When the Liberal Democrats pulled off a shock by-election win in the Buckinghamshire constituency of Chesham and Amersham this summer, the party’s leader Sir Ed Davey marked their success in overturning a 16,000 majority for the Tories in memorable fashion by knocking down a ‘Blue Wall’ of model bricks with an orange hammer in front of cheering activists.
The tongue-in-cheek photoshoot came with a serious message - after a campaign which focused on opposition to Tory planning reforms to build more homes in rural areas, the Liberal Democrats were determined to start winning more previously-safe Conservative seats in the South in a direct echo of the Tory success in hoovering up previous Labour strongholds in the North’s Red Wall at the 2019 general election.
But Sir Ed tells The Yorkshire Post today that the party has far from given up on the North despite currently having no MPs in Yorkshire and the Humber and only one - Tim Farron - in the whole of the North of England.
The party currently has 12 MPs in Parliament, down from a high of 62 in 2005 but an improvement on the eight they were left with in 2015 after voters punished the Libs Dems for their involvement in the austerity-focused Coalition Government.
Speaking ahead of this weekend’s Lib Dem conference, Sir Ed says: “I don’t think the Liberal Democrats will have fully recovered until we recover our ground in Yorkshire and indeed across the North in general.
We can do that by building on some real good strength in local government. We lead in the City of York and are the official opposition in areas like Sheffield and Harrogate, while Barnsley and East Riding have got strong groups, as have Leeds and Kirklees. We still have a very strong local government base across the North and in Yorkshire and we made gains at the local elections in Sheffield and Hull.”
He admits that turning those green shoots into Parliamentary seats in Yorkshire is “going to be a big test” but highlights Labour-held Sheffield Hallam where the Lib Dems finished second by fewer than 1,000 votes in 2019 as a seat “definitely in our sights”.
More ambitiously, Sir Ed also highlights Harrogate and Knaresborough - which currently has a 9,000 Conservative majority - as a Lib Dem target at the next election. He insists winning the seat, which was held by the Lib Dems between 1997 and 2010, is a realistic ambition.
“I think the Conservatives are losing a lot of support across the country. Look at their recent decision to break their election promise on National Insurance, look at the broken promise on overseas aid, look on their broken promise on triple lock for pensioners. There is a whole range of things where they’re doing exactly what they said they wouldn’t do. We are finding quite a lot of Tories - and not just in so-called Blue Wall seats in the South but in seats like Harrogate - are pretty fed up and this gives us a huge chance to come back and win back seats that we’ve held.”
So what exactly is their pitch to Yorkshire voters? “We’ve been talking about a fairer, greener, more caring country and that absolutely applies in Yorkshire. Small business have had a really bad deal from this Government, they have been forgotten in many areas. We’ve been campaigning for the three million self-employed small business people who got no help whatsoever during the pandemic. We want a green country as well. I’m very proud of the Liberal Democrat record in local and national Government. Whether it is bringing offshore wind factories to Hull and looking at the green jobs available in Yorkshire, that is what we want to build on.”
The Lib Dems have made a political art of capitalising on local issues particularly in by-elections, even when it is sometimes at odds with their national policies. To take just one recent example, in Chesham and Amersham the party opposed HS2 locally despite their national support for the scheme.
But one issue very much not up for negotiation for Sir Ed is his sincere commitment to improving the lives of unpaid carers.
In his conference speech last year, he reflected on his time caring for his grandmother, mother and now his disabled son and promised to “be the voice of the nine million carers in our country”.
He insists that he has got “cut through” on the issue since making that pledge by pressing for a raise in Carers’ Allowance, calling for the Government to provide emergency funding to councils so they can offer every unpaid carer the support services needed to take a weekly break and seeking changes to employment law so it is easier for carers to balance their responsibilities at home with a working life.
“I think we need to see the role of unpaid carers in a completely different light. If you want to improve social care, if you want improve the health of our country, we’ve got to support unpaid carers more.”
Sir Ed says he feels the party is making an impact - pointing to their successful campaign against Covid ID cards and recent reports that the Tories are backtracking on planning reforms which would have made it easier for developers to get schemes through.
“Even with just 12 MPs, we’ve made a difference. My argument is, as we recover, including in Yorkshire and the North, we will be able to do far more of that.
“And, frankly, this Conservative government is in chaos and I think they they’re very beatable.”
No plans to follow Nick Clegg into social media role
Sir Ed Davey says he has no plans to follow former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg into working for a social media giant when he leaves politics.
Clegg represented Sheffield Hallam until 2017 but now works for Facebook as its vice president of global affairs and communications. When asked if he would consider a similar role at Instagram or TikTok in the future, he replied: “I was outside parliament for two years and what I did was work in renewable energy. That has been my passion since before I became a Liberal Democrat.
"If you, cut me in half you’d see the environment as a big part of who I am and I’m determined that whether I’m in politics or out of politics, I’ll be campaigning to protect our precious environment.”
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