North Shropshire - a notable marker for the Lib Dems, or another false dawn?

North Shropshire – a notable marker for the Lib Dems, or another false dawn?

The Conservatives’ majority of 22,949 in North Shropshire, a seat which they had more or less held for two centuries, was overturned in December’s shock by-election.

Liberal Democrat Helen Morgan swept to victory with 17,957 votes, gaining a majority of 5,925- just over the equivalent of the 5,643 total votes she received in 2019.

This historic vote, which followed days of crisis over a mammoth backbench rebellion on Plan B restrictions, and suggestions that scores of senior government figures breached lockdown in Christmas 2020, was itself sparked by scandal that prompted the seat’s long-serving MP Owen Paterson to resign after he was found guilty of an “egregious” breach of lobbying guidelines.

While the limelight has since fallen on the future of Boris Johnson’s premiership, here we examine what this election might mean for the Lib Dems going forward.

North Shropshire – A meaningful change in Lib Dem fortunes?

On the face of it, the Lib Dem victory in North Shropshire was significant.

The 34% swing away from the governing party is the largest achieved in a defensive by-election since Clacton on Sea swung 59.7% to UKIP in 2014, when the seat’s then-Tory MP Douglas Carswell defected to the Eurosceptic party and subsequently sought re-election.

North Shropshire was also the third-biggest swing against the Conservatives in a by-election since the Second World War, beaten only by Clacton and the 35.4% swing to the Lib Dems’ in their 1993 Christchurch victory.

The Liberal Democrats’ outsider party status –  aside from their recent half a decade in coalition- has allowed them to gain numerous stunning by-election victories over the years against both major parties, with the party appearing a malleable centrist alternative for those weary of Labour or Conservative governments.

It could even be said that much of the Liberal movement’s post-war successes have been defined through its by-election fortunes. The 1962 Orpington by-election, in which the then-Liberal party increased its vote share by 30.7% was seen by many as the beginning of the Party’s revival.  In later years too, after their merge with the Social Democratic Party initially formed by a breakaway group of Labour moderates, the party continued to win a series of famous by-elections such as Bermondsey in 1983, Eastbourne in 1990, Newbury in 1993, right up to Chesham and Amersham in June 2021.

Yet with the exception of the period between 2001 and 2015 when the Lib Dems boosted more than 50 MPs, they have remained a largely fringe party at Westminster.

Another false dawn?

Despite their North Shropshire win, the Liberal Democrat’s electoral popularity has been in the doldrums for much of the last decade.

This followed ten promising years  in which the party secured 52 MPs in 2001, 62 MPs in 2005, and 57 MPs in 2010 on the back of 23.0% of the vote. 

During this period, the party’s increased support  was heavily influenced by their opposition to the then-Labour government’s decision to join the Iraq War. Throughout the 2010 General Election, Lib Dem leader Clegg appeared on an equal footing with the Conservative and Labour leaders during three televised campaign debates.

Clegg took the Liberal Democrats into a coalition government after the Conservative Party failed to obtain a majority. While in government, the Liberal Democrats’ popularity began to wane as they were seen to break a pledge to abolish tuition fees, and in the 2011 local elections the Party lost a third of its Councillors.

The Lib Dems’ demise was complete at the 2015 General Election, when the party lost 49 of their 57 seats, and their vote share collapsed to just 8%.

Although the party initially polled well in early 2019, with leader Jo Swinson even claiming she could become prime minister, the party won just 11 seats and 11.5% of the UK vote in the December 2019 General Election. The party’s strong opposition to Britain’s exit from the European Union failed to cut through with enough voters.  The failure of the 2019 campaign was optimised by Swinson herself being forced to step down as party leader after losing her East Dunbartonshire seat to the SNP candidate by a slim 149 votes.

With Lib Dem support still around 11% according to aggregate polling– just one point up from their 16 December win- , it is this national picture which remains the problem for the Lib Dems. In the context of these national polls, the Lib Dems have made no electoral progress under Ed Davey since 2019.   

