okay, the Lib Dems want Britain to remain in the EU, but how will it meet concerns about immigration, the loss of civic pride and a lack of devolution to the regions and nations? It is not enough for the Liberals to say they believe Brexit is a bad idea. The party must explain how leaving will not improve people’s circumstances. It must show Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage for who they really are.
In the words of Green Party Co-leader Jonathan Bartley, “[We must be] tough on Brexit and tough on the causes of Brexit.” – (8th May 2019)
If another referendum does take place, a WTO departure will likely be the leave option. But remain cannot support business as usual. A vote for remain should be an endorsement of a ‘New Deal’ for the UK. This national project would focus on energy security, the redistribution of power, prioritising good quality apprenticeships, well funded local government and a competent green industrial strategy for the next thirty years. Remain is just as much about renewal as Leave and the Liberal Democrats must get better at presenting remain in this way.
Labour Party members should be given a vote in an internal Brexit referendum before MPs vote on another proposed deal from Prime Minister Theresa May.
The ballot would ask:
“Should the Parliamentary Labour Party support Britain’s exit from the EU?”
An internal party poll would be better than a ‘People’s Vote’ for three reasons.
If members vote to leave the EU, then Labour would whip its MPs to vote accordingly. Labour should request that a cross-party group be established to negotiate the terms of withdrawal instead of a one-party executive.
If members vote to remain in the EU, then the PLP would vote to withdraw Article 50 and seek to block any legislation that did not guarantee the same conditions as full membership.
I make this proposal as a long-time party member and supporter, seeking the most civil solution to an unwanted and artificial problem from the Cameron-era.
Tom Parkin is a Labour member, former CLP Youth Officer and Labour NEC candidate. He is currently studying International Relations and Politics at the University of Sheffield. (Twitter: @tompjparkin)
After Theresa May’s deal was rejected, but the government won a vote of no confidence, what next? Tom Parkin explains the options ahead as Britain looks towards the unknown.