The Guardian view on the Liberal Democrats: seeing and shaping politics

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA</span>
Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA

It is often hard to try to derive a national message from a single byelection. The effect on party morale usually dwarfs that felt on government policy. The election of Liberal Democrat Sarah Green as the MP for Chesham and Amersham, a commuter-belt seat north-west of London, stuns on both counts. The result will make Conservative MPs in relatively liberal and educated constituencies very jumpy. But it will also slow the progress of Boris Johnson’s planning reforms. Voters in bucolic Buckinghamshire plainly feared that these would make it easier for developers to concrete over the countryside.

What the result shows is that the Liberal Democrat cause is not a hopeless one. With just 11 parliamentarians and languishing at 7% in national polls, Sir Ed Davey appeared to be taking his depleted ranks and marching them towards the sound of gunfire. Chesham and Amersham has been held by the Conservatives since its creation in 1974. Yet Ms Green overturned a 16,000-strong Tory majority to take the seat by just over 8,000 votes, a swing of 25%, and upset the odds. The energy of the Tories’ vaccine bounce seems dissipated. Clearly the death of Liberal England has been prematurely foretold.

But is this a successful revival or a false dawn? In 2016 a swing of 22% saw London’s Richmond Park won by the Lib Dems. Three years later the party won the Brecon and Radnorshire byelection in Wales with a swing of 14%. What was telling was that on both occasions, the Lib Dems benefited from electoral pacts that consolidated a part of the remain vote. These divisions have not been erased just because Britain has left the European Union. Chesham and Amersham voted remain, and it would appear that substantial numbers of pro-EU Labour supporters voted Lib Dem.

The Compass thinktank has identified two clear battlegrounds in England: one between Labour and the Conservatives, another between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives. There are few seats where Labour and the Lib Dems square off. It makes sense to join hands to defeat a common enemy. This thought also dovetails with a creeping political realignment in British politics.

The trend is for older, school-leaver Brexit supporters in the north switching to the Conservatives while the ruling party is losing ground among the more middle-class suburban graduates who leaned towards remain. Mr Johnson’s divisive nationalism and “levelling up” rhetoric risks trading “red wall” gains, such as in Hartlepool last month, for “blue wall” losses. The new Tory coalition can be divided in other ways: the HS2 high-speed railway is widely welcomed in the north and the Midlands where it ends, but less so in the leafy southern constituencies, such as Chesham and Amersham, that it runs through.

To keep the momentum going will require more than the politics of protest. Sir Ed must see the possibility of a major political restructuring and shape it. He should make a virtue of positions that decentralise power, free the individual citizen and promote quality in public services. He needs policies that are not only popular but also clearly associated in the minds of voters with the Lib Dems. Being a responsible partner to the EU, rather than a troublesome neighbour, would be a good start. Liberalism is its own creed, and its adherents ought to make the case that it remains the one most capable of meeting the challenges ahead.

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