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The University of Southampton
Centre for English Identity and Politics

Miranda Green

“English issues in the 2015 general election”

18 January 2016

University of Winchester

Miranda Green, Journalist, former advisor to Paddy Ashdown

This is an uncorrected transcript of talks given at the ‘English issues in the 2015 general election’ seminar held at the University of Winchester on 18 January 2016.  Please do not quote without seeking permission from the speaker.

Thank you John, thank you for inviting me to this august panel.  I’m a journalist but when I was in my late twenties, I worked for the Lib Dems in parliament for five years and I ended being Paddy Ashdown’s spokesman when he was the leader of the Party.  So that’s my insight to how the Party machine - or a party machine - works in an election. I have some thoughts on what happened to the Lib Dems on the Scottish issue, England versus Scotland and the SNP line that the Tories were playing.

But I also feel that the others have given me permission, by talking about emotion and visceral responses, to just add something of my own if that’s OK.  Which is that I came into this discussion feeling a bit apologetic - in the sense of this idea that national identity in this country is partly about being diffident and about being a bit reluctant to assert what being English or indeed British is.  And that’s probably a little bit what being a Liberal is like as well, because it’s all about tolerance and universal values.  So I’m having a bit of visceral response to some of these conversations that we’re having today actually: because I reject them; because I’m not interested in nationalism; and I’m also not interested in class politics.  And I think that’s also a very personal thing. James Morris, by talking about his mum, has given me permission to talk about my own mum, who was from a very working class background, went to grammar school and was sort of liberated from her life, which would have been defined by class, by [lack of] education.

So I think there is actually a real danger in some of these conversations of starting to define the electorate in really quite divisive terms.  And actually I think, first of all, that’s that not what we want to create. If we’re going to have conversations about culture and national identity, we don’t actually want sections [of society] and classes set against each other.  But also, I think that we should be talking about how to get people out of those categories - it can be a bit of a prison, because it sort of lumps the electorate into these [class-based groupings].

And also I think the last two elections, not just 2015 but also 2010, certainly from the point of view of the party machines, Labour and the Lib Dems got a bit captured by this idea of dividing the electorate into what has been called by a lot of political scientists a mosaic. So you pick off these bunch of people, and then you pick off this bunch of people and you appeal to them. And I think it didn’t work: it hasn’t worked in American politics where it has been tried for several electoral cycles, and it also fails to try and work out what the nation as a whole wants and it is a bit divisive.

So that’s just my visceral response to this whole conversation about identity which I think can be actually quite dangerous - and I hope not for the condescending reasons that John Harris has described a lot in his film clips.

In terms of May 2015 and what happened and in particular the issue of England versus Scotland: clearly for the Lib Dem Party, (and I was covering the Lib Dems in a blog for The Guardian among other things, so I checked in very regularly for that), it turned out to be a sort of disastrous replay of 1992 - not least because the whole Lib Dem campaign became fixated on hung parliaments, and [the wrong message to the electorate of] “we’re your insurance policy against Left or Right”, which turned out to not go over at all.  But also [it was similar to 1992 in the end also] because of this idea of a Labour leader being seen as a bit too leftwing and therefore people being pushed towards the Conservatives as a safety option. And it’s my view that that was a large part of what was going on, and that the SNP threat line played by the Conservatives sealed that deal in people’s minds.

If Ed Miliband had been a different sort of leader, with a different sort of programme and prospectus, the SNP threat line would not have worked.  It was the fact that this [potential government led by Miliband] was going to be a kind of chaotic coalition of a bunch of leftwingers, essentially, which was such a disaster.  And in terms of whether it changed people’s minds or just confirmed their pre-existing bias towards reluctantly voting Conservative, it is definitely the case that in about week two or three of the campaign I was on the phone to people in the Lib Dem HQ who were saying: “You know they are killing us, they are killing us with this, and they [the Conservative campaign] are on the phone to them, on direct mail to all the exact people in the constituencies, and it’s totally working and we’re just dying out there.”  And Paddy himself described it to me as having a whole bunch of cannons just turned round and focusing on you and just firing on you, and they were feeling that pain.

And the Tories were running this line: “We can get a majority, we need thirty-two seats to do it, and if you vote Tory in this consistency that will be one of the thirty-two we need to make the country safe from the SNP.” essentially.  And it did seem to really go over, and clearly that - as we found out - erroneous closeness in the polls made that issue very powerful. Because that’s what we all thought it was going to be: that the real news story was going to start the day after the election with a bunch of coalition negotiations, which never came to pass.

In terms of the Lib Dem collapse, the other thing obviously that went wrong was this complete loss of identity of the Party, which followed going into a coalition with the Conservatives.  But that had been a problem that had been building up over a long period of time, I think, for the Lib Dems anyway, I mean, interestingly, bound up with the discussions this afternoon to do with national identity, class identity, which sector of society are you asking to speak for, was actually [the realisation that] a free-floating Liberal Party doesn’t really have that rootedness - which is an advantage in some ways because we’re saying we’re against vested interests -  but it’s obviously hugely difficult because you have no social base to your vote.

Just sort of briefly onto [a discussion of] what next. I was up in Scotland covering the referendum campaign for Newsweek magazine in 2014, and I went back afterwards to see what was going on early in 2015 (I think John also picked this up from his trips to Scotland earlier). The SNP now is just totally embedded in the communities in Scotland and on every street there’s the SNP people. And they’re not coming from the other world of politics to deliver a message, they are the same people as your neighbours.  And that’s actually not really to do with national identity or any of these deep questions, it’s to do with how the modern political party operates, and who you are claiming to represent, and being the people that you represent.  In a sense there’s a danger of taking the message from Scotland that you need to have identity politics, when actually the message might be something completely different, which is: that you actually should be the people you’re asking to represent.

And just one tiny final point, which is obviously the EU referendum is the big thing that we’re all about to face, and again on this question of tolerance and identity, there are some really toxic themes coming down the line.  It seems to me that this story about the Cologne sex attacks [carried out by immigrants to Germany in January] is absolutely massive and yes, everyone has been talking about the ‘Remain in the EU’ campaign being “Project fear” - well just imagine what kind of project fear could be created on the other side.

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