Friday 18 June 2021

After the Chesham & Amersham By-Election

When the unexpected happens, hottakes rush into the interpretative vacuum. The victory of the Liberal Democrats in overturning the Tories' 16,000 vote majority has occasioned a flotilla of opinion. Stephen Bush said its significance was of no significance, and there is nothing that can be read into it. Paula Surridge suggested all the Tory voters stayed home because the combined LibDem/Labour vote was roughly the same in 2021 as it was in 2019, and so a case of tactical switching was happening. And others point to the seat's characteristics: HS2 is due to go through the constituency without any discernible benefit for residents, this is a remain voting seat ill-disposed to Brexit grandstanding, the LibDems have been working the seat hard, the punters are fed up, or, perhaps the most incredulous, southern voters are fed up hearing how bad the north has it.

There's some grain of truth in all of them. Yes, even the last one. We know Boris Johnson is taking elements of his electoral coalition for granted. We know local grumbles over things like HS2 are electoral bromides for governments in by-elections where decisions from remote Westminsterland are imposed on locals. And ye, it was a seat ripe for the plucking for the Liberal Democrats. They are a party skilled in opportunism and slippery politics. A one off, then? Nothing to be seen here? Not so fast. Enjoying his moment, when Ed Davey took his orange hammer to break the flimsy blue wall built for this afternoon's photo op, he was right to note the Tories are, in the main, more vulnerable to LibDem than Labour assaults. This has been starkly clear since after the 2015 election when they started picking up council by-election seats disproportionately from the Tories. It was a measure of their cluelessness that Tim Farron and Jo Swinson swallowed the anti-Corbyn demonology and thought pickings were easier from disaffected Labour supporters than the actual evidence of electoral performance. To Davey's credit, on assuming his party's leadership he penned a piece suggesting he'd passed this most basic of comprehension tests.

But was it a case the Tories lost the seat as opposed to the LibDem's winning it? If we accept the Surridge thesis that the Tory voters all stayed at home and the anti-Tory bloc got its act together (for once), then there's nothing for Johnson and co to concern themselves with. It can be put down to a mid-term protest and one that means little as it'll bounce back at the general election. This, typical of the empiricism customary to political science, misses a lot of complexity. As explained many times here before, one of the peculiarities of our age-divided (class cohort and property-divided) politics is how older people are more likely to vote at election time. In second order elections like by-elections this is even more the case. Turn out generally goes down, but the propensity to sort out the postal ballot or turn up at the polling station for working age and younger voters decreases at a much faster rate than the over 60s. Given the propensity for older voters to support the Tories, we are left with two possible outcomes. Either older and retired folk broke with the established patterns of second order elections and stayed at home in greater numbers than younger punters, or they turned out as normal and a good chunk switched their preferences for this contest. I know which one is more likely.

This does present the Tories a problem. From the experience of UKIP and the Brexit Party, we know how these helped loosen the fealties of older Labour voters and opened the way for Tory voting, among other things. If more by-elections occur in the so-called blue wall (or deep blue sea, considering their geographic domination of England), and with the LibDems primed for these sorts of seats, there is a happy danger of a chain reaction unfolding, of momentum building on momentum, and breaking habitual Tory voters from their habitual voting patterns.

But is there wider significance? Contrary to Stephen Bush's argument, I believe there is. It plays out differently (in England) depending on the seat, and that is anti-political establishment protest. Between 2012 and 2015 with the LibDems in government, UKIP became the protest party of choice. It didn't win, except on the occasions of Douglas Carswell's and Mark Reckless's defections and subsequent by-elections, but came second in practically every contest after the Eastleigh contest. They served as the repository of angry brigade voting whether the defending party were the Tories, Labour, or LibDems. These dynamics so conducive to a populist politics haven't gone away, and our most recent contests - Hartlepool and Chesham and Amersham - affirm them. In Hartlepool Labour selected the worst possible candidate in a seat lousy with resentment at being taken for granted. As perverse as it may seem, the Tories were perceived as the best possible protest vehicle for giving an uncaring Labour Party a bloody nose. Hence the much worse result than even 2019 under Jeremy Corbyn. The LibDems opportunistically exploited HS2 grumbles (the party is formally supportive) and the diffuse discontent in Chesham and Amersham, and reaped the reward.

What this also suggests is future parliamentary by-elections are likely to repeat this pattern: a reaction against whoever is seen as 'the establishment' in any given seat. Fortune then is doing anything but smiling on Labour's chances in Batley and Spen. With Keir Starmer announcing on Thursday that Labour is spending the next 18 months determining what its policy is going to be, the party has little to nothing to say except the Tories are bad. Hardly a prospectus to see off a populist challenge, let alone power insurgencies in places like Wakefield (which may become vacant) where the party came second 18 months ago. The Tory and George Galloway's challenges are tapping into the anti-establishment dynamic in the seat, making a comfortable Labour hold the least likely outcome.

For almost a decade parliamentary by-elections in England have seen the populist dynamic deliver upsets and seemingly bewildering results. It's astonishing the combined wit of professional politics, the commentariat, and the wise sages of political science have yet to cotton on.

Image Credit


Phil said...

NB - I know Labour's vote almost entirely evaporated. I'm saving that up for another piece.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I feel like the replacement of a single Tory MP by a Lib Dem is not quite equivalent to the storming of the Bastille.

Anonymous said...

Also, Phil BC,

I'd be really interested to know just how far membership of the Labour Party has declined since the great Sir Keir took over the leadership. Not just how many have made a particular show of leaving, but also how many (like me) have quietly stopped contributing to the party because they just don't see any point, given the current leadership and political direction.

Phil said...

The honest answer is no one really knows. The figure of membership standing at 480k keeps getting bandied about, but this includes lapsed members. It's definitely lower than that!

Anonymous said...

It probably *is* a bit lower than that, but a lot of anecdotal accounts suggest many members are "working to rule" rather than leaving the party entirely. And this makes even more sense if you share the growing suspicion that SKS might not be that long for the political world.

Anonymous said...


Ah, the old SWP method: "We've got 10,000 members! Well, most of them don't come to meetings or pay subs, or do anything at all in the party, but we're still counting them. It's like being a Catholic; once you're in, you're in forever."