By Bruce Robinson
In Manchester Withington, the Liberal Democrats overturned an 11,524 Labour majority with a 20% swing to win the seat by 667 votes.
Early in the campaign, I was called by a Lib Dem phone canvasser. When asked why I wasn’t going to vote for them, I said “It’s because you’re a bunch of cynical opportunists.” (Not the whole reason, but a good enough starting point!) The Lib Dem campaign bore this out.
The seat is well suited to saying different things to different people: it includes large numbers of students, big council estates, some posh enclaves and growing numbers of professional owner occupiers. While Iraq and tuition fees would play well with students and disillusioned Labour voters, the Lib Dems made a concerted attempt to get Tories to vote tactically. Every piece of personally addressed mail I received read as if written specifically to persuade Tories to vote Lib Dem — including one on blue notepaper! As a result, the Tory vote dropped by 2,000 on an increased turnout.
While the Lib Dem campaign was dishonest — for example, they claimed the Labour MP Keith Bradley had not voted against the war, when he had in the major votes — it built on real discontent with Labour on both local and national issues. The government’s decision to cancel extensions to the Metrolink tram system and a rumoured breaking-up of the world-famous Christie’s cancer hospital gave the Lib Dems easy issues to exploit.
On issues like this Bradley faced a credibility gap. He had, for example, said he would vote against top-up fees but allowed himself to be persuaded otherwise at the last moment. And prior to 1997, he had campaigned for Withington Hospital to retain full services, only to agree to the removal of in-patient services and selling off much of the site for property development once Labour was in government. In addition, there was little evidence of Labour campaigning on the ground, presumably as a result of a lack of active party members.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Lib Dem campaign has lessons for the far left. Prior to the General Election, they had spent a lot of time on their classic “community politics”, campaigning and taking up local issues of concern to working class voters. Some of this was cynical too — campaigning on and then claiming credit for things the council was going to do anyhow — or exploiting the death of a child killed by joy-riders. But it enabled them to build a base, including winning council seats that they could cash in on in the general election.
The left should learn from this that it is not enough to parachute into a seat once every four years and hope for electoral success. We have to be known as activists with a real involvement in the issues that concern working class people.