In a handful of seats, the 2019 vote share was up on 2010
Don’t read too much into the result of today’s Chesham and Amersham by-election. The Lib Dems have a track record of winning seats from the Tories in these sort of contests — only to lose them in subsequent general elections.
Much more interesting is the wider pattern of Lib Dem revival.
This is patchy to say the least. The party is still on single figures in most opinion polls. Furthermore, in almost every constituency in the country the Lib Dem vote share at the last general election was down on what they got in 2010.
However, in a handful of seats the 2019 vote share was up on 2010 — and the really interesting thing is that these hot prospects are overwhelmingly concentrated in one particular part of the country. To see where, I’d recommend a 2020 report by Tim Bale, Aron Cheung and Alan Wager for UK in a Changing Europe.
This is the key chart — a pair of maps showing exactly where the Lib Dems are doing best. As you can see it’s southern England, but not all of it. The new Lib Dem heartland is a chunk of the South which stretches westwards from London, but stops short of the West Country (the old Lib Dem heartland).
With some latitude, you could call this area Wessex. Or Midsomer Murders Country, perhaps. If you include the outpost around Cambridge, then the Golden Triangle might be an appropriate name (the other two corners being Oxford and some of London’s leafier suburbs).
Whatever you call it, there’s an obvious overlap between this region and the parts of the South beyond London that voted to Remain. But five years on from the referendum, is there more than Brexit to unite this part of this country — and give the Lib Dems a distinctive set of interests to represent?
Back in 2015, Kelvin Mackenzie — former editor of The Sun — tried to rally support for a “Southern Party”. Burdened with sky-high property prices and long, expensive commutes, southern taxpayers shouldn’t have to subsidise other parts of the country, he argued.
The Lib Dems wouldn’t want to copy his populist tone or anti-tax message, but a relentless focus on the housing crisis could work well for them. After all, the Government’s policies here are so bad, they’re alienating both the proponents and opponents of new development.
A competent, if cynical, opposition party could harvest votes from both sides — and if you don’t think the Lib Dems can’t face both ways at once on this issue then you don’t know the Lib Dems.
Whatever the result of today’s by-election, Boris has a big problem down South.