I seem to be one of the few Lib Dem activists in south England that did not go to the Witney by-election – though I was one of the earliest donors to the campaign fighting fund. The party stormed forwards from fourth place to a respectable second, with 30% of the vote, with the Conservative vote being cut to 45% and Labour holding on to 15% (they had been second). This result has predictably been spun a number of different ways. But what does it really mean?
Let me start with a couple of disappointments. First the swing of 19% to the Lib Dems was dramatic, but not good enough to secure the party much publicity. The coverage vanished quickly, and hardly registered at all in some channels. The Lib Dems badly need some eye-catching event to give them momentum, so that the public will start returning to voting for the party. My impression locally is that people are starting to move the party’s way again, but aren’t ready yet. This result will not do it. Only a win would have given the party real momentum, and that turned out to be too far for the party to reach. The result boosted morale internally, but I don’t see it having much more impact than that.
The second disappointment is that the result illustrates just how low the party has sunk in popularity. The party put out a widely quoted release that if the swing were repeated at a general election the party would win 26 seats from the Conservatives. My reaction: is that all? I wanted to insert a “just” in front of the number 26. It doesn’t seem that long ago when a swing like that would have taken the party into an absolute majority in parliament, with hundreds of new seats. Now it barely recovers half of what the party lost last year. And that was a by-election, where swings of that magnitude are hard to repeat more widely. That feels a distinct let-down.
Moving on, though, I have found two distinct narratives. First consider this from John Rentoul in the Independent, and this from Political Betting’s David Herdson. Both take the view that the Lib Dems are reverting to type as an inchoate protest party, that will say anything to pick up votes in a by-election, or anywhere else. This lack of coherence, they say, would be disastrous for the party if returned to a position of national influence, as whatever they did, they would annoy a large part of their electorate. The other narrative is totally different, and comes from The Economist’s Bagehot. He suggests that the party stuck to a core vote strategy, promoting the party’s open, and pro-European, credentials. Witney, near the university city of Oxford, is promising territory for such a core vote strategy – but it remains a minority strategy. In that light 30% is about the sort of result the party should have been looking for, considering the entrenched Conservative hold on the area.
So which version is nearer the truth? As I didn’t go there, I am at a disadvantage. From where I was sitting I could see evidence of both. There was much talk of squeezing voters (especially Labour ones) and using bar charts to persuade people to vote tactically. The campaign led off with a complaint about cuts to the local NHS, which hardly looked like a core vote thing. But the party also made something of its contentious stand on Brexit – where it is still firmly part of the resistance, compared to the Conservatives’ enthusiastic embrace of Brexit, and Labour’s reluctant one. And the result, with the Labour vote holding up quite well, points to a core vote proposition.
In fact the party still faces a choice between the two strategies. It might leap into the euphoria of protest politics, which was such a striking part of the party’s rise in the 1990s and early 2000s. Or it could stick with a more patient but in the long term more fulfilling core vote strategy – where the party builds up a loyal following based on its values, before chasing after floating voters.
Right now the two converge. The party’s core voters are angry and up for a bit of protest voting. But on the showing of Witney, people not in agreement with the party’s open values remain reluctant to vote for it. The party leadership needs to hold its nerve and stick with the core vote strategy.