By-elections: The Rise of the Liberal Democrats? – Liberal Article
The 2021 Chesham and Amersham by-election will make history. In one of the Liberal Democrats’ most stunning victories to date, the Conservatives lost their 47-year long rule over the constituency. The Tory majority of 16,000 votes was annihilated overnight. Not only were Sarah Green and her party able to flip the seat, but also create a majority of 8,000 votes as well. An extraordinary feat by any means.
The result was so incredible that Lib Dem leader Ed Davey declared ‘If @libdems can beat the Tories here, we can beat them anywhere’. A bold statement to say the least. One huge question now lingers: are the Lib Dems set to make a comeback?
Chesham and Amersham was a turning point. The Lib Dems may soon overturn dozens of Tory seats in the Home Counties over the next few years. But it is not guaranteed. Many factors need to be in place to see the Lib Dems succeed. If one fails, the orange comeback will fail too.
Why the Lib Dems Did so well
Clearly shocked by the result, Boris Johnson stressed that their defeat was solely down to ‘local issues’. This is only half the truth.
True, local issues were crucial. The Lib Dems cleverly pinpointed communal grievances and organized their platform around them. In particular, hatred for government-backed planning in rural areas and the HS2 railway were essential in turning the constituency anti-Tory.
Curiously though, the Lib Dems actually supported HS2 on a national level, despite their local opposition to it in Chesham and Amersham. Clearly, there is something much larger at work here.
The Liberal Democrats have given up campaigning on an all-encompassing platform. Under Ed Davey, they are now playing a nationwide game of local ‘pavement politics’. And it’s working. This strategy arguably explains why they gained councillors in Brexit-voting areas in 2021, despite their belligerently pro-EU stance in 2019. The Chesham and Amersham by-election was only the latest example of this tactic.
However, this approach could fail though. For the Lib Dems to dismantle the ‘Blue Wall’ around London and rise from the ashes, they will have to minutely study each community’s grievances. This is achievable in a by-election. A general election, however, may pose too little time to accurately study their targets. The Lib Dems will have to begin their research now.
Further, the Lib Dems rely on variables almost entirely out of their control. There is a demographic swing in commuter towns which is benefitting their numbers. Younger people, hurt by years of austerity and collapse, are moving out of big cities and voting against the right-wing in the process. Yet, other variables could work against the Lib Dems. In particular, the stance of the Conservative and Labour parties.
The Tory Failure Analyzed
A week or so before the election, journalists from the New Statesmen conducted on-the-ground research of Chesham and Amersham and its constituents. There was one shocking revelation. Not a single person seemed certain about voting Tory.
The Conservatives should have been in distress, but there was little action. The media abetted this complacent silence. Surely, they thought, the vaccine roll-out would give them the edge?
It did not. ‘Brand Boris’, with its stress on ‘levelling-up’ the North, has left voters in their heartlands alienated. It seems Boris’ plans for nationwide approval only had limited relevance.
Moreover, it is clear that the Conservatives do not have any real tactical plan to hold onto their safe seats. In Hartlepool, they could boast that they were the change for a forsaken constituency. In Chesham and Amersham though, that mantle fell to the Lib Dems, who used it well.
Older factors were at play too. We should not undermine the role Brexit had in this by-election. These same journalists from the New Statesmen noted how much of a sticking point Brexit still was. After all, 55% of the area voted to remain, yet was until recently under a Leave-voting MP. Disenfranchised under Tory rule, the people opted for a more accurate representative.
Having suffered such a heavy defeat, the Conservatives plan to reassess their strategy. Amanda Milling, Chairperson of the party, notes they have heard the people ‘loud and clear’. How successful their approach will be is another question, but the Lib Dems should be frightened. After all, by-elections are a different board game to general ones. Governing parties often do poorly in by-elections. With a newly created tactic, and their usual success in general elections, the Conservatives could strike back stronger than before.
Where has Labour Gone?
Then there’s the Labour party. With a measly 622 votes, they suffered their worst ever defeat in a by-election. A far cry from their 11,000 votes in 2017.
Keir Starmer’s record so far has been dismal. He has failed to stand for policies both locally and nationally. His lack of commentary on the election speaks volumes. He cannot and should not attribute Labour’s failure to the vaccine drive. The Lib Dems have shown how false that claim is. The blame lies squarely at his feet.
