What does Crewe mean for the Lib Dems?

You want my honest view? Not a whole lot.

But, first off, congratulations to the Tories, and their candidate Edward Timpson on a pretty stunning victory. An 18% swing from Labour is an impressive achievement by any measure. And it was good to see a relatively high turnout of 58%, only 2% down on the general election. It’s clear that politics is once again seen as competitive, after almost a decade of Labour near-hegemony, and that can only be a good thing.

It probably seemed like smart politics to Labour to allow only the minimum amount of time to pass between Gwyneth Dunwoody’s death, and triggering the by-election to choose her successor (her funeral had not even taken place when the writ was issued). It was a technique they used to good effect in last year’s Ealing Southall by-election, when anti-Labour opposition split between the second-placed Lib Dems and third-placed Tories. The Crewe by-election, though, coincided with a period of visceral anti-Government feeling which transferred primarily to the Tories, who started in a clear second place and were strong favourites (almost) from the off.

For the Lib Dems it was a mildly disappointing night: our vote share was squeezed down from 19% to 15%. We would have much preferred to hold steady, or perhaps even to supplant the Labour party and come second. Maybe in a longer campaign we would have been able to; certainly in Elizabeth Shenton we had an energetic candidate, who emerged with a lot of credit. But the reality is that voters saw how best they could send a message to Gordon Brown – and that was by voting Tory.

Clearly the Crewe result – taken together with 1st May’s local elections – suggests that the next general election is likely to see the Tories emerge at least as the single largest party, and maybe with an overall Commons majority. The Crewe swing from Labour to Tory is almost identical to the swing from Tory to Labour in the Wirral South by-election of February 1997. Interestingly, the Lib Dem vote was also squeezed that night, down from 13% to 10%. Three months later, of course, the party doubled its number of MPs, and emerged as the largest Liberal group in 70 years.

There is something we will have to guard against, however. In that 1997 election, there were many more seats which could have elected a Lib Dem Member of Parliament, but the Labour landslide sometimes meant Tony Blair’s party leap-frogged the Lib Dems from third to first (eg, Falmouth and Camborne), and in other cases split the anti-Tory vote, allowing the Conservatives to cling on (eg, Folkestone and Hythe). If the swing back from Labour to the Conservative were to prove equally dramatic in 2010, we need to work our socks off in the next two years to ensure voters recognise that the Lib Dems are serious challengers for power.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and Parliamentary by-elections.


  • “The Crewe swing from Labour to Tory is almost identical to the swing from Tory to Labour in the Wirral South by-election of February 1997. Interestingly, the Lib Dem vote was also squeezed that night, down from 13% to 10%. Three months later, of course, the party doubled its number of MPs, and emerged as the largest Liberal group in 70 years.”

    That’s all very well, but of course there’s a huge difference, as far as the Lib Dems are concerned, between the Tories being hugely unpopular and Labour being hugely unpopular.

    Chris Phillips

  • David Morton 23rd May '08 - 11:39am

    As ever a more open and honest analysis of the situation than you would get from some “group think” posters. While I agree with you, there is one aspect, the biggest I fear that you have missed. The Labour landslide of 1997 was little threat to the LD’s because Labour was second is so few of our held seats. We were able to own the anti tory franchise in certain areas and had little flank to protect from labour. From memory we lost three seats to labour and were amply compensated with big gains from the tories.

    The potential disaster facing the party in 2010 is the mirror image of this.

    Firstly are we firmly established in the public mind as an Anti Labour franchise? or are we still too keen on fighting the last war with the Tories? I put my head in my hands when Shenton spent more of her concession speech attacking the Conservatives than Labour.

    Secondly we have a massive flank to protect against a Tory landslide. Half the parliamentry party could find its self vulnerable the national tide. FPTP results can be brutal and irrational. In a Comical Ali operation I notice that many blogs have latched on to the 7.1% swing from Labour to LD. We even have lists of seats we would win. thats fine but if we are playing that game can we also have the much longer list of seats we would lose to the Tories on last nights results?

