Waking up to discover there’s been a Liberal Democrat by-election victory isn’t an unusual experience, but it has become a relatively rare one. After what felt like a continual wave of success through the 80s and 90s, Liberal Democrat wins slowed to a trickle and in the past decade there have only been three: the defence of Eastleigh in 2013, Richmond Park in 2016 and now Brecon and Radnorshire in 2019.
Let’s start with the the negative. After both Eastleigh and Richmond Park, it was loudly proclaimed that the Liberal Democrats were back, the party’s campaign strategy had now been battle tested and proven successful, so everyone could now happily steam ahead to the next election.
Both seats were then lost at the next General Election, Eastleigh as one of the wave of 2015 losses that saw the party shrink from 57 seats to 8, Richmond Park one of the narrow 2017 losses as the party lost a few but gained more to end up on 12. So before we get too caught up in the celebrations, it’s worth remembering that a single by-election win doesn’t mean the party’s overall strategy is instantly proven correct. A by-election is an intensely focused competition in a single seat, and that intensity can’t be replaced at a general election when you’re trying to fight in dozens or hundreds of seats. That, especially, was the lesson the party failed to learn from Eastleigh.
So, when we’re looking at the lessons of Brecon and Radnorshire it’s worth remembering those caveats and not falling into the trap of assuming one by-election can change everything.
For me, there are two interesting factors at play. The first is one that’s not been commented on much, but it’s that the old Liberal appeal to rural Cdeltic seats appears to be back. The signs of revival over the past few months have often been confined to urban and suburban areas, so winning the largest constituency in England and Wales is a good sign that the party can appeal to rural areas, which could bring a few more seats into play that might not have been obvious from local election results.
More importantly, one of the keys to victory yesterday was that some parties were willing to unite behind a cause while others remained divided. Specifically, the Liberal Democrats benefited from other parties (especially Plaid Cymru and the Greens) withdrawing and endorsing Jane Dodds, while the Conservative attempts to hold the seat were hindered by the presence of the Brexit Party. This is crucial as the main focus for the remain parties at the next election, whenever it comes, is the question of how they are going to take seats off the Conservatives (winning seats off Labour is important, but secondary to making sure the Tories don’t get a majority or close enough to one to bluff their way back into power).
The best way for any party to win a seat under single-member plurality (the election system we confusingly call ‘first past the post’, despite the lack of a clear winning post) is to reduce the contest to a simple battle between two candidates or parties. If you can’t get an election that has only two candidates, then your best alternative is to make the electorate think there are only two candidates with a chance of winning the election, enabling you squeeze all the votes that would go to other parties. The Liberal Democrat success in the late 90s and early 2000s was mainly based on doing this in Conservative-held seats by persuading Labour voters that they were the best anti-Conservative option (which is why the coalition had such a catastrophic effect on Liberal Democrat electoral performance).
The situation is somewhat different now as we’re in a situation where a lot of the old voting loyalties have broken down and the division is much more between leave and remain (though with plenty of other factors in there to complicate matters). What Brecon and Radnorshire might have shown us is that it’s easier to unite the remain side than the leave one, or at least that the remain parties are more open to the idea of electoral deals than the leave ones are. While parties on the remain side have stood down for each other and are now looking at ways to work closer together, the likelihood of any sort of deal on the leave side appears to be rapidly diminishing with the Brexit Party announcing its potential general election candidates and denouncing Boris Johnson as secretly working for “Brexit in name only”. (The true Brexit, of course, can never be actually delivered, only betrayed)
So, Brecon is potentially a way forward, but only potentially. It doesn’t guarantee anything unless the parties that worked together there are ready to put in the effort and the compromises that enable them to do it again and again and over a much wider area than just a single by-election. There are a lot of pitfalls out there and a lot of criticism, both internal and external, that will need to be confronted and faced down by all the parties involved. It won’t be easy, particularly because there isn’t a long time to make something big happen so arguments need to be resolved and not set aside to return to in a few months, but there’s a big prize out there to be won if Brecon can be the start of something rather than a one-off that’s forgotten by the time the next election rolls around.