Monday, December 16, 2019

GUEST POST How the Revoke policy harmed Lib Dem chances

Michael Mullaney, our candidate in Bosworth at the general election, says the party's decision to adopt the Revoke policy harmed our chances in many seats.

With the election over I thought  I'd pen some words on my experience of fighting in a strongly leave seat where there was a significant base of Lib Dem support.

I noticed a graph circulating on twitter which appeared to indicate that the Lib Dem vote rose by almost as much in Leave seats as it did in Remain ones. What this failed to pick up was that in the vast bulk of Leave seats the party was starting from a very low base: 2 or 3 per cent in many cases.

Running a Revoke campaign that was aimed at a very small group of the electorate, hard core Remainers, meant that in these seats where we were starting from almost nowhere we were always likely to pick up a percentage point or two. In numerous cases this saved the deposit, so in this sense the Revoke campaign at least had some, limited success.

However the Revoke policy literally killed the party in the seats which voted heavily Leave (55 per cent or more in the referendum) and where we had a significant level of Lib Dem support to start with (15 per cent or more voting Lib Dem in 2017).

There were 19 such seats. Three were held seats: North Norfolk, Carshalton and Wallington and Eastbourne. The remainder were often seats we had held in the recent past, North Cornwall, St Ives, Devon North etc. Or seats we had not held for many decades but where we had built up support through local campaigning and winning the council, such as my own seat in Bosworth.

In these 19 seats the party's vote fell on average by 3.4% compared to a national vote rise of 4.2%. The three seats we were defending North Norfolk, Carshalton and Wallington and Eastbourne were all lost. The excellent Andrew George failed to win back his ultra marginal seat in St Ives and in many recently held seats such as Devon North and Cornwall North the Tories built up huge majorities.

The party’s expected large gains in heavily Remain areas, for which support in these heavily Leave areas was sacrificed, failed to materialise so we ended up net down in seats.

Our policy of revoking article 50 and of disregarding the 2016 referendum result without holding a further vote was extremely harmful nationally, but particularly in these Leave seats where Lib Dems had retained support.

Back in 2017 I spoke against the Revoke policy at conference, precisely because the vast bulk of English and Welsh constituencies voted Leave (and over 90 per cent of Midlands seats voted that way).

In every one, not only would we be accused of disregarding the national verdict but of disregarding the local vote too. At the time the leadership opposed Revoke and it was stopped. By 2019, however, the leadership backed it and its passing was a fait accompli.

I can sort of see why the Revoke policy was pushed through. I'm sure the smart campaigners at HQ thought our problem was we didn't get enough media coverage (true) and this would help get it by being spiky and distinctive and provocative.

They probably thought our problem was that our policy proposals generally were seen as bland and wishy washy and we needed a cutting edge and controversial policy to get ourselves heard.

Now this was probably an argument that could have been defended back in September 2018 when we were still beached at 8-9 per cent in the polls and seemingly going nowhere. However by September 2019 we had broken through, we were polling around 20% or more and had a steady stream of MPs defecting to us.

Then suddenly the Revoke policy happens and we see a steady drift down in the polls and whilst some MPs still defected to the Lib Dems from other parties not as many as expected do and some cite the extreme position of Revoke as a reason for pulling back from the brink of defection to us.

The biggest damage of all of the Revoke policy though was that it totally undercut our main argument going into the election; that we were a party of moderation against two extremes. The hard left socialism of Jeremy Corbyn and the hard Brexit policy of Boris Johnson both of which would do damage to the economy and living standards.

I went into the campaign expecting the Lib Dems to be fighting as the party of moderation and sweet reason up against the extremism of Corbyn and Johnson. Instead I faced a regular occurrence of people shouting or screaming in my face that we were undemocratic and extreme. I’ve never experienced greater hostility in a campaign.

To enter a campaign when we should have been the spokespeople for moderation, to instead be pushing a policy that was more provocative, more intransigent, more dogmatic than anything Corbyn or Johnson had produced was folly of the highest order.

In a seat like Bosworth where much of our support was based on years of local campaigning we had held some of our Leave voters in 2017 on the policy of a second referendum. We could agree to disagree on Europe knowing they could vote Leave in a further referendum and I would vote and campaign for Remain and they could still vote Lib Dem at the general election.

The Revoke policy of totally ignoring their verdict and instead overturning it without even a further vote was seen as gratuitously offensive to many of our Leave voting supporters. I am sure this must have been the case also in North Norfolk, Eastbourne and Carshalton and contributed to the loss of our seats there.

