Stuart and Carole Hockley voted for Britain to leave the EU, along with 68 per cent of the population of Rotherham. But in February they returned to the polls to help the Liberal Democrats to an unexpected victory for the anti-Brexit party in a council by-election.
Mrs Hockley, 73, and a retired nurse, says she still believes in Brexit — but that her area has been neglected by Conservative and Labour politicians.
“We’ve lived in this house since 1968 and we had never had anyone knock on the door until we met Adam,” she said, referring to new councillor Adam Carter, a junior doctor.
Mr Hockley, also 73, voted Ukip in 2015 and believes the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn is “finished”. Dr Carter lived in the area and listened to his worries, he said.
Dr Carter is just 24 and joined the Lib Dems only after the 2015 election defeat that slashed its MP numbers in the House of Commons from 57 to eight — the price of governing in coalition with the Conservatives.
He said the extent of the party’s plight prompted him to get involved. “We need an opposition and I had always aligned philosophically with the Lib Dems,” he said over a Coke in the local pub in Brinsworth, the suburb between Rotherham and Sheffield he represents.
At local elections in May 2016, he received 637 votes, 16 per cent. Just seven months later he won 2,000 votes in a by-election or 50.4 per cent, on a 32 per cent turnout. Labour and Ukip lost hundreds each. “People want a local person to represent them,” he said simply.
As the only English party clearly opposed to Brexit, the Lib Dems have almost doubled their membership since the vote and have been winning council seats across the country — capped by the stunning parliamentary gain of Richmond Park from the Conservatives in December. A record number of activists have just attended its spring conference, the party said.
Tim Farron, the party leader and MP for Westmoreland and Lonsdale, talks of “dramatic gains” of 34 council seats since the June referendum, more of them in Leave than Remain voting areas.
The Lib Dems have won council by-elections in Sunderland, which voted heavily to leave the EU, as well as Rotherham. The party has also taken Tory seats in heartlands such as West Oxfordshire and Three Rivers, taking control of the council.
Niall Hodson, a 31-year-old PhD student of art history at Durham University, is one of two Lib Dems on Sunderland city council, both seats taken from Labour.
“The unspoken thing is votes going between the Lib Dems and Ukip,” he said. “As a protest vote the Lib Dems are quite convincing.”
Party membership has reached 85,000, its highest since 1998, almost double the level in May 2016. Meanwhile, it says it has many small new donors. In the final quarter of 2016, the Liberal Democrats raised almost £1,972,904, including £1m from Greg Nasmyth, the media millionaire. That was almost £3,000 more than Labour.
However, there is a long way to go. Since it entered the coalition with the Tories in 2010, the party has lost all but one of its 11 MEPs, 40 per cent of its local councillors, and control of more than 20 local authorities including Liverpool and Newcastle.
Robert Ford, a politics professor at the University of Manchester, said the Lib Dems had three things in their favour. They are no longer in government; they are the only party clearly fighting Brexit, and they have long experience of fighting insurgent campaigns. “It is a very favourable moment for them. Their rise is a big thing that is being missed. Everyone is so busy talking about Ukip.”
He said they could pick up anti-Labour voters in the north of England from Ukip. And they could put pressure on Conservative heartland constituencies with substantial numbers of Remain voters.
Mr Farron said: “We have taken a clear and principled position on Brexit and people respect that even if they disagree,” he said. “There was no need for a new leader of Ukip: Theresa May is it. Clearly her only concern is the rightwing of the Tory party.”
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