The Lib Dems did it. In what may turn out to be an era defining by-election, the Liberal Democrats took back Brecon and Radnorshire yesterday. Here are my main takeaways:
- The Lib Dem surge is real. But it is still fragile at this point
Some pundits are pointing to the fact that this was a Lib Dem seat for years and years, i.e. what’s the big deal. The Lib Dems got 29% of the vote here in the 2017 general election; 43% yesterday. They got almost 2,000 more votes out of an electorate that had shrunk by 10,000 due to lower turnout. A 14% increase in the Lib Dems’ vote share tells us that the polls putting the party at 20% are probably spot on.
However, the way that the Boris bounce was almost enough for the Tories to come from behind and win it tells us how fragile this Lib Dem surge still is. It is almost entirely based on Brexit. Those asking “what will the Lib Dems do when Brexit is finished?” still don’t really understand Brexit, so it’s a silly question. Much more pertinent is “what will the Lib Dems do if Labour dumps Corbyn and gets a decent leader?” While this looks unlikely to happen any time soon, it is still worth the Lib Dems thinking about how they solidify their appeal in case this occurs.
2. The Tories could be in trouble in an autumn election
Yesterday showed that the Lib Dems can at least win back seats previously held. Given most of them are Lib-Tory marginals, this means the Conservatives losing seats, possibly a lot of them. This problem can be mitigated to a certain extent: I think Labour’s electoral problems are much worse than most pundits imagine at present, and so I think that the Tories can take a lot of seats of Labour. Yet the Brexit Party could scupper this plan. In a worse case scenario, the Tories get squeezed by the Lib Dems and the Brexit Party enough to mean they aren’t even the largest party in a hung parliament.
3. Labour are in trouble
Yes, they were never going to win here and one cannot read in too much in their very poor showing – Labour got 5.28% of the vote yesterday, just enough to hold their deposit. But it can’t just be brushed off either, particularly in light of Labour’s poor showing in the last local elections, mixed with polling number in the 20s (often, the low 20s). This was actually a Labour seat between 1945 and 1979. Their previous worst showing in the constituency was 10.4% in 2010 – an election in which the party had been in power for over a decade and were facing a Lib Dem surge in seats like these. What yesterday showed was the extent to which the Liberal Democrats can squeeze the Labour vote, which wasn’t something that looked remotely possible on this scale even a year ago. Labour have to change leader in order to turn this all around. They won’t, so a general election looks pretty bleak for them. They’ll all say that was what everyone said in 2017. I’ll only update what I said in 2017: it’s looking even more likely now that 2017 was just apocalypse delayed for the Left.