Lib Dems struggle to break through even in Britain's most Remain seats

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
The Lib Dems hope to win back Cambridge after losing decisively to Labour in 2017. Photo: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

In the week of the European Union referendum in 2016, an academic walked into a meeting at Cambridge University naked.

‘Brexit leaves Britain naked’ was scrawled across her chest. Victoria Bateman’s protest was unconventional, but her message embodied the mood of the historic university city.

Cambridge city centre had one of — if not the highest — level of Remain voting in Britain, making it a key election target for the Liberal Democrats, who held Cambridge until 2015. 

Britain’s most consistently pro-EU party in recent years should have the wind in its sails, with a new Lib Dem leader also helping turn the page on its controversial coalition era and tuition fee U-turn.

But interviews across Cambridge by Yahoo Finance UK suggest its plan to cancel Brexit without a referendum could prove too hardline even in Remain heartlands, at least where they are fighting Labour rather than the Conservatives. People are more concerned about having parties deliver clear-cut policies over something beyond just whether another Brexit vote will go ahead or it will be cancelled altogether.

Labour’s tortuous shift to backing a referendum could be enough to hold on to many pro-EU voters. If the Lib Dems cannot even make significant gains in places like Cambridge, their hopes of playing kingmakers in a hung parliament seem remote.

‘If you want to Remain, you’re going to vote Lib Dem’

Feelings on Brexit run deep in the city, which prides itself on its liberal, open reputation. Candidates say it trumps all else on the doorstep.

“I think we should just cancel it. People want to make their own laws, but EU laws we’ve had are good ones. Why would you get rid of them?” said Charlotte Westgarth, 24, who works in accounts at one of Cambridge’s many tech firms.

The city even has its own pro-EU lobby group Cambridge Stays, regularly organising local events. “I’m really angry about losing one of my two citizenships,” said one member at a recent pub meet-up. “And losing free movement is a tragedy.”

Lib Dem candidate for Cambridge Rod Cantrill. Photo: Cambridge Liberal Democrats

Lib Dem candidate Rod Cantrill said its anti-Brexit message was boosting support in what’s widely seen as a two-horse race with Labour.

recent local Survation poll for the Lib Dems put them 9% ahead, while they also triumphed in May’s European elections, with Labour a distant fourth. 

Cantrill, who runs his own financial consultancy firm, said even Labour members he canvassed were wavering. “I had a member the other night ask me his party’s position,” he laughed. “Labour’s not a party of Remain.”

Yahoo Finance UK spoke to workers at Cambridge Science Park in the city’s booming science and tech sector, and several condemned Corbyn’s ambiguous Brexit stance and left-wing views.

READ MORE: UK business leaders dismayed by choice between Corbyn and Johnson

“Are Labour for or against? And Corbyn seems to be threatening absolutely everyone with higher tax rates,” said medical researcher Jason Cooper as he queued at a food truck with a colleague.

“If you want to remain, you’re going to vote Lib Dem here,” said Esther Momcilovic, who works at a local software firm.

Cantrill struck a confident tone as he said his party’s membership had quadrupled since the referendum, rebounding after the tough coalition era.

“It’s highly unlikely we’ll get into bed with the Conservatives again given Brexit.” The Lib Dems could help “force Labour into a position of remain” in a hung parliament instead, he said.

Cambridge workers Jason Cooper, left, and Owen Birch, right. Photo: Yahoo Finance UK

‘Revoking Brexit isn’t going to solve the issue’

But scepticism about the Lib Dems was surprisingly easy to find among Cambridge workers and students alike. Striking levels of opposition even to their signature policy of revoking Article 50 without a second vote, even among passionate Remainers, suggest Lib Dem hopes of a national revival may be dashed.

“The Lib Dems have become a one-issue party,” said James Shemilt, a Cambridge University student on his way to a maths lecture. “As much as I’m very pro-European, I don’t agree with their Brexit position.” 

“Unilaterally revoking Brexit isn’t going to solve the issue; everything’s going to continue boiling,” said one medical student, despite his anger over Brexit as an Italian national in Britain.

