What does Henley mean for the Lib Dems?

“A bit disappointed” probably sums up the reaction of most Lib Dems on hearing the result from Henley. But it’s a response that deserves some cool, detached analysis – because the underlying message from Henley is more complex than either Lib Dems who throw up in their hands in despair, or Tories who bray in triumph, are currently admitting.

Reasons to be disappointed:

Well, they’re fairly obvious:

1. The party put in a big effort, fought a vigorous campaign, and had an excellent candidate in Stephen Kearney. We wanted to win – though, realistically, a 15% swing against the Tories in the current climate was always a tall order – and didn’t.

2. What we certainly wanted to do was close the gap on the Tories. In the end, though our vote increased, the gap widened, albeit marginally.

3. With the Labour vote collapsing, we would have hoped to pick up a majority of those disgruntled with the government. But it was the BNP, Tories and Lib Dems (in that order) who shared the spoils, with the rest spread among the minor parties.

There are some who will stop there – you’ll find them on the Lib Dem blogs, you’ll certainly find them on the Tory blogs – and conclude Henley was nothing but a disappointment for the Lib Dems. They’re wrong to do so, and miss the bigger, more complex, picture.

The other side of the coin:

First off, the Lib Dems are caught in a curious Catch-22 campaigning bind. As one of the biggest reasons the public say they won’t vote Lib Dem is because they don’t believe we can win, the party tends to hype its chances (hence the leaflet bar-charts and ‘Winning Here’ slogan). Oftentimes, this pays off, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: eg, the spectacular Dunfermline by-election victory two years ago. Inevitably, if we don’t win the result can end up looking that much more disappointing.

Secondly, we judged how we might do at Henley against our performance in the 2006 Bromley by-election, when there was an astonishing 14% swing away from the Tories to the Lib Dems. But the political weather has changed a lot since then. Two years ago, the Tories and Labour were more or less tied in the polls in the mid-30s%. That’s not now the situation. Nor is Tory campaigning marked by the complacency they used once to exhibit (and on which, to some extent, our success was based).

Which leads on to my third point. If current opinion polls are to be believed, the Tories’ popularity is in the mid-40s% and the Lib Dems in the high-teens to 20%: that represents a swing from the Lib Dems to the Tories since the general election of some 8%. Yet in Henley, the Lib Dems more than held their own, even increasing our vote share to the highest the party has seen since the heady days of the Alliance in 1983. That is no small achievement, given the public clearly no longer feels a need to punish the Tories. Would we have liked to do better? Of course. But the real question is: should we have reasonably expected to do better?

And, fourthly, the Tories will claim this as a triumph; that’s hyperbole borne of relief that they withstood the pressures of the Lib Dems’ campaign. For sure the Tories did well, increasing their vote by 3% (though their vote-share was still lower than in 1992). But this was no return to two-party politics. In the 1974-79 Parliament, the Tory vote went up by over 11% in by-elections in Tory-held seats. That in Henley Labour’s vote collapse was split pretty evenly between the BNP, Tories and Lib Dems tells its own story of our increasingly fragmented party political system.

So, yes, of course we should look at what we might have done better in Henley. But a fair analysis needs to recognise, too, that we sometimes set ourselves the task of clearing a bar that is just too high. Anything other than outright victory, or a significant swing, is seen by some Lib Dems as failure. That’s just not always going to be realistic. In parts of the country, we know we will be on the defensive against the Tories at the next general election, trying to hold on to Lib Dem seats. (Though that doesn’t rule out some surprise victories either). And it’s clear that Labour’s massive unpopularity presents us with a significant opportunity to make gains.

We need to campaign with a belief we can win tempered by a realistic appraisal of what is possible. That might not be the easiest message to sell to the party; but it’s the way to avoid disappointment and achieve definable results.

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


  • Very nice piece, thank you.

  • Stephen, that is a very nuanced reply and of course Henley is not all bad news.

    But I think the key message is that if you promise people a by-election “high” and they don’t get it, then you get some pretty despondent people.

    “We need to campaign with a belief we can win tempered by a realistic appraisal of what is possible. That might not be the easiest message to sell to the party; but it’s the way to avoid disappointment and achieve definable results.”

    Very much agree.

  • A very good analysis I think Stephen.

  • passing liberal 27th Jun '08 - 12:24pm

    I liked that, well written with a fairly motivating message. I for one needed it.

  • If we recognise (as we should) that some byelections are “holding operations” rather than “winning here” efforts, should we not consider spending less on them, and more on broader (and more effective) development work ????

    Our secret has always been that we don’t just campaign harder, we campaign smarter !!!!

