Nick Tyrone

Why I was so wrong about the Lib Dems

Why I was so wrong about the Lib Dems
Ed Davey and Sarah Green, the Lib Dems new MP for Chesham and Amersham (Getty images)
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Right, I got that one spectacularly wrong. On Monday, I made a prediction that the Lib Dems were going to get thumped by the Tories in the Chesham and Amersham by-election. In fact, the Lib Dems pulled off a stunning victory, overturning a 16,000 majority in a seat that has always voted Conservative.

But while the result surprised me, even as a lifelong Lib Dem, I won't be celebrating. 

This week, for the first time in my political life, I made a faulty prediction of the Lib Dems’ electoral chances because I wanted them to lose. This clouded my judgement as much, if not more, than my previous desire for them to win.

The reason I wanted them to lose is because I hated the campaign they ran in Chesham and Amersham. It was principally based around two things: anti-HS2 rhetoric and opposition to the Tories’ plans to liberalise planning laws. 

The latter of these, in particular, got to me. Opening up planning so that more homes can be built, particularly in the south east of England, is quite possibly the Conservatives most liberal policy. And here was our one nominally liberal party, basing most of a by-election campaign on its hostility to this idea.

Liberalising planning also happens to be a very progressive policy at the same time, as it should open up the housing market to poorer and younger people. That the Lib Dems have won a by-election by opposing this should worry Lib Dem supporters. After all, what does a progressive party stand for if it chooses to run on distinctly unprogressive policies? Surely the ambition here has to stretch beyond, 'Anything is better than the Tories'?

Of course, given how wrong I was about the result, many Lib Dem activists will dismiss everything I’ve just written about their party’s by-election campaign. Instead, they will insist that the reason the Lib Dems won yesterday was all down to the progressive alliance at work. But this couldn't be further from the truth.

Labour got a measly 622 votes in Chesham and Amersham, which will be explained by some as the party's traditional voters nicely stepping aside to enable the Tories to lose. In reality, Keir Starmer and his team should be deeply troubled by what unfolded overnight. 

The by-election result shows that Labour's support has tanked. It demonstrates all too clearly that the party can't even rely upon dyed-in-the-wool supporters to vote for it. Inevitably, this result will now only increase the pressure on the Labour leader from the party's aggrieved Corbynite faction to change tack. While the result is nothing short of a disaster, Starmer must hold out against these demands. He – and his party – will come to regret it if he doesn't.

What about the Tories? Should this by-election result worry them? Or can their defeat be explained away by local issues?

It's worth remembering that governing parties losing by-elections is hardly unusual. Yet the size of the defeat is significant: the Tories lost by 8,000 votes in the middle of their 'vaccine bounce', so it would be a mistake for Boris Johnson to dismiss what happened. 

The Lib Dems have shown that becoming the party of southern English NIMBYs by going small-c conservative on certain key issues can put a wedge between the Conservatives and parts of their old base while the Tories pursue more voters in their new, northern heartlands. Might the Tories capture the Red Wall at the expense of their old heartlands? This result suggests that such an outcome at the next election is certainly plausible.

So what can be learned from this by-election? Perhaps firstly that it isn't wise to make bold predictions. But more importantly that the Lib Dems are in danger of becoming a party that even loyal supporters no longer recognise. When I joined the party in 2008 – and even when I quietly failed to renew my membership in 2016 – I still thought they were a liberal party, if flawed in other respects. Now that they have openly become the southern English NIMBY party, that misapprehension can finally be laid to rest.