North Shropshire: A Remarkable Scoreboard for Liberal Democrats or Another False Dawn?

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The majority of the 22,949 Conservatives in North Shropshire, a seat they had held for roughly two centuries, were overturned in the surprising by-elections in December.

Liberal Democrat Helen Morgan won with 17,957 votes, gaining a majority of 5,925, slightly more than the equivalent of the 5,643 total votes she received in 2019.

This landmark vote, which followed days of crisis over a gigantic backbench rebellion on Plan B restrictions, and suggestions that dozens of senior government figures violated the lockdown on Christmas 2020, was sparked by a scandal that led to the MP Owen Paterson to resign for a long time. after he was convicted of an “egregious” violation of lobbying guidelines.

While the spotlight has since fallen on Boris Johnson’s future prime ministerial post, here we examine what this election could mean for Liberal Democrats in the future.

North Shropshire: A significant change in Lib Dem’s fortunes?

At first glance, Lib Dem’s victory at North Shropshire was significant.

The 34% departure from the ruling party is the largest achieved in a defensive by-election since Clacton on Sea swirled 59.7% to UKIP in 2014, when then-seat Tory MP Douglas Carswell defected to the Eurosceptic party. and later he sought revenge. choice.

North Shropshire was also the third largest change against the Conservatives in a by-election since World War II, surpassed only by Clacton and the 35.4% change in favor of the Liberal Democrats in their Christchurch victory in 1993.

The Liberal Democrats’ fringe party status, apart from their recent half-decade in coalition, has allowed them to score numerous surprising victories in by-elections over the years against the two main parties, and the party appears as a centrist alternative. malleable for those tired of the Labor Party. o Conservative governments.

It could even be argued that much of the liberal movement’s postwar successes have been defined through its fortunes in by-elections. The 1962 Orpington by-election, in which the then Liberal Party increased its share of the vote by 30.7%, was seen by many as the beginning of the Party’s rebirth. Also in later years, following its merger with the Social Democratic Party initially formed by a dissident group of moderate Labor, the party went on to win a series of famous by-elections such as Bermondsey in 1983, Eastbourne in 1990, Newbury in 1993, right up to Chesham and Amersham. in June 2021.

Yet with the exception of the period between 2001 and 2015, when the Liberal Democrats pushed for more than 50 MPs, they have largely remained a fringe party in Westminster.

Another false dawn?

Despite his victory in North Shropshire, the Liberal Democrat’s electoral popularity has been stagnant for much of the past decade.

This followed ten promising years in which the party won 52 deputies. in 2001, 62 deputies in 2005 and 57 deputies in 2010 with 23.0% of the votes.

During this period, the party’s increased support was heavily influenced by its opposition to the decision of the then Labor government to join the Iraq war. Throughout the 2010 general election, Lib Dem leader Clegg appeared on an equal footing with Tory and Labor leaders during three televised campaign debates.

Clegg led the Liberal Democrats to a coalition government after the Conservative Party failed to win a majority. While in government, the popularity of the Liberal Democrats began to wane when they were seen to break a promise to abolish tuition fees, and in the 2011 local elections the Party lost a third of its Councilors.

The demise of the Liberal Democrats was completed in the 2015 general election, when the party lost 49 of its 57 seats and its share of the vote collapsed to just 8%.

Although the party initially performed well in early 2019, with leader Jo Swinson even claiming she could become prime minister, the party garnered just 11 seats and 11.5% of the UK vote in the December general election. 2019. The party’s strong opposition to Britain’s exit from the European Union failed to find its way among enough voters. The 2019 campaign failure was optimized when Swinson herself was forced to resign as party leader after losing her East Dunbartonshire seat to the SNP candidate by just 149 votes.

Supported by Lib Dem still around 11% according to aggregates vote– just one point above his victory on Dec. 16 – it is this national landscape that continues to be the problem for Liberal Democrats. In the context of these national polls, the Liberal Democrats have not made any electoral progress under Ed Davey since 2019.

