Are the Liberal Democrats finished in Manchester?
Are the Liberal Democrats finished in Manchester?
“They’re going to get annihilated at the next election, too.”
That was the brutal prognosis given by one student when asked about the hammering the Liberal Democrats took in the Manchester Council elections in May.
Those elections, held one year after the formation of the Westminster coalition with the Conservatives, saw the Liberal Democrat group on the council shrink by a third, as they lost all of the 11 seats they were defending to Labour.
Not even their most senior figures were safe. Group leader Simon Ashley lost his Gorton South seat with a massive 16.6% swing to Labour. Like many others, he thinks that a lot of local Liberal Democrats are suffering from voter anger at the coalition.
"Last year, the Lib Dem Councillors, many of which had a long experience of working hard for their area, were punished for being part of the government,” he said.
This assessment is shared by other senior figures in the local party. Sarah Harding is an executive member of the Southport and Manchester local parties as well as being the national Policy Coordinator for Liberal Youth, the Liberal Democrat young members’ organisation.
She explained: “We saw a referendum on the national government in a local election, and the electorate showed their displeasure at, among other things, the tuition fee rise.
“Most Liberal Democrats in Manchester didn’t support the rise but some were punished. This, coupled with a resurgent Labour party, led to this temporary decline in our support.”
The infamous ‘Tuition Fees Pledge’, signed by Nick Clegg has certainly generated a lot of anger at the national level, especially from student organisations such as the National Union of Students (NUS).
In Manchester, a loss of student support could spell disaster for the party. In addition to a raft of council seats in student areas, John Leech MP is widely understood to hold the ultra-marginal Manchester Withington constituency on the back of a large student vote.
According to University of Manchester student and community leader Sarah McCulloch, this alleged betrayal of students means the Liberal Democrats are in serious trouble.
“The Liberal Democrats are going to struggle to recapture votes from people whom they actively courted by promising them free education, only to triple the fees when they had the chance to do something about it,” she explained.
“There's a generation of people who swore never to vote Tory again after Thatcher - there's now an entire generation who will never vote Liberal Democrat again.”
Although Liberal Democrats like Miss Harding maintain that most of the local members opposed the tuition fee rise, McCulloch does not believe that this will convince the electorate. She finished:
“All credit to John Leech for keeping his promise to vote against tuition fees, at least, but all the councillors and would-be councillors who thought that they would keep the student vote because they'd somehow all forget about tuition fees were sorely disabused of that notion at the last election, and I suspect it will be rammed home at the next.”
However, in focusing so much on one obviously student-focused issue, could the party risk over-simplifying the cause of their loss of student support? Students have at least as broad a range of views as the rest of society, and the reasons for their disenchantment with the Liberal Democrats might be just as complex.
Nick Renaud-Komiya, editor of the University of Manchester’s student newspaper The Mancunion, goes so far as to say that his decision had nothing to do with tuition fees at all.
He explained: “I need to make clear at this point was that the tuition fees issue was not one of the things that made me change my mind about being a party member. I had always felt that the Lib Dems' policy to scrap tuition fees was totally unrealistic and unfeasible given the state of higher education.”
However, he continues: “I see student hostility to the Lib Dems around campus all the time. Most of it is from people angry over the tuition fees 'betrayal'.
“In retrospect it was intellectually dishonest and foolish for the party to sign those pledges on tuition fees. I understand part of these people's anger given that the party heavily targeted students.”
He also draws the comparison with Margaret Thatcher that Ms. McCulloch earlier: “It's also simply fashionable to hate the Lib Dems. In much the same way that many young people today hate Thatcher but can't really tell you why.”
Despite the focus on the student issue, the Liberal Democrats are quick to point out that local political conditions also played their role. Simon Ashley talked about the impact of local cuts on their support.
He said: “We lost the argument about whether the cuts in Manchester were fair, and of course Labour made the cuts worse, trailing closures like Levenshulme baths, before "saving" them.”
This line about hardball Labour campaigning is also taken up by Withingon MP John Leech: "Labour have abused the position last year’s results gave them,” he explained.
“They ended weekly black bin collections, and turned down Government money to re-introduce them. They would rather spend £600K on taxis for staff than crossing patrols, although we have helped force a partial U turn on these cuts."
Sarah Harding summed up the party position: “We are a party that has always campaigned on local issues and provided fantastic local councillors and Members of Parliament, I expect our support to level out in the near future.”
She may have reason to be hopeful. The graph below, plotting the seats on Manchester council from 2001 to 2011, clearly shows the big rise in Liberal Democrat support from 2004 onwards based on their opposition to the Iraq War.
The latest results show a sharp collapse back to the pre-2003 position as student support ebbs away. If they’re lucky, the Liberal Democrats might have fallen back to their base of hard-core supporters.
If not, they may well be wiped out in 2013.