Reflections on North Shropshire
One of the very few positives of campaigning around Christmas is the decorations. They offer a bit of festive cheer when its cold and wet outside and a nice icebreaker at the start of a canvassing doorknock.
At one of the houses I visited for the Lib Dems, where the garden gargoyle was sporting a festive hat and a bit of tinsel around its neck, it was the obvious icebreaker – what I didn’t expect was the owner of said gargoyle to tell me “we’ve named it Boris”.
He was one of many I spoke to over the course of the election who told me they had voted Conservative because of Boris Johnson in 2019 and were voting Liberal Democrat because of Boris Jonson in 2021. Could it be that the Conservatives’ strongest asset is turning into its largest liability?
The result yesterday will give progressives of all colours hope that voters across the country will follow North Shropshire’s lead and kick the Conservatives out of Government in the next general election. I wouldn’t take it for granted.
First – and this might be obvious – people are angry. The by-election could not have come at a better time for opposition parties in the wake of scandal after scandal engulfing the Prime Minister and the party. As Brits we have an ingrained sense of fairness and clearly people are angry at this Government’s seemingly continuous rule-breaking.
There is a good chance that much of that anger will have dissipated by the time the country goes to the polls in 2023 or 2024. Relying on the Conservatives to continue to get it so badly wrong, possibly under a new leader, is unlikely to pay dividends.
Second, and linked to the first, there is a clear sense that trust in politicians is at an all time low. I heard that time and again on the doorstep and it comes up with enormous regularity in focus groups I and my colleagues at Public First have run over the last few months.
Depressingly, this should offer the Tories hope. While first time Conservative voters in 2019 might decide not to back them again in the next General Election, that does not mean their vote will automatically go elsewhere – they are just as likely to simply stay at home.
With lower turn out favouring the Conservatives – the highest turn out in 2017 was among the over 65s who tend to vote blue, they may just be able to cling on to their majority. Even if somewhat reduced.
But the extraordinary result in North Shropshire also offers a big hint of how this fate could be avoided. As with the Old Bexley and Sidcup by-election last month, we can see that controversial “progressive alliances” can work.
Yes, those conversations are difficult and take navigating but if we are to end the now over decade-long reign of the Conservatives the conversation about how we on the centre and the left go into the next General Election needs to start now. North Shropshire could have just as easily been a story of how voters splitting between Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Greens helped return a Conservative yet again. We avoided that fate but if that conversation continues to be placed in the “too hard” category we could very well see votes split up and down the country at the next election.
So yes, North Shropshire turning Lib Dem yellow is of course historic. I celebrated long into the night alongside all the Lib Dem activists that made this win possible. And yes, it definitely suggests that the Conservatives are genuinely in trouble now.
But we would be foolish to assume that this will translate to anything meaningful come a General Election. We have the Conservatives on the ropes but they’re not out of the fight just yet.
If we are to really land a knock-out blow, we must first look to restore trust in our politics. What better way to do that by being a grown up and getting those who share the same values coming together rather squabbling amongst ourselves.