Last Thursday the Liberal Democrats caused a huge upset with their unexpected win in the Chesham and Amersham by-election, called following the death of Dame Cheryl Gillan. Sarah Green – the Liberal Democrat candidate who ran on an anti-development ticket – overturned a 16,000-majority, winning 56.7% of the vote compared to just 35.5% for the Conservative candidate, Peter Fleet.
In the run-up to the vote, the Liberal Democrat put planning issues and the local controversy over HS2 at the forefront of their campaign. Ms Green attacked the Government’s proposed changes to the planning laws, which she claimed would “see more unwanted destruction to our countryside”, “allow developers to build over our Green Belt with local residents powerless to stop them”, and “be a devastating blow to our area”.
This will have no doubt resonated with many voters who are alarmed at the Government’s proposed planning reforms. But are those reforms the principal reason why the Tories failed to hold the seat? The Lib Dems were anti-development and anti-HS2, but so was the Conservative candidate.
The defeat could partly be the result of changing demographics – with its proximity to London (including 3 tube stations) and under-40s looking for places beyond the Capital in which to plant roots, areas like Chesham and Amersham are ideal, and these younger voters inevitably take their liberal outlook with them. With the Labour Party not strong enough to be a real threat in prosperous, semi-rural parts of the South East (Labour managed a paltry 622 votes in the by-election), the Liberal Democrats are winning the votes of younger people in these areas who want to vote for a left-of-centre party; as well as winning over enough disaffected Tory voters – alienated by policies like planning reform – to make the difference.
Another likely element in the defeat is that the Tories simply did not take the by-election seriously and failed to campaign energetically enough, taking for granted that Chesham and Amersham was a safe seat and that the Liberal Democrats were not polling strongly enough to be an actual threat. Until last week, the Conservatives had never won less than 50% of the vote since the seat was first formed in 1974.
In the Tory camp, MP and former Housing Minister Kit Malthouse suggested it was normal for the governing party to lose by-elections. However, recent experience shows that is no longer really true – we only need to look at the previous by-election in Hartlepool, which the Conservatives won with a convincing 51.9% of the vote. The Tory win there showed that the Conservatives are currently able to win over Brexit-supporting ex-Labour voters in the North who haven’t voted Tory before – but this latest result is a sign they may be simultaneously turning-off enough of their traditional southern support to put previously safe seats in danger.
Don’t forget that, despite the many Tory gains in the latest round of local elections, the Conservatives lost their majority on the council in Tunbridge Wells – long considered the epicentre of a sort of middle-class English Conservatism – after losing seats to the Liberal Democrats and to Labour. They also lost control of the county councils in Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire: likely because of the growing prevalence in those counties of young graduates who are working in industries connected to the two ancient universities, but who have moved out of those cities into previously Tory areas.
The Tories will have to decide in the coming months whether their newfound strength in the ‘Red Wall’ is likely to last, and sufficient to make up for what future losses may come in the South East, or whether they need to rethink their strategy to avoid the phenomenon of a crumbling ‘Blue Wall’ that puts their parliamentary majority in jeopardy. A win at the Batley and Spen by-election in Yorkshire on 1 July – a Labour seat that hasn’t been won by the Tories since 1992 – might reassure them that they continue to have a crucial advantage over the Labour Party that can see them through to another general election victory, even if the Liberal Democrats do pick up a handful of Home Counties seats at their expense.
A defeat, though, will just renew Tory concerns over whether they can really afford to alienate their southern base with unpopular policies – and could prompt a serious re-think on planning reform.