As I sit in a rain soaked southern England it’s clear that the Conservatives were hit by a “perfect storm” in the Chesham and Amersham by-election. Every so often unlikely things coincide and an upset happens.
An important factor was certain features of the Liberal Democrats.
The first is that they’re good at concentrating resources for by-elections. In this case they had a location with excellent transport links to London and time to prepare. An activist with a few hours to spare could probably just turn up and deliver some leaflets.
The second is that, particularly locally, they are often completely divorced from truth. This, at least partially, explains their rise up to 2010. What has been described as “pavement politics” might be better described as “bandwagon politics” and they’re (in)famous for negative campaigning.
A General Election has national messages and media coverage. The LibDems support rail and have voted for HS2 – but they can separate themselves from that in the “bubble” of an isolated by-election where it’s unpopular.
Planning is extremely political and despite supporting more house building nationally they’ll happily play the NIMBY card at a by-election.
It certainly looks like there was tactical voting by Labour supporters.
Most successful businesses know that getting new customers requires more effort than retaining existing ones, and politics is the same, so Conservative complacency may have contributed. With a big majority from December 2019 and the prospect of repeating the Hartlepool success in Batley and Spen…..
Chesham and Amersham was strongly “Remain” so, as there are unresolved issues in the trade deal with the EU there may have been an element of “we told you so!”
By-elections are often an excuse for a general kicking of the government, and not just regarding house building, in the knowledge that it won’t affect the Westminster arithmetic.
What lessons should the parties take?
The LibDems will go into the recess and conference season with a spring in their step. Although things went their way they still had to put in a lot of work and there are no prizes for coming second. They should avoid extrapolating too much from the sort of result that’s been seen before, in 2019 they drew the wrong conclusions from their good showing in the Spring and lost their leader in the subsequent General Election.
Labour didn’t expect victory and have been putting their resources into Batley and Spen, but fourth place behind the Greens isn’t where an opposition hoping to become a government would want to be. There are some interesting possibilities were tactical voting of the type seen replicated, although the arguments for and against electoral pacts are well rehearsed and by-elections are different beasts from general elections.
It’s risky to make predictions about by-elections but if Batley and Spen turns blue Starmer goes into the recess with two by-election losses and a lost deposit. Retaining Batley and Spen would make it a loss, a hold and a lost deposit – not a massive improvement! The Corbynite wing of his party have, at best, tolerated him, they may now seek to challenge him. He certainly isn’t where he wanted, or hoped, to be fourteen months in.
The kindest thing to say about the Conservative performance is that there isn’t anything kind to say! Although they’re doing well in the opinion polls this is a salutary reminder that the country is far from homogeneous. The only consolation is that the particular circumstances are unlikely to recur and Batley and Spen is looking promising. Going into the recess with two by-election gains and one loss would be a decent state of affairs, particularly if they also retain their poll leads.
They could just shrug off the by-election result and move on, but that would be as dumb as a knee jerk reaction. Although May’s local elections were generally successful there were losses – to both Labour and the LibDems – in some unexpected places. There is time to carefully reflect and that looks to be the response.
Planning is a difficult subject. “Generation rent” can be seduced by lefties peddling economically incontinent policies such as rent controls, but there’s a correlation between home ownership and voting Conservative, one of the reasons they gained “red wall” seats. Unfortunately many of their home owning voters in the leafy south east support house building, but not near them! This isn’t an easy circle to square but in the medium to long-term they have to.
Whatever the result in Batley and Spen the weakest leader at the the end of this parliamentary session will be Starmer.