Witney could be a turning point for the Lib Dems

The result in the Witney by-election was a substantial swing to the LibDems, jumping from fourth place on 6.8% to second place on 30.2%. Liz Leffman and her team did an outstanding job, and the party was clearly ready to rally to the cause.

Over the next few days there were speculations about what that would mean if replicated at a General Election, with estimates of the number of seats likely to switch from Tory to LibDem put between 26 and 51. The statistician in me is wary of those extrapolations: there are lots of unknowns at by-elections, and British politics is especially turbulent at the moment.

On the other hand, political parties usually spend a long time building up profiles of voters. Lots of volunteers flooding in at the last minute is not a good substitute for that prolonged work, so there is more to the surge in Witney than simply the number of people who came to campaign. In fact, it will be far easier to win back people who voted LibDem in 2010, now they are able to see the difference between the Tories on their own and the Tories in coalition with LibDems.

But at the very least, the sheer numbers of LibDems who went to Witney, and the positive energy around the campaign, show we are in good heart. A recent article in The Economist rightly suggests that this could well be a turning point for the LibDems – proof that we are very much back in business – though it also counsels that this there is a long way to go.

Right now what is at stake is much bigger than one political party. Labour are manifestly not a credible “government-in-waiting”. The Conservatives are split, in hoc to their right wing extreme, and concentrating power in the executive (some might say the Prime Minister’s office) in a way that is a big challenge to parliamentary democracy.

Where do people go who naturally inhabit the centre ground, and are concerned by the increasingly-obvious dangers of Brexit – both in terms of economics and of ideals?

The Witney result should unsettle Theresa May. It needs to spark a more conciliar, collaborative and co-operative approach, particularly to the EU. It should also push people to engage with the real reasons for people voting “Leave”, which seems to have been more to do with frustration at the status quo than a real understanding of the serious consequences of leaving.

The tragic irony is that there are a range of inspiring voices for change in the EU, including Guy Verhofstadt, of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe and Yannis Varoufakis. I suspect that many of those who voted Leave would have been enthusiastic supporters of some of these reforms if they were more widely known: staying in the EU and supporting changes within might actually be the best way to get what many of those who voted Leave were wanting.

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

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  • Apropos the number of sets that we might win in GE2020…

    What struck me whilst in Witney was the number of people we had out in the constituency. It was an effort that would be unsustainable in target seats during a general election unless we go all out with a recruiting drive. Roughly, I’d say we need 500 active members per target* if we are to replicate the effort that went into Witney’s second place.

    *plus, of course, substantial numbers in non-target constituencies if we aim to greatly increase our share of the national vote.

  • Samuel Cardwell 24th Oct '16 - 10:45am

    @Ken, yes that’s a fair point. However, it’s worth remembering that Witney was hardly what we’d think of as a target seat. There are a lot of seats, obviously in the South-West but elsewhere as well, where our vote was, as it were, abnormally deflated in 2015. That is, we still have the infrastructure, the local ‘brand’ and a strong local party, we just got hammered last time. Even if we only take back all the places where we finished second last time, we’d get a good number of seats. There are also urban seats that we’d be targeting where campaigning is less of a logistical challenge than it is in West Oxfordshire. We won’t necessarily need to draw in so many activists from afar in those seats.

    Also, let’s not forget that we won’t just be targetting Tory seats. Clearly places like Cambridge and Cardiff Central (Labour-facing), Edinburgh West and N-E Fife (SNP-facing) are in play. We can achieve a lot through local targetting, even while we remain stagnant in nat. polls – aiming for the ‘in theory I prefer another party, but I like the look of this local Lib Dem woman’ vote.

  • Picking you up on your last paragraph, Verhofstadt and Varoufakis are proponents of a truly federal Europe. I happen to agree with them, but believe their vision will take decades, perhaps generations to materialise. It can only be achieved with the full consent of the electorates involved. Bouncing them into the caricature of a union run by people who dare not ask their opinion is dangerously counterproductive.

    I think today’s EU is an impasse. Most of the politicians in power are far too jealous of their prerogatives to be willing to release any to a democratically elected Federal government. Instead, they talk of further integration to be achieved by agreement amongst 27 member states augmented, we now discover, by a mosaic of regional authorities (4 in Belgium alone!). Such a convoluted and opaque form of attempted rule is neither effective nor democratic.
    Worse, its inherent inefficiency and distance from the people increasingly postpones hopes of a real union.

    Instead of joining attempts to build some monstrous Gormenghast, European Liberals should concentrate on improving the workings of the single market. Its primary objective was growth and prosperity for all member states and it remains work in progress. If the generators of surplus in the Eurozone cannot be persuaded to transfer some to the deficit states (and the likelihood of them doing so has become even more remote because of the Greek debacle) then the possibility of a Eurozone split should even be considered.

    Improving the material security of all has to be the primary objective. Otherwise the doomsayers will be proven right and the EU will crumble, leading, as Britain’s example will show, to widespread impoverishment. So a key reason to Remain, or at least for me to vote remain/return at the earliest opportunity, is to work with allies in Europe (they do exist) to bring sense to the whole thing.

  • The Witney result is a huge achievement, I can’t think of many times at a by-election when a party starting from 4th did so well (UKIP Eastleigh?)

    A bit of realism is required – the Lib Dem vote in Witney in actual numbers 11,611, was not very dissimilar to the votes in 2010 (11,233) or 2005 (12,415)

    It seems probable there was no great switch from Conservative or Labour to Lib Dems, rather a return to the fold of many former Lib Dems, motivated to vote by an excellent candidate, local issues and the sheer volume of campaigning.

