The Chesham and Amersham by-election doesn’t tell us much at all

The Lib Dems’ victory wasn’t that shocking and it shouldn’t change how we view politics.

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What does the Chesham and Amersham by-election teach us? As far as the broader pattern of British politics is concerned, not a great deal.

As I wrote shortly after the tragic death of Cheryl Gillan, the previous Conservative MP, the seat was probably the best and easiest pick-up opportunity the Liberal Democrats would get this parliament. 

If we were to compile a risk rating for constituencies, the Conservative list of risks would surely include the following: 1. Did it swing against the party in the 2019 general election and the 2021 local elections, which were generally good for the Tories? 2. Is it in London or any of England’s core cities? 3. If it is not in London or another core city, does it have easy commuter links to one? 4. Did it vote for the UK to remain in the European Union? 5. Does it have a higher than average number of graduates? 6. Does it have lower than average levels of home ownership? There is no seat that ticks all seven of these boxes that is Tory-held, and Chesham and Amersham ticks boxes one, three and four.

(One might fairly add a seventh box marked “is it ethnically diverse?” but I think this can create a false positive: the Conservatives are no longer doing significantly worse among ethnic minority voters simply because they are ethnic minority voters, and I am therefore at present inclined not to include it on my risk register. If we replaced every white British voter in, say, Cannock Chase, with a voter who was demographically identical other than being British-Bangladeshi, I don’t think the seat would become any less Conservative-leaning.)

Add to that the large reservoir of opposition to two key government policies – the HS2 railway upgrade and the Planning Bill – and it was not unexpected that the Liberal Democrats would be able to make significant headway in the by-election.

Added to all that, I think we should be aware of all the reasons that Chesham and Amersham is extraordinary. It had a high Remain vote of 55 per cent. It will be highly disrupted by construction arising from HS2 but it does not benefit from it at all, because it has a direct link to London via both the Tube and Chiltern Railways: it does not benefit from the speed or capacity increase that it would if it connected to London via Euston. And it is really easy to get people from the London Liberal Democrats, which is generally well-run, to campaign there, because it’s on the Tube. 

The only complicating factor was whether the Greens might prove to be a spoiler: they had an excellent set of local elections in Chesham and Amersham in May, and they worked the seat hard in advance of the by-election. In addition, the party has hugely professionalised its operation. While we knew the Liberal Democrats would be able to squeeze the Labour vote to next to nothing, we weren’t sure if they could do the same to the Green campaign. The Independent’s Jon Stone is surely right to say that any decent analysis of British politics has to start from assuming the Liberal Democrats will continue to overperform at by-elections – and we should therefore be cautious about drawing too many conclusions about what a good Liberal Democrat by-election performance “means”. What we can learn from this is that the Liberal Democrat by-election machine is even better than we (this is a weaselly way of saying “I”) thought. But beyond that, we haven’t learnt all that much about politics that we didn’t or shouldn’t have known already.

There are a number of other lessons I think people should take from this, but they are pretty much all of the “seriously, how many more times do you need to learn this one?” variety, such as “progressive voters have forgiven the Liberal Democrats for the coalition and are willing to vote tactically for them to beat the Tories” (demonstrated in the 2016 Richmond Park by-election, the 2017 general election, the 2018 local elections, the 2019 local and European elections and the 2019 general election), “no, Ed Davey having been a senior figure in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition does not prevent them winning tactical votes from the left-leaning parties” (demonstrated by the fact that the most electorally successful Liberal Democrat leader in history is Vince Cable), “the Conservatives have problems in the south” (demonstrated in the 2021 local elections) and “the Brexit realignment works both ways”.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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