Chesham and Amersham clearly do not trust Labour as a valid opposition party. Evidently, significant amounts of tactical voting happened to oppose the Conservatives. This means the Lib Dems by themselves only had limited appeal. Gaining their striking majority relied on the failures of Starmer. As long as Keir remains, so does the Lib Dems’ success. If he goes, who knows.
Overall, the Lib Dems’ victory is propped up on tenuous pillars. Many factors have to be precisely in position to ensure their comeback is a success. As a result, I highly doubt this weak structure will remain.
Written by Chief Liberal Writer, Frank Allen
Point of Information
Not a wholly unexpected swing – A Conservative Response
My colleague above does a good job of illustrating that the change from blue to yellow was the result of a myriad of reasons. The scale by which the Conservatives lost the seat was an impressive feat for the Liberal Democrats, and whilst they are floundering at 7% in the polls, this is certainly a small victory they needed.
But sadly, I do not believe such a swing was wholly unexpected. As previously outlined, the Conservative campaign for the seat was lacking, whilst the attempt to lure voters with Boris Johnson was a misplaced strategy at best, and complete political illiteracy by the Conservatives at worst. The very reasons the Conservatives have been able to break down the Red Wall is why I believe they lost Chesham and Amersham.
The area is dominated by remain-voting, middle-class graduates. They are certainly not the demographic the Conservatives campaigns are targeting at the moment, or previously for that matter. Despite massive Conservative gains across the country in the 2019 election, their vote share in Chesham and Amersham actually decreased. This was a metropolitan backlash against the pro-Brexit, working-class focused image the Conservatives have been creating for themselves.
As my colleague says in his conclusion, “the Lib Dems’ victory is propped up on tenuous pillars.” I believe this election result came from the Liberal Democrats persuading the former Labour voters that if they stood together, they had a chance at defeating the Conservatives, and they did. This is also shown by Labour’s dismal vote share at 1.6%. Professor John Curtis even says this could have been Labour’s lowest vote share of any by-election.
If Labour remains in the dire straits that it currently finds itself under Sir Keir Starmer, other parties such as the Liberal Democrats can use this opportunity to steal votes from Labour. Part of the Conservatives recent successes has arguably come from the complete lack of opposition Labour pose, so if they are not careful the Lib Dems may be on the path to usurping Labour as opposition, whilst also stealing Conservative votes.
Overall, it is too soon to see the long-term significance of this by-election result. Whilst I would hope that this is a wake-up call to the Conservatives, I doubt it will be.
I do not believe this by-election represents the downfall of the Conservative majority; I believe there are more powerful forces at work that may do that later down the line.
All that can really be said for certain is that Conservatives are losing the affection of the metropolitan denizens, whilst Labour continues to exist without any true purpose. Whilst these two factors continue, other parties such as the Liberal Democrats can capitalise on this one by-election at a time.
Written by Deputy Chief of Conservatives, Peter Pearce
Liberal Democrats’ Success is Not Secured – A Labour Response
Frank is completely right to highlight the profound success of the Liberal Democrats in this by-election. Regardless of your party affiliation, it is undeniable and rather applaudable. Albeit, does this mean we can expect a reflection of such success in future general elections? I’m not convinced.
By-elections aren’t traditionally the best way to predict a party’s success on a larger scale; they simply don’t gain enough interest and campaigns are centred around more local issues, like rural planning in this instance. However, they do offer an insight into how the standing parties will direct their strategies. The Conservatives were almost unbothered by this by-election, Labour’s campaign strategy once again fell short, and the Lib Dems actively took advantage where they could. For the Lib Dems, it worked. I won’t be surprised if we see similar trends in future general election campaigns.
But for the Conservatives, the vaccine drive isn’t enough to detract from the chaotic Covid handling and innumerable mistakes of the incumbent government. As Frank says, the electorate is disenfranchised with Tory rule and, by extension, with all parties and politicians.
The Lib Dems may have won over Chesham and Amersham but upscaling this success will not be easy. No party has a guaranteed general election win.
Written by Chief Labour Writer, Abi Clargo