‘The votes kept piling up’: how Chesham turned away from Tories

·4 min read

The Liberal Democrats’ runaway victory in Chesham and Amersham may have stunned MPs and the media, and even many of the party’s activists, but for some locals the signs of an impending political earthquake had been clear.

“I absolutely wasn’t surprised,” said Sally, a 53-year-old carer running chores on Chesham’s very rainy and near-deserted high street on Friday. “There’s a Facebook page called Our Chesham, and everybody on there was saying they were going Lib Dem. Personally I think it’s Boris and the fact he’s backtracked on so many things.”

This is not to say that local Lib Dems did not think they could win, even if overturning a 16,000-plus Conservative majority to triumph by 8,028 votes, a swing of 25%, surpassed even their wildest hopes.

One party official said the first obvious clue about Conservative worries was the appearance of the prime minister in the Buckinghamshire constituency 10 days before the vote, for a hurried photocall with the Tory candidate, Peter Fleet.

“We first knew something was up when Boris Johnson appeared, even if it was only for half an hour,” the activist said. “But then I saw Michael Gove, and then James Cleverly, and suddenly it felt like you couldn’t walk down the high street without bumping into a cabinet minister.”


Theresa May popping up on polling day was another giveaway about the party’s concern in a commuter belt seat it had held since it was created in 1974.

Her appearance delighted local Lib Dems, who had prominently highlighted the former PM’s scepticism about government planning reforms – a major local issue – on their leaflets.

And yet, right to the last, it seemed that local Conservatives believed their worst fate would be a much-trimmed majority, with officials briefing the media shortly after the polls closed that they had won.

“I still hoped it would be close,” the Lib Dem official said. “So when I was told there wouldn’t be a recount it was really disappointing. But then I was told that was because we’d won it. We thought we’d take the towns, but we won in all the villages as well, The votes just kept piling up.”

As with all byelections, the story behind the statistics is a mixture of the national and the hyper-local. At a micro level, as well as planning, the Lib Dems’ vigorous campaigning against the local impact of HS2 – a project the party supports nationally – resonated.

Even potholes, that most stereotypical of neighbourhood issues, were raised repeatedly, with one local bus driver telling the Guardian he wanted to change his route out of the area because of the repeated bumping.

Carrol Foley, a 55-year-old charity shop manager, said there was a significant view locally that the Conservatives had held the seat for so long that they took it for granted, a home counties corollary to Labour’s woes in its former red wall.

“I think people are ready for a change, with the same party in for so long,” she said. “They’re very complacent and it feels they don’t listen to us. They just assumed they had it in the bag.”

Tactical voting played a part. As well as taking votes from the Conservatives, numerous Labour and Green supporters lent their support, with Labour winning just 622 votes.

Some Lib Dem officials view the apparent mass transfer of the Labour vote as particularly significant, a sign that the visceral hostility towards their party among many left-leaning voters due to its role in David Cameron’s government might be abating.

With the Lib Dems visibly in the ascendant – the party took over Amersham town council for the first time in May’s local elections – the choice for anti-Conservative voters seemed clear, Foley said. “In the shop, my volunteers and I have had that conversation. I knew a lot of people were going to vote tactically. And they did.”

Another important factor was the amount of effort and bodies the Lib Dems threw into the fight, aware of the need for a high-profile win amid a sense of drift following their disappointing 2019 general election campaign.

Their candidate, Sarah Green, is an experienced activist who had fought two other seats. Ed Davey, the party leader, visited 16 times, and on Friday happily milked the post-win publicity with a highly literal celebratory photocall in which he demolished a wall built of blue plastic bricks with an orange hammer.

For all the retrospective sense of inevitability, there were plenty of local people who did not see the result coming.

Angela Craft, 68, said she learned about the Lib Dem win because of the reaction of her 71-year-old husband, Alan, a longtime Labour supporter who had voted tactically, when he checked the result on his phone on Friday morning.

“The first I knew about it was at 7.30am when he started jumping around for joy in the bathroom,” Craft said. “I didn’t know what was happening. For a moment I thought we’d won the lottery.”

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