Perceptions not only of their Brexit stance as extreme but also their leader as tribal could endanger the Lib Dems’ self-image as the party of moderate politics. 

Several voters told Yahoo Finance UK they disliked Jo Swinson.”Neither Corbyn or Swinson’s got bucketloads of charisma,” said Momcilovic, who will read both parties’ manifestos before choosing between them.

Frank Wilson, a member of Cambridge Stays, said: “I’m generally Lib Dem-leaning, but I’m very angry about the tribalism. By refusing to work with Corbyn on a unity government, she’s doing the Tories’ work.”

Several other members chatting over a pint condemned the Lib Dems for threatening Labour’s wafer-thin majority over the Conservatives in Canterbury. Its candidate withdrew to give Labour a clear run, but the party controversially picked another one. 

‘I’ve never seen so many Lib Dem voters being flaky’

Daniel Zeichner, Labour’s candidate and until recently MP, admitted the Lib Dems looked “more Remain-y” to some and until recently had him worried.

But he claimed Swinson’s support for prime minister Boris Johnson in triggering the election had “damaged her massively,” given local voters’ demands for a referendum instead. 

“The Cambridge electorate is quite sophisticated —  we had Johnson on the ropes, and for the Lib Dems it appears it was just narrow self-interest,” he said as he knocked on doors one night in a leafy middle-class district.

Zeichner said Cambridge voters were not tribal, and both Corbyn’s shift to backing another referendum and his own pro-EU stance were cutting through. “I’ve never seen so many Lib Dem voters being flaky. People know my position locally—I couldn’t be more remain. 

“When I point out the only way to Remain is Labour and a referendum, they’re quite happy to switch.”

Cambridge Labour candidate Daniel Zeichner, right. Photo: PA

Labour’s shift appears to have undermined a key Lib Dem attack line. Significantly, Cambridge Stays will remain neutral, rather than back the Lib Dems as in two neighbouring constituencies.

“Both candidates have spoken at our rallies. As far as we’re concerned it’s a safe Remain seat, whichever MP gets in,” said chairman Paul Browne.

Several voters told Yahoo Finance UK they would simply back the most likely winner of the two. That could hand Labour candidates defending existing seats against the Lib Dems across the country a significant advantage, if voters use the previous election’s results as a guide.

Zeichner only took the seat from the Lib Dems by 599 votes in 2015, but notched up a towering 12,661-vote majority two years later.

Labour’s struggle to revive the ‘youthquake’ vote for Corbyn

Some believe the bounce in youth turnout that reportedly fuelled Labour’s surprise surge in seats like Cambridge in 2017 may not be repeated though, with ‘Corbyn-mania’ waning and Brexit draining spirits.

“I support Labour, I just don’t feel as pepped up to fight,” said party activist Jo Humphrey, who won’t campaign as much as last time and fears the Lib Dems’ Brexit message is clearer.

Many students at Cambridge’s two universities may also have gone home for Christmas by polling day. Maths student Shemilt said: “I’m worried lots will vote at home, and that will help the Lib Dems. Traditionally the student vote’s Lib Dem, but since the last election it’s more Labour.”

Each party's share of the vote in Cambridge, 2017. Photo: Parliament

The Conservatives also cannot be written off, securing 16.3% of the 2017 vote despite Brexit. One sixth-form student told Yahoo Finance UK voting anything but Conservative would “make Brexit negotiations go haywire.”

Candidate Russell Perrin told the Cambridge News many Remainers respected the referendum and “know we need to move on” to other issues like investment in education and health.

Nonetheless, the size of Labour’s majority means it could afford to suffer heavy losses and still win comfortably. “It’s volatile and lots can happen, but If polling day was tomorrow I’d be quite happy,” said Zeichner in mid-November.

But Browne of Cambridge Stays said it would be very close. “It will be within 5%. I couldn’t call it.”

A full list of candidates in Cambridge is available on the Electoral Commission website.