Could a mass demo damage the party’s prospects of regaining power in York? Josiah Mortimer reports
In less than a fortnight York hosts a protest on a scale it hasn’t seen here for several years. On March 8, potentially thousands are expected to gather near the Barbican to vent their anger.
The cause? The Lib Dems are coming to York for their Spring Conference.
It’s a symbolic move by a party currently running at or below UKIP’s support in the polls to come to York, partly because they have seen the city as a traditional base of support: a wealthy, liberal hub in Yorkshire.
But it’s also a potentially dangerous move. Yorkshire – and the North more generally – has been hit badly by coalition government cuts, with austerity-struck York council (currently setting its budget) facing 240 extra job cuts over the next two years and a £350k planned cut in the school improvement service.
Yorkshire as a whole saw a 78 per cent rise in the use of food banks in the six months to August 2013.
Police, housing, adult social care and other services have also taken a hit in the region.
All this places the Lib Dems in a tricky situation. What future do they have in York after what some saw as a “betrayal” in going into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010?
Neil Foster, policy and campaigns officer for the Yorkshire and the Humber TUC and the protest’s coordinator, explained why the Lib Dems are facing the protest next month.
“They need to hear from people showing that we don’t approve of what the government is doing in our name and highlighting what really matters to us.
“There is so much the Coalition is doing that is undermining our economy and society yet is being presented by ministers as the only way forward.
“Austerity is a poison not a cure.”
But how big will the demo actually be? “We’re getting more and more coaches booked by the day but the final numbers will depend on a combination of getting the word out about the demo and the British weather.
“There is an amazing network of people in York who are helping distribute 20,000 leaflets across the city.”
The Lib Dem response might not be pretty though. “Given how much has gone through with their approval, from privatising the NHS to cutting our council funding and trebling student fees, I imagine there’ll be one or two robust but civil conversations.”
Foster pointed out that Lib Dem popularity has plummeted since they’ve gone into the coalition with the Tories and “signed up to their destructive austerity agenda”.
“Many Conservative MPs want to privatise public services, drive down wages, cut taxes for the wealthy and hammer civil society and voices of dissent and blame the poorest in society for their poverty.
“I think many people are still shocked by how much the Lib Dems have gone along with all that.”
The backlash begins
From people I’ve spoken to, he may be right. Where did the anger start though?
The first sign of discontent in the city was the 2011 local council elections, with the Lib Dems – a year into their term and hurting in the wake of the tuition fees U-turn – losing 12 seats on York council and down four per cent, handing the previously no-overall-control authority to Labour.
But perhaps the party’s 2011 losses were a blessing in disguise. Now opposing the Labour rulers on the council, the Lib Dems could criticise cuts to public services while administering them on a national level.
I spoke to deputy group leader for the Lib Dems, Cllr Ann Reid, about the protest and the Lib Dem’s future in York.
On coalition austerity, the Lib Dems find it a tough circle to square – opposing cuts locally while pushing them nationally.
“It is difficult sometimes locally when there are things the council are having to do that Labour can blame on us – but Labour are using that a lot for excuses for bad things they’re doing,” Cllr Reid said.
But she questioned the electorate’s perception – “People still complain about Nick Clegg and the tuition fees, while forgetting they’re £600 better off because of the reduction in income tax.”
Cllr Reid hadn’t heard about the protest but said she wasn’t surprised about the TUC’s plans: “Every party conference seems to get a protest outside it.”
It’s just a platform – party conference protests “get on television whatever they’re protesting about”.
Labour ‘hit by local issues’
But what of responses to the coalition in York?
“It’s actually quite difficult to gauge…the result of the last local elections was a response to the coalition, but more specifically to the tuition fees issue.
“But there are major issues happening in York that will make it hard for people to support Labour locally.”
She said people may end up voting for good local Lib Dem candidates at the next election, while possibly kicking some Lib Dem MPs – of which York, of course, has none – out of Parliament.
“We’re still holding up despite what is happening nationally, but people are very strange in terms of how they vote.”
It could go either way then – kicking Labour out locally and replacing them with Lib Dems again, or sticking with Labour here to give the coalition a drubbing. She seemed confident however.
“We’re hoping to gain. A lot of people are very unhappy about what’s happening in the city under this administration, which can only help us when they get to the ballot box.” The Lendal Bridge closure, among other things, has caused a stir in the city.
Lib Dem membership here has reportedly “come and gone, up and down, but actually it’s not too bad. There’s a lot of interest this year from the university and students”.
It’s something I’ve noticed on campus too, with the Lib Dem society seeming to do unexpectedly well after a post-tuition fees slump. Maybe people have forgotten, or are just over it?
One student and former Lib Dem supporter I spoke to disagreed. I asked him why he switched from Lib Dem to Labour. “Most of the coalition’s activities, particularly tuition fees and, more recently, benefit cuts. It might not be strictly their fault, but they just don’t seem to be doing anything about it.”
He said he’d probably be at the protest next month. The anger is clear – “I’m not voting for them again, and I know quite a few people in political societies I’m in feel the same.”
But is it game over for the party in the city? “I’d say [the coalition has] damaged their prospects, but I don’t think they’re totally finished.” That’s the local level though – “for the general election, I’d say they have no chance of any kind of power.” It’s a sobering statement for Britain’s former third party.
The TUC’s Neil Foster seemed to agree: “Over the next 12 months you might see some cosmetic attempts by both Coalition parties to manufacture differences, but where were those differences when tuition fees were being voted on or when the bedroom tax was being introduced?
“It’s fair to say political parties struggle when they ignore the public or promise one thing then do the total opposite.”
As for Yorkshire? “The government seems relaxed about people in Yorkshire going without food and kids going to schools with empty bellies, but we’re not.”
Perhaps it’s telling that protest attendees are being asked to bring dried food for food banks and homeless projects in the region.
The protest will start at Clifford’s Tower at 11am on Saturday 8th March.
How many people turn up might well highlight whether the Lib Dems really are doomed – or whether they have a future – here in York.
- Josiah Mortimer is a York University politics student and press officer for the Young Green Party
- See also ‘Lib Dem spring conference is good news for city’
- Lendal Bridge restrictions lifted on day of TUC march