No comfort for Labour in Chesham and Amersham

By Mike Phipps

The Liberal Democrat by-election win in Chesham and Amersham is a stunning upset for the Tories. If South Bucks isn’t safe for them, then their entire ‘blue wall’ is at risk. The Lib Dem candidate Sarah Green won by 8,028 votes, overturning a 16,000 vote Tory majority at the last general election in 2019.

While local factors like HS2 clearly played a role, Conservatives are being warned that dozens of seats in the South, particularly in Remain-voting areas, could be at risk.

It was a bad night for Labour. In a seat in which it came second in 2017, it fell to fourth, behind the Greens,  with its lowest-ever share of a result in a by-election. Labour got just 622 votes – about the same number of members it has in the constituency!

Clearly, tactical voting played a role. But as Labour came second four years ago, the question must be why the discredited Lib Dems were the party that voters felt were best placed to oust the Tories.

Elliot Chappell on Labour List looked for the upside in the contest: “Labour can nevertheless take heart from the Lib Dem steal. A Labour win was never really on the cards, and the party vote will have been driven down in a bid to give the Tories the boot. It is less a comment on the party or the leadership than a reflection of tactical voting.”

Others disagreed. Adam Ramsay called it “a disaster for Starmer”, concluding:

“The result punctures the idea that Johnson is unassailable. If the Lib Dems can do it, why can’t Labour?… If they lose the Batley and Spen by-election in West Yorkshire on 1 July, as they lost in Hartlepool last month, then Starmer’s leadership will struggle to survive another year.”

Owen Jones put it more bluntly on Novara Media’s Tysky Sour: If Starmer loses Batley and Spen, he must resign.

Starmer’s first step after the defeat was to reorganise his communications team. His director of communications Ben Nunn and deputy director Paul Ovenden have both confirmed that they will be stepping down. Whether better PR can spin Starmer out of trouble is questionable, however. As Owen Jones suggested on Novara Media’s Tysky Sour, it’s difficult for the communications team to excel, if the leader lacks a strategy and has nothing much to communicate.

For Compass, the result was another opportunity to talk up the progressive nature of the Lib Dems, a party that supported austerity, benefit cuts and a trebling of tuition fees in the 2010-15 coalition that was a Tory government in all but name.

“Good as the result is,” it enthused, “it becomes meaningless if the seat isn’t held at the next general election and if the Lib Dems don’t win many of the 79 seats where they are in second place to the Tories.”  

For Labour, it was another sign that Keir Starmer’s pitch to win back ‘red wall’ voters by emphasising patriotism and socially conservative values may be alienating  younger, more liberal voters in London’s commuter belt. Nor did the same approach work in the Hartlepool by-election.

It may also be further evidence, if it were needed, that divided parties which victimise their former leader, demoralise their members and suspend their activists don’t do well in elections.

The excuse that the Conservatives have been enjoying a ‘vaccine bounce’ has been destroyed. Recent revelations demonstrate the depth of the Tory government’s duplicity and incompetence in the handling of the COVID crisis. Any moment of national crisis that Johnson might have been able to capitalise on has gone, yet Labour’s Opposition has missed countless chances to flay his team for the mis-handling of the pandemic.

“COVID and Corbyn” was Peter Mandelson’s explanation for the Hartlepool rout last month. But blaming Corbyn won’t wash this time.  Labour got 18 times as many votes in Chesham and Amersham in 2017 under his leadership.

Paul Mason tweeted: “Either it was a harbinger of #ProgressiveAlliance or a disaster caused by Starmer… I can see elements of both.”

Taking a swipe at the new Tory pork-barrel politics that worked so effectively in Hartlepool, and Tory proposals to gut the planning system and facilitate the erosion of London’s green belt, he went on, “But this was also a stunning mass rejection of the Tory ‘my mate will get permission to build an extra house in your back garden’ culture – which *really matters* in southern England.”

His key takeaway is unarguable: “It shows there is a viable coalition of voters to kick the Tories out in 2024 and Labour needs a strategy to build it.”

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

Image: Amersham station platform roundel. Author: Sunil060902, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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