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OP-ED: Has the time finally come for the Liberal Democrats?

  • Published at 09:11 pm June 27th, 2021
Boris Johnson

The Tories appear to be losing their appeal amidst certain supporter groups

Something of a political earthquake hit Westminster a couple of weeks ago. The previously unassailable Conservative seat of Chesham and Amersham in Buckinghamshire, was taken by the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems) in a by-election following the death of its MP of 30 years, Dame Cheryl Gillan.

The winning candidate, Sarah Green, transformed a 16,000 majority under the Conservatives into an 8,000 lead for the Lib Dems. This is, by any standard, a remarkable turnaround, because if you had to paint a portrait of the archetypal Tory constituency, it would be Chesham and Amersham; prosperous, middle-class, and politically moderate. Five years ago this week, it voted decisively against the UK leaving the European Union. 

So what is happening? Well, certainly there were some local issues which contributed to the Tory’s loss. The new high speed rail link (HS2), once opposed and now enthusiastically supported by Boris Johnson, is being built right through the heart of the constituency. 

And the government’s plans to relax planning regulations making it much easier for large developers to build on previously protected green field sites has also angered local residents. But there is more to the Lib Dems’ victory than simply concerns over new railway lines and planning relaxations. 

Dame Cheryl’s brand of Conservatism, like many of those who voted for her, harked back to a different era. It was a gentler, kinder, and more inclusive vision of the Party and was in stark contrast to the more abrasive style of the Conservative government.  

Traditional Conservative values of the sort found in so-called “middle England,” have at their heart a sense of decency, honesty, and integrity. These are not values that seem to sit well with the present Conservative party or its leader. 

Boris Johnson’s cavalier attitude to the truth, his numerous extra-marital affairs, and the fact that he was the only PM openly living with his mistress in 10 Downing Street -- what only a few years ago would be called “living in sin” may have been dismissed in the North of England as Boris being “a bit of a la” but will not have played so well in the leafy avenues of Chesham and Amersham. 

For while the Tories have without doubt made major breakthroughs in traditionally-strong working class northern towns like Hartlepool only a few weeks ago, the prime minister’s style of governance has not been appreciated in many of the Party’s southern heartlands.  

The difficulty for the Tories now is that while their appeal is growing in so-called former Labour “red-wall” seats in the north, there is the danger, as Thursday’s by-election result showed, of losing control of their “blue-wall” seats in the south.

Chesham and Amersham is not the only “safe” Tory seat under threat from the Lib Dems. The December 2019 General Election saw them coming second to the Tories in 29 English constituencies. In 23 of those seats, it would take only a 10% swing to the Lib Dems to unseat the sitting Tory MP. In last Tuesday’s by-election, the swing was 25%.

So does this mean the Lib Dems are set for a resurgence at the polls? Probably not. We have been here many, many times before. Prior to 2019, the then Lib Dem leader, Jo Swinson, claimed the party was on track to form the next government with her as prime minister. 

When reality dawned on the morning after the election, far from becoming the government, they had in fact lost seats -- including that of the leader herself.

An earlier resurgence of the Lib Dems’ fortunes in 1981, prompted its leader at the time David (now Lord) Steele to urge its members to “go back to (their) constituencies, and prepare for government!” 

The subsequent election two years later, saw the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher win with a record landslide majority of 144 seats. The Liberal Democrats are truly the party of the false dawn.  

However, something is clearly afoot. Once upon a time in this country, it used to be fairly easy to categorize voting habits; it was generally class based. In the main, working class voters -- particularly in Scotland and the north of England -- tended to vote for Labour; the middle classes and businesses generally opting for the Conservatives. 

The undecided or those wishing to cast a protest vote or who found it difficult to choose between the Left and Right, would in the main vote Liberal, thus condemning it to perpetual third party status. 

Now all of that has changed. The rise of the Scottish Nation Party (SNP) north of the border has seen this former citadel of Labour Party power almost obliterated. Elsewhere, the Greens have been moping up disaffected Labour or Lib Dem votes. 

As I noted in an earlier article, the Labour Party is attempting to stem the steady flow of its traditional working class supporters to the Tories, while at the same time trying to maintain its appeal to a predominately middle-class, university-educated younger generation. 

It is singularly failing with both sections of the party. The Labour candidate in Chesham polled only 625 votes.

Voting intentions in the UK are now no longer class-based, they are tribal.

And the fault-line is Brexit.  

During and after the Referendum, the Conservatives unashamedly became the party of Leave; the Lib Dems the party of Remain. The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn simply could not make its mind up and, as a result, even with new leadership, continues to lose the trust of its traditional supporters.

The Tories will continue to do well in former “red wall” seats and continue to lose support in areas where there is a strong Remain presence. Whether the Lib Dems will finally make that long awaited breakthrough remains to be seen. 

What is clear is that the real loser in all of this is the Labour Party.

Kit Fenwick is a freelance writer and historian.

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