by Chris Curtis
Friday, 18
June 2021
Explainer
11:56

Here’s what the Amersham by-election doesn’t mean

A weird result may not tell us much about the national picture
by Chris Curtis
Lib Dem Sarah Green is the first non-Conservative MP since the constituency was formed. Credit: Getty

One of the big trends in polling over the past decade is that voters are becoming less loyal to political parties. Rather than faithfully dragging themselves to the polling station to vote for their preferred team, greater numbers than ever are taking a “Compare the Market” approach to elections. 

Analysis by the British Election Study Team October 2019 showed that “the 2015 and 2017 general elections were the most volatile we have seen in modern times” driven by “a long-term trend of partisan dealignment (weakening party identification) amongst voters.”

And it is this drop in party loyalty which is making British politics a lot weirder.

During 2019 we also saw extreme movements in support for political parties with the Conservatives falling to 17% in the polls as their voters bled away to the Brexit party. Just months later they bounced back to a landslide victory, winning seats across the Midlands and the North from voters who were once loyal to the Labour Party.

This weirdness is playing out on a local level as well as a national one, with last night’s Chesham and Amersham by-election the most recent example. If the result had followed national trends, Boris Johnson would already be halfway up the Metropolitan line to celebrate his party’s increased majority, after the Lib Dems fell into third. 

Instead, Ed Davey’s party leveraged local factors, most notably planning reform and High Speed Two, to pull off a shocking 25-point swing against the incumbents.

This isn’t the first-time local factors have mattered in politics, and it isn’t the first time we have seen a weird by-election result. But the fact that such dramatic results are happening on such a frequent basis is undoubtedly caused by this decline in party loyalty. The less loyal voters are to the Tories, the more open they will be to Lib Dem arguments around planning and High Speed Two.

Just like declining loyalty towards the Labour Party in Hartlepool meant voters were more open to Conservative arguments on their levelling up agenda.

The conversation now turns to what this means for the Conservatives. This decline in party allegiance means there are now no voter blocks that parties can take for granted. Therefore, there will always be a risk that what happened to Labour in the “Red Wall” could also happen to the Conservatives across the South. 

But I would still be wary about making any confident predictions. Just because a voter group is less loyal, doesn’t mean they will inevitably leave you. And the national polls still show the Tories are still riding high among all their key voter groups, with good approval ratings for Boris Johnson off the back of the successful vaccine rollout.

The only thing we can really be confident about is that politics is going to continue to produce a lot more weirdness.

Chris Curtis is a senior research manager at Opinium.

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Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
1 year ago

To be honest with what has been going on the last year or so it wouldn’t matter who was in charge they would be hated. Whether that’s a reasonable position or not can be argued but I do think it’s the truth. I used to vote LibDem but their illiberal undemocratic woke lunacy has switched me off them for the foreseeable. I can’t for the life of me understand why they’d get elected anywhere but hey what do I know.

jill dowling
jill dowling
1 year ago

As someone who lives nearby, the strength of feeling against HS2 in this area is very strong. Most people see it as a harmful environmental white elephant and an insane waste of money, hence the protest vote against the Conservatives. The Conservatives should be worried – their dogged determination to cling on to this will cause them problems in all their HS2 constituencies.
However, the fact that Labour only managed 622 votes is far more noteworthy. Absolutely mind blowing when you consider they got 7166 votes in the general election. Of course, the BBC et al haven’t really mentioned this but Ikea Starmer needs to hang his head in shame.

Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
1 year ago

I was surprised to wake up to reports the by-election result as I was not even aware there was a by-election due. Maybe it doesn’t matter as I don’t live in the relevant constituency … but it does make me ask “Where’s the press” in all of this.
Given the zero publicity by any party / any national paper or broadcaster its no wonder there’s a surprise result.
We appear to have a one topic media at the moment (covid 19) – that can’t be good for democracy

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
1 year ago

This is nonsense. In the first place, planning is not local it affects many constituencies. So does HS2. In the second place, many have identified the general trend of Toryism under Johnson – left, further left and costly – as unattractive. There is widespread disquiet as to the financial penalties of his green agenda. His comments about a gender neutral future will not have gone down well. People say that “culture wars” don’t count – usually when trying to cover their own support for the aggressive left wing side. But they do count, obviously – especially when they transform your environment and hit your livelihood. The Tory core may not go on demonstrations, but it uses the vote – going Liberal, Fringe or “none of the above”. It was a massive Tory vote-strike which gave Blair his chance in 97. And the polls? The polls are often wrong, precisely because they run with inadequate samples, suffer from inbuilt metro-bias and generalise from normal experience, which in our troubled times is ever less of a guide. One should also consider two last points. One, the Tories have made promise after promise on matters such as inheritance, migration, the BBC and broken them. Two, by going left they are repeating Merkel’s mistakes to the letter, which brought the AfD. There is – incredibly, in view of recent history – again room for an authentically centre-right party to rise among disgruntled Conservatives. And that is the blackest possible mark against the current Tory leader.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago

There are no consequences to a by-election but there are to a general election, so they are poor indicators. The best guide to the result of the next election is still the result of the last.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Yes. I would add that plenty of woke damage can be orchestrated at local levels too – unions, councils, well-meaning do-gooders.

Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
1 year ago

This seat is a poison chalice. On the one hand LibDems got support from long-term locals who don’t want any building – HS2, housing, or otherwise – in their backyard.
And the rest of the support was from the younger ‘metropolitan liberal’ set fleeing London, who want places to live.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago

The electorate here has now learnt it can pull politicians and the major parties around like marionettes. The kicker was the Euro elections during the dog days of the Brexit impasse at Westminster in 2019. We, the electorate joyfully decided to give both major parties a good kicking, and the Tories got their lowest ever vote share, basically doing for May, with both main parties but especially the Tories facing an existential threat. In typical Tory fashion, the Conservatives learnt the lessons fast, ditched May, and silenced their Europhilic wing. Labour buried it’s head in the sand and is still paying the price.

And it seems to me the traditional perception, that politicians are the puppet masters manipulating the minds of us plebs with cunning narratives, is no longer valid. It is the other way round – politicians are projections of groundroots groundswells of hopes, fears, wishes, desires, anxieties; the leaders themselves buffeted by the wants of the mass of people who essentially created them. Like Brian from Life of Brian.

Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
1 year ago

It’s concerning for the conservatives but in a GE, a vote for the Lib Dem’s, would be a vote for Labour and the SNP, which should mitigate losses in the South.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
1 year ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

You are right but unless we vote for the party we want rather than to keep the one we don’t want out, it is hard to discern trends and we are also disenfranchising ourselves.