Membership of the Liberal Democrats has collapsed by more than a quarter, internal party documents show, with young members blaming the party’s strong opposition against the Government’s proposed planning reforms.
Party membership is down 27% on this time last year, a document prepared ahead of the Lib Dem annual conference later this month and seen by the PA news agency showed.
And some members said the fall was due, in part, to the party vocally opposing now-ditched planning reforms during the by-election in Chesham and Amersham in June.
Leaflets from the Lib Dems at the time attacked the policy and included quotes from prominent Tories such as former prime minister Theresa May and former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith criticising the reforms.
Here it is. The anti-planning reform leaflet the Libs were handing out during the Chesham by-election.
Quotes from Theresa May (pictured) and IDS criticising the reforms. (One Tory MP who visited a dozen times told me these ‘cut through’) pic.twitter.com/MmSSq0W44S
— Ben Riley-Smith (@benrileysmith) June 18, 2021
In a shock result, Lib Dem Sarah Green ended up overturning a 16,000-plus Conservative majority to win by 8,028 votes, a swing of 25%.
But activists said a focus on “nimby-ism” – an acronym for “not in my back yard” that has come to symbolise opposition to development – was causing young members to “become more and more dejected by the day”.
Reports have suggested the Government’s reforms – which included plans to remove the public’s right to object to planning applications through creating zonal areas – will be watered down.
And Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey is preparing to mount an offensive targeting 20 of the so-called “blue wall” Tory seats which he considered vulnerable.
But a number of young Lib Dems are deeply uncomfortable with the direction.
Activist Freddie Poser, a former party organiser for the Westminster and City Liberal Democrats, said: “On planning, specifically, the (by-election) campaign was run entirely on this nimby basis.”
And he said: “If our next general election campaign were on this basis, how could I stand on the doorstep and fight for a party that I know is not doing the things they know have to be done to tackle the housing crisis? I’d certainly consider my future campaigning for the party.
“If our general election campaigns were as bad as our Chesham and Amersham campaign, I would absolutely have to consider my membership.”
Mr Poser, 21, said he did not think there had been an “exodus”, but that was because politically there was “nowhere to go… so I hold my nose and stay because there are some good things about the party”.
He added young members were “becoming more and more dejected by the day”.
Today Government let slip quietly that they are dropping #VaccinePassports.
Yesterday we heard #Planning reform won’t go ahead as planned.
Looks awfully like double victory for @LibDems
Tories 0 – Lib Dems 2.
— Wera Hobhouse MP 🔶 (@Wera_Hobhouse) September 12, 2021
While Peter McLaughlin, 21, a member of the Liberal Democrat society at the University of Cambridge who campaigned in Chesham and Amersham, said there was a lot of “despondency” among younger members.
He added: “If you look at the Chesham and Amersham campaign, which I was down at, there were a lot of aspects of that that I wasn’t happy… which I’m pretty sure nobody at CULA (Cambridge University Liberal Association) will be happy with.
“I think that is the sort of thing that will stop young activists (from canvassing for the party).”
Fraser Coppin, co-chair of the Liberal Reform pressure group, suggested some of the membership drop may be those who had joined during the peak of Brexit, but he admitted “there has definitely been some discontent, particularly among the younger members, myself included”.
He said the by-election campaign “was done in such a way that basically, they were just against any kind of new housing being built in the area, and evidently, as a strategy that had some validity because we did win”.
But Mr Coppin, 26, a party member for six or seven years who has put forward a motion supporting housebuilding at the Lib Dem conference next weekend, said: “It was very frustrating to people like myself, who would like to see the party take a more pro-housing stance.
“For me personally, it’s definitely put me off. I’m about as disillusioned with the party as I’ve ever been.
Mr Coppin added: “I don’t think a week goes by without me considering my membership, to be honest. I’m sticking with it for now.”
The Lib Dems are capitalising on the by-election win to target the so-called “blue wall” of southern Conservative seats.
The party has drawn up a “promise breaker” hitlist, targeting 20 of the 317 Conservative MPs in marginal seats, attacking the Tory’s increase in national insurance.
And Sir Ed warned the Conservatives are “losing touch with their votes across the blue wall”.
Sir Ed previously said planning, among other issues, had prompted a “strong tide of dissatisfaction” across formerly safe Tory seats.
But he insisted he was not a nimby – and houses did need to be built.
He previously said it was wrong to see the debate as “between the wrong homes in the wrong places and no homes at all”.
A Liberal Democrat spokesperson said: “The Liberal Democrats are proud of our historic by-election victory in Chesham and Amersham that forced the Conservatives to drop their undemocratic planning reforms.
“We want to see 300,000 more homes built a year including 100,000 social homes for rent, through an approach that puts local communities not developers first.
“Membership of the party remains at historically high levels despite falling slightly from its peak after the EU referendum. Morale in the Liberal Democrats is high ahead of this year’s autumn conference, with voters across the Blue Wall switching to us from the Conservatives after their manifesto-breaking and unfair tax on young families and workers.”