Running on a platform of moderation against extreme Labour and Tory parties had yielded high votes for the Liberal/SDP alliance in the 1980s - 23-26 per cent - and could have done so again this time, along with many Lib Dem MPs being elected if the strong national vote had been applied to strong targeting.

If the Revoke policy damaged us in many seats, the targeting process certainly didn't help either. In previous elections seats were consulted on whether they wanted to be targets and given opportunities in 'Dragons' Den' events to put forward their case to be a target in front of party decision-makers.

On this occasion no such consultation events took place, a decision was taken it appears on a demographic poll. Seats where we had large general election votes previously and had gained councils in May weren't even given the courtesy of a phone call from HQ to tell them they had not been picked.

Seats where campaigners and candidates had worked for years, winning councils were ignored in favour of seats where we often had no or very few councillors. Whilst demographics are important, targeting should have taken into account local base and candidate profile and at least given these seats a chance to be consulted and to put their case forwards! If we are to encourage people to work hard for the party completely ignoring them does not seem a great strategy for incentivising hard work in future!

A further example of HQs seeming lack of regard for any seat outside chosen targets was their decision to write to all non targets just before the election was called to tell them that they could only spend a very small amount of money on campaigning before the election was called.

This seemed to be to ensure that target seats could get vast sums of national spend spent in them without breaching local spending limits. Whilst this seemed a reasonable enough move in terms of maximising the spend on target seats, the process seemed to have taken place with very little account taken for the relative strength of non-target seats.

So those areas where we held councils, or had large numbers of councillors, or had strong votes at previous general elections appeared to be given very similar or the same, very low, spending limits as seats where we had no councillors, hadn’t come near winning a council seat, and hadn’t had any councillors since about 1995.

Thankfully this policy was overtaken by the general election being called, but it does underline a lack of consideration by HQ for those non-target seats where we often had years of campaigning, a strong local government base and their own money raised locally which they might have expected to be able to spend on local campaigning.

Despite a flagship national policy that did us huge damage locally, getting very little help from HQ and actions which seemed to positively try and inhibit local campaigning we still almost held our 2017 vote in Bosworth, down just over 1%. We also again scored the highest Lib Dem vote share in the East Midlands. This was down to the great work of the local campaigning team over many years and the numerous friends and colleagues from the region who helped in the campaign.

It’s frustrating that the East Midlands now has no second place seat again. The HQ designated target seat in the region, which had masses of paid literature printed and delivered for it, paid staff, paid for social media, a seat deal which got the Greens to stand down in our favour still ended up over 11,500 votes short of second place.

Bosworth however were extremely close, 683 votes, to getting second place back despite receiving none of the help above. Had we got some support we’d almost certainly now have at least one second place in the region for next time.

I guess in the end demographics matter, but so do local campaigning and a local party base built up over years. Not least because with five years before a likely next general election, our big job as Lib Dems is to be winning and holding and gaining councils and council seats across the country and building up our local base.

Local parties that rise to this challenge in the years ahead should be encouraged and rewarded by the party nationally if we want to go forwards as a liberal party with a strong base from which to challenge Boris Johnson’s Tory party in 2024.

Michael Mullaney ia a member of the ruling Lib Dem group on Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council and has fought Bosworth at the last four general elections. He is on Twitter as @miketmullaney.


Unknown said...

A very good article. Neatly highlights why the Revoke policy failed. Our polling amongst leavers was down at something like 2-3%. Even most remain voters were concerned with the policy - many old me on the doorstep that they voted remain, wanted to stay, but thought that our policy was wrong.

Paul Holmes said...

Excellent analysis Michael. If Bosworth had received only a fraction of the money/expensive direct mail, lavished instead on a seat where we had barely held our deposit in 2015 and 2017, then you would at least have second place and a good springboard for next time.

Anonymous said...

I can only agree Michael - and like Paul I hope you get the financial/direct mail support next time as you deserve it.

Swinson's team were totally wrong to bounce conference into this Revoke policy. I voted against it, but so many went along with it without thinking it through. Now, of course, you can't find anyone who supported it! Such is the nature of politics.

James Moore

Laurence Cox said...

I agree with the author and the comments above.

Here is our previous leader, Vince Cable, writing in The Guardian today:

"To adapt to the new reality, my party will have to move on from excessive zealous Europeanism – a cause that led to the unsuccessful revoke policy and has sadly now gone. The Lib Dems must be a voice for “leave” Carshalton – where we lost our excellent, longstanding MP Tom Brake – as much as for “remain” Twickenham."

Elsewhere I have seen it recorded that both Vince and Tim Farron warned against the Revoke policy but were ignored.

I found myself in a minority in the Party because I opposed us joining the Euro at a time when many in the leadership regarded it as an article of faith. In politics you have to do what works; not what you would like to work.

