Something really strange happened in the recent Chesham and Amersham by-election. A seat that has been solidly blue since 1974 suddenly went yellow and they didn’t just scrape in they absolutely thrashed them. However, the Tories weren’t the only party to get a shock. Labour took one hell of a pounding as well.
When you dig down into the figures, it becomes even more apparent. Between 1997 and 2019, the Conservatives consistently took between 50-60% of the vote. Although there were a couple of notable exceptions, the LibDems would normally take about half that – between 23-28% of the vote and Labour would hover around the mid-teens, achieving their best result in the 2017 when they took 20.6%. However, the 2021 election has turned all of that on its head. The LibDems took 56.7%, the Tories dropped to 35.5% but Labour lost almost all it’s support and barely scraped 1.6%. Comparing their highest and lowest points demonstrates that there has been a seismic shift.
How do we explain this? There have been a number of theories offered by political advisors over the past few days…
One theory is that local politics played a major part in this election. In particular, voters in Chesham and Amersham are unhappy about planning reforms that target greenbelt areas. They’re also unhappy about HS2. Not sure why these issues didn’t play a part in the last few elections and given that HS2 was a Tory-LibDem coalition project, I’m not sure that argument stands up to closer scrutiny.
The LibDem leader, Ed Davey, believes that the Tory obsession with breaking down the red-wall has left traditional blue-wall voters feeling abandoned by the Tories. Again, why was this not a factor in previous elections. The Tory Brexit campaign was heavily focused on winning over disenfranchised red-wall voters and we’ve had two general elections since then.
Some argue that by positioning themselves as solidly pro-Brexit, they’ve alienated Tory remain voters but, surely, if Tory remain voters wanted to send them a message they’d have done that in 2017 and 2019 and not wait until after the Brexit deal had been done? In fact, they performed exceptionally well in 2017 and 2019.
There is another theory that no one in the mainstream media seems to be putting forward or willing to discuss… left wing activists taking a tactical approach to oust the Tories by getting behind the LibDem campaign. Clearly Labour wouldn’t have a hope in hell of winning in Chesham and Amersham, whereas the LibDems had a fighting chance at least. The Greens and Labour collectively lost 12.8% of the vote, which would, in all probability, have given the LibDems a major boost. Certainly there are lots of left wing activists around the country who feel that they are no longer willing to support a centrist Labour Party and ditching party loyalty can create opportunities that wouldn’t normally be considered. Perhaps tactical activism is the way forward? It wouldn’t surprise me if former Labour activists might have found it a lot easier to persuade traditional Tory voters to switch to the LibDems rather than try to coax them into voting Labour.
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