The voters of Chesham and Amersham have given their message loud and clear. One of the safest Conservative seats has been lost to the Lib Dems. A Conservative majority of 16,223, only 18 months ago, was overturned yesterday to become a Lib Dem majority of 8,028.
But, er, just what was the message?
If it was to abandon HS2, why vote for the Lib Dems – a Party which supports the astonishingly expensive transport scheme?
Were voters protesting against “Freedom Day” being delayed on the grounds that continuing with restrictions is disproportionate? Or has Dominic Cummings alarmed them that the Government is too complacent and that lockdown should have been longer and more draconian?
Are the residents of beautiful villages in the Green Belt warning against “concreting over the countryside” with ugly planning developments? Or after a year where house prices have sharply risen, are aspirational younger voters showing their frustration that under a Conservative Government the dream of home ownership remains just that?
Amidst this array of grievances, the Yellow Army entered. The Lib Dems are very good at by-elections. The first “upset” was their victory in Orpington in 1962 – in their previous incarnation as the Liberal Party. In the decades that followed such “shock” triumphs have become a staple of the political diet.
The Lib Dems are shrewd at detecting where victory is viable and then in throwing everything at it. It is not just a question of manpower – though bussing in cheerful and dedicated activists has been important. It is more sophisticated than that. Protest votes are wooed with the soothing message that the Government will not be overturned. The Lib Dem vote harvesting machine of contradictory messages is carefully honed to suit the whims of each household. A pious tone is combined with shameless opportunism and base dishonesty.
This boost does come at an important time for the Lib Dems, however. The local elections were disappointing for them – partly because coronavirus restrictions thwarted their chance to gain an edge from targeted campaigning. Some recent opinion polls have had the Green Party ahead of the Lib Dems.
Against that background, the Prime Minister might be tempted to shrug off the result. That would be a mistake. The electorate of Chesham and Amersham is telling him something important:
“Remember you are mortal.”
Or, as the Prime Minister would be more likely to mutter to himself during his next jog around St James Park with Dilyn:
The G7 Summit went smoothly. Perhaps a little too smoothly. A bit too much of a smug mutual admiration society. All these world leaders flying in – Boris Johnson on a private jet from London to Newquay – to then lecture us about climate change and issue targets that (if taken remotely seriously) would mean very considerable costs and restrictions for ordinary families. At the Summit we would saw ostentatious elbow bumping by these international statesmen on arrival – but then we saw them putting arms around each other at the grand looking soirées. The numbers seemed to exceed the limit the rest of us are obliged to observe at our more humble gatherings. They know how to count in the Chilterns. All the swanking and swaggering might have seemed a bit much. Such irritations would be less likely to sway votes at a General Election.
Then there is the southern discomfort over “levelling up.” Ambiguity has been allowed over quite what the policy objective means. This has allowed resentment to fester in the South that it means money being taken from them to give to the North. As with the indignation at the assumption in Critical Race Theory of “white privilege”, it rankles that those in the South are assumed to be rich and thus undeserving of training schemes, or road improvements, or whatever other goodies are on offer.
Yet the whole point of “levelling up” was supposed to a retort to the socialist idea that we are in a “zero sum game” where resources are fixed and the only means to help the poor is to take from the rich. The term “levelling up” was not invented by Johnson.He took it from Margaret Thatcher. The Right Approach, published by the Conservative Party in 1976 stated:
“Conservatives are not egalitarians. We believe in levelling up, in enhancing opportunities, not in levelling down, which dries up the springs of enterprise and endeavour and ultimately means that there are fewer resources for helping the disadvantaged. Hostility to success, because success brings inequality, is often indistinguishable from envy and greed, especially when, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn has pointed out, it is dressed up in the language of the ‘class struggle’.”
That same clarity needs to be restored.
A final thought. The person who should be most relieved this morning is Sir Keir Starmer. That might seem perverse. Labour only got 622 votes in the by-election – that put them in fourth place coming in behind the Green Party. The Lib Dem campaign must have squeezed their vote very hard. As recently as the 2017 General Election, we had Labour coming in second place in Chesham and Amersham with 11,374 votes.
But what matters for Sir Keir is the Batley and Spen by-election in a couple of weeks. If Labour lose, as many expect, could it prove a tipping point? Could Labour descend into recriminations and division, forcing the resignation of Sir Keir? The Chesham and Amersham result makes that less likely. It will be easier to explain away…just one of those by-election “upsets.”