Guildford, Surrey. The heart of Tory Britain. It has just elected a Liberal Democrat-the left-wing party, right?by James Purnell / July 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
I grew up in Guildford. My grandparents have lived there for over 60 years. They have never missed an election, always voting Labour, and always seeing a Tory elected. It takes a certain kind of masochism to head to the polling booths for over half a century, knowing your candidate will lose.
As a child, I could never understand why Guildford kept on returning Tory MPs. My family was horrified by Thatcherism, and I couldn’t grasp why anyone else would fail to see what she was doing to the country. Then, one day my grandfather sat me down to explain Surrey psephology: the Tories would win Guildford even if they stood a donkey with a blue rosette.
But Surrey psephology was over-turned on 7th June. Guildford now has a new MP in favour of higher taxes and investment in public services. What has happened? I used to argue with class mates about the drawbacks of Thatcherism. But being left-wing in Guildford was a bit like being an Arsenal supporter representing a seat in Greater Manchester (which is what I now am, having just been elected as the Labour MP for Stalybridge and Hyde).
So, has Guildford miraculously swung to the left? Has the land of Audis, private swimming pools and tennis courts suddenly read Tawney and seen the light? Is the red flag flying over Guildford High Street?
Well, no, they’ve elected a Liberal Democrat. It’s probably difficult for someone who doesn’t know Guildford to understand quite how extraordinary even that is. And it seems even more extraordinary given that the Liberal Democrats are now widely perceived to be to the left of the Labour party.
That is the Guildford enigma: how can a party that is supposedly more left wing have succeeded where Labour has failed for the last century? Part of the explanation is that this was still an election in which people were voting anti-Tory. But there’s also a more interesting lesson to be drawn-that the Lib Dems may appear left wing in their presentation, but they rely on the fact that in most places they are still seen as the non-left alternative to the Tories. Moreover, notwithstanding their new leftist image, the Lib Dems appear to be carefully targeting the middle-class vote.
They would abolish student tuition fees-which would only benefit richer families. They opposed the windfall tax on the utilities-which funded the new deal. Their manifesto fails to say whether they would increase the minimum wage. It is silent on whether they support the government’s anti-poverty strategy. Would a Lib Dem government have introduced the working families’ tax credit, or targeted pensioner poverty through the minimum income guarantee? It’s true that not many people read manifestos, but it is instructive to see how weak is their formal commitment to helping the poor.
It was the Lib Dems’ income tax pledge which gave them their left-wing image. But how a party generates tax is less important than how it spends it. And the Lib Dems are not a party of redistribution, more one that recycles money: raising it from everyone, but spending it on everyone.
So, perhaps 7th June in Guildford was a vote for honesty? That claim is difficult to reconcile with the Lib Dem position on Europe. Their manifesto fails to make clear that they support the euro in principle, their first priority on Europe being to “let the British people decide whether to join the euro, via a referendum.” Moreover, the curious thing about Lib Dem support is that its heartland is in the most eurosceptic parts of Britain-in particular the southwest of England. How do they deal with this problem at local level? Let us just say that they do not draw attention to the fact that they are the most enthusiastically European integrationist party in Britain.
The truth is that at the parliamentary level, this is a party that is targeting affluent Britain. They failed to make inroads in Oldham East or in Rochdale where they were fighting Labour incumbents. In Rochdale their vote actually fell 5 per cent. There was certainly no enthusiasm for them on the streets of Stalybridge and Hyde.
The Lib Dems now face a dilemma. Do they really want to replace the Tories as the main party of opposition? The election has been seen as a triumph for them. But given the Tories’ long exile from mainstream public opinion, it’s arguable that they have missed the chance to position themselves as the moderate centre-right party which is the main opposition to social democracy in the rest of Europe.
And whether left or right they badly need to develop a coherent view of how they would achieve improvements in public services. Their current policy sounds like Labour’s old mantra of more money as the cure for all ills. This may of course be an electoral calculation-a reluctance to upset the public sector professionals who vote and sometimes work for the party. But ducking the need to reform public services is not a progressive stance.
Labour also faces a challenge. If the political map is becoming more fragmented and pluralistic, we should be happy to co-operate with the Lib Dems where they really do share our aims. But where we disagree we need to do so more clearly and forcefully.
As the third party, with no prospects of power, the Lib Dems have had the luxury of flying beneath the radar of journalistic scrutiny. If they do stake a claim to being the real opposition, then Labour (and the media) will start to highlight their inconsistencies. We will then see that they have no monopoly on either honesty or principle.