Monday 24 October 2016

Reflections on Witney

It is evident that the Lib Dem performance in Witney was an overwhelmingly positive occurrence.  The biggest swing in a Conservative-held seat since the freak Winchester by-election of 1997, the campaign was also remarkable for its positive and welcoming atmosphere.  The party has learned to have fun again; it has been a unifying experience.

To what extent, though, has it contributed to the party's recovery from the long-term damage sustained under Nick Clegg's leadership?  This is more debatable.

The starting base was a local party in decline for a decade: a track record of campaigning that was patchy but had covered most of the district at some point or another.  Only the unusual stronghold of Charlbury & Finstock ward could now be described as fertile territory; however, there was potential to grow support in a Remain-voting, affluent seat.  Local councillor Liz Leffman - who in May recorded the ninth-best council ward result in the UK, and whose partner is a former Red Guard Young Liberal - was quickly selected.

A good opportunity, then, for some campaigning innovation - especially with large numbers of activists old and new ready to descend on an easily-accessible location.  A well-located HQ and a notably friendlier team than that of by-elections past made a big difference; people wanted to come back.

While some innovation did take place, visitors did question whether more could have been done.  A seat with over 100 different settlements could have lent itself to this.  The campaign, however, did use a local issue (housing development) and localised strong stories about the NHS.  This was made easier as the candidate (one of an all-local shortlist) had a good campaigning track record on the issue, and more or less neutralised the damage done to the party’s reputation by the Health & Social Care Act.

The mood among the various pro-EU '48%' groups was channeled although reports of the kind of strong pro-Europe messages that made it onto literature - for the first time in decades – were mixed.  Apart from in the partly military community of Carterton this seemed to resonate.  Where it worked particularly well was in galvanising campaign support which came from outside the party as well as a significant quality from the post-Clegg membership.  This led to a particularly heavy blizzard of literature, questioned by some on the campaign.

Also questioned was the campaign’s stance on housing.  West Oxfordshire contains the first Community Land Trust in the country (set up in Stonesfield in the 1970s) and Lib Dems in the district had a good reputation in pushing for provision of affordable housing to enable local people to stay in the area.  The Tory Council had failed to renew its Local Plan, creating a free-for-all for developers, leading to NIMBY campaigning in an area with sky-high house prices.  As a pro-housing party, it was surprising to see campaigning take that NIMBY line, although it was undoubtedly effective.

The Tories tried to select a dull, play-it-safe candidate; a solidly pro-hunt and anti-EU local councillor.  What they didn't count on were some wooden hustings performances in a constituency where such things still mattered; a toxic combination for the largely soft and pro-EU Tory vote.

The result was a massive swing - bigger than Romsey or Bromley, but unfortunately the 2015 starting base left simply too much to do.  A vast number of stakeboards demonstrated momentum.  It is said that the notoriously poor by-election aftercare support will be ramped up.

Nonetheless the Labour vote held up; indeed it seems they increased their share in Witney town itself while it fell everywhere else.  Their candidate was also local and anti-Corbyn.  The Greens' local celebrity Larry Sanders ensured that the progressive anti-Tory vote was firmly split.  This should be a lesson for those seeking anti-Tory pacts.  Equally, it is a reminder that some will not forgive Lib Dems for Clegg.

Liberal Democrats should not get ahead of themselves.  In other local by-elections on the same day as Witney the party's vote remained as low as 3 percent.  In parts of the UK less sympathetic to a ‘drawbridgfe down’ pro-European agenda, the message may not be so well-received.  The Witney result will be ignored by most of the national media in its glee at the party’s fate.  It will take several Witneys and a few wins to make a difference.  But the party now knows it can happen, and it is getting its self-belief back.  It has – if not a strategy – a vision.  The next step is anticipated with some zeal.