Chris Willmott said...

I agree with Michael. There was a logic to the Revoke policy which runs: "This has been framed as a general election about Brexit, therefore if we campaign overtly for automatic revocation of Article 50 AND win a majority then we have a democratic mandate" however, this was far too nuanced and, as we saw the three-word slogan "Get Brexit Done" was much easier to digest. We ought to have known this - after all "Take Back Control" had seen similar success in 2016

Anonymous said...

Because of the nature of this post it will receive a rather unbalanced opinion in favour. However I also agree with Michael and did express my displeasure with the slogan, B...s to Brexit. It did get some coverage but when digested by those not fully behind Revoke it was thought of as ill-judged and inappropriate of a party of moderates. In our constituency we have lost a short-lived but excellent MP in Jane Dodds. I think that we lost the opportunity of claiming the middle ground by adopting an extreme position, when both other major parties were weakened by internal politics. We need to rebuild otherwise the great work done in the last few years by exceptional party supporters will be lost.

Phil Beesley said...

A party can only play the cards available to it on the table. Revoke was a risky card to play, but I do not think the policy to be undemocratic. I still think the card should have been played.

The Revoke policy was a surprise. There was no build up, no logical argument, just a conference vote in September. If it was a surprise to people who follow politics, imagine how it was perceived by more ordinary people. It does not matter how brilliant or imaginative or logical your policy; people have to believe in it.

If there had been this. Had there been that. Had the election not occurred in December 2019, the policy was saleable. That logic also requires that the party has the ability to sell policy.

I watched loads of work by liberals being knocked down in the cosy Rose Garden moment years ago. in 2019, the Revoke wild card was a gamble -- and it should have been downplayed straightaway because Lib Dems entered the election on a declining vote share -- but it was still a brighter idea than cuddling Conservatives.

Really dumb Lib Dem HQ ideas? Parachute a well known person into a seat as candidate eight weeks before polling day and expect a top-down campaign to convert potential into votes? Three years or so after the birth of the SDP and three years or so before the merger, most SDP campaigners that I had met understood that winning elections was a bit more complicated.

Martin Tod said...

The party could have taken a simple line on Revoke A50 - "We won't leave without the people voting for it.". And sticking to it with Tory-like message discipline.

Sticking with the referendum was also a risk - because it meant that, on our biggest point of policy difference, we would be, more or less, the same as Labour (particularly before we knew about the Corbyn neutrality pledge).

Mark Cox said...

I agree with most of what Michael has to say and mirrors my experience with HQ in the 1990's. My heart goes out to him and his team who worked so hard.

However I doubt having a policy of a second referendum would have made much difference or for the that matter been more democratic. Rightly or wrongly the country latched on to the message "get Brexit done" and voted accordingly.

The real failure has been a lack of an alternative view of our relationship with the EU and the world as a whole since the referendum result. Simply saying we will have another go at a referendum because we didn't like the first result won't wash particularly if all you are offering people is membership of the same flawed institution that many voted to leave in the first place.

What kind of Europe do we want after we have left the EU that is the challenge for internationalists such as ourselves going forward

Anonymous said...

The problem is we had the policy the country needs, not the one it wants. I'm apprehensive of how the party is going to handle the aftermath considering many people did still vote for the party.

The correct approach is to move away from the toxic issue of Revoke/Rejoin/Remain/People's Vote which is viewed as undemocratic and ignoring the 2016 referendum and move towards defending tangible benefits of the EU that relate to real life reality.

The incorrect approach is doing another tuition fees and alienating the people who actually believed our message.

Mark Stephens said...

If there was a reason for my leaving the party it was the party’s unthinking support for joining the Euro - which was at the very best questionable.

I was astonished by the revoke policy. Suggested a party out of touch and extraordinary arrogance from the leadership.

Unknown said...

Excellent article. I voted Lib Dem despite the nonsensical and illiberal Revoke policy. The leadership should respect local knowledge and experience rather than be illiberal centralising know it alls. If Lib Dems want to be taken seriously then they need to be addressing the issues that concern the majority of voters otherwise they will continue to be a tiny party.

Stan Collins said...

There was one way in which 'Revoke' might, and I say "might", have been sold as a sensible policy: by setting it in the context of the problems which ordinary people face like the problems with elder care, the NHS, benefits, housing shortage and soaring rents. All of these had been neglected because of Brexit.

Campaigning on those and then pointing out that the next parliament would be dominated by trade negotiations in one form or another because of Brexit to the negelct of people's real problems could have given us the Tories' winning policy of just putting a stop to the Brexit row.