What is the point of the Liberal Democrats? This question has been asked often since the party bet big on reversing the Brexit referendum result and lost. Languishing in single digit poll ratings, with only a handful of MPs, a weak brand and a leader who looks like just another white male middle-aged politician, the question was asked rhetorically. It was obvious that the answer was that there wasn’t any. The party would be replaced by some combination of a newly-moderate Labour Party and the Greens. On the eve of the by-election in the safe Conservative seat of Chesham and Amersham bookmakers were still offering odds of only 13-1 that the Lib Dems would win.
But the result showed a different answer to that question. It wasn’t even close. The Conservative vote crashed by 20%; Labour’s by 10% (they only had 11%); the Lib Dems ended up with a big majority. This shows that only the Lib Dems amongst “progressive” parties have a chance of challenging the Tories in their heartlands. Labour is still paying the price for its flirtation with radicalism under Jeremy Corbyn; the Greens do not have the strength and depth of ground organisation, and many Conservative voters find their brand offputting. It is now clear that if the Conservatives’ grip on the Westminster parliament is to be broken, the Lib Dems will have to play their part.
Why did the Conservatives do so badly, when nationally their stock is still riding high? The obvious answer is that the party is focusing on consolidating its hold on its newly won voters in northern England, the Midlands and Wales – the old “red wall”; this leaves the party’s traditional heartlands feeling neglected. By itslef this explanation doesn’t work. Under Boris Johnson’s leadership the party has a sunny “Have your cake and eat it” stance: doing well by the new voters is not meant to be at the expense of the old. After all that is what “levelling up”, the stated aim of their policy, is meant to mean. Something else is annoying the heartlands.
The first, I think, is resentment about Brexit. To old Remain supporters, many of whom were in this consituency, this is not going well, and the arguments made about the damage it would do, dismissed by Brexit supporters like Mr Johnson as “Project Fear”, are turning into facts. Combine this with the many missteps of the government’s response to covid, and there is little love and trust in the government.
There were to more specific issues that the Lib Dems hammered on, once they found they were resonnating. The first was the government’s new planning law proposals, designed to make it easier to build on greenbelt land. Suburban voters such as those in this constituency have a fear of development spoiling their green and pleasant environment. The Lib Dems also want more houses to be built, but suggest that the government’s plans will be a developers’ charter to build poor quality housing (in terms of environmental standards at least) where it is not needed, instead of “community-led” initiatives to build more good-quality affordable and social housing. The second issue was the new HS2 railway from London to Birmingham, which is being built through the area. The Lib Dems support HS2, so once again some political finesse was required. The candidate promised to uphold constituents’ interests in opposing what is seen as a brutal juggernaut not listening to local concerns.
Doubtless Tories will feel that this is more chicanery from the Lib Dems – but it is not as if their party does not delight in chicanery itself. If the roles were reversed they would have had no hesitation in doing the same. That is politics; there are no prizes for holding the high ground. For the Lib Dems a weak brand has its disadvantages: it doesn’t rile floating voters so much and gives more room for manoeuvre. Still the party is only a threat to the Conservatives if it has a local foothold, and that is only patchy. Besides its appeal is now largely restricted to better-educated voters, and the result does not provide evidence of a broadening of their appeal. But where the party already has a foothold, it will be re-energised. The party should also get more attention in the media for a while – after the embarassment of most outlets failing to spot what was happening here, in spite of ample evidence, while giving extensive coverage to the Batley and Spen by election, due on 1 July. The party now needs to make good use of this brief window of opportunity.
For the Conservatives it is a clear sign of danger, though their politcal position remains formidable. Success in British politcs depends to some extent on taking core support for granted while reaching out to more marginal voters. But this is a dangerous exercise, as Mr Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, found in the 2017 election, when she tried to do just that far too blatently. The main point of worry for the government must be those planning reforms. They are going to need far more political skill on housing than they have shown hithertoo if they are to avoid further damage.
Labour’s predicament deserves a post of its own, but for them there is good and bad news. The collapse of their vote shows that their brand is now very weak – after a period when they had often done relatively well in Lib Dem strongholds. The Greens got more than twice as many votes. But there is no evidence that resurgent Lib Dems will undermine them in critical battleground seats, and it also shows that the Conservatives can be put on the defensive. An optimist might suggest that a weakening of the brand is a necessary precursor to de-toxification. The party still needs to be able to fire up its supporters, of course. Talk of a “progressive alliance” of non-Tory parties is premature, however. But Labour strategists will need to let the Lib Dems undermine the Conservative vote somehow.
For now though the Lib Dems can bask in the glory a bit. Their new MP, Sarah Green, is a strong addition to their parliamentary ranks. Remarkably, 8 of the party’s 12 MPs are now female. Quite a reversal from a party that used to be much derided for its failure to get female MPs elected.