North Shropshire: where the Lib Dems go from here

It is very easy in the hours, days and weeks after a by-election victory (especially one on the scale of that we have just witnessed in North Shropshire) to get carried away with the hype around it, and credit where credit is due this was a stunning performance by the party. The question is: what does this mean for our party’s future.

First off, some clear positives:

  1. The Lib Dem by-election machine is now well and truly back in business. Our performance in Witney in 2016 laid the way for us to squeak through in Richmond Park shortly after, and similarly in Brecon and Radnorshire in 2019: pulling off two close gains in previously held seats. Yet it was not until Chesham and Amersham earlier this year that we truly showed the by-election machine at its best. That was our modern Orpington moment, and its repeat in a completely different seat (one so many levels) in North Shropshire shows just how formidable a machine it is again: reminiscent to the 1990s.
  2. We are now firmly positioned as the greatest threat to the Conservatives across the shires and their southern rural heartlands. Labour didn’t do badly in Old Bexley and Sidcup, but are yet to pull off anything like the kind of upset they need in order to be seen as a credible replacement for the Tories in these kinds of seats.
  3. We now have 13 MPs, 9 of which are women. What a turnaround compared to the 2015–17 Parliament when we had 8 MPs, all of them men. Clearly we have now moved into the 21st century when it comes to female representation in politics, and we should be proud of how quickly we have made that shift.

All of this is great news and goes to show that we have returned to being formidable political opponents at a national level, as well as a local one. By-election victories are also great for party morale — and there’s no doubt we needed the boost after a disappointing result in 2019 followed by two torrid years of Covid — but we must not pretend these results are likely to be replicated wholesale at the next General Election (whenever that may come), no matter how fun it might be to think of Dominic Raab losing his seat to the fantastic Monica Harding.

Let’s be realistic: there are two very important factors behind these stunning victories which are beyond our control:

  1. Boris’ Tory sleaze. Much as we’d like to think the Government will be brought down by it, that isn’t likely, even if it is having an electoral impact now. It may even still have an impact in May 2022 for the next round of locals. But if it does, the Tories are ruthless: they know this is hurting them, and they will do something about it in time to ensure it’s no longer an issue at the next General Election.
  2. Labour is finally acceptable again. Much as we’d like to think everyone voted for us because we’re amazing campaigners, wonderful people and just all-round good eggs, the reality is most people thought they could lend us their vote because there was nothing to fear: the Tories still have a huge majority, and Keir Starmer isn’t exactly ‘Red Ed’ or Jeremy Corbyn. The idea of him becoming PM isn’t all that bad for a lot of soft Tories.

So what are the lessons we need to learn now to help us prepare for the next General Election? Well I think there are 4:

  1. Informal agreements on where to campaign work. Despite standing candidates in each by-election, Labour effectively agreed not to put the effort into Chesham & Amersham and North Shropshire, while we did the same in Batley & Spen and Old Bexley & Sidcup. As a result, Labour held a seat which the Tories were gunning for, and we gained two. There is nothing dirty about this: it’s just realism and common sense. More of this please, and let’s not return to the whole formal ‘progressive alliance’ route which deprives voters of choice. Voters have shown they are smart enough to make their own choices, locally.
  2. We are now an electoral force in Leave seats — let’s not ruin it by banging on about Europe. I’m as pro-Remain as anyone. I fought hard for it at the time, made it a central plank of my election campaign in Greenwich and Woolwich back in 2017, and still believe we are better off as full members of the European Union. But the truth is that we are far more as a party than a pro-EU pressure group. We have ambitious plans for making Britain a more liberal, tolerant country: a country of equality of opportunity, where we foster greater prosperity and use it to support the most vulnerable in our society: an open-hearted, internationalist country. We can do and be all of those things without being in the EU, or even in the Single Market. We lost the war on this one. There will hopefully be a time when the country is ready for another debate on our future as a part of Europe, but that time is not now, and it won’t be before the next election. So let’s park it for now. Frankly all you need to do is look at the state of Westminster to see we have more important things to focus on.
  3. The cost of living crisis hasn’t yet broken through. Yet come the Spring we will all see a tax rise, meaning we will be earning less, even as inflation is soaring. Interest rates are now going up, meaning mortgages are going to become more expensive. Gas prices are still high, and as more and more people come off their fixed-term tariffs, that cost will start to bite, too. And Covid still isn’t over — it has masked many of the after-effects of our departure from the EU. While people are appalled at Tory sleaze, the moment the Tories are no longer the party which makes the middle classes more prosperous, the more friable its electoral coalition becomes. We should be preparing to capitalise on this when it comes.
  4. Levelling-up and buyer’s remorse. What a slogan. Whether due to sleaze, Covid or incompetence, that’s all it is right now, and the Tories don’t have much time to turn slogans into reality. That said, former Labour voters across the former ‘red wall’ will not be so quick to return to their former allegiances. Let’s be very conscious of the danger of ‘group-think’ and not fall into the trap of thinking it’s self-evident just how badly the Tories are doing in Government right now. A lot of voters who put them there won’t be so quick to agree. That said, ‘levelling up’ has come at a cost: across the Tory south, communities are feeling their loyalty to the Conservatives is now being taken for granted. It’s still just a whisper in many seats, but we’ve shown we can give that whisper a megaphone. Let’s use that megaphone strategically over the next couple of years.

I know I haven’t covered everything (how could I finish without mentioning the crisis hitting the NHS, or the climate emergency!?), but if North Shropshire and Chesham & Amersham have shown us anything it’s the importance of message discipline. Wherever we campaign, we must always focus on what matters to the electorate.

This was a great gain. Every activist and campaigner who took part deserves a huge amount of credit, and shares in the victory. Let’s celebrate, and then begin the work of preparing to inflict even more defeats on the Tories at the next General Election.

We’re back. Let’s be strategic, pick our battles, and then give our all.

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Chris Adams

Political Consultant at MHP Communications. Former Chief of Staff to the President of the Liberal Democrats (2015–18).