The strange survival of Liberal England
Winning Liberal Democrat-held seats in 2015 will be no walk in the park for Labour, warns Stephen Bush
For Labour, liberal voters are like the prodigal son: they have spent the last few decades wandering, but they are, at last, ready to come home. For the first time in a long while, Labour has not had to concern itself with winning Tory converts; why bother, after all, when there are so many Liberal Democrat apostates floating around?
These are the voters who have delivered a seven-point lead and a bumper crop of Labour councillors. Or have they? I spoke to voters in Cambridge, Bermondsey and Redcar – three Liberal Democrat seats that form part of Progress’ Frontline 40, constituencies that Labour must win to secure a parliamentary majority – expecting to find three places that would fall into Labour’s lap come 2015. Instead, I found that the fatted calf might just live to see 2016.
Cambridge went yellow in 2005, in what Tristram, a lecturer and local resident, describes as a ‘city-wide act of revulsion at the war in Iraq’. When I arrive there, the papers are full of Ed Miliband’s summer woes, but, talking to residents in the city centre, you could be forgiven for thinking that Labour is on course for a landslide.
Labour’s candidate, Daniel Zeichner, an IT professional turned Unison official who must come from third place to win, fought the seat in 2010, and describes to me the changes wrought by three years of coalition. ‘Instead of people chasing you up the garden path telling you they’ll never vote Labour,’ he laughs, ‘You’ve got people – sometimes the same people – telling you that they’ll never vote Liberal Democrat!’
Cambridge is not Britain, though. ‘Cambridge was one of three places to vote Yes [to AV],’ outside of London, Zeichner reminds me. It has two uniquely active local parties in Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and the latter maintain a strong and committed activist core, even in the face of three successive shellackings in the local elections. It is not just Labour which people are well disposed to. ‘There’s no one here who can say “I never see anyone”,’ Zeichner tells me. ‘I think there are very few people in the constituency who haven’t met me and Julian [Huppert, the Liberal Democrat incumbent].’
Outside of the city centre, people are similarly well disposed to both Huppert and Zeichner, but here I come across the same concerns I hear in Labour-Conservative battlegrounds. On one street I talk to a woman who tells me: ‘I never get out of my overdraft, except for the two days after payday, and before bills.’ Here the same concerns are preoccupying people: bills, immigrants, benefits.
Those fears are even more acute in Redcar, where unemployment is twice the national average. Labour from 1974 to 2010, Vera Baird lost the seat to a backdrop of anger and anxiety about the closure of the steelworks in Redcar. The plant reopened two years later, but employs just under half the number of the people it had before.
‘We’d voted Labour all our lives, but we just felt that it wasn’t for us any more,’ Sharon, whose husband is still looking for full-time work, explains. ‘We watched the TV debates, Jim and me, and we were both really excited about Nick Clegg.’ And now? ‘I don’t know. Not for Ian Swales [the Liberal Democrat MP]. Probably Labour again. I might just not vote.’
Why has Labour not sealed the deal in Redcar? I find some of the answers waiting for me in a very different type of seat – Bermondsey and Old Southwark, where Neil Coyle, a charity campaigner and local councillor, has recently been selected to dethrone Simon Hughes, a permanent fixture in London politics for almost three decades.
‘[In Bermondsey] more than half former Lib Dem voters are now supporting Labour or are unsure who to support yet at the next election,’ Coyle explains. That makes what he terms a ‘Were you still up for Hughes?’ moment something that is firmly within reach, provided that Labour can get enough money in the coffers and boots on the ground.
But for all Bermondsey residents are desperately concerned about the cost of living, they are yet to be convinced that Labour has the answers. ‘Ed Miliband says he’s going to fix the economy, right?’, Craig, a mechanic, asks me. ‘Well, how’s he going to do that, then?’
In Cambridge, Tristram sighs, ‘I was glad when he said “Blairism is dead”, but what comes after? What is Milibandism? I don’t know.’
That ambiguity leaves the Liberal Democrats plenty of room for their favoured tactic: to fight 57 by-elections. ‘They [the Liberal Democrats] want to make this a local election, centred around Julian,’ Zeichner says. ‘If they do, they could win it.’
‘We have a massive battle on our hands,’ Coyle says, ‘that on paper looks like Eastleigh.’ Labour in Bermondsey has many advantages that the party lacked in Eastleigh: a once-feared Liberal Democrat machine that is collapsing from within, a growing Labour membership, and an energetic and articulate team of councillors. But control of the ground war is not enough. There have to be answers on the ground, too.
‘It wasn’t just Iraq [that lost us the seat in 2005],’ Zeichner argues. ‘Like CND [in the 1980s], it was a reason, but it … wasn’t the only reason.’
For Labour partisans, it is easy – and perhaps comforting – to imagine that those prodigal sons and daughters who left the party in 2005 are just like us, and that, unlike those suspect voters who flit between Labour and the Conservatives, there are few votes in these Liberal Democrat fiefdoms that cannot be won over by a more aggressive Labourism.
‘I’m not sure what Miliband is for,’ Sharon in Redcar tells me. She pauses. ‘Apart from benefits.’ It is the same story on the Old Kent Road in Bermondsey, or Cherry Hinton in Cambridge. Even as people tell you about their struggles with rising bills and stagnant wages, even as they share their own troubles finding work, their own contempt for benefit claimants seems unending. A race to the bottom on social security is one that Labour cannot win; but it is impossible to imagine these uncertain converts staying the course without a meaningful counter-offer from Labour on welfare reform.
The cost of living might just prove to be Labour’s ace in the hole, though. ‘One of the things I say on the doorstep is: “Look at your paycheck from a few years ago”,’ Zeichner says. The raising of the tax threshold is a totemic issue for the Liberal Democrats, both to their activists – one of them I meet likens it to Labour’s commitment to the minimum wage – and to their offer to the voters. ‘But people don’t notice their taxes,’ says Zeichner. ‘They notice their train fares, their energy bills, the buses, which are just so expensive in Cambridge.’
‘The best way to beat Hughes is exposure,’ Coyle tells me. ‘With enough help, we will win in 2015.’ But it is not just about exposing Hughes, Coyle says – Labour needs to urgently set out how it will bring down the bills for Bermondsey residents.
Ethel, a Cambridge pensioner who has voted Labour all her life, worries that Miliband has not defined himself enough. ‘I think I know what Mr Miliband doesn’t like,’ she says. ‘But I’m not sure what he does like.’
Even as the green shoots of recovery are supposedly pushing through, the cost of heating the house or putting food on the table has real resonance for people in Bermondsey, Redcar and Cambridge. But it is not enough to share people’s pain – Labour has to offer a plan to relieve it, too. ‘I voted for Ed [in the leadership contest] because I thought he could inspire people,’ Zeichner says. ‘I still think he can. But we need a bit more fizz.’
‘I just want to know,’ Sharon says, ‘When is it going to get easier? When am I going to be able to go to bed at night and not think about money?’ An answer to that question could secure a Labour majority far outside of liberal England.
Stephen Bush is a contributing editor to Progress
Bermondsey, Cambridge, election 2015, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Redcar, Southwark