As Batley and Spen goes to the polls, John Elsom provides a Liberal Democrat reflection on the country’s last by-election – 180 miles away in Amersham.
On June 15, Ed Davey’s super-efficient electoral machine in Berrylands (Kingston) informed me that there might be a tight result at Chesham and Amersham and could I spare any time (with a car) to get out the vote on polling day, 17 June?
I wasn’t born yesterday, quite the reverse. I’ve been here many times before, not least in Esher, where Dominic Raab retained his seat as the shock incumbent in 2019. At the same time, I didn’t want to face my maker with the burden on my conscience that I could have carried the one last voter to the poll, who might have tilted the balance in our favour.
Chesham and Amersham was a tory stronghold
Chesham and Amersham had been Conservative for as long as anyone could remember – or 1974, when the constituency was carved out of the Chiltern Hills. Its two previous incumbents, Sir Iain Gilmour and Dame Cheryll Gillan, were both paid-up members of the less-nasty version of the Tory party – civilized, one-nation, approachable.
Their seats were among the least rickety in the country.
The LibDems had run second to the Conservatives in previous elections, but a long way behind, and Sarah Green, their new challenger, had a good record as a local campaigner, but unknown on the national political scene.
Electioneering is not what it was; it has gone digital. I can remember the days when, as a candidate or ward chairman, I pasted up canvassing cards from the electoral register and sent out the team with state-of-the-art clipboards.
In Amersham, we downloaded an app instead, which gave the map of the district, with house numbers, names of voters, previous canvassing returns and some questions to ask. Responses were duly noted, and sent to the constituency HQ, and relayed to the Lib Dem HQ in London, which compiled a statistical profile, and presumably leaked the results to Sir John Curtice in Strathclyde University, who would inform the BBC.
Nothing was wasted.
On the doorstep, the Conservatives were not popular
Before I set foot on one doorstep, I was told what the issues in Amersham were likely to be. Some 55 percent of the electorate voted to remain in the EU and Boris Johnson’s hard Brexit confirmed their worst fears. There was opposition to HS2, the high-speed rail-link, which went through the constituency.
The new planning laws threatened the villages of the Chilterns. The government’s talk of ‘levelling up’ may have appealed to the red wall voters in the North, but held little appeal down South, which feared for ‘levelling down’. These matters were noted in the algorithms for Chesham and Amersham and the Lib Dem campaign was crafted to exploit them.
There was, however, another factor, noted by Dominic Grieve, formally Tory MP for Beaconsfield nearby. “This”, he said, “was a pretty sophisticated electorate and its voters had come to the conclusion that Boris Johnson was a charlatan”.
That was my impression, even from walking down the street in Chalfont St Giles, wearing a Lib Dem buttonhole. Nobody liked the government. Even those planning to vote Conservative apologised for doing so. It was often not necessary to ask questions. Some wanted to explain why, although they had always voted Tory, they were not doing so now and gave a litany of reasons, local, national and sometimes very funny.
The Johnson factor
Johnson’s photo-calls were the source of much amusement. Who was minding the 10 Downing Street office, when BoJo was teaching in a primary school on Monday, supervising a steel factory on Tuesday, and wearing a mask and a hospital gown for the rest of the week?
His marriage in Westminster Cathedral was another source of hilarity, annulling his previous marriage and de-legitimising his children. “They must have been relieved”, was the general opinion, “better without him”.
Those who, like me, enjoy a good night out could do far worse than wander through the bright lights and speak-eazie joints of Little Chalfont, listening to scurrilous stories about Matt Hancock, Priti Patel, Gavin Williamson and BoJo himself, some of which sounded so far-fetched that they must be untrue, although, well, they just might …
Conservative Party unravelling
There were some, however, who felt that the state of affairs was now beyond a joke. The government was incompetent, untrustworthy and ruinous to our national reputation. Throughout my life, the Tory party has been divided between its ultra-patriotic and its liberal wings – between those who pine for the loss of Empire, and those who seek another solution to the troublesome question of ‘where do we go from here?’
The delicate stitch-craft that kept the two wings flapping together has come apart. Those who seek to handle a mixed economy along Keynesian lines are losing patience with monetarists and Freedmanites. Those inspired by Beveridge’s vision of the welfare state are disgusted by the talk of privatisation. Those who agreed with Karl Popper’s description of an open society are repelled by the ruthlessness by which Patel seeks to defend our borders.
These are matters of principle, not of day-to-day politics. And, yes, the potholes and cracked pavements might be a local disgrace, but they do not outrage the soul and firebrand the conscience in a way that accounts for the extent of the quiet rebellion in the Chilterns and the 25.2 percent swing away from a Tory government in what was previously a safe Tory seat.
A turning point in national politics?
I would like to believe, with Ed Davey, that the result in Chesham and Amersham does represent a turning point in national politics. I hope that the liberals within the Conservative Party do take this opportunity to sever their links with those who boast of sovereignty and independence, but shiver and cower under the flag.
I would like the liberals with a small ‘l’ to join those with a big ‘L’, though party affiliations matter less than the philosophy behind them.
My account of this by-election is, of course, purely anecdotal. In a campaign where, according to the defeated Conservative, Peter Fleet, the Lib Dems threw the “kitchen sink and everything else” into winning, my contribution was no more than as a plastic teaspoon.
But sometimes a random visitor can be left with so strong an impression that it outweighs any statistical analysis. This was what happened. This was it.