    Isn’t some of the salavating over the prospect of a Henley by election a outworking of a sub concious desire to return to childhood when the Tories were bad and we won this sort of seat in the south in By elections. A desire to shy away from the more complex post labour world we are actually in.

    To repeat myself I agree with you. Over analysising a single result would be wrong but three stark facts spring from the results table to me.

    1. very high turnout. Labour voters aren’t abstaining in protest anymore, they want this lot out.

    2. Clearly massive direct Lab to Cons switching. What ever we think do we have to accept that the Tory brand decontamination process is working ? and what does that mean to us ?

    3. we live in a world where the Conservatives can win By Elections. This inevitably makes them look more credible in the eyes of the political class. We need to accept that is going to shape the way the media percives them.

  • Stephen

    Because we gained a lot of our parliamentary seats from the Tories when they were deeply unpopular. If they are no longer unpopular they are likely to take many of them back. What David Morton said.

    Chris Phillips

  • Well said David Morton.

  • Probably not the right place to say this, but I resigned from the private forum; our opponents have updated their campaigning strategies and methods, while our campaign remained firmly rooted in the ‘Rennardista’ past.

    Two centrally organised campaigns in two months, London and Crewe that have not performed, while elsewhere we have done well, should raise some questions, but inevitably won’t.

    Like as not, it will take David Norton’s scenario to come true BEFORE any necessary changes are made.

    And that’s sad. Both during the leadership campaign and during the ‘100 Days’ I argued strongly for the need for a root and branch review of our strategy not a ‘don’t touch any sacred cows’ quicky committee which is what we got – by the way did it ever report back and what did it say?

    Of course, vested interests quickly established their feet under the Cleggite Table and now we are suffering the consequences.

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd May '08 - 12:32pm

    It means we’re going to have to be defensive. Never mind all that talk about “not being satisfied with being the third party”, reality is this results suggests strongly we’re not going to break out of that, and so we must make sure at least we’re a sizeable third party. That means holding onto the seats we have – our MPs have to concentrate on being good constituency people. We may be able to make some gains from Labour where we can establish ourselves locally as the clear challengers, but we have to target those carefully.

  • Except Lib Dems are not serious challengers for power. The Charlie Kennedy factor did for that – attacked Labour too much before 2005 in the great swing to the left.

  • David Heigham 23rd May '08 - 1:40pm

    So, the Tories have al last learned how to do by-elections. We will have to smarten our act for Henley. Where they start well ahead, they will be the devil to catch.

  • This is one result.

    In a seat where, realistically we might have hoped to push Labour into third but were never going to win in a three week campaign.

    We have had some good results in the past year – advancing and holding the Tories back in Southall and Sedgefield, retaining control of a swath of big towns and cities like Liverpool, Hull, Watford and Newcastle and adding Sheffield, St Albans and Burnley. We made gains against both Labour AND the Conservatives across the country and increased our total of seats and councils from the 2004 high-water mark.

    We’ve also had some disappointments. London, Crewe, West Lindsey to name just a couple.

    A few years ago, coming third in a by-election would have been par for the course. Coming third in just about any election would have been expected. We now expect to win seats. We WANT to win seats. But when you play for the big wins you have to live with the occasional big loss as well.

    Crewe was bad. Henley can be better. At the general election we have to go out there and win seats NOT from Labour, Not from the Conservatives – but FOR the Liberal Democrats.

  • Ben, Crewe wasn’t bad.

    We fought off the two-party squeeze better than we did in the London elections only a few weeks ago.

    So the Tories aren’t as strong up north, while Labour weakness is clearly nationwide.

  • I don’t think the tories are going to be able to use the same style of campaign in Henley as in C&N – they’d be making our arguments for us, yet expecting the electorate to use opposite logic.

    An anti-government protest in Henley? That’s perverse, especially with Boris now in situ in London’s ‘government’.

    I quite like the ‘left in a lurch’ line for this one.

  • or ‘lunched in a lift’?