    In the past by-elections had more impact because there were fewer opinion polls, these days we don’t have to guess the mode of the country from by-elections.

  • Richard Underhill 24th Oct '16 - 12:42pm

    Was there an exit poll in Witney? A subsequent analysis would be affected by subsequent news, including the result.
    A Tory teller in Witney told me he was worried about the likelihood of a general election in May 2018, simultaneous with the county council elections.

  • Allan Brame 24th Oct '16 - 1:17pm

    @Caratacus “the Lib Dem vote in Witney in actual numbers 11,611, was not very dissimilar to the votes in 2010 (11,233) or 2005 (12,415)”

    True, but turnout at the 2005 and 2010 general elections was significantly higher. So either we did succeed in gaining some Tory and probably Labour voters, or we were far more successful in persuading our supporters to turn out (or both).
    Even if it was only the latter, it bodes well for many former Lib Dem seats.

  • Richard Underhill 24th Oct '16 - 2:12pm

    A Labour member told me that she should be telling for Labour in another ward, but twice asked earnestly for my advice on tactical voting for us. It would appear that there had been some sort of debate in the local Labor party about this.

  • paul barker 24th Oct '16 - 2:13pm

    In strategic terms I think we should brand ourselves as The “Stop Brexit” Party. The recent poll showing that a Quarter of voters “would” vote for a Stop Brexit Party is in line with the polling after The Referendum that suggested Remain voters much more likely to unite than Leavers, given the chance. We should give voters that chance.

    There are negatives from Witney, in particular the collapse in our vote in Local byelections as activists across the UK switched to focus on Witney instead. Clearly we need more members & to change more passive members into activists.

  • Andrew McCaig 24th Oct '16 - 2:36pm

    paul barker,

    There was no collapse in our vote in local by-elections during the Witney campaign, just the continuation of the pattern since May of doing well (much better than before May) where we have credibility, and not when we don’t. Last Thursday we made a fantastic gain from 4th place in Beverley with a 28% swing, and an excellent hold in St Albans with a 6% increase in vote, and got 15.5% and second place from nowhere in Wey Valley. Elsewhere we got typically small votes mostly in seats where we did not stand recently. The main disappointment was in Sandhurst where we did not stand

  • Andrew McCaig 24th Oct '16 - 2:39pm

    But yes, we do need more activists.. Where I live in Kirklees we have gained several since the referendum and I think there are more to be recruited (we are trying surveys with a referendum question. People who would vote for us in a general election and also voted Remain are prime targets for a follow-up visit). As usual though, most of the new members are not all that keen to do any campaigning…

  • Tony Dawson 24th Oct '16 - 3:03pm

    @paul barker:

    “In strategic terms I think we should brand ourselves as The “Stop Brexit” Party.”

    Thankfully, I can assure readers, that in places where Lib Dems have a real chance of winning, wiser counsels will prevail.

  • John Nicholson 24th Oct '16 - 3:51pm

    With regard to how the result compared with previous elections, if Witney has “only” taken us back where we were in the 2005 and 2010 General Elections, I for one would be very happy. After all, we won, respectively, 62 and 57 seats in those elections.

  • There is much to be done in modifying Brexit and helping it to defeat itself – which it may do – but we have to do more than that. ‘ If you marry the spirit of an age, you will die a widow’. ‘ We need to address also the general disaffection from politics and the London elite which stoked the Leave campaign. Can we know, please, what proportion of our new members are in the Home Counties?

  • Denis Loretto 25th Oct '16 - 11:34am

    I think we must be cautious in seeking to extrapolate the Witney result across the country. Clearly a large number of people who regard themselves as Conservatives voted Lib Dem in this by-election. Was this because of a re-appraisal of our policies or our spokespeople? No – it was because of the leading position we have taken in the wake of brexit. Not just representing the feelings of the remain voters and maintaining our pro-Europe stance but also giving the most coherent lead on what we must do to avoid the most catastrophic version of brexit which is now looming before us. What an asset Nick Clegg is proving to be in this, working closely together with Tim Farron.

    What this result shows to me more than anything else is that our party position on Europe, supported overwhelmingly at Brighton, is the right position and I hope the few senior members who still seem to worry about our being seen as “remoaners” will recognise the message of Witney.

  • Simon Banks 31st Oct '16 - 9:27pm

    I think there is little point in extrapolating from good by-election results to a general election. However, Witney does look good for several reasons. I never doubted we had good numbers of keen activists who would turn out for a promising by-election and work hard in their own areas. The membership surge has given us plenty of new activists. But there was just a niggling doubt that the sort of by-election special we’ve achieved in the past, going back to the Liberal Party and Orpington, might not be possible after the coalition and the 2015 election result. Clearly that doubt has been laid to rest. If a more promising seat comes up a bit further into Theresa May’s reign, our chances are excellent. I’m not sure Richmond Park is the one, because of the special circumstances, but two by-elections in succession in which we are clearly the main threat to the Tories will raise our profile with people who might consider voting for us if they know we are still in business.

  • Richard Underhill 2nd Dec '16 - 9:59pm

    Imagine a council where the largest party was us and the effect of first past the post helped elect our people. Imagine winning 33 council seats out of 36. It happened in Richmond and Barnes. They behaved like liberals and put the 3 Tories on all the committees and watched as they tried to attend them all.

  • Richard Underhill 30th Dec '16 - 2:03pm

    Simon Banks 31st Oct ’16 – 9:27pm Richmond Park was a seat in which we previously had an MP, Susan Kramer. That was one good reason for optimism. Momentum from Witney was another. Even the BBC recognised the possibility by holding an election night special on TV until the result.

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