As Labour and Tories splinter and splutter, Liberal Democrats are the serious and sensible political alternative for city and country

June 1, 2019 11:00 PM

Cllr Greg StoneAfter a prolonged period during which the country has descended into chaos over the Brexit crisis, there are at last signs that the turgid Conservative-Labour political stalemate is being shaken by seismic shocks. Britain is in the midst of political realignment. There is no guarantee that the Conservative and Labour two party system will survive: they have demonstrably failed to tackle the most pressing issue facing the country, says Greg Stone, Regional Chair of the North East Liberal Democrats

It is therefore an exciting time to welcome the Liberal Democrats leadership contenders to our regional hustings in Newcastle on June 8th as Vince Cable steps down as leader. Not only did the Liberal Democrats make the biggest gains in May's local elections, winning more than 700 additional council seats including in Newcastle, Gateshead, Durham, and Sunderland, we became the main party of Remain at the European Parliament elections, increasing our MEPs from 1 to 16. For the first time in over a century, Liberals received the most votes across London.

The party has taken the lead in the opinion poll from Times/YouGov, which shows the Liberalocrats Dems on 24%, the Brexit Party on 22% and the fractious and divided Conservative and Labour Westminster establishment on 19% apiece. Serious and sensible voices - including Alistair Campbell, Michael Heseltine and former Civil Service head Gus O'Donnell - have announced that they voted Liberal Democrats last week. Thousands of new members have joined the Liberal Democrats every day since last Sunday's EU results.

The country and the region are deeply polarised by Brexit. But there is no sign that the Conservatives or Labour have a solution. The PM is departing imminently and the Conservative leadership election will take up the summer. Theresa May will shortly become an awful warning in future history books. Labour's vacillation over Brexit and a second referendum is seeing a rapidly growing civil war engulf the party: Jeremy Corbyn's position is far from secure and his contribution to history is likely to be known more for ineptitude and antisemitism than as the new Messiah.

Although the Brexit Party gained two seats in our region, there is considerable scepticism over Nigel Farage's new vehicle. The Brexit Party is likely to soon become as tarnished and tawdry as UKIP before it. It lacks any policy programme, and there is very little transparency over the party's finances and internal democracy. One can only question whether disillusioned and angry Brexit Party voters in the North East really knew they were voting for a turbo-Thatcherite living in the South of France. The Brexit Party are a novelty which has cleverly targeted the anger of Leavers that Brexit has not been delivered, but the truth is that Brexit is not deliverable. Many in our region are fearful at the prospect of the devastation that will be wrought on the North East economy and public services if Farage's preferred No Deal scenario comes to pass.

On the other side of the divide the Liberal Democrats - as well as the Greens - made considerable electoral progress as Remainers unconvinced by Labour's facing-both-ways stance switched in significant numbers, including many Labour members, activists, and councillors. As North East Lib Dem election agent I was delighted to see our support jump from 6% to 17%, taking more than 100,000 votes across the region, but still narrowly short of taking the third North East seat. It is frustrating that Change UK's modest total of 25,000 votes was the difference between Fiona Hall regaining the seat instead of a second seat for Nigel Farage. In any other English region, our vote share would have been enough to take a seat, but as the North East has only three MEPs, the bar here is higher.

Brexit will continue to be the defining and the dividing issue of our times. The resurgent Lib Dems have broken the political deadlock and are emerging as a major political force and the major Remain Party. We are attracting support again from voters who have previously aligned themselves with the more moderate wings of Labour and the Conservatives.

The challenge for the Liberal Democrats, as it has always been, is to set out a serious and sensible political alternative. People across our region and our country are turning back to the Lib Dems as a green, progressive, reforming and Liberal alternative to politics as usual. We retain a long-standing and clear commitment to Stop Brexit, and to a major programme of political and economic reform. We still want to see a stronger economy and a fairer society. We will ensure issues like political reform, sustainability, health and social care, social justice, and narrowing the North-South divide are at the forefront of the political agenda, not Brexit.

The Liberal Democrats are not only back in business, we are thriving. We are stronger than we have been for a decade and we are up for the challenge of leading a third force in British politics. We are making significant progress in our region and across the UK as the Tories and Labour splinter and sputter. We are happy to undertake to work with other parties, including the Greens and Change UK, where our political agendas overlap. We are indeed living in interesting times.