Looking for the Liberalism of the ‘left-behind’

by Peter Sloman

The British party system is a tough old beast. More than forty years after political scientists started writing about ‘dealignment’ and the end of class politics, the Conservative and Labour parties continue to pick up 2/3 of the vote in Westminster elections (almost 3/4 in England) and more than 80 per cent of the seats. Yet as the UK prepares to head to the polls for the third major national vote in three years, there are signs that the tectonic plates of political identity are finally shifting. Even before the EU referendum, Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker detected a new ‘bifurcation’ of English politics – between the confident social liberalism of ‘cosmopolitan’ cities like Cambridge on the one hand, and the nostalgic nativism of depressed provincial ‘backwaters’ like Clacton on the other. The geography of the Leave vote bore this analysis out more sharply than anyone expected, and since the referendum its salience has only grown. Theresa May’s decision to claim the Leave mantle – insisting that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and railing against ‘citizens of nowhere’ – has helped fuel a surge in Conservative support among lower-income C2DE voters.

If the Conservatives are the main beneficiaries of the new political climate, the Liberal Democrats have been equally quick to position themselves as leaders of the Remain camp. Since the debacle of the 2015 election, the party has been galvanized by the task of preventing a hard Brexit and standing up for the 48%. Party membership has doubled since the referendum to more than 100,000, and Sarah Olney’s victory in the Richmond Park by-election in December showed the potential for regaining ground in Remain-voting constituencies. This is not surprising. Ever since the early 1960s, British liberalism has been been intimately shaped by the growth and transformation of the middle class, both at a material level (through the growth of higher education and public-sector employment) and through the rise of ‘post-materialist’ issues such as Europe, civil liberties and the environment. These forces have cemented the progressive middle class – younger voters, university graduates and salaried professionals – as the Liberal Democrats’ ‘core vote’. Indeed, if the party had not trashed its brand with students and public-sector workers during the coalition years, it could have hoped for much larger gains with this group.

Yet there has always been another side to British Liberalism, too – a Liberalism much more attuned to the attitudes and interests of the ‘left behind’. If the party’s sociological heartland is middle-class and cosmopolitan, its geographical heartland lies in the windswept constituencies of the Celtic fringe. It was here that Nonconformist farmers and shopkeepers stuck with the party through the 1940s and 50s, and that the party found it easiest to turn votes into seats during the 1970s and 80s. Jo Grimond spent most of the 1959 campaign holed up in his Orkney and Shetland constituency; fifteen years later, Jeremy Thorpe had a cable installed so that he could address press conferences at the National Liberal Club from his seat in Barnstaple. From the 1970s onwards, ‘community politics’ campaigners also established the party as the main challengers to Labour in a string of northern towns and cities hit hard by deindustrialization. By 2010, the Liberal Democrats ran the council in Liverpool, Sheffield and Hull and had MPs in Bradford, Burnley and Redcar.

Progressive and internationalist values have never been the preserve of the affluent, and dyed-in-the-wool liberals can be found in the most unlikely places. Even so, winning seats under First Past the Post has forced the party to reach well beyond the cosmopolitan middle class which makes up most of its activist base. In 2010, 59% of Liberal Democrat voters were non-graduates and almost half had household incomes below £25,000 (a figure broadly in line with the electorate at large). 21% opposed EU membership (down from a peak of 31% in 1997), 27% believed immigrants increased crime rates, and 38% believed the death penalty was sometimes justified. Chris Hanretty’s estimates suggest that 26 of the 57 constituencies which the Liberal Democrats won in 2010 – voted Leave in the 2016 referendum.

The right-wing historian John Vincent saw this as a paradox, urging the Liberals in 1967 to abandon the ‘the secular humanism of the Oxford Union’ (which ‘seemed to assume Kenneth Tynan was the average elector’) and turn themselves into the champions of ‘up-country prejudices’. Yet with a handful of exceptions – most notoriously the antics of Cyril Smith in Rochdale – the party has done nothing of the sort. In the same year as Vincent wrote, David Steel defied the social conservatism of his Borders constituency to introduce the private member’s bill which became the 1967 Abortion Act. Thirty years later, Paddy Ashdown’s party made sweeping gains across the West Country in 1997 without compromising on its pro-European stance.

How did the Liberals pull off this feat? Part of the answer lies in the deep vein of populism within the British Liberal tradition – not in the substantive ideological sense favoured by political scientists such as Cas Mudde, but in terms of the party’s discourse and positioning. As Paris Aslanidis has pointed out, populism is best understood as a ‘discursive frame’ which ‘diagnoses reality as problematic because “corrupt elites” have unjustly usurped the sovereign authority of the “noble People”’. In his seminal study of 19th century radicalism, Visions of the People, Patrick Joyce showed how Liberals such as William Gladstone and John Bright used this frame to align themselves with working men’s aspirations, tapping into the desire for respectability and political inclusion and sidestepping ‘the exclusive categories of class’. Indeed, this contrast between ‘the masses’ and ‘the classes’, ‘the people’ and ‘the powerful’, has been the dominant frame of the non-Marxist left ever since. After the Liberals slipped to third-party status in the 1920s, the dichotomy was subtly reconfigured. Now the Liberals stood up for the little man against the ‘big battalions’ of capital and labour, treating both main parties as the establishment (‘Which twin is the Tory?’, asked a 1966 poster) and encouraging voters to cast ‘a plague on both their houses’.