Former leaders Jo Swinson and Vince Cable continue to have a higher profile with the public than Ed Davey, a party leader, of whom only 51% of British voters claim to have heard of. Liberal Democrats clearly have a long way to go if they want to achieve serious traction and achieve the old “Cleggmania” airtime in the next election.

Against this background, the North Shropshire result still looks like a well-organized protest, rather than the rebirth of the Lib Dem brand. After all, two weeks earlier, the Liberal Democrats had lost their deposit, getting just 3% of the vote. in the by-election of Old Bexley and Sidcup.

James Johnson, co-founder of polling firm JL Partners and a former Downing Street pollster, told Politics.co.uk that the North Shropshire result “demonstrates conservative liabilities rather than liberal assets.”

Continuing, Johnson said, “Clearly, if the Conservatives continue to underperform, then the Liberal Democrats will benefit in a number of fringe constituencies, but the party’s national brand remains weak.”

While more change is likely to be looming in the Liberal Democratic by-elections, this follows the long tradition of Liberal Democrats being able to tap into their limited human and financial capital in a constituency. Such a strategy is impossible in a national general election.

Last year, the Lib Dem membership stood at just 98,247 compared to 200,000 for the Conservatives and 430,000 for Labor. His donations in 2020 totaled just £ 1,415,818, nearly half of Labor’s £ 2,896,495 and well below the Conservative Party’s £ 3,876,847. The reality is that the Liberal Democrats simply do not have the resources to reflect their success in national election campaigns.

Lib Dem’s former assistant Ben Rich has highlighted that: “Even in 1997, a watershed year for the Liberal Democrats, they could not keep Christchurch”, predicting that “it is highly unlikely that they will keep North Shropshire in the next general election.”

Given that the 46.3% turnout in the North Shropshire by-elections, a major drop compared to 67.9% in 2019, it does not appear that many ex-conservative voters who supported Brexit were swayed by the policies of the Democrats. liberals, but stayed home. in protest of the government’s actions. Whether they decide to return to the Tories in the next election will depend on the perceived performance of the Conservatives in the future.

How could the Liberal Democrats progress?

Nick Tyrone, former chair of the liberal think tank CentreForum, who now serves as an associate member of the liberal-conservative think tank Bright Blue, said Thursday’s result “demonstrates how Labor and Liberal Democrats could complement each other in the next few years. general election, with Liberal Democrats only focusing their firepower on a concentrated number of seats held by Conservatives where Labor is keeping quiet. If this works as well as it has in the last by-election, the Tories should be very concerned. “

Such presentation was an essential cog in the electoral machinery of the Liberal Democrats in North Shropshire, where many traditional Labor voters opted for the Liberal Democrats in a deliberate attempt to defeat the Conservative candidate. During the campaign, Sir Ed Davey was seen knocking on doors in the constituency, while Sir Keir Starmer let his deputy and other shadow ministers visit him.

A similar strategy also helped the Liberal Democrats win Chesham and Amersham, where the Labor campaign once again seemed deliberately minimal.

In the Old Bexley and Sidcup by-elections of December 2021, Liberal Democrats essentially sidelined for Labor, something that caused the Liberal Democrats’ vote share to drop 5%.

Although a kind of informal alliance between Labor and Liberal Democrats has been forged in the last three by-elections, a formal “progressive alliance” between non-conservative parties remains unlikely. Despite limited success in tactical voting In the 2019 General Election, tactical voting activists continue to believe that a more targeted tactical campaign could be enough to remove Conservatives from office in the future.

Also, recent data is pretty clear that Liberal Democrats have had their greatest success (1997 to 2010) during periods when Conservatives have been unpopular enough to be able to effectively compete to form a national government. When the Conservatives have been strong, even in the face of the most left-wing Labor opposition since the war, the Liberal Democrats have not made much of a breakthrough.

In that sense, it is the potential for a new period of sustained unpopularity for conservatives, more than anything read in another brilliantly executed local election campaign, that may be central to Lib Dem’s fortunes.

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