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Regional Branding: the path to recovery

December 4, 2017 2:18 PM
By John Pugh in Liberal Democrat Voice

mp john pughChristmas looks a little more cheerful for the Lib Dems after a string of November council by-election results but so far as national opinion polls go we are bumping along the bottom.

Given such data, it would be unsafe to draw the conclusion that are resolute anti-Brexit stance is paying dividends. It may well do so when some turn of events demonstrates to the vast swathes of voters that Brexit was a catastrophic economic and political mistake, but no-one just now is holding their breath. There may well come that Iraq moment when the party's wisdom is demonstrably vindicated but until then there is the danger that all our limited national political bandwith is consumed by the Brexit issue and we become as narrowly defined in the electorate's mind as UKIP.

I suspect that our impressive local council victories were not based around our stance on EU nor on niche issues that engage only fellow liberals, but on solid local campaigning. By that I mean campaigning on issues that genuinely impact on the diverse communities that make up this country. As Vince is known to observe 'all politics is local politics.'

With that in mind I want to put forward the suggestion that our path to political recovery may not hinge upon something startling happening in Westminster but relaxing the metropolitan shackles on regional parties and allowing them to develop forms of Liberal policy and branding that speak to the communities they serve.

I have long argued that "Northern Liberalism" differs in flavour and priorities from "West Country Liberalism", "Scottish Liberalism" and certainly "Metropolitan Liberalism". The same values cast into different geographical, cultural and historical contexts give rise to different emphases and concerns. The point about Northern Liberalism has recently been made on this site by Ed Thornley.

I think it is time for Northern Liberalism to assert itself as a distinct brand within the Liberal Democrat family. I think that is the way to recapture political ground in our great northern conurbations and capture the imagination of the electorate. I believe there is a clear policy agenda that would do that,built around ideas like devolution by default, ending the internal market in the NHS, bringing all state schools under democratic supervision etc. I have endeavoured to explain why I think so and what I think a Northern Liberal policy agenda would look like.

My argument here though is to recognise that our national branding is muddied,tarnished and currently almost mono-focussed and making no impact on the polls. We can carry on as before in a Mr Micawber mood, hoping something will turn up or we can give the regions some headroom and a platform to do their own messaging. I favour the latter alternative because I think it would work and paradoxically boost the national poll ratings

In my own region the work has been done to show that we get a poor deal and that the Northern Powerhouse is a damp squib. I cannot expect our MPs in London to obsessively and exclusively underline this fact but if the party can give us the tools we might just finish the job - and so might our colleagues in the West Country and elsewhere.

* John Pugh was Liberal Democrat MP for Southport until 2017 and was elected as a Councillor for the Dukes ward of Sefton Borough Council on 2 November 2017.