0-67% in Watton. Can we do it elsewhere?

The by-election in Watton-at-Stone in August saw Liberal Democrats take 67% of the vote in a ward we’d not contested in three decades. This is in East Herts District, where we lost our last councillors in 2015 and all the sitting councillors were elected as Tories. Can we do this elsewhere?

The local party benefited considerably from the help and expertise of Paul Zukowskij from HC3, and through him from other people in Hertfordshire, and also from Cambridgeshire (particularly from Mary Regnier Wilson who ran the committee room on polling day).

The stark contrast in my mind is with another recent by-election, in Petersfield ward in Cambridge, where what felt like an army of campaigners worked our socks off, but didn’t win. Significantly more effort went into Petersfield than Watton, but…

In the back of my mind is the memory of door-knocking in South Cambridgeshire in the 2017 County campaign and having people say “I would vote Liberal Democrat, but there’s no point around here because the Tories always win”. That’s the South Cambridgeshire where we took control of the District Council in May this year…

Also in the back of my mind is the memory of the 2017 General Election and knocking on doors in elsewhere in East Herts where people were glad to see a canvasser: comments included “the political parties don’t care about us” and “I’ve lived in this house for 20 years and you’re the first canvasser to knock on my door”. The only Tory leaflet I saw in that campaign in Hertford and Stortford constituency was their freepost.


The obvious conclusions are that some places that don’t see much political activity do respond positively when they hear from us, and that some of the seemingly-solid Tory areas are not so solid. This isn’t just about Tory complacency — it’s also about us being visible and credible so that voters realise there is an alternative. Over the last decade we have taken quite a pounding — the steady loss of councillors began before the coalition — but the resurgence in membership that began with Nick Clegg’s resignation speech creates new possibilities.

Watton also shows the wisdom of taking by-elections seriously — both as places where we can win, and as training opportunities  [https://www.markpack.org.uk/155265/the-7-step-guide-council-byelections/]

The Brexit effect

Brexit adds an extra layer to this. In Watton we had people saying “I usually vote Tory, but can’t given what’s going on at the moment”. It’s worth giving them something else to vote for.

Brexit is also hitting the Tories internally. Elsewhere, I’ve heard rumours of sitting Tory councillors being de-selected because they voted Remain.  In Watton we were undoubtedly helped by being able to field a strong local candidate, Sophie Bell, who had grown up in the village. But there’s a rumour that the Tories had struggled to find a candidate, and we were also helped that the person they did field lived a significant distance away.

Winning in May 2019

New possibilities give some hope, but we still face targeting decisions. Social media can be done in a way that is visible across a whole District, but which wards we can fight seriously in May probably comes down to which wards we can achieve sufficient delivery to be credible (monthly from now, fortnightly from the start of January and weekly in April). For wards we aspire to win, the building of a delivery network is now urgent. 

On this, Brexit changes things. John Major recently described it as a “national crisis”  [https://news.sky.com/story/david-miliband-and-sir-john-major-join-forces-to-call-for-second-brexit-referndum-11511790]. A national crisis is a time when we have much more chance of getting people to help. The European and the local are intimately linked —  the EU provides the stability that enables things to be devolved to the local. So the crisis over Brexit is a time when we can ask people keen to reverse it to help us deliver —  with messaging that picks up the local and the fact that Brexit is not a done deal. This gives a real opportunity to make a difference —  if we act quickly. 

Take-away message

In East Herts there are rumours that the Tories are bracing themselves for the prospect of losing more seats to us: if they don’t think they will win everywhere, neither should we. 

We should look closely at the places where there’s little campaigning because the Tories always win, and where a normal-looking level of Liberal Democrat activity might produce some very welcome results.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the “Tory party that always wins here” might well be the Tory party that took us into the EU and advocated the creation of the Single Market: the Tory party we now face is a rather different, and much less attractive, proposition.

* Mark Argent was the Liberal Democrat candidate in Huntingdon Constituency in 2019 and blogs at markargent.com/blog.

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  • John Marriott 16th Oct '18 - 12:39pm

    I agree 100% with David Raw. The problem is that, once that effort slackens off, so does the LIb Dem vote. It can’t always be said for Labour and Tory. I always compare it with gardening. You keep the weeds at bay by hard work and, once you stop, they just grow back!

  • David Evans 16th Oct '18 - 1:04pm

    Indeed David and John. Sophie and her team have won her the chance to prove that the Lib Dems can, once again, make a difference. This is where the real hard work starts.

    I wish her all the best.

  • My son lives there and said no one ever did anything before you did. It was inspiring to see someone interested in Watton. Sadly he is moving to Stevenage so you will be a vote down next year.

  • Stephen Booth 18th Oct '18 - 10:47am

    Firstly, “madmcs” do tell your son to make contact with Stevenage Lib Dems – we are a vibrant and growing local party with 4 councillors and the prospect of further gains next spring. You’ll find us at https://stevenageliberaldemocrats.org.uk/

    Secondly, what a wonderful tonic Watton was. I was the agent (twice) in 1974 when Watton was part of the old Hertford & Stevenage constituency (MP Shirley Williams). Watton only distinguished itself by holding an adoption meeting for the National Front, who were doubtless too scared to hold it in Stevenage having been chased out of the town for their nasty and aggressive disruption of others political meetings.

  • As regards Stevenage – the Lib Dem chief whip in the Lords – Lord (Ben) Stoneham stood for the SDP in Stevenage in 1983 and 1987 – Wikipedia reports: “n 1983, he had the best finish by any non-incumbent SDP candidate in an English seat and narrowly lost by about 1,700 votes.” But it had become a Conservative/Labour marginal by 1992.


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