Liberal Democrats old and new have been encouraged by the party’s revival of its electoral fortunes in 2016. From net gains in May’s locals, to by-election success across the country, the party has shown that taking our message and delivering it to as many voters as possible is key to our revival.
But we have not got to where we are now without some major setbacks for liberalism along the way. The vote to leave the European Union in June was a blow to liberals who have long campaigned for cooperation across the European community. Despite the efforts of hard working activists inside and outside of the Liberal Democrats, we did not manage to do enough to stop the Leave campaigns historic victory.
Whilst the referendum result casts a big shadow of uncertainty over our country’s future, many of the 48% that voted remain have felt politically homeless as the Conservatives pursue a hard Brexit under Theresa May with a lacklustre Labour opposition in tow. This is where the Liberal Democrats have bravely stepped up to the plate to take on the cause of those left voiceless after the vote.
In the hours after the vote Tim Farron took a principled stand: the Liberal Democrats will fight this government’s disastrous Brexit tooth and nail to ensure our place in Europe could be protected. Finally our party has a coherent and clear national message to take to voters.
In the following months a series of electoral tests were set and our party were given the opportunity to put our pro-European platform on trial. Alongside strong national messages on the NHS and Heathrow, in the case of Richmond Park, we were able to clearly outline why our liberal offer was so distinct and why it mattered now more than ever.
The results that followed have set our party on a course back to electoral success. Witney set the tone with the resignation of David Cameron as its MP, given us our first hurdle to cross. Through an energetic campaign, with our excellent candidate Liz Leffman at the forefront, we showed that remain voters were willing to rally around us to deliver a huge blow to the Brexit government. The result was a huge 19.3% swing that almost nobody outside our party expected. The reason many of us did expect it was because we saw first hand the effect our intensive, liberal campaign was having.
Not long after we faced an even greater challenge in the face of Zac Goldsmith in Richmond Park. Whilst the seat was a previous Lib Dem constituency, the sheer size of Goldsmith’s majority and the popularity of his stance on Heathrow (the issue that triggered this contest) meant that winning here again would be no easy task. We believe the party was right to put Brexit centre stage as we were fighting in a pro-Remain vote constituency against a Brexit supporting MP. The campaign that ensued was one of the most exciting and inspiring campaigns that many of us had ever been a part of. It was the first time many of us had been able to campaign on a message that was both distinctively liberal, and one that resonated with the views of the vast majority of the electorate in the constituency. Sarah Olney was elected with just under 50% of the vote on a 21.7% swing — even bigger than the swing we achieved in Witney.
Whilst the results in Witney and Richmond Park were spectacular, we had yet to test our message on such a scale in a Leave voting constituency. The election in Sleaford and North Hykeham showed that even in such areas we were able to make progress. Our candidate, Ross Pepper, helped us leap from 4th to 3rd whilst increasing our vote by 5% along the way. It is also to be noted that this result was achieved with similar messaging, but with a fraction of the resources to put that message out there. What mattered was that there was still a message for every voter.
If we are to take anything from these results then it needs to be that our message can and does resonate with a large proportion of people. But as the nature of the Brexit debate changes and as we tumble towards the triggering of Article 50 we have to acknowledge that history may not continue to repeat itself. Confirming our electoral comeback is incumbent on our party committing to making sure we fight for every vote on a national scale. This will mean supporting our teams in places we have not touched in years as we at Lib Dem Expand advocate, but also expressing the confidence needed to go back out into places where our message may not have the same effect as it did in Richmond Park and Witney. But most important, it will mean a national message that can be applied locally. Our distinct, liberal voice is needed and only we the members can ensure it is heard.
This is why Liberal Democrat Expand exists — to make sure the party sees value in its own growth, but on a national scale. This can help us build the capacity needed to deliver that message to every voter.
Liberal Democrats up and down the country must continue to fight and turn disaster into opportunity, like we have done since that fateful day in June. And we will continue to be there to fight with you.
Joshua Dixon is the Co-Founder of Liberal Democrat Expand and was Parliamentary Candidate for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner Constituency in the 2015 General Election. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshDixonTweets