Liberal Messaging in a Post-Brexit Britain
By Joe Norris | Sat May 15 2021
For the Liberal Democrats, the polling-heights of 2019 and the lows of 2021 can easily be chalked up as the before and after effects of Brexit, which has come to dominate so much of our political discourse. But with the Greens rising as a challenger to the mantle of progressive third party during the local elections, a moment of reflection must come for the party’s messaging.
Bollocks to Brexit
In 2019, the Liberal Democrats showed the public a hard, clear and distinct view towards Brexit in their vocal and unified opposition to it. In many ways, the anti-Brexit stance was a perfect embodiment of Liberal values and what the Liberal Democrats had been striving for as a party; rejecting nationalism, encouraging international cooperation, maintaining local devolution, committing to and expanding personal freedoms to live and work where you want. Voters could build a subtractive picture of who we were with little effort on our part; even if you didn't know what we were for, you certainly knew what we stood against. By sticking to our principles, the party enjoyed the highest rating in the polls it had seen in nearly a decade, and a considerable boost in membership.
Of course, this polling peak was not to survive the test of the British electoral system; the squeeze from Labour and the Conservatives damaged our prospects in a first-past-the-post general election. The fact that our stance was a reactionary one and one of resistance, also put us on the back foot. While we could own the opposition, we couldn't control the debate overall. This should not be seen as a misstep on our part. In fact, we should recognise the successes of this period for what they are. One clear message, hammered home again and again, let people know who we were, what we were about, and what a vote for us would mean.
The duality of this period in which we successfully boosted our profile, yet failed to convert it into an electoral win, prompts the question: is focusing on one key issue, however well it resonates a liberal message with the public, the way forward for our party?
Local Greens' Gains
The recent local elections saw a surge for the Green party. The party capitalised on its strong national polling and doubled the total number of its candidates that were up for election. The Greens, although not a strong force in Parliament yet, are slowly rising to prominence through increased environmental activism and awareness. It must be noted that they are, arguably, a single issue party.
The Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, gained a net of only eight councillors on the 6th of May. What did this picture look like on the ground, and what can we learn from the Greens' successes this time around?
Northamptonshire saw the culmination of Conservative governance going completely unchecked with the 'effective bankruptcy' of the County Council. The solution arrived at by council leaders and the Government was to abolish the county council, described by Conservative MP Philip Hollobone as 'the worst run in the country', and to form two new unitary authorities from the ashes. This should’ve proven fertile ground for any Tory opposition.
In North Northamptonshire, one of these two new unitary authorities the Greens won an impressive victory in the multiple-member ward of Clover Hill, returning all three candidates to the seventy-eight strong council. The Liberal Democrats, in comparison, returned a disappointing zero. This represented a gain of 3 councillors for Greens, who failed to return a seat in 2017, and a loss for the Liberal Democrats.
So how did the Greens achieve this breakthrough success, and what happened to the Liberal Democrat vote?
Now, it is true that the Greens have performed well in the polls compared to the Liberal Democrats, and this is reflected in the former receiving 0.1% more of the popular vote than the latter. But, as we all know, in a first-past the system, popular vote counts for nothing unless you can concentrate these votes in the right places. The Greens targeted their Clover Hill ward, using the party’s general talking points we’ve all become accustomed to - but all the while holding one key local issue at the centre of their campaign. The winning ticket they ran on was to save Weekley Hall Wood. This was a specific, hyper-local issue that they leant on heavily, which ultimately appealed to voters. It was a clear transaction; vote Green, save the Wood.
Having been intimately involved with the Liberal campaign in two of our target wards nearby, I know we failed to pick out a local issue that truly mattered to voters. We championed the usual Liberal values; putting the environment first, providing affordable local housing, and to deliver excellent care for all who need it. But there was no one focus that voters could point to that their vote for us would be a vote for.
This isn't an isolated nor unique issue, however, and is rather indicative of the federal party's campaign.
A Liberal Vision for the Future
The Liberal Democrats saw a rocket in the polls in 2019 using a clear, direct and dedicated stance on the opposition of Brexit. The Liberal values we have forever championed coalesced into one hotly contested, yet definite and defined issue that we could stand proudly atop. Despite not tasting the fruits of our labours for long, there is really something that can be taken away from this. Just like the Greens in Clover Hill focused on one issue in their local messaging, we focused on one issue in our national messaging.
And this is true for almost every other party that isn't the Tories or Labour. The Greens’ one issue is the environment, which is best used when applied to something local and tangible. The Brexit Party was - unsurprisingly, centred around being pro-Brexit, and benefited considerably from this, as did its spiritual predecessor UKIP. Since the victories in the 2019 European Parliament elections, the Brexit party has faded into irrelevance. Its attempt to sustain popularity by taking the anti-lockdown stance and to rebrand as Reform UK has failed miserably. The party has lost sight of its single issue messaging, diversifying past the anti-lockdown ticket to advocate 'reform' in the economy, public sector and institutions - and has suffered as a result.
The Liberal Democrats have never been a single issue party, past the notion that liberalism can be branded as one single issue. But, Brexit broke this habit. A vote for the Liberal Democrats didn't mean, to the average voter, a vote for our broad and varied collection of policy, but instead was a vote against Brexit. The simple fact that this worked well for us cannot be ignored. Again, we see the successes of a transactional relationship evidenced by the Greens in Clover Hill. To tempt voters away from the big two, it's so much harder to offer a general reframing of politics through Liberal-tinted glasses, as much as we might hope to do.
Liberal Democrats do best when people know that we have a plan. Local parties that have pushed this and framed the Tories and Labour as locked in a battle of ideological power struggles have really found great success. We as Liberals need to sit down, put our heads together, and find a key issue to uniquely set us apart from any other party and to champion into the future.
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