What the Liberal Democrats brought to the North Shropshire by-election wasn’t their 2019 manifesto. It wasn’t the Brexit-bashing rhetoric from two years ago, nor many concrete national policies. What the party brought was more emotional: an option for voters to deal Boris Johnson and the incumbent administration a psychological and political blow, and the electorate dealt one decisively. (The 34-point swing to the Lib Dems was the third biggest in their history and the biggest this century.)
North Shropshire voted Leave in the 2016 EU referendum by 57 per cent to 43 per cent. The seat is not particularly affluent and nor does it boast many university graduates. Its transport links leave much to be desired and Labour was the second-placed party at almost every election in the constituency’s modern history. The seat is not a part of the Conservative Party’s “Blue Wall”, so its swing to the Liberal Democrats is not just impressive – it’s astounding. It’s the equivalent of Ukip, during the party’s peak, winning in a seat such as Harrogate or Canterbury.
North Shropshire shows, in a way, that “nature is healing”. The Lib Dems are returning as the party of valid protest – the party of 1997 and 2005. That may not put them high in the polls but where there is an opportunity for voters to stick two fingers up to the establishment – whether it is the local Labour administration in Sunderland, or the Tory one down in Oxfordshire – the Lib Dems can readily offer themselves up. While the North Shropshire result may contrast with the national polls (where Labour leads), there is one shared feature: the Tory vote is in disarray. Forty per cent of 2019 Tory voters, according to the Britain Elects poll tracker, now say that at the next general election they’re staying at home or voting for another party. If that happened, the government would lose as many as 90 seats. The so-called “Red Wall”, by virtue of Tory voters staying at home and anti-Tory voters coalescing around the likely winner, would be rebuilt.
But at the next general election how much of this is likely? Will the Lib Dems even retain North Shropshire?
In May, the Lib Dems didn’t have much in the shape of an effective local presence in North Shropshire – their relevance was confined to the countryside, not the populated centres. If there is to be an election in two years time, the Lib Dems need to prepare themselves to win a vote where anti-politics will matter less to the electorate in the polling booths. It was, after all, an anti-politics mood that triumphed in North Shropshire this December. Anti-politics is the primary driver of Labour’s poll lead – and there’s no guarantee that the current atmosphere will have continued relevance in January, as the public attention moves from sleaze to Covid-19, or from sleaze to the cost of living.
In the months to come, if sleaze as a talking point disappears, but the Labour leads do not, then we can conclude that the public opinion shift was not simply impulsive but representative of something more significant. At present, however, it is too early to say.