I SPENT 12 hours on Thursday as a teller at the polling station in Llangyndir (nope, I can’t pronounce it either) at the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election, which was won by the unholy alliance of Lib Dem, Green and Plaid Cymru. Tellers have no statutory powers or rights; their job is to record who votes to enable their party machine to ensure that it gets its vote out. This is done by voters volunteering their electoral numbers, which almost all do. Tellers absolutely may not ask how people voted or intend to vote. Nor may they display any party propaganda. At some elections (e.g. the recent Peterborough by-election) the relationship between tellers from different parties can be toxic. In my part of Wales it was extremely cordial, and so I got to understand rather more about the Lib Dems and Remainers.
The first thing is that Remainers believe in Remain more than they believe in their political parties; several voters told the LD teller that they were voting LD for the first time and were proud to. I think that it’s clear that much of the Tory vote went that way.
The second point is that Lib Dems love committees, coalitions and political intrigue. Thus they were prepared to join Plaid Cymru (a party opposed to the existence of the United Kingdom) to achieve a political win in the hope of preventing Brexit. Yet they remain bitter about their experience of the Con-Lib Dem coalition and electoral annihilation in the next election. Which of course they blame on the first past the post system. Lib Dems do not believe in representative democracy, they believe in an abstract political party to form committees to achieve compromises to run the country in what they perceive as the best interests of anyone. Which is of course why they love the EU so rabidly.
They possess a formidable electoral machine. Brecon and Radnorshire is a geographically huge constituency (second largest in the UK, the largest being in the Scottish Highlands). I toured it on the Brexit Bus (a surprisingly effective electoral tool) and it was a sea of orange posters. I’m sure they kept within their spending limits but they must have done a hell of a good deal on orange ink. They also have swarms of volunteers and their organisation is very slick. While I telled (told?) alone, my LD opposite number was replaced every hour or so. The Brexit Party had a large number of helpers too, but the LD operation was slicker. Not that this would have changed the outcome.
I saw nothing of the Labour Party: not a person, not a poster. Brecon is a military town, home to the Infantry Battle School, adjacent to the Sennybridge ranges and training area and not that far from Hereford. There are a lot of ex-military here, and more with relatives involved. A party led by a Marxist terrorist-lover has no chance. I suspect that outside metropolitan areas the Labour Party is a spent force under its current leadership. Which rather undermines the Conservative message of ‘vote for anyone else and get Corbyn’.
The Brexit party got 10 per cent of the vote from a standing start. Add that to the BoJo Tory vote and you get to about the proportion of the constituency that voted Leave. The implication is that around 25 per cent of Tory Leave voters do not trust BoJo to deliver Brexit. With some reason.
One major issue in this farming constituency is the prospect of a WTO/no-deal Brexit causing significant tariffs on lamb exports. All the Tories had to do was to develop a scheme to reimburse the exporting farmers the tariffs that were levied, which would allow them to continue to export at the same price. Not rocket science, and not impossible as the movement of livestock and meat in the UK is very tightly regulated. Funds would come from a combination of the saving of our contributions to the UK coffers and reciprocal tariffs on imports from EU. Getting out of the common agricultural policy should liberate British farming to excel, yet BoJo has not explained how. I suspect that the Brexit Party will shortly.
The Conservative presence was also deafeningly silent. Several of their signs had been overpainted with the work ‘crook’ – the by-election was caused by the recall of the sitting MP for incorrect expense claims (how thick do you have to be to manage that?) BoJo turned up but ran scared of a confrontation with either Brexit or LibDem campaigners in Brecon, confining himself to an appropriate press call holding a chicken.
What can we learn from Brecon? Nothing that we had not already worked out. The key electoral divide in this country remains Brexit. And while the government continues to fail to produce detailed and credible plans on how it will mitigate the frictions arising from no-deal it will haemorrhage votes to the Lib Dems and Brexit parties.
It’s not great for the Lib Dems either: they would not have won without the support of Plaid and Green. The Brexit Party did very well to get to 10 per cent and third place from a standing start. But that is nowhere near good enough. Fortunately this is the one party that has a clear philosophy; it now needs to flesh out the details – which it is working on.
Quite how BoJo proposes to deliver remains a mystery, as does the detail of what he hopes to achieve. The honeymoon is over and the hard graft begins.