The Apollo Project
Liberal Ideas for the 21st Century
Tuesday, August 16, 2005
Heritage Liberalism and the Urban Liberal Revival
by Steve Travis

During the relative Dark Ages for the party, between the 1930s and the 1960s, the Liberal Party had little representation in much of mainstream, urban Britain, and a majority of MPs came from what was termed the "Celtic Fringe" of Northern Scotland, North and West Wales and the South West of England. The reasons for this have been well documented by, amongst others Andrew Russell and Edward Fieldhouse in Neither Left nor Right and can be summarised as:

- a high incidence of religious non-conformism
- a failure of the Labour Party to take hold in agricultural areas, often because the Agricultural Unions were too poor to support their candidates financially in the days when this was necessary
- part of a regional "defining difference" ("We always vote Liberal here") accentuated by relative distance to London

As the first two reasons have largely disappeared it is likely that the last reason, together with whatever remains of family tradition in voting, is what maintains Liberal strength in what might be termed its heartlands. There is no doubt also that the party's relative local strength enabled it to benefit under FPTP from the "anyone but the Tories" mood in 1997. Subsequent hard work in these constituencies has made sure these MPs are, on the whole, well entrenched.

Heritage Liberalism might therefore be defined as (at least partly) working class, rural, anti-establishment (Conservative, land-owning) and metro-sceptical.

By contrast, in 2005 the party gained a clutch of urban and suburban seats (such as Birmingham Yardley, Manchester Withington, Cardiff Central, Bristol West and Leeds North West) to add to its existing urban presence in places such as Sheffield Hallam and South West London.

The nature of these seats is in marked contrast to those that provided the bulwark to the party's disappearance. The 2005 seats contain greater proportions of students, ethnic minorities, public sector workers and young professionals. In addition, these seats were in the main Conservative until 1992 or 1997, whereupon they switched to Labour, and now to the Lib Dems. The "Celtic Fringe" insult has now largely disappeared.

In these urban seats, voters rejected New Labour but did not feel comfortable with what was, in some cases, the second-placed Conservative alternative either. This is a very positive development and needs much deeper examination, for it is in understanding the thoughts and feelings of these voters that the party will be able make significant progress in 2009/10.

There is no definitive work on this new phenomenon, but we can surmise that New Liberal voters are younger, more ethnically diverse, more socially liberal and wealthier than their Heritage Liberal counterparts.

This leaves party strategists in a conundrum; how do you formulate policies which appeal across the whole range of Liberal Democrat voters?

The answer has been provided both by Phil Grant in an earlier post and Jonathan Calder. We need to move away from the constriction of a linear political space that brooks only right/left analysis of any particular problem.

The consensus on economic matters (marginal arguments over the degree of intervention in the market, rather than the old argument between nationalising or not) means that arguments in this sphere are now much more about shades of grey. The real, and more interesting, battle of ideas has shifted elsewhere, towards the shape and role of government and how it engages, or not, in peoples’ lives.

There is some evidence that the populace are beginning to realise that the media and their politicians are colluding in a charade - the idea that the State will always get things done and get it right, and that in a crisis government will solve the problem. Sadly recent events in London highlight only too well the limits of the State, as Stephen Tall argues here.
This is also on top of years of a targets culture that has failed to deliver – we know that Gordon brown has increased spending year on year, but have we seen even an adequate return on this “investment”?

We can borrow some ideas from the Greens, who term the bigger three parties "Grey Parties" for their perceived lack of environmental awareness. In the case of the Lib Dems we can portray ourselves as the Gold party in opposition to the Old parties.

The Old parties might talk the language of choice, devolution and freedom, but their instincts are Statist and centralising. They look to the few - their vested interests and core support - rather than the many. They are trapped in a grim circle of electoral requirement - continued survival relies on keeping society fractured sociologically and geographically.

For example, we see Gordon Brown implementing a series of "broken by design" tax credits whose sole aim seems to be to ensure he gets proper recognition for his largesse. Liberal Democrats such as David Laws believe that taxes and benefits should be integrated to provide a simpler, more efficient system that removes the need for demeaning means tests. And from the Tories we see the policy of keeping Council Tax with no rebanding; a naked play to Southern Sectional interest which again contrasts with the Lib Dem policy of Local Income Tax.