  • Well considering there’s little chance of an anti-Brown feeling causing any swing in the leafy parts of the thames valley we’ve got an oppotunity to really define his style of leadership.

    Considering the security of the seat, under current circumstances of a percieved tory revival, anything except a complete wipout will fail to impinge on his personal standing – and with Labour nowhere and likely to fall further we really can’t lose.

    Henley is definitely a straight choice, but let’s make it a clear choice.

    A victory for us in Henley would be a dream for us as a party and a nightmare for Cameron – and it is a distinct possibility (if an outside one).

  • James, Swadlincote 23rd May '08 - 8:43pm

    Andy Hinton: Check out their “Agenda for Change” .pdf’s on their website. They’ve also announced what they intend to do RE: Schools and touched on defence recently.

    Personally I felt sorry for the Lib Dems at C&N and really hope they do well at the GE [and I’m a Tory]

    Personally if it were me I’d be talking to Mr Clegg about drawing up “opposing” lines and policies to run on against Labour, tearing their whole vote apart and bringing the Lib Dems into official opposition. Personally I think that they’d do well to rename themselves the Liberal Party again. Both Cameron and Brown refer to them only as the “liberal Party” now, as do a number of media pundits.

    Well done on C&N anyway, shame you didn’t do better.

  • Interesting stuff James, I do believe that you have a good point about the time to take Labour apart generally as our party could benefit by replacing them and may well be able to pass them in the polls.

    There will be a lot of disillusioned Labour helpers / members looking for a new party to back / join.

  • Steve Jobson 24th May '08 - 12:55am

    As a party member since 1966 it worries me that Nick is not cutting the mustard. Nice chap, telegenic like Cameron but something just isn’t gelling. I can’t put my finger on the problem, but there is one as C&N and London showed.

  • David Morton 24th May '08 - 1:22am

    Please tell me you aren’t hinting at a third leadership election in 3 years ?

  • Steve – what utter nonsense. Since Nick was elected we have moved up from 13% to 22% in the latest poll.

    The problem is not Nick, but how we are projecting him and our party. C&N and London showed something – but equally so did the gains we nade elsewhere. What we have seen is local parties campaigning more smartly than our central party organisation, that’s all.

  • Just before we beat ourselves up totally, consider a few facts about C&N

    1. We were starting from a very clear 3rd place (apart from a welcome ‘blip’ in 2005 the LD vote has been 11-15% in the past)

    2. A 3 week campaign

    3. The local party is very small

    4. They were in the middle of a very difficult set of local elections to a new unitary council – the targetting policy was spot on for the UA (and resulted in 2 gains), but probably not great for a parliamentary byelection!

    5. C&N Conservatives have benefitted from considerable support (Ashcroft probably; Coleshill certainly) for the past 2-3 years

    Against that background being “squeezed” to probably the best share of the vote (2005 aside) since the seat was created was not bad at all !

  • The problem is not Nick, but how we are projecting him and our party.

    Or really — as Alix says above — how the media project us. For the commentariat the narrative is still about the Tories and Labour fighting for the center ground. What hasn’t yet “jelled” is the realization that Labour is very nearly a spent force, having sacrificed its core support for power a decade ago and having lost the aspirational middle now.

  • Yasmin Zalzala 25th May '08 - 3:44pm

    I think what the Crewe and Nantwich By election has shown how irrelevant the Liberal Democrats are. They are the party of opportunists and home to a protest vote. Nothing more.

    The dropping of the locally selected candidate for a candidate who is more likely to win the constituency is the most glaring manifestation of how unprincipled and leaderless the Lib Dems are/have become.

  • Hi Yasmin,

    “The dropping of the locally selected candidate” etc etc

    Do I really need to explain this again?

    It has long been the practice to reselect for byelections (best part of twenty years I believe).

    The “locally selected candidate” (Marc Goodwin) applied for reselection, but was unsuccessful. Many of us [myself included] have been through that experience! Most of us do not then throw our toys out of the pram.

    LOCAL MEMBERS chose Elizabeth Shenton, who proved an excellent candidate.

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