  • Stephen Tall

    “If current opinion polls are to be believed, the Tories’ popularity is in the mid-40s% and the Lib Dems in the high-teens to 20%: that represents a swing from the Lib Dems to the Tories since the general election of some 8%.”

    But if you look at the polls at the time of Bromley, they represented a swing of about 5% from the Lib Dems to the Tories. Yet against that background in Bromley we achieved a swing of 14% from the Tories to us.

    Allowing for the difference in the polls, the equivalent result at Henley would have been a swing from the Tories to us of 11% or so. Instead we’ve ended up with a swing _away_ from us.

    I can understand why the party needs to put a brave face on this in public, but I really hope people are facing up to the realities in private.

  • This is a thoughtful piece. There are a few points I’d add.

    First the Conservatives have learned good campaigning skills. They are not as they were in Bromley and are not going to go back to that state.

    Second their message in henley had a clear focus on “sending Gordon a message”. That chimes with the public mood. Their last tabloid had Gordon all over it

    Third the Lib dems lack, for the first time in many years, a clear national narrative and positioning. Particularly against the Conservatives who now suggest they are “pro Green, localism, public services, civil liberties”. This is a stark contrast to the “we’re part of the ‘change mechanism’ of Ashdown in 1997, ‘don’t let them back’ in 2001 and ‘anti iraq war’ in 2005.

    Finally the vote switch analysis looks a little simplistic. I suspect some 2005 Lib dems votes Tory in both Henley and Crewe while some 2005 Lab switched to us with a smaller number moving across to Cons, BNP, Greens, etc. However with a few exceptions, there are simply not enough tactical Lab voters left in our Tory defence/offence seats for this to be the mechanic of victory.

    Nick is an excellent leader. We have 2 years. we need to focus on developing our clear narrative around the economy and on communicating it effectively.

  • Stephen Tall

    I was addressing your third point, which was that the result was “no small achievement” considering that the national polls imply an 8% swing from us to the Tories.

    My point is that the current national swing of 8% that you cited really isn’t that much different from the 5% national swing at the time of Bromley. Certainly not different enough to account for a 14% swing to us at Bromley turning into a swing _to_ the Conservatives at Henley.

    As for the idea that we were damaged by visceral anti-Labour feeling, I think we should credit the electorate with a bit of intelligence. I’m sure the great majority of them realised it was “a straight choice” between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

  • Lesley Walsh 27th Jun '08 - 1:22pm

    What I don’t understand is how we seem to have gone backwards at the things we are meant to be good at. We dumped our already selected Henley candidate who was a local councillor and replaced her with someone who had just stood, and lost, in the local elections in Plymouth. The Tories selected the kind of candidate we usually select. I just hope that Stephen is going to stay at that address in Henley for a while or he could have Mr Plod knocking on his door, having claimed on his nomination paper that it was his home address.

  • Lesley Walsh wrote:

    “The Tories selected the kind of candidate we usually select.”

    Wrong. They selected a candidate who acts as a paid consultant to property developers while claiming to be a champion for local people and a defender of the environment.

  • Sesenco,

    er, we have members who work for property developers – are they to be barred from ever being candidates ???

    from my direct experience in C&N and my sense of Henley I think our obsession with portraying OUR candidates as the “only” decent human being participating in the electoral process, and portraying THEIR candidates as the seed of the devil is both silly and counterproductive.

    and we need a clear broad message for our campaigning :

    how about something to address families struggling to meet their weekly bills …

    rather than

    “our candidate has worked harder than their candidate to collect signatures on a petition to save the Lower Snodgrass sub-post office”

  • Crewegwyn,

    So you are perfectly happy with a county councillor who has a conflict of interest and duty?

  • Well done Stephen – don’t forget to nominate yourself for the golden dozen on sunday!

  • Why ignore the fact that the Greens did well too?

    Because that wouldn’t fit the narrative. Unfortunately, I think the Liberal Democrats will eventually go the way of the Aussie Democrats, eaten alive by the Australian Greens. Here in Scotland the utter hypocrisy of Lib Dem Ministers hurt the party badly, and they’ve played an utterly unconstructive role in Parliament ever since.

  • this is just the most depressingly deluded article ever.

    yesteday’s result was quite clearly a mini-disaster. for us to lose ground on the tories in a by-election, failing to squeeze any of the labour vote at the expense of the tories, has probably never happened before – at least not for a long time. they are the incumbents, i didn’t think it was possible for us not to gain on them in these cricumstances.

    rennard needs to take responsibility for the campaign and learn from his mistakes

  • Sesenco,

    John Howell is not my county councillor, so why would I be concerned at your claimed conflicts of interest and duty?

