Last night I headed out into a damp October evening in Witney with Joyce Onstad, a new member who joined the Liberal Democrats after the 2015 General Election.
Joyce and I had first campaigned together last winter in Greater Manchester at the Oldham & Royton By-election. We, and a few hardy activists, had travelled there in freezing weather and knocked on doors. Despite our efforts the polls refused to budge: we achieved just 3.7% of the vote.
9 months on things feel very different. The EU referendum has left the British electorate sharply divided. Jeremy Corbyn was re-elected to the dismay of more moderate Labour members, who have seen their party engulfed in an anti-Semitism row and have no idea what their position is on Europe. In the last three months 20,000 people have joined my party understanding, perhaps, Tim Farron’s message that only the Lib Dems stood between them and decades of Tory rule.
This new rejuvenation has been infectious. Despite only recently becoming a member, Joyce has been selected as the Parliamentary candidate for Hammersmith and is clearly enthusiastic about the challenges ahead. Campaigning in Witney, I felt the need to manage her expectations. “This is a safe Tory seat – one of the safest. If we can finish above Labour that would be a great result for us.” “Well yes. But I want to win!” said Joyce.
The reason for this optimism is that, away from the media spotlight, Lib Dem fortunes have been steadily improving which has led to growing enthusiasm amongst members and activists alike. A good set of local election results were followed by a flurry of gains in council by-elections and these haven’t been confined to local hotspots, but across the country. Gains have been made from Cornwall to Norfolk and from Sheffield to Poole with swings ranging from 20-44% against all parties, Labour, Conservatives and UKIP.
The Lib Dem resurgence has largely gone unremarked on by national media outlets. This is hardly surprising when political parties are judged between elections solely on opinion polls, not actual polls and what passes as political journalism is merely increasing attempts to goad parties into taking more and more extreme positions. It’s not newsworthy standing up for moderate Britain, when political news is increasing about being “for the clicks”. Research shows that 77% of the country self-identifies as being between centre-left and centre-right, yet it is the extremes that get the air time.
While other parties activists sit down to watch the increasingly unwatchable Question Time, Lib Dem activists instead wait for @BritainElects to provide our weekly dose of #libdemfightback. As one member tweeted: “Every Thursday is Lib Dem council by-election gain day.”
Unlike Jeremy Corbyn, Tim Farron has always made clear that principles without power are worthless. There is a world of difference between being forced to moderate a policy you disagree with as the minor voice in a coalition, and that of taking ermine for services rendered, then abstaining on a vote that you have spent 13 years as head of an civil liberties organisation campaigning against. Now that is a real betrayal of principle.
The recent Lib Dem delivery of the ‘Alan Turing’ Law shows what can happen when you are driven to improve people’s lives by fairness and not dogma. The public are beginning to see that and as a result the Lib Dems are being given the chance to prove themselves again.
“We’ve got more momentum than Momentum” was the party’s message at party conference and you can see the effect in the Witney by-election. Tom Watson, complained that Lib Dems ‘shipped’ in their Peers and threw resources at it solely to force him on the Radio 4 Today programme. No mention from him of his his leader’s visit, where once again hundreds of Labour activists preferred to sit in a hall congratulating themselves on their political purity, rather than go out and face the actual electorate with policies and a clear message.
The way we campaigned Witney was the same way we’ve campaigned since May 2015: credible candidates, positive messages and coach loads of enthusiastic members, many of them new. That was the reason Labour dropped in their share of the vote and came a poor third.
Witney was a real national test for the Liberal Democrats. Could our message of openness, tolerance and unity appeal to people not just in council elections but at parliamentary elections too? Was that silent majority of centre ground voters simply wishful thinking? Were the gains in council seats an indication of real movement or merely a political chimera?
Tim Farron has led the opposition to hard brexit, it is not what the country wants. No one knows what Labour thinks with their spokespeople speaking at cross purposes. The Lib Dems have positioned themselves as the real opposition to the Tories and on Thursday we passed the test at a national level with flying colours.
Thought the Lib Dems were finished?