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Why Vote? A sour mood among the British electorate

by Richard Pooley

If there is a gate, always close it behind you. Pets have been known to squeeze between legs at the open front door and run out into the road...and under a car. You won’t get their owner’s vote if that happens.

Check again on the party’s Minivan app on smartphone: name, number of people, previous canvassing information (if recorded).

Press bell/knock on door.

Look around while waiting (state of garden/front area/front door/window frames? What transport – car/bicycles/boots?): guess likely worries/annoyances...and voting intention.

No answer? Not unusual on a late Saturday morning wherever you are in Britain. Push “Sorry you were out” leaflet through the thick brushes lining the letter box. Make sure it goes all the way in. Otherwise canvassers from opposing parties will pull it back out again. If a dog chews it up or, worse, chews your probing fingers, assume the voter is a libertarian, right-wing Brexiteer. Or won’t vote.

Door opens? Step back and smile (“I’m no threat.”). Let her/him take in your bright yellow orange badge/rosette. “Good morning. I’m calling on behalf of the local Liberal Democrats.” Pause for reaction. If they are not already closing the door or shaking their head (a rarity in my experience), carry on: “As you know (invariably they don’t), there are local elections for the Council this May. Just need to remind youthat you have to take voter ID when you vote in person. Got to have a photo. Here are the details if you want to vote by post (always leave them with something). Are there any issues...problems (name one you have been told is annoying people in the area – e.g. speed limits, rubbish collection, student numbers) that you would like me to tell our candidates?”

This is the part I like the most. They might tell you first what is bugging them on their street but soon they’re telling you... the country is going to the dogs/Johnson was a disaster/Boris had the right ideas...and, depressingly, one of the most common: “All you politicians are the same. Out for yourselves. Look at that Johnson/Truss/Starmer.” I don’t know whether I’m pleased or not to be thought one of these luminaries, or that not one person can name a Lib Dem politician, not even our nice but ineffectual leader (Ed Davey, if you want to know).

After all this, the final question – “Can I ask? Have you made up your mind who you’ll be voting for on 4 May?” - is almost redundant. 80% of the time they have told me how they will vote – variations on “I vote Lib Dem locally” were the answers I got on my last canvass ten days ago. Not surprising in a city, Bath, which has a Liberal Democrat-run council (covering a large area of countryside as well) is one of only fourteen constituencies with a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament. And if they haven’t told me how they will vote, I know it won’t be for us.

Why do I like this bit? Indeed, why do I like canvassing? Because I learn stuff. The opinions of strangers. And sometimes their stories. Above all, every canvassing session - wherever it is, however people are likely to vote - gives me a feel for the mood in the city and perhaps the country at large.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that listening to fifteen to twenty people sounding off about matters is equivalent to a YouGov poll of voting intentions. But do this exercise a few times over a couple of months and you soon sense how people of all ages and persuasions are feeling.

And right now in this part of the UK that feeling is not good.

I first started canvassing in 1980. I was a Liberal then (and now; I’ve never taken to the change in the party’s moniker, especially its dismal abbreviation – Lib Dem). By early 1982 I was standing to be a councillor in the Conservative party stronghold of Kensington and Chelsea in London. For the first time that any of the older party activists could remember, the Liberals and our new allies, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), had a chance of winning seats. People I canvassed were excited by the arrival of the SDP, formed by four Labour MPs who had become fed up with the domination of their party by Marxist ideologues and trades union bosses. The painful spending cuts brought in by the Conservative government under Mrs Thatcher had not yet made a positive difference to the lives of the people I was listening to. We Liberals, on the coat-tails of the Social Democrats, offered the hope of a brighter future. And then the generals ruling Argentina came to Thatcher’s aid and invaded the Falkland Islands (or Las Malvinas). “Oh, we can’t vote against her now.” many a friendly old lady would tell me. No use telling them that they were voting to decide who would fix the broken pavements on their way to the shops. I came second to a Conservative who is now in the House of Lords.