Former leaders Jo Swinson and Vince Cable continue to remain more high profile with the public than Ed Davey, a party leader, that only 51% of British voters claim to ever have heard of. The Lib Dems clearly have a long way to go if they wish to make serious traction and achieve the erstwhile airtime of “Cleggmania” at the next election.

Against this backdrop, the North Shropshire result still appears a well organized protest, rather than the rebirth of the Lib Dem brand.  After all, two weeks early, the Lib Dems had actually lost their deposit, polling just 3% of the vote in the Old Bexley and Sidcup byelection.

James Johnson, co-founder of the JL Partners polling firm, and former Downing Street pollster told  the North Shropshire result, “demonstrates Conservative liabilities rather than Lib Dem assets”.

Continuing Johnson said, “Clearly, if the Conservatives continue to perform poorly, then the Liberal Democrats stand to benefit in a number of marginal constituencies, But the party’s brand nationally remains weak”. 

While more by-election swings to the Lib Dems probably might potentially lie in sight, this follows the long Lib Dem tradition of being able to harness their limited human and financial capital on one constituency.  Such a strategy is impossible in a national general election. 

Last year Lib Dem membership stood at just 98,247 compared to the Conservatives 200,000 and Labour’s 430,000. Their donations in 2020 totalled just £1,415,818, almost half Labour’s £2,896,495 and way below the Conservative Party’s £3,876,847. The reality is that the Lib Dems simply do not have the resources to mirror their effective one off by-election campaigns on a national level.

Former Lib Dem aide Ben Rich has highlighted that: “Even in 1997, a breakthrough year for the Lib Dems, they could not hold Christchurch,” predicting that “they are highly unlikely to hold North Shropshire in the next general election.”

Given that the  turnout of 46.3% in the North Shropshire by-election- a major dip compared to the 67.9% in 2019-  it seems not that many former Brexit-supporting Conservative voters were persuaded by Liberal Democrat policies, but that they stayed at home in protest at the government’s actions. Whether they decide to return to the Tories at the next election will depend on the perceived performance of the Conservatives going forward.

How could the Lib Dems make progress?

Nick Tyrone, the former director of the liberal think tank CentreForum, now serving as an associate fellow at the liberal-conservative think tank Bright Blue, said Thursday’s result “demonstrates how Labour and the Lib Dems might complement one another at the next general election, with the Lib Dems only focusing their firepower on a concentrated number of Tory-held seats where Labour quietly lays low. If this works as well as it has done in the last few by-elections the Tories should be very worried”.

Such packaging was an essential cog in the Lib Dems electoral machine in North Shropshire, where many traditional Labour voters went for the Lib Dems in a deliberate attempt to defeat the Tory candidate. During the campaign, Sir Ed Davey was seen out and about knocking doors in the constituency, while Sir Keir Starmer left it to his deputy and other shadow ministers to visit. 

 A similar strategy also helped the Liberal Democrats gain Chesham and Amersham, where Labour campaigning again appeared deliberately minimal.

In the December 2021, Old Bexley and Sidcup by-election, the Lib Dems essentially stepped aside for Labour, something which saw the Lib Dem vote share drop by 5%.

Although the last three by-elections have seen something of an informal alliance forged between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, a formal “progressive alliance” among non-Tory parties remains unlikely.  Despite limited success in tactical voting in the 2019 General Election, tactical voting campaigners remain of the view that more targeted tactical campaigning could be enough to remove the Conservatives from office in future.

Moreover, recent data is quite clear in the sense that the Lib Dems have had their most success (1997 to 2010) during periods when the Conservatives have been sufficiently unpopular to be able to compete effectively to form a national government.  When the Conservatives have been strong, even in the face of the most left wing Labour opposition since the war, the Lib Dems have failed to make a breakthrough.

In that sense, it is the potential for a new period of sustained unpopularity for the Conservatives, more than anything to be read into another brilliantly executed local by election campaign, that may be central to Lib Dem fortunes.