Written by Oliver Toms
A historic win for the Liberal Democrats in the Chesham and Amersham demonstrated the realignment happening in English politics, and that Conservative focus on its northern seats may cost losses in the south. With the next general election three years away are we seeing the start of the Conservative downfall?
The Lib Dems surprised both pundits and politicians by winning the by-election in Chesham and Amersham with a majority of over 8,000 votes, making it the Lib Dems third safest seat. There was a swing of 25% towards the Lib Dems and the first time that the constituency has had a non-Conservative MP since its creation in 1974.
While many predicted a reduced Conservative vote, less thought the Lib Dems would be able to win the seat with very few thinking such a large majority was even possible. Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey said: “Across the south, the Tory Blue Wall is beginning to crumble. Here and in great swathes of the country, only the Liberal Democrats can beat the Conservatives and breach their Blue Wall.”
Boris Johnson tried to play down the results of the election, arguing that it was due to “local issues” and “particular circumstances” as opposed to being evidence of increasing Conservative weakness in the south.
Other Conservative MPs disagreed with the Prime Ministers statement, with one former Conservative minister claiming that “Boris goes down like a bucket of cold sick with traditional One Nation Tories”. A group of southern Conservative MPs have reportedly set up an anti-Johnson WhatsApp group for fear of losing their seats to Lib Dem candidates.
Why did the Lib Dems win in a ‘True Blue’ Conservative safe seat?
The by-election was not fought exclusively over national or local issues, with constituent concerns of HS2 being spoken as frequently as worries that ‘Levelling-Up’ has left the south behind.
Both candidates were pro-NIMBY and opposed overdevelopment in the constituency, but the Lib Dems were coming from a success in the local elections in the area, having increased their seat share on the Buckinghamshire Council to 10.2% with 15 councillors and winning seats on the Amersham town council. The Conservative majority on the Buckingham council fell slightly but still have a dominant 113 councillors out of a total of 147.
The by-election became a target for Lib Dem campaign team who invested heavily, with Sir Ed visiting the seat 15 times since the election was first announced. The Conservative campaign took the seat seriously too, with the Prime Minister visiting in addition to cabinet members Rishi Sunak and Oliver Dowden.
A common complaint amongst voters was that the Conservatives had left them behind by focusing on their northern gains more. Fears that Government changes to the planning laws as part of the ‘Levelling Up’ project could damage the local area by developing on the Chiltern green belt.
Another positive for the Lib Dems was the collapse of the Labour vote, which fell from 7,166 in the 2019 General election to just 622, which sparked outrage from the far-left of the party. The collapse was certainly in the favour of the Lib Dems, showing that voters have an appetite for an anti-Johnson progressive alliance, even if party leaders and activists do not.
A mitigating factor for the Conservatives would be that it was a by-election, which traditionally favours parties not in government. Like all elections they act as a way for the public to voice their concerns over policy passed by the government. Turnout was also down from 76.8% to 52.1%, though to win the seat back those that voted in 2019 but not in the by-election would have to vote overwhelmingly Conservative in future.
An exception to the rule or part of a political realignment?
The Blue Wall theory, that traditional middle class Conservative safe seats are trending away from the Conservatives has been popularized in the past six months by many commentators. There was evidence for it in the 2021 local elections, where the Lib Dems, Greens and Labour all won councillors in southern Conservative constituencies.
While the exact definition of a ‘Blue Wall’ seat is unclear there are several shared characteristics between them. They voted to Remain rather than Leave in the Brexit referendum so are more susceptible to voting against the Conservatives following the disruption that Brexit has caused.
Demographic change has led to these seats being more socially liberal than the current Conservative line. Attempts by Conservative MPs to play into the ‘culture war’ narrative have registered poorly in Blue Wall seats.
Consistent Conservative messaging against the ‘metropolitan elite’ of London has also pushed away these constituencies, who have large populations of London commuters. In Chesham and Amersham such messaging was interpreted as leaving the South behind when it came to new investment.
The Lib Dem victory in Chesham and Amersham further confirms the theory that there are wobbly bricks in the Blue Wall, as it is the first seat to turn away from the Conservatives. The victory also shows a clear appetite for tactical voting, with the collapse of the Labour vote feeding directly into the Lib Dems. The ‘progressive alliance’ may be laughed off by hard-line party activists as a centre-left dream of the past, but the by-election shows that a limited anti-Conservative pact may yield considerable victories for the opposition.
The Blue Wall may be the double edge to Conservative victories in the Red Wall but progressives should be wary of believing that it is the path to victory in the next general election. If the Conservatives can hold onto most of their Red Wall gains, then winning in Blue Wall seats is not enough prevent a Conservative majority on paper.
The scale of the victory in Chesham and Amersham comes as a surprise to both sides of the political spectrum and shows that the Lib Dems are a threat in southern seats with wanning Conservative support. However, it does not go so far as to trigger the doomsday clock for the Conservatives, who have the safety of a 10 point lead in national polls.
Featured images courtesy of Unsplash. No changes have been made to these images.