Since the Amersham and Chesham by-election last week, we have had several interesting opinions and takes on the result – which by all accounts appears to be a resounding success for the Liberal Democrats. A victory of such scale that it could suggest the Liberal Democrats will return to actually being a political force in the UK. Indeed, many pundits have taken this easy route and eagerly jumped on the idea that the Lib Dems are back and that much like the Red Wall fell to the Tories, there is a “Blue” Wall in the south just waiting to be bulldozed by a resurgent yellow wave.
However, when you look at the numbers in the by-election and contrast them with the 2019 result this narrative is not as strong as you might think. The 2021 turnout was only 52 per cent – almost 25 per cent lower than the 2019 general election. This corresponds to roughly 18,000 fewer votes cast. Of course, it would be too simplistic to suggest that all those votes would be for the Conservative Party, even if the Tory candidate’s 2021 total was roughly 17,000 votes fewer than the 2019 candidate’s final count. On the other hand, this does become more relevant when you consider the collapse of the Labour vote by around 6,500 votes – which closely matches up to the increase in the Liberal Democrat’s votes.
It is quite clear that several issues featured prominently in the by-election. Firstly, there will have been the usual anti-government sentiments as we cannot forget that the Conservatives have essentially been in power for 11 years now. Secondly, many recent policies and proposals coming from the Conservative Party are highly unpopular in traditionally strong Tory areas such as Amersham and Chesham. In particular, the two issues of HS2 and the Government’s proposed planning reforms have been cited by campaigners on all sides as the main reasons for the Liberal Democrat success.
It is unsurprising that the Government’s continued insistence on supporting the bloated infrastructure project is unpopular given that it will bring zero benefit to the constituency despite going straight through it – not to mention the fact it is a poor idea in the first place. Planning reforms are always going to be an issue in these areas. The challenge of Nimbyism is a problem that is not going away and as we have seen here; the slightest indication of a much-needed house building programme causes concerns in the Tory heartlands. The Government must meet our housing demand but a lack of clear policy direction on this issue beyond vague noises of increased homebuilding is not going to help drive planning reform through. It allows Nimbys to seize the narrative and stoke baseless fears about housebuilding.
Core Conservative voters will also be concerned by the direction of travel for this Government beyond issues that directly affect them at a local level. It is indisputable that this Conservative government is devoted to “big” government and ever-increasing spending. Of course, increased spending is necessary in the emergency situation of the Covid pandemic and yet traditional Tory voters are concerned that Boris Johnson’s Government will never stop opening the taps. Ever-increasing public spending is not going to shore up support among traditional Tory voters who are instinctively supporters of small government.
Now, it would clearly be a simple situation if the vote changes were to neatly follow this pattern: that all the Labour votes went to the Lib Dems and the Tory vote simply did not turn out. Elections are rarely this straightforwardly tidy and there will no doubt be Labour voters who did not vote and Tory voters who voted Liberal Democrat. However, the underlying facts cannot be ignored. Tory voters did not swing en-masse for the Liberal Democrats but rather Tory voters chose not to turn out to support a Government that is not recognising their concerns.
Make no mistake, this by-election is not due to a resurgent Liberal Democrat party – it is due to apathy amongst the softer elements of the Tory base. After all, the Tory party has an overwhelming majority which this by-election cannot change – why should voters bother to register their support for policies that they do not believe in? I can only hope that the Government does not take the wrong idea from this result and continue to alienate its core vote.