The Lib Dems cannot credibly claim to be the alternative waiting government so they must work with Labor too
Like Christchurch, North Shropshire is not a natural hotbed of liberalism. The Lib Dem victory – as in Christchurch – is a cry of protest against the current government, not an affirmation of liberal values. The Lib Dems should avoid over-interpreting what this could mean for future general elections. Even in 1997, a breakthrough year for the Lib Dems, they failed to hold Christchurch and are very unlikely to hold North Shropshire at the next general election.
The result of the North Shropshire by-election is undoubtedly remarkable as the Liberal Democrats came back from a staggering 29,000 votes deficit in 2019. The record-breaking momentum matches their 1993 victories in Newbury and Christchurch, the last time the party won two seats in one year from the Conservatives. In those two by-elections, I was the candidate’s advisor.
But neither should the Lib Dems, their opponents and potential allies underestimate the result, as it reveals more about voters’ long-term thinking than conservative opinion leaders would have us believe.
In that strong leave seat, the Brexiteers were poised to lend their vote to the Lib Dems. I doubt they have forgiven the party for being ‘Remainer’ – it’s just not seen as important anymore now ‘Brexit is done’.
Labor voters have awarded the Lib Dems the Cameron-Clegg coalition. While a handful of activists are resorting to tuition fees (just as some Liberal Democrats cannot forgive Labor for the Iraq war), such problems are no longer on the doorstep.
Perhaps most importantly, the Lib Dems have regained their campaign mojo. To win a seat from third place you need to be able to make a lot of noise about things that local voters care about very quickly in order to establish yourself as a contender. Both Labor and the Greens need at least as credible arguments to beat the Tories. The fact that they didn’t and the Lib Dems did is perhaps the party’s most significant achievement in North Shropshire.
In the words of the doyen of many post-election broadcasts, Peter Snow, “if this momentum were repeated across the country, the election map would turn orange.” It was, as Snow himself always added, “just a bit of fun”, but while North Shropshire doesn’t mean the Lib Dems will win across the country, it does mean they will once again transcend liberal South West London and the university cities can win.
But winning a by-election is very different from winning a general election. The former asks, “How is this government?” The latter asks, “Who should the government be?”
The Lib Dems need a number of other elements to integrate if North Shropshire is to make any meaningful progress in a general election.
First, they must argue that this government is not conservative. They are scammers or, as a normal Tory voter in North Shropshire puts it, ‘charlatans’. As such, traditional conservative voters are “released” to discover that conservatism is better represented elsewhere.
Then the Lib Dems must create a narrative that allows them to credibly claim to be protectors of what these voters perceive as conservatism. I’m not talking about politics, I’m talking about values. First (because that’s what Johnson undermines) comes honesty and integrity, followed closely by economic efficiency, patriotism, and accountability. This requires a simple narrative and messaging discipline of the kind that Conservatives traditionally excel – “bring about Brexit”, “Labor is not working” – with strong emotional appeal.
And finally, because the Lib Dems cannot credibly claim to be the alternative waiting government, they need Labor to stop scaring the horses back into the Tory barn. This of course depends primarily on Keir Starmer, who is making good progress, but the Lib Dems can help them by pointing out areas of compatible thinking and shared agendas rather than making pacts and deals. In these serious times, a common “get serious” message could be on the right track.
There will be dozens of Conservative MPs this morning worried that their own seats will look terribly more winable than North Shropshire did a few weeks ago.
Ben Rich is Chief Executive of Big Tent and Radix and former Chief of Staff to Tim Farron