By contrast the Gold Party can construct a cohesive and compelling alternative strategy that appeals to all who share our values, be they Heritage or New Liberal voters, or even currently "outside the tent". The key is to build a strategy on a set of sound principles that resonate with the type of voter uncomfortable with the Status Quo, be it Labour or Conservative, and who wants a more thoughtful, outward looking and confident society to emerge. And the signs are there that the party has recognised the problem and wants to do this.

In the 19th Century, operating in a society that sought to exclude them from political power, Liberal industrialists bypassed the stasis of Conservatism to build lasting monuments to their energy and vision in the new industrial cities. They saw the need to improve the environment in which they found themselves, and engaged local people and businesses to make it happen.

As we look round the centrally-planned, and blighted, cities and dead rural dormitories of the 21st Century, surely there is a need to seize the initiative. It is up to our party to step up to that challenge.
posted by Apollo Project @ 9:36 am  
  • At 16 August, 2005 22:12, Blogger Bishop Hill said…

    "We need to move away from the constriction of a linear political space that brooks only right/left analysis of any particular problem."

    I've thought up a great name for this new approach: "The Third Way". ;-)

  • At 17 August, 2005 01:41, Blogger Simon said…

    You need to beware of a simplistic divide between 'Celtic fringe' and urban constituencies.

    Having campaigned in Teignbridge (Devon) during this year's general election, what struck me was the extent to which Liberal Democrat support was concentrated in the three main towns (Newton Abbott, Teignmouth and Dawlish) and Tory support concentrated in the more rural areas. Although ostensibly a 'rural' constituency, from a Liberal Democrat standpoint it is essentially urban in character.

    Nor is the rural/urban divide a reliable guide to the ideology of our MPs. Leading 'economic liberals' represent both urban (e.g. Vincent Cable - Twickenham) and rural seats (e.g. David Laws - Yeovil). Likewise, leading social liberals represent both urban (e.g. Paul Holmes - Chesterfield) and rural seats (e.g. Alistair Carmichael - Orkney & Shetland).

    The only policy stands that have marked out the Liberal Democrat MPs from the 'Celtic fringe' are a tendency to be slightly more Eurosceptic and to support fox hunting - in both cases, a local tactical calculation rather than anything heartfelt.

    Given this, and the fact that most Liberal Democrat voters in 'rural' constituencies actually inhabit towns, the 'heritage vote' no longer accurately describes Lib Dem support in the 'Celtic fringe' and therefore the problem of appealing to Lib Dem voters 'across the spectrum' does not exist in the form you suggest.

    The form the divide does take is cultural. Urban areas are more cosmopolitan, rural areas less so, which is why the long-term future of the Liberal Democrats lies primarily in urban areas. Put simply, cities tend to be more (small 'l') liberal places. The fundamental importance of this cultural divide was illustrated by the YouGov poll in April that revealed a basic difference between 'drawbridge up' and 'drawbridge down' people (see: See also Michael Steed's article in Liberator 301 (at for the psephological evidence - a key factor is higher education.

    The most interesting political thinking about cities comes not from David Laws but from Prof. Richard Florida (see: and read his book 'The Rise of the Creative Class'). What Prof. Florida convincingly demonstrates is a strong correlation between having a liberal and tolerant culture and enjoying economic success. The more that cities provide a congenial environment for gay people, ethnic minorities and bohemian types, the more successful they are; the more intolerant and bigoted, the less successful. It is because a city's economic success depends increasingly on attracting and keeping creative people, who would rather live somewhere that is tolerant with a vibrant cultural life.

    This thinking fits well with the Liberal message of tolerance and diversity. It strikes me as a far more relevant urban strategy than the Orange Book's fixation on laissez-faire fundamentalism.

  • At 17 August, 2005 12:34, Blogger Simon said…

    Further to my earlier comment; in case anyone thinks Richard Florida's analysis applies only to the USA, visit this website ( and download and read the pdf of "Europe in the Creative Age".

  • At 17 August, 2005 12:35, Anonymous Steve Travis said…

    Simon - many thanks for your thoughtful reply which is far too good to moulder here on the comments section - why not put it on your site as a posting?

    Where I would defend my position is perhaps in stating that in the traditional Liberal areas we are more of a party of the working class than we are in the Cities (I don't have anything to back this up other than hunch and would be pleased to be proved wrong). So, yes, the rural nature of the seats disguises where our vote is coming from (towns), but it in larger urban areas proportionataley more of these voters are voting Labour - it was this that I was trying to get at and your critique has hepled me crystalise.

