What does Crewe mean for the Lib Dems?

by Stephen Tall on May 23, 2008

You want my honest view? Not a whole lot.

But, first off, congratulations to the Tories, and their candidate Edward Timpson on a pretty stunning victory. An 18% swing from Labour is an impressive achievement by any measure. And it was good to see a relatively high turnout of 58%, only 2% down on the general election. It’s clear that politics is once again seen as competitive, after almost a decade of Labour near-hegemony, and that can only be a good thing.

It probably seemed like smart politics to Labour to allow only the minimum amount of time to pass between Gwyneth Dunwoody’s death, and triggering the by-election to choose her successor (her funeral had not even taken place when the writ was issued). It was a technique they used to good effect in last year’s Ealing Southall by-election, when anti-Labour opposition split between the second-placed Lib Dems and third-placed Tories. The Crewe by-election, though, coincided with a period of visceral anti-Government feeling which transferred primarily to the Tories, who started in a clear second place and were strong favourites (almost) from the off.

For the Lib Dems it was a mildly disappointing night: our vote share was squeezed down from 19% to 15%. We would have much preferred to hold steady, or perhaps even to supplant the Labour party and come second. Maybe in a longer campaign we would have been able to; certainly in Elizabeth Shenton we had an energetic candidate, who emerged with a lot of credit. But the reality is that voters saw how best they could send a message to Gordon Brown – and that was by voting Tory.

Clearly the Crewe result – taken together with 1st May’s local elections – suggests that the next general election is likely to see the Tories emerge at least as the single largest party, and maybe with an overall Commons majority. The Crewe swing from Labour to Tory is almost identical to the swing from Tory to Labour in the Wirral South by-election of February 1997. Interestingly, the Lib Dem vote was also squeezed that night, down from 13% to 10%. Three months later, of course, the party doubled its number of MPs, and emerged as the largest Liberal group in 70 years.

There is something we will have to guard against, however. In that 1997 election, there were many more seats which could have elected a Lib Dem Member of Parliament, but the Labour landslide sometimes meant Tony Blair’s party leap-frogged the Lib Dems from third to first (eg, Falmouth and Camborne), and in other cases split the anti-Tory vote, allowing the Conservatives to cling on (eg, Folkestone and Hythe). If the swing back from Labour to the Conservative were to prove equally dramatic in 2010, we need to work our socks off in the next two years to ensure voters recognise that the Lib Dems are serious challengers for power.

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Yes. All correct. (Except you’ve called Edward Timpson Simpson by mistake – I assume, unless it’s a joke and I’m being amazingly thick).

by Andy Hinton on May 23, 2008 at 11:26 am. Reply #

“The Crewe swing from Labour to Tory is almost identical to the swing from Tory to Labour in the Wirral South by-election of February 1997. Interestingly, the Lib Dem vote was also squeezed that night, down from 13% to 10%. Three months later, of course, the party doubled its number of MPs, and emerged as the largest Liberal group in 70 years.”

That’s all very well, but of course there’s a huge difference, as far as the Lib Dems are concerned, between the Tories being hugely unpopular and Labour being hugely unpopular.

Chris Phillips

by cgp on May 23, 2008 at 11:29 am. Reply #

As ever a more open and honest analysis of the situation than you would get from some “group think” posters. While I agree with you, there is one aspect, the biggest I fear that you have missed. The Labour landslide of 1997 was little threat to the LD’s because Labour was second is so few of our held seats. We were able to own the anti tory franchise in certain areas and had little flank to protect from labour. From memory we lost three seats to labour and were amply compensated with big gains from the tories.

The potential disaster facing the party in 2010 is the mirror image of this.

Firstly are we firmly established in the public mind as an Anti Labour franchise? or are we still too keen on fighting the last war with the Tories? I put my head in my hands when