I have been watching politics for fifty years now. In that case I should have learned that there is nothing to be learned from a LibDem by-election victory. Except for the fact that there usually is something to be learned from a LibDem by-election victory.
The Amersham and Chesham result is stunning. It is the 14th biggest swing in by-election history, at 25.1%. A 16,000 Tory majority has become an 8,000 LibDem majority. The Greens got 1,400 votes, and Labour under 700. Maybe that would not be replicated at a general election. Who can say? But what this does feel like is one of those LibDem gains where a new LibDem stronghold (if there is such a thing now) is created.
Of course excuses can be made. There is a strong LibDem local presence in the area. I happen to know the area well enough to know that. And this is a well off commuter area, although they are not exactly uncommon in the south east. HS2 might have been a local issue, but it’s hardly new. Candidly, none of the local issues feel very persuasive in explaining this outcome.
What does feel persuasive is the suggestion that this was a very strong protest vote in an area where people thought registering such a vote was well worthwhile because the chance of it being effective was high.
There were compelling reasons for not voting Tory. In this area I strongly suspect Brexit is one. That might well have been a factor in the Tory win in Hartlepool. I think it just as likely that it has had the opposite effect here. This is an intensely Remain area, and the obvious costs of Brexit are now becoming all too apparent, however much disguised by Covid they might be. The Tories are about to find that there is no one-size Brexit policy that fits all. And I rather strongly suspect that they are also about to find that far from being a winning policy - as it was in 2019 when negotiation fatigue gave it an appeal - Brexit is now a divisive one that can only harm their future prospects.
But this was not just a Brexit vote. This is a constituency where a corrupt government is very unlikely to appeal, and where the corruption will have been noticed. Some may sweep such suggestions aside as a cost of doing business. I am not sure that the whole country will. Again, I am going to suggest that this election might send out a very clear message in this regard.
And, unlike Hartlepool, this election was not fought on the back of a wave of Covid euphoria, but has instead taken place in the face of another wave of Covid. The vaccine boost has gone, I suspect. The failure to address India has become apparent. The reality of government incompetence in dealing with Covid has come to the forefront again. And, I suggest, this issue will be back on the agenda to stay for some time as it looks as though the UK is going to fare much worse than Europe, again. So far it looks like European countries managed their borders much better than we did, and all because of the desire for a Brexit trade deal with India. Johnson may pay a heavy price for that.
There is another issue I should mention. There was, in effect, a progressive alliance here. It was not between the parties, although it is readily apparent that Labour simply did not try, and I applaud them for that. The alliance was created by the people of Amersham and Chesham. In a constituency that has only ever returned Tories they decided to collectively reject the Tory offering.
Now I know there are many who will say that the LibDems are not very progressive, and I accept that. They are not. But, UK politics has moved along way. The Tories have moved it to the far right. They have expelled their moderates. Frankly, many who remain in the party seem only vaguely in touch with what might reasonably be termed political sanity. And I very strongly suspect the voters of Amersham and Chesham noticed that. Metroland - which is what these neighbouring towns typify - is reasonable. The Tories are not. They have been punished for that.
What is their to learn? For the LibDems, it is that they need to persuade people in a constituency that they are the opposition.
The same is true for Labour.
To put it another way, alliance working is vital to beating the Tories.
But, so too is being credible. And that is not about being moderate. It looks like the LibDems had a good candidate here. Ed Davey was not the issue; I suspect she was. That may not translate for Labour. There remain questions marks about whether Starmer is credible.
What is certain is that Brexit and Covid are back in play. And both are bad news for the Tories at present. Brexit is, without doubt, going to remain that way. There is no credible way for them to present this as a success now: it is not.
I am not suggesting the tide is turning. Hartlepool is fresh in the memory. There is another by-election to come that could still be bad news for Labour. But what is certain is that there is no one message for the Right that is universally appealing. And that is good news.