    Again, its a hunch, but my suspicion is that smaller rural towns are likely to have fewer of the graduate small 'l' liberals that you mention correlate strongly with our support. Hence, if (?) we can pick up "working class" small 'c' conservative voters in these places can it work elsewhere?

  • At 17 August, 2005 13:23, Blogger Bishop Hill said…

    There is no contradiction between economic liberalism and the tolerance and diversity you seek.

    If, say, we have diversity of supply in a city's education sector then that city is likely to attract a wider range of people to live there with beneficial effects on both the economy and society in general. The insistence on state monopolies in the delivery of services works against this effect.How diverse is a city which has only one type of school teaching one set of values?

    The Orange Book appears to me to be a gentle move away from statism towards economic liberalism. This hardly "laissez-faire fundamentalism" - and I should know! A quick thought about literal meaning of the term "laissez-faire" tells us a great deal about how liberal an idea it is.

    By the way, anyone know if the text of the Orange Book is available online?

  • At 18 August, 2005 21:54, Blogger Simon said…

    Steve - Thanks for your suggestion of a post on my own site, although I have posted on the urban/rural divide a number of times before (here, here and indeed here, for example). I have also written on the evolving 'Kulturkampf' in Britain in Liberator 296 (June 2004).

    Regarding the level of working class support for the Liberal Democrats, it is notable that, in nationwide opinion polls, the party's support is lowest in social classes D and E. Like you, I have not seen any figures regarding any regional variations. However, in any constituency where the Labour Party is very weak, the Lib Dems are likely to take a bigger chunk of the working class vote. A factor in areas such as Cornwall is, of course, the traditional Nonconformist Liberal vote - this we could fairly describe as a 'heritage' vote, but it is ageing and in decline.

    You are right about smaller towns. In my description (in my earlier comment) of Teignbridge, I spoke of the three largest towns. The smaller town of Bovey Tracey, on the other hand, seemed evenly split between the Tories and UKIP! There is probably a threshold (somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 population at a guess) that separates towns with an urban character from those with a more rural character.

    In small towns, I don't get the impression the Lib Dems are necessarily appealing to small 'c' conservative working class voters. The 'conservatism' here is defined by cultural attitudes rather an adherence to an ideological position on economics, so that hostility to foreigners (manifested in issues such as Europe and immigration) is a key signifier. These socially illiberal voters are more likely to support the Tories (if they are right-wing enough), UKIP or the BNP - and we shouldn't bother chasing after them. Their views are the antithesis of what we stand for. Or to put it another way, why target the 'Daily Express' reader when we have a growing army of undergraduate and graduate support?

    Bishop - The 'Orange Book' is not available online so far as I am aware. If you want the old-fashioned printed version, no longer has it in stock but you can still buy it from Politico's.

    Regarding education, there is much scope for encouraging diversity. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that 'choice' is a second-order concern for most parents, who in my experience are more concerned about the quality of their local school. The majority of parents cannot afford private education and must rely on some sort of public provision. The schemes intended to provide more 'choice' usually seem cynically conceived to satisfy the demands of the most sharp-elbowed middle class parents, who hog the best resources, leaving other parents with no choice and declining quality. Or, you get a situation where there is 'choice', but it is the schools choosing the children rather than the other way round. For these reasons, market-based competition is not a panacea. Much diversity could be achieved, for example, by restoring local control over state schools and trusting teachers to do their jobs without the imposition of a national curriculum.

    My original point about laissez-faire policies was related to Richard Florida's thesis, that the most economically successful cities are those with a tolerant and diverse cultural climate. This is not necessarily a function of market forces - it is primarily a cultural rather than an economic question. The traditional dogmatic public sector v. private sector argument doesn't get to the heart of the issue.

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"What is Liberalism?: I should say it means the acknowledgment in practical life of the truth that men are best governed who govern themselves; that the general sense of mankind, if left alone, will make for righteousness; that artificial privileges and restraints upon freedom, so far as they are not required in the interests of the community, are hurtful; and that the laws, while, of course, they cannot equalise conditions, can at least avoid aggravating inequalities, and ought to have for their object the securing to every man the best chance he can have of a good and useful life." C-B.


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