Anthony Browne is MP for South Cambridgeshire and a former Europe Editor of the Times.
And the winner is…the Liberal Democrats. At the recent local elections, Britain’s fourth party (remember the SNP) gained more council seats than any other. And judging by their reaction, they clearly missed the lessons about being magnanimous in victory.
They declared they were on course to take many Conservative marginal constituencies, including those of Dominic Raab, Alex Chalk and my own. They recently won Owen Paterson’s previously safe Tory seat of North Shropshire in a by-election, and are determined to repeat the trick in the upcoming by-election in Tiverton and Honiton.
So the Lib Dems back? Many voters didn’t forgive them for going into coalition with Conservatives in 2010 in the wave of Cleggmania, and they were wiped out as a national force in 2015. One of the key political questions now is whether they are on the brink of a national resurgence. Will the Conservatives shoring up the Red Wall in the North lead to the crumbling of a blue wall in the South?
To understand the threat, one needs to understand how the Lib Dems work – and they are not like the two main political parties. Few political commentators realise how different they are. Their performance at local elections is strong for a party that is, let’s be honest, invisible nationally.
I did not have many surprises entering Parliament in 2019, but one of them was the total irrelevance of the Lib Dems at a national level. There are just too few of them to have any impact. They don’t sit on many committees (for example, I am on the Treasury Select Committee, which has no Lib Dem member), they don’t pass any amendments, they don’t lead many debates. On good days, their leader will be allowed to ask a question.
However, the Lib Dems are rampant in quite a few Conservative constituencies. Local Tories often wonder why people support the Lib Dems. There is no identifiable belief system (at least not any more). People who support free enterprise will generally be Conservative, and those who support socialism will tend to support Labour. But what is Lib Demmery?
Traditionally the answer to why people support the Lib Dems is that they provid a protest vote. They are the “none of the above” party, defined by what they aren’t rather than what they are. That works wonders in by-elections after a scandal, such as in North Shropshire.
It is true that they facilitate a protest vote but, like other Conservatibe MPs involved in daily street-by-street battles with the Lib Dems, I know there is more than that.
In South Cambridgeshire, as in some other areas, they are in power in local government, and so locally they are not a protest vote. Rather than being the local representatives of national parties, they position themselves as valiant local champions serving their communities.
Their voluminous election literature positions them as “local campaigners”, while their opponents are just interested in national glory and “don’t care” about local voters who they “take for granted”. The irony is that the Lib Dem message of how they are just local champions is actually used nationally – their leaflets are verbatim copies in their battlegrounds across the country.
The main reason that people become activists for the Lib Dems is simple: they are asked. Lots of Lib Dem activists admit privately they are actually instinctively conservatives, but got drawn into Lib Dem campaigning. Most Lib Dem activists aren’t actually members of the party, but rather people who have been asked and agreed to help out to do something “for their community”.
In many places, they have huge delivery networks of activists, enabling them to put out leaflets with wonderous frequency. Astonishingly, national Tory strategists have discovered that some of those people who deliver Lib Dem leaflets are actually Conservative Party members.
In contrast to other parties, the Lib Dems have an election strategy which they write down in books and publish in pamphlets, and aim to replicate constituency by constituency. Their strategy is to engage community campaigners, and start with hyper-local campaigning, on almost street by street issues.
Infiltrate parish councils, and politicise them. Establish your name and stand for district councils, the county council – and then Parliament. They don’t fight in the air wars of the media waves, but rely instead on their almost limitless ground troops to fight house to house. It is bottom up, rather than top down.
Being the political underdog at a national level gives them an often rather distinct self-rightousness, which leads them to believing the end justifies the means. Their election literature is by far the most negative of any party. Their canvassers spread slander (during the general election, they openly spread false stories about me). A Labour MP said to me last week: “aren’t the Lib Dems just foul?”.
that The fact they have no real policy beliefs – do they like higher taxes or not? – and think the ends justify the means, leads to astoundingly hypocritical campaigns that are bewildering to their opponents. Labour and Conservatives try hard to have coherent local messages in local elections. The Lib Dems often end up campaigning against themselves in different parts of a district – basically telling voters whatever they want to hear. In the southern part of my constituency they campaigned to push a trainline to the North, and in the northern part they campaigned to push it to the south. They campaign against something, get elected, and then quickly change position.
Because they are essentially a party of protest, opposing what anyone in a position of responsibility does, they often struggle with actually running local government. Being in power involves making difficult decisions, and justifying them. For the Lib Dems, the tactic is to deny responsibility for their own decisions, and take credit for anything that is good, even if they have nothing to do with it.
In South Cambridgeshire, they have decided to build far more houses than the national government thinks is necessary, but rather than defend it they try to blame their unpopular decision on national government. They Conservative Government has decided to build a very popular Cambridge South station, which the Lib Dems take credit for.
So what is the actual point of the Lib Dems as a political party? Many of their opponents see them as politically parasitical opportunists. Saying anything to get into power, taking no responsibility for what they actually do, and taking credit for the work of others. But they at least inject competition into local politics.
The only way the Conservatives will beat the Lib Dems is not to defeat them in the TV studios or policy discussions or in newspaper columns. As we have shown in those areas of the country where we have beaten them back, we have to recruit our own ground troops to campaign on the doors and in the village halls. We need our own local champions campaigning on local issues. We need to out Lib Dem the Lib Dems. As the Lib Dem campaign strategy says: you win where you work.