Imagine you are a Liberal Democrat voter in Newark. You’ve seen the Lib Dem candidate David Watts about and you like him. Anyone with that sort of humour and energy when his party seems to be falling apart has got to be made of strong stuff and would no doubt be worth voting for. Then you find Ken Clarke on your doorstep, telling you that he needs your vote for his guy or the nasty misogynist, homophobic xenophobe Helmer will get in. Might you not be inclined to grit your teeth and do it? Just this once?
We’ve been asking supporters of other parties to vote tactically for us forever so it’s hardly surprising that it works the other way, especially when the Tories amass a mighty army to knock on every door in the constituency. It kind of explains why our vote disappeared like snow off a dyke. In addition to that, we’ve hardly been covering ourselves in glory over the past couple of weeks. But I’ve been surprised to see party members say they would have voted Tory to keep UKIP out.
I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think I could. I can’t imagine any circumstance where I’d be able to force myself to vote Tory. There was one occasion in one local election down south where I had the options of Tory vs Labour alone in a local election. I had to cross my fingers behind my back and vote Labour. It was horrible. I’d never be able to by pass a Lib Dem on a ballot paper anyway, but the Tories are a no-go area. We know from the things we’ve stopped what a majority Tory government would have done. No housing benefit to under 25s, no child benefit beyond 2 children, statutory web snooping, even more immigration nonsense, tax cuts for rich people (and don’t be fooled, yes, we cut top rate of tax, but we’ve brought in an awful lot more in wealth taxes, Gove would have had free rein on our schools. It wouldn’t have been pretty. I do hope that we’re not going to see a period of Tory majority government, but I suspect if we did, people would then see what we did.
It was a shocker of a result. It was not entirely unexpected that this was not our day, but I had kind of hoped we’d keep our deposit. Let’s face it, though, we were hardly going to do any better than in the election just a fortnight ago. There had been no time for changes of strategy. In that respect, there is no additional trauma to the crisis that we’re facing already. Newark is a bad result but it doesn’t make the global situation any worse.
Our candidate David Watts could have sat on his backside in his garden and turned up for the odd media appearance or hustings. He didn’t though. He got up and out there and hit the doorsteps with enthusiasm. He didn’t have much in the way of back-up. He was fighting this election on a shoestring and a bit of chewing gum he found in his pocket. And a few gallant helpers who went the extra mile. I want to cheer him and his team to the rafters at Conference in Glasgow. It was a hell of a time to have to keep our flag flying and they put their hearts and souls into it and deserve the party’s gratitude.
Recess or not, I do think it would have been nice if some of our MPs had bothered themselves to go there even for an afternoon. Valiant little campaign teams on the ground really appreciate that sort of thing. I refer you to the Livingston by-election in 2005 when we had a fair few MPs come up from south of the border: Greg Mulholland, Paul Holmes, Simon Hughes and Vince Cable. They all went out in atrocious weather and did whatever was required of them. They were absolutely brilliant. We weren’t going to win – although our vote on that occasion did hold up and we stopped the SNP. Our prospects in Newark weren’t great but the morale boost that a VIP visit can give is invaluable to a campaign team. I know that some of them would have had holidays booked and they’d have been busy in their own areas until the Euros but, for goodness sake, now is time for those in the Westminster bubble to show a bit of solidarity with the poor bloody infantry.
It is noted, by the way, that Tm Gordon, the party’s chief executive, came up and did some proper old fashioned leafletting and door-knocking.
So, Newark was a tough one on top of a series of horrendous ones over the last four years, but I don’t think there is much to be extrapolated from it. The Tories won’t be able to send 500 people into each marginal during the election, nor will they be able to spend 6 figure sums in 3 weeks on one constituency. UKIP didn’t make a breakthrough – but they knew fine it wasn’t on the cards. They’ll work a few places very hard to try and propel Farage and a select few into Westminster. We have a lot of work to do and a lot of conversations to have with voters by before then. We have to show them a lot of soul and fewer facts and numbers. It’s a bit like the independence referendum up here. We either get men in suits in tv studios shouting numbers at each other, or we get froth with no substance. It’s incredibly frustrating. We need to tug heartstrings and we’re nowhere near doing that at the moment.
We need to still talk about jobs and the recovering economy, but we also need to talk about the genuinely liberal policies where we’ve made a difference – shared parental leave, equal status for mental health care, equal marriage, giving extra money to disadvantaged kids in school. These things show Liberal Democrat values at their best. We also need to flex some muscle in the last year = get more changes to the Bedroom Tax, for example, if we can’t get rid of it completely, sort out the prisoners’ book ban and don’t try and defend it. We need to present some bold ideas to build on our record and do much more to protect the most vulnerable.