This post first appeared as a blog on The I Paper website…
The North Shropshire by-election result is undoubtedly remarkable, with the Lib Dems coming back from a staggering 29,000 votes behind in 2019. The record-breaking swing is on a par with their 1993 victories in Newbury and Christchurch, the last time the party gained two seats in a year from the Conservatives. I was the candidate’s aide on both these by-elections.
Like Christchurch, North Shropshire is not a natural hotbed of liberalism. The Lib Dem victory – as it was in Christchurch – is a scream of protest against the current government, not an endorsement of liberal values. The Lib Dems should avoid over-interpreting what this might mean for any future general election. Even in 1997, a breakthrough year for the Lib Dems, they could not hold Christchurch and they are highly unlikely to hold North Shropshire in the next general election.
But the Lib Dems, their opponents and potential allies should also not under-interpret the result either, because it reveals more about the electorate’s long-term thinking than Conservative spin doctors would have us believe.
In this strong “leave” seat, Brexiteers were prepared to lend their vote to the Lib Dems. I doubt they have forgiven the party for being “Remainers” – it is just no longer considered that important, now “Brexit is done”.
Labour voters have forgiven the Lib Dems for the Cameron-Clegg coalition. While a handful of activists hark back to tuition fees – just as some Lib Dems can’t forgive Labour for the Iraq war – such issues no longer reasonate on the doorstep.
Arguably most importantly, the Lib Dems have regained their campaigning mojo. To win any seat from third place involves being able to make an awful lot of noise about things which matter to local voters very quickly, to establish yourselves as the challengers. Both Labour and the Greens will have to make at least as credible cases to be the ones to beat the Tories. The fact they didn’t and the Lib Dems did is perhaps the most significant accomplishment of the party in North Shropshire.
In the words of the doyen of many a by-election broadcast, Peter Snow “If this swing here were replicated across the country the electoral map would turn orange”. It was, as Snow himself would always add, “only a bit of fun” but while North Shropshire doesn’t mean the Lib Dems will win across the country, it means that once again they can win beyond liberal south west London and the university cities.
But to win a by-election is quite different than to win a general election. The former asks “how is this government doing?” The latter asks “who should be the government?”
The Lib Dems still need a number of other elements to fall into place if North Shropshire is to translate into meaningful progress at a general election.
First, they need to build the case that this administration is not conservative. They are imposters or, as one normally Tory voter put it in North Shropshire, “charlatans”. As such, traditional conversative voters are “released” to discover conservativism better represented elsewhere.
Then the Lib Dems need to create a narrative that allows them credibly to lay claim to be protectors of what these voters perceive as conservativism. I am not talking about policies but values. First and foremost (because it is what undermines Johnson) comes honesty and integrity, closely followed by economic efficiency, patriotism, and taking responsibility. This requires a simple narrative and message discipline of the type at which the Conservatives traditionally excel – “Get Brexit done”, “Labour isn’t working” – with a powerful emotional appeal.
And, finally, because the Lib Dems can’t credibly claim to be the alternative government-in-waiting, they need Labour to stop scaring the horses back into the Tory barn.
Of course, this primarily depends on Keir Starmer, who is making good progress, but the Lib Dems can help them by demonstrating areas of compatible thinking and shared agendas rather than pacts and deal-making. In these serious times a joint message about “getting serious” might be on the right track.