Comment

Conservatives must beware a progressive alliance of a united Left

The swing in Tiverton and Honiton would be impossible for the Liberal Democrats to achieve on a national scale alone

Labour and the Liberal Democrats could scarcely have concocted a more perfect set of circumstances for a by-election, let alone two. Defeats for the Conservatives in both had been priced in almost since the writs were issued; Governments, after all, do not win mid-term by-elections at the best of times. These are not the best of times.

As a former Red Wall seat Wakefield had always been seen as potentially vulnerable. Whilst Labour’s victory there by 4,925 votes is an improvement upon previous narrow results it’s hardly an effusive validation of Starmer’s leadership or the lodestar of an imminent Red Wall collapse. Whilst a Labour victory was expected, it’s worth remembering that this is the first seat Labour have gained in eight by-elections under Keir Starmer, having already lost Hartlepool last year and only retained Batley and Spen by a wafer-thin 323 votes. Victory in Wakefield puts them at a net gain of zero. The Conservatives have still won more by-elections than Labour since May last year.

In Tiverton and Honiton however, the scale of the Liberal Democrat victory cannot be understated; the largest majority ever overturned in a by-election, eclipsing that in Liverpool Wavertree 87 years ago. Polling had suggested a swing of this size could indicate a collapse in Conservative support across the South of England. 

Realistically, whilst the Liberal Democrats are able to bring all their guns to bear in a single by-election, overperforming in Tiverton and Honiton as they did in North Shropshire and Chesham and Amersham before that, they cannot reproduce it across a General Election let alone across their 30 Blue Wall target seats. It’s easy to have missed that Jane Dodds was an MP for only three months after the Liberal Democrats won the August 2019 by-election in Brecon and Radnorshire, then lost the seat in the December General Election. Whilst their opportunistic contrarianism has been enough to convince the rural voters of three constituencies that they will campaign for local issues, the broader pledges of a national manifesto have repeatedly been their undoing.

Once again we can see that though effective on a one-off basis, the Liberal Democrats by-election success relies almost exclusively upon their ability to leverage tactical votes from their rival parties on the left, particularly Labour. Their increase in votes in this election correlates largely with a collapse of over 10,000 in Labour’s, whilst only around 1,500 votes appear to be due to a switch by disaffected Conservative voters. This is a long way short of the collapse in the Blue Wall that Ed Davey will claim this represents, no doubt illustrated by another escheresque bar chart, but 18,000 Conservative voters still appear to be completely unaccounted for.

For their strategy to succeed the Liberal Democrats will need to consolidate this informal electoral non-aggression pact, raising the terrifying prospect of a Dreikaiserbund between themselves, Labour and the SNP. An alliance that would back proportional representation to carve up the country between them, gifting the SNP an independent Scotland as the price to lock out the Conservatives and installing the monochrome animus of Keir Starmer, flanked by Ed Davey (by then a grizzled veteran-of-multiple-coalitions) and the President of Scotland. A veritable triumvirate of tergiversation.

But where does this leave the Conservative Party? Whether you are a supporter or a critic of the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson remains a once-in-a-generation politician and a campaigner without peer. Having won the confidence of the majority of MPs it is now incumbent upon him to set out the challenging path to delivering a General Election victory. 

In 2015 the 40/40 seat strategy defied expectations and holed the Liberal Democrats below the waterline so effectively they have only now shown signs of recovery several Governments later. To repeat that success again with a two-year run-in will require a similar 80/20 strategy, retaining the 80-seat majority from 2019 and building on it by winning those marginals where gains can be made. 

Whilst these results cannot be interpreted as a success, nor should they be, they also shouldn’t be viewed in isolation as the bellwether for a looming catastrophic defeat that many will suggest they are. What these results do indicate is the direction of the coming threat, the progressive alliance of a united left.