Populist politics is frequently personality politics, and Liberals have never been shy to exploit personality. Raffish Old Etonians like Jeremy Thorpe, earnest super-councillors like David Steel and oddballs such as Clement Freud may have made for a motley crew, but they stood out from the crowd and helped capture the public’s imagination. Personality was especially significant at the local level, where councillors used their own individual appeal to overcome local scepticism about the party’s national positions and values. At times, this came at the expense of ideological clarity and consistency across the country. Indeed, the former MP Sir Nick Harvey has candidly admitted that he hid copies of the 1992 manifesto because it seemed ‘better pitched at voters in Islington than North Devon’: ‘With plenty of dispossessed rural poor and public sector workers… and a small middle class so few chatterati, it just wasn’t hitting the right notes.’[1]

Yet it would be wrong to conclude from this that the Liberals’ brand of populism had no ideological roots. As Simon Parker and Tom Crewe have recently pointed out, the erosion of municipal autonomy by Whitehall during the twentieth century transformed both the character and the lived experience of the British state. In this context, the Liberals’ localism was profoundly ideological, an assertion that place still mattered in a nationalized (and increasingly globalized) age. Grassroots Liberal campaigning always conjured up a ‘politics of somewhere’, and where this localism came into conflict with free-market economics, Liberal MPs in the 20th century sided with the former at least as often as the latter. Tim Farron’s call for an ‘unashamedly interventionist’ approach to supermarket regulation in order to safeguard the interests of dairy farmers in his remote Cumbrian constituency echoes this tradition. [2] Even the Liberal Democrats’ obsession with constitutional reform set them apart from the crowd. To be sure, proportional representation and House of Lords reform have never been burning issues outside think-tanks and seminar rooms, but the larger rhetoric of radical reform suggested that the party was somehow different – that it stood for fundamental change rather than mere tinkering.

It is easy to see how the coalition blew this model of liberalism apart. Nick Clegg’s attempt to turn the Liberal Democrats into a sober, centrist party of government – on the model of the German FDP – could hardly have been less well-calibrated to appeal to anti-establishment voters. It was not just that the party was collaborating with the Conservatives, but that its ambitions seemed to have shrunk to technocratic tweaks – changing the school funding formula and raising the tax threshold. Harvey thought many of his former voters ‘no longer saw us as champions of the “left behind”, ready to cock a snook at the establishment, but rather as people who had “sold out” and joined it – and apparently wanted more of the same’.

At the same time, the Liberal Democrats have found themselves increasingly outflanked since the early 2000s by the much harder populism of the Conservatives and UKIP. Though much derided at the time, William Hague and Michael Howard laid many of the foundations of a new Conservative identity – overtly nativist and Eurosceptic, articulating the ‘common sense’ of the common people against the effete pluralism of liberal democracy. This was ‘up-country prejudice’ pure and simple, and perhaps the only surprise was that so many Liberal Democrat MPs managed to hold out for so long.  More than one-third of the voters who deserted Nick Clegg’s party between 2010 and 2015 moved over to the Conservatives or UKIP, and recent ICM polling suggests that a quarter of 2015 Liberal Democrat voters are now planning to vote Conservative too. In the same poll, Liberal Democrat support among Leave voters was running at just 3%. The recent county council elections showed how difficult this has made things for the party in rural England. In Devon and Somerset, which the Liberal Democrats ran until 2009, the Conservatives increased their majority; in Cornwall, the Tories leapfrogged them to become the largest party; and in Berwick-upon-Tweed constituency, which Alan Beith represented for 42 years up to 2015, the Liberal Democrats lost all six of the county council seats they were defending.

The temptation to abandon these lost redoubts in favour of urban citadels of cosmopolitanism is bound to be a strong one. Yet ‘pivoting’ to a new electoral base is always a risky business, and it is not clear that the Liberal Democrats’ attempt to become the party of the 48% has so far done much good to the pro-European cause. If centre-left politicians are ever to regain support for progressive and internationalist policies, they will have to find new ways of engaging with provincial Britain – with its economic needs, its sense of place, and its estrangement from the corridors of power. Shaken by the referendum and its aftermath, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are only beginning to confront the magnitude of this task. When they do so, the long heritage of liberal populism could well be an invaluable resource.


[1] Nick Harvey, ‘A warning from the west’, Liberator no. 382 (Jan. 2017).

[2] Tim Farron, ‘Repoliticising politics: The case for intervention’, in Duncan Brack, Richard Grayson and David Howarth (eds.), Reinventing the State: Social Liberalism for the 21st Century (London: Politico’s, 2007).

About the author

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Peter Sloman is Senior Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Churchill College. He has written extensively on twentieth-century British history and public policy, and his book Transfer State will be published by Oxford University Press in autumn 2019.

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