Core voters are so “pissed off” with the Liberal Democrats after four years in government that the party should resort to campaigning on local “dog poo” issues, a member of its frontbench has said.
In a candid – and perhaps messy – assessment of the party’s predicament, the new government whip Lorely Burt said that the Lib Dems will only re-engage with natural supporters if they focus on dog fouling and other elements of pavement politics.
Burt, who made her remarks at a Lib Dem fringe meeting at the party’s annual conference in Glasgow last month, said the party can win back the “pissed off” but only if they pound the pavements – with care.
Audio of the meeting records Burt, who was promoted from the backbenches by Nick Clegg in this week’s mini-reshuffle, saying: “They are our core vote and they are pissed off with us because we’re in government, but it doesn’t mean to say that we can’t re-engage them. And we re-engage them through our traditional – you know, it might not be rocket science, but that’s what it is, it’s our messaging, it’s our listening, it’s our working.
“It’s that dog poo on that piece of pavement, it’s that light that’s not working, it’s that bit of road, it’s that crossing that they want, that’s what we are, you know. That may not be very glamorous, but that’s what we are as Liberal Democrats, and we must stay true to what we believe in, and stay true to the service and the care and the love that we give to our constituents. And then hopefully, when they realise Ukip are full of hot air, they will come back to us.”
The Lib Dems laughed off the recording of Burt’s remarks. A party spokesman said: “This is the kind of pavement politics the Lib Dems have always been about. The point Lorely Burt was making is that we will work hard all year round to tackle the problems people want sorting out in their local areas no matter how big nor small.”
Burt won the marginal seat of Solihull from the Tories with a majority of 279 in 2005, falling to 175 in 2010, after running a campaign that was heavily focused on local issues. The former assistant prison governor, who is a popular figure in the party, donned a Nigel Farage mask to appear on stage at the party’s spring conference this year with a pint of beer to launch the traditional appeal for funds.
The light-hearted nature of Burt’s remarks illustrate a serious point for the Lib Dems, who are struggling with support at around 10% in the polls – less than half the 23% they won in the 2010 general election. The party is relying on a “fortress strategy”, running the equivalent of a series of locally based byelections, to hold on to about 32 of the 57 seats it won in 2010.
There are fears that if the Lib Dems lose nearly half of their seats they could lose all their seven female MPs. Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president, told another fringe meeting it was a “disgrace” that the party had so few female MPs and no MPs from a black or minority ethnic (BAME) background.
A transcript of the fringe quotes Farron as saying: “There’s no point whatsoever defending the party’s current representation. Particularly on gender, but actually even more when it comes to ethnic background, we are a wholly white parliamentary party, and only seven of our 57 are women. Now that is a disgrace, and no point trying to defend that. All we need to do is roll up our sleeves and fix this.”
Gloria De Piero, the shadow minister for women and equalities, said: “Women have fled the Lib Dems because Nick Clegg has weakly propped up David Cameron’s Tory government. This is a cutting condemnation of Nick Clegg’s leadership from the man who wants to replace him, but Tim Farron or any other Lib Dem can’t run away from voting with the Tories all the way.
“The Lib Dems are busy preparing for defeat because they know their record in power is one of broken promises and hypocrisy. One of their MPs says the Lib Dems should shy away from discussing national issues and instead concentrate on local issues such as dog poo. That tells you all you need to know.”
Farron said: “I was saying what I have repeatedly said – that women and ethnic minorities are under-represented in our party. I want the Liberal Democrats to look more like the nation we wish to represent.
“Just this week Nick said the political class more fully needed to reflect modern Britain and has long been critical of the Lib Dems for being too ‘pale and male’. It is why he launched our leadership programme several years ago, which is designed to support future candidates from under-represented groups. And it is why we now have 17 BAME candidates selected, with seven of the 10 candidates replacing retiring MPs coming from these groups. As president of my party, this is real progress but there is more to do.”
The remarks were released as Clegg said that he would introduce radical plans, possibly all-female shortlists, on a one-off basis if the party fails to gain more female MPs at next year’s general election.
He told BBC3’s Free speech programme: “I’ve come to the view that if we don’t make real progress in having more women elected as Liberal Democrat MPs at the next election, we might have to have think of a one-off way of cracking this problem and reserving some places for women in future.”
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