Joseph Baum is the Deputy Chairman (Political) of the Chesham and Amersham Conservative Association, A Councillor on Buckinghamshire Council and a Town Councillor on Chesham Town Council.
Waking up in Chesham on Friday June 18 was not an experience that I would ever like to repeat. As residents across the constituency were greeted to a torrential downpour that morning – a month’s worth of rain in one day I was later told – the pathetic fallacy of that moment was not lost on me.
As with any severe weather event, of course, the warning signs had been there for some time. I am afraid to say that the same is true of this by-election defeat.
For those of you who have never been to the constituency, Chesham and Amersham is a beautiful part of the world. Like many people in our country, we don’t like to make a fuss here in the Chilterns – we quietly get on with our lives and look out for each other in our community. Bubbling under the surface, however, was a quiet frustration – a concern about the future and the impact that this would have on what made our area special.
The sudden death of our long serving Member of Parliament, Dame Cheryl Gillan, gave our residents the once in a generation opportunity to articulate that frustration without any risk of changing who runs our country. By now, most ConservativeHome readers will probably appreciate the key issues for residents in this area – HS2, the much anticipated planning reforms, not to mention the continued fallout of our exit from the European Union – something which many Liberal Democrat activists have long been at pains to stress that this constituency did not vote for.
In my view focusing on these issues distracts from the real problems that we must begin to respond to in order to properly recover – we must acknowledge what our opponents did well. From the outset, the Liberal Democrats ran an organised and well run campaign – using the momentum of the local elections to propel their candidate, Sarah Green, and sell her to the public as the only viable alternative to the Conservatives.
Despite the occasional ridicule on social media, few can deny the hunger of the Lib Dem activists who threw everything at this campaign, with daily leaflets, handwritten letters and targeted social media adverts. “Winning Here” posters were so common that they easily outnumbered the “For Sale” and “Sold” notices, let alone those of our Conservative supporters.
That is not to say, of course, that we did not work incredibly hard in this by-election campaign either – we simply could not have asked for a more hard working candidate in Peter Fleet, an eminently qualified man who led from the front from the start. Charges of complacency are misplaced; I fear that any candidate would have suffered a similar fate at this by-election due to the unique circumstances in which we found ourselves in.
In time, there will be other reasons that we must acknowledge and other lessons that we must learn. Because if we don’t learn those lessons, then we run the real risk of repeating this at the general election, not to mention in other constituencies too. There are currently 80 seats where the Liberal Democrats are in second place. And of those 80 sets, 44 have a majority less than what we recently enjoyed here in Chesham and Amersham.
So, how do we turn this around? That is a question that will only be answered in the fullness of time, but in my view it starts by identifying what our opponents do not have. Despite fielding tellers at every polling station and seemingly Lib Dem activists on every street on polling day, the vast majority of those activists came from outside the area for one day only, arriving on the tube and in need of directions. As one teller said to me on polling day “By elections are a day out for us” – and wasn’t that true here.
Despite the enthusiasm, the fact remains that the local Liberal Democrats pale in comparison to our membership base, which totals more than 1,000. That is a huge asset that we should be proud of and make more of in the years ahead.
It is true that more people voted Liberal Democrat than Conservative at this by-election. And yet just over one month ago, at the same polling stations, the people of Chesham and Amersham also elected 27 local Councillors to Buckinghamshire Council, 26 of whom are Conservative. These 26 people are talented and capable individuals who are already delivering for communities across the area as members of a Conservative run Council. We need to champion that work and do more to communicate it to residents.
And if our opponents are going to scrutinise our record nationally, then let’s talk about our successes too. Let’s talk about a vaccine roll out that is the envy of the world. Let’s talk about the millions of small businesses that this government is supporting and helping to get back on their feet as soon as possible.
And yes – let’s never tire of reminding our opponents that this is a Government which continues to create the conditions within which more people can get a job, keep more of the money that they earn, get on the housing ladder, get a great education and live in an environment that is cleaner and greener.
Those are the terms on which we must weather the storm and fight the next election here in Chesham and Amersham. That task starts now and I look forward to working with others in the crucial months ahead.