In February 1983 I canvassed during a by-election in working-class Bermondsey in south London. This safe Labour seat was won by the Liberal Party with the biggest by-election swing in British political history – 44.2%. It was a dirty election campaign. The Labour candidate, the gay Peter Tatchell, was the target of much abuse (one independent “Real Labour” candidate toured the constituency singing a song from the back of a cart, one verse of which said Tatchell was “wearing his trousers back to front.”). I knew early on we would win. Nearly everyone I canvassed happily told me that they normally voted Labour but would not be voting for “that poof”. But what I remember most was how often they added that that they didn’t like his militant left-wing views either and admired “that Maggie Thatcher”. Why did they like her? Because she had “beaten the Argies” and was standing up to the trades unions. They believed that things were getting better for them. Although the new Liberal MP for Bermondsey, Simon Hughes, easily kept his slightly reconfigured seat in the general election in June 1983, Margaret Thatcher swept back to power nationally, sending the Labour party down to one of its worst-ever defeats.

Since then I have canvassed in many different kinds of elections in the UK - local, by, and general (I was living in France during the 2016 referendum on whether or not to stay in the European Union; Bath voted overwhelmingly to stay in). In every one it was the party that credibly offered an optimistic vision of the future which won. At the general election in December 2019, for example, I soon felt in and around Bath that Boris Johnston’s hyperbolic jingoism - “world-beating”- and simple slogans - “Get Brexit Done” - were winning hearts and minds. The Liberal Democrats held on to Bath (with an increased majority over the Conservatives) but country-wide we were almost obliterated in a Conservative landslide.

This local election feels different. I’ve never known on the doorstep these past few weeks such tired pessimism, such a cynical view of politicians, such doubt that anything can get done and done well. The incompetence of the scandal-riven Conservative government is often referred to even by those which our canvassing returns say are “soft Tory”. It will certainly stop many from voting Conservative or voting at all. But the opposition parties engender no enthusiasm either. Labour voters appear to respect their party’s leader, Sir Keir Starmer, but wonder what he and Labour are offering them which will change things for the better. The Liberal Democrats run the Council and, as incumbents in a time of hardship and economic gloom, would normally expect to lose votes, however well we may have done (and many think we have done badly). Nationally, as one Green voter sneered, we are “irrelevant”.

It’s normal for turnout at a local election to be low. About half of voters in Bath and North-east Somerset (BaNES) voted in the last one in 2019. I expect turnout will be below 40% this May. Why? Because of the mood I have described. And because of a long-held and totally justified view that local councils in England (N.B. not the UK) have too little money and therefore power to make a real difference to voters lives.

England has become the most centralised country in Europe. We used to mock the French for being so labelled but they, like the other five members of the G7 group of wealthy countries, collect more taxes at local level than the English do. 12% of the UK’s taxes are collected locally (so England’s % must be lower). Compare that with “all roads lead to Rome” Italy (17%) and federal Germany (30%). In Canada the figure is 50%.

Both main political parties in England and Wales now say that they will devolve more power away from London to the regions. The Conservatives call this “Levelling Up”. Labour has cheekily stolen the Tory Brixteers’ slogan, calling their devolution policy “Taking Back Control”. But both parties have been saying this in different ways for decades when not in power and then done exactly the opposite when back in charge of central government. Witness the budget speech of Chancellor Jeremy Hunt last week in which almost every grant of money to some part of the country was prefaced with “I am giving to...”.

The crying need to give back large tax-raising and decision-making powers to local government in the UK (‘back’ because such powers were indeed once exercised by the great cities and towns of England) will be the subject of a future article. It is a policy which the Liberals (and the Liberal Democrats) have always believed in and argued for. It is one which many I meet on the doorstep would welcome and would turn out to vote for. Yet hardly anyone I canvass knows that this is one of our major policies.

The UK has to have a general election before the end of next year. Most political commentators and a large number of Conservative MPs, backed by opinion polls, think that Starmer’s Labour Party will win and win easily. I’m not so sure. The voters I meet while canvassing give me the impression that the winner will be the party which offers the British hope of a better future. Not one is doing so at present.



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