    If these are legal conflicts – talk to the relevant authorities. If these are political conflicts – campaign against him in 2009. But don’t waste my time.

    Dane Clouston:

    Never fear, some of us are EU-sceptic Lib Dems!


    What on earth is a “mini disaster” ? Is it like a “major slight inconvenience” ?

    0.8% swing against us. Disappointing but hardly wrist-slitting time in the current context.

  • “depressing”


    (thinks will still be chuckling by the time gets to pub)

  • A rather ominous little comment in a report by the BBC’s Martha Kearney:
    “It was a disappointing result for the Liberal Democrats too. Senior party figures believe that Nick Clegg will only really establish himself as leader once he has had a substantial by election win as Paddy Ashdown had with Newbury and Charles Kennedy with Brent East.”

    (I think she needs to check her list of Lib Dem by election gains, though.)

  • Just came over to have a look from Iain Dale’s blog.

    I have said it a few times there but I really so think that we are on the cusp of something big. My feeling is that the Lib Dems could take the old Whig position with teh Tories in England at the next election with the Nationalist parties running Scotland, Wales, N. Ireland and running Labour into second ro third palce in all cases.

    The big result for Henley is that Labour did dos badly and were out polled by even minority parties.

    Come on Lib Dems (even though I vote Tory) I want to see you give Labour a beating in those Northern cities and work with the Tories where you feel able.

  • Tim Crowley 28th Jun '08 - 8:31am

    Surely one of the major problems of the Lib Dems is their total failure to want to take on Labour.
    As a party you still are wedded to the doctrine of taking out the Tories whereas in the present climate your best chances of success are against the NuLabour machine.
    I am afraid that too many people in your party are shying away from the reality of this situatio.

  • Another Tory over from Iain Dale writes:

    I think one of the reasons the Tories have won these last 2 By-Elections is because of the power of blogs!

    I was a local Tory worker in the 1987 Greenwich by-election and the 2006 Bromley By-Election. What horrified me in Bromley was the that we (the Tories) were making exactly the same tactical & strategic mistakes that we had made 20 years earlier.

    However, unlike in 1987, party workers like myself could communicate directly with the top. ConservativeHome ran a very public postmortem in which party workers on the ground could vent their rage, and also give positive suggestions for improving our future campaigning.

    Francis Maude, the then Party Chairman received from me in my capacity as a Bromley Ward Chairman two long e-mails. I was just one of many local activists and “mutual aiders” who contributed to a very painful, but useful debate.

    It seems to me that the party hierarchy, now knowing what really happened on the ground in previous By-Elections has finally got it’s act together.

    As a general point, blogging will change the nature of all political parties as it enables the party grass roots to communicate directly with the top. Derek Conway MP was toast, as soon as the 90% plus disapproval rating on ConservativeHome was publised. And of course the Obama success shows how politicians can by-pass the party machine altogether and reach out directly to the public.

  • I think Stephen’s overall analysis is reasonable. If the lib dems had not run the campaign they did they probably would have lost 70% to 15% and everyone would be saying it was a disaster.

    To those that have argued for a ‘holding operation’ – I don’t think you can in a by-election. You either fight hard or get squashed.

    The big difference between henley and bromley was that in Bromley the Tories were complacent and that allowed the lib dems to build momentum. in henley they worked hard in the last week than the Lib Dems did.

  • Some of the issues that have been discussed here are raised in this interview with Nick Clegg (though it was conducted before the Henley result, apparently):

  • Jules Wright 1st Jul '08 - 4:50pm

    And who pray, are the Tories that bray on the back of the Henley result? I have neither seen nor heard any “braying in triumph” (like the toffs all Tories are of course) – at what was a a predictable victory in natural Conservative territory and a predictable hammering for labour that only the blind faithful refused to see coming? You just can’t leave the spiteful, hallmark little LibDem pejoratives alone …

  • Paul "just joined the Lib Dems" 1st Jul '08 - 7:15pm

    Lib Dems shouldnt get too worried too much about the Tory win in Henley. It was more a protest anti-Brown vote than a pro Cameron/Tory vote. That is what people everywhere are feeling as the New Labour project sinks. The papers write about nothing else. So the fact that the Lib Dem vote held is good. We were never going to buck the political trend right now and win. I agree with Ian Thorpe. There is between now and the general election an opportunity for Lib Dems to take soft Labour votes and to work at exposing Cameron as vapid. Lets do it.

  • Martin Land 1st Jul '08 - 8:25pm

    Sorry, Ian, you mean the well known Iain ‘10606’ Dale?

  • I and my family voted lib Dem. As Christians are no longer welcome, we’ll take our votes elsewhere.

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