It is fair to say that 2015 wasn’t the best year for the Liberal Democrats: the General Election saw them lose all but eight of their seats, down from a total of 57 won at the height of Cleggmania. They lost many of their big names, including Vince Cable, Simon Hughes and Lynne Featherstone, and were wiped out in their south-west heartlands. However, are things beginning to turn around? I spoke to Daisy Benson, prospective parliamentary candidate for Yeovil and seen by many as a rising star in the party, about the new political landscape and the fabled #LibDemFightback.
Daisy graduated from Edinburgh University with a degree in politics, and became a councillor in Reading after beating Labour in 2006 – ‘the first time Labour had lost that seat since 1970s!’ Daisy declares happily. Since leaving Reading in 2014, Daisy successfully sought the nomination to become the Lib Dem candidate for Yeovil – the prestigious former seat of ex-leader Paddy Ashdown and former Education Secretary David Laws. I asked her what had drawn her to politics in the first place.
‘I was always kind of fascinated by it,’ she explains. ‘I grew up as a teenager in the 90s with John Major, and it was a very exciting time for politics – like I imagine it is for teenagers watching the news now. It was the first time Tony Blair won an election and the first time I got to vote, and I was really excited about that. In terms of getting actively involved, however, it was just like most people’s experiences of political parties. You go along to meetings and there’s a very small number of people and they’re like “we need candidates!” So I told them I’d like to do it. I think they were a bit surprised. I wasn’t expecting to get elected and it was quite terrifying: I was one of the youngest councillors there and you wonder if you’re going to be any good at it.’
in all the turmoil we’re standing out like a beacon because our values remain the same
‘The more I’ve got involved in politics, the more I’ve become passionate about getting ordinary people involved,’ Daisy explains. ‘I mean less than 1% of the population is even a member of a party – any party. So just trying to get a broader mix of people is something I’m very passionate about. I think it makes for better decision making – certainly when I was a councillor it was the same old people all the time. If I were elected an MP, I’d still be one of the first 600 women in Parliament ever, and you just think “that’s crazy”.’
When it comes to doing politics, pragmatism appeals to Daisy a lot more than theory. ‘I studied politics but I found it really dry and I’m not really interested in that and all the machinations,’ she explains. ‘I enjoy the bread-and-butter things, like getting someone’s council house fixed for them. I like getting things done and championing people’s causes, being able to fix people’s problems is a real buzz – it’s what I want to do anyway. I’m less interested in electoral systems: more about how can you get things done. Tim Farron has always said how he is tired of being right and coming third, and if you want to get anything done you actually have to win an election, and I like the way he’s put more of a campaigning focus on the party again. If we’re going to rebuild, we have to win seats,’ adding cheekily, knowing my political sympathies, ‘which I think is where Labour has gone slightly awry.’
However you felt about 2016, you can’t deny that it was eventful. Some have declared that new political paradigm we are seeing represents a death of centrism and liberalism in favour of nationalism and protectionism. I put this to Daisy and asked how the Liberal Democrats think they can navigate this new political terrain.
‘It’s been really interesting,’ Daisy says. ‘I think in all the turmoil we’re standing out like a beacon because our values remain the same. People know we’ve always been a pro-European party and argued strongly for support for people with mental health problems – none of that stuff is new.’ Our interview took place on the day Corbyn announced Labour was prepared to look again at Freedom of Movement, leading Daisy to say: ‘I look at Labour and sort of scratch my head thinking, “How did they come up with that?” Each time Labour says they’re going to clamp down on immigration, more people come towards us because that’s not what they thought Labour stood for.’ Her feelings towards the Tories are much the same. ‘A lot of people voted Conservative for the first time thinking, “I’ll save the economy” or “it’s Cameron or chaos” and they’ve ended up with chaos,’ she explains. ‘The Cameron type of conservatism is very different from what we’ve ended up with – this sort of more UKIP-style conservatism’.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Daisy’s views on the Lib Dem’s prospects are a little more optimistic. ‘I can’t remember a time where there’s been more enthusiasm and people wanting to get involved,’ she says happily. ‘People are so horrified by the alternative. People in their 30s and 40s are getting involved in activism for the first time and asking what they can do to help.’ I ask if she still feels like people harbour bad feelings towards the party from the coalition era, to which Daisy replies she feels the Lib Dems have turned a corner. ‘People are reading the newspapers and watching the news and they just see what the Tories are doing, and they’re are doing our work for us!’ she explains. Certainly over the last year we’ve shown that we’re still here, we’re confident in our message and we’re unapologetic about what we’re arguing for, and I’ve seen people come to us because we’ve stuck our neck out. The vast majority of people don’t ask about the past, and I think we’ve moved on a long way. People say a week is a long time in politics, and even though the General Election was only 20 months ago it feels like a lifetime away.’
The next few months are going to be another tumultuous period in British politics. There are two by-elections in Stoke Central and Copeland, both which carry the possibility of Labour losing. We have the local elections coming up in May and, if Theresa May keeps her word, Article 50 will be triggered in March. These are both exciting and unnerving times for all involved, but Daisy Benson believes the Lib Dems have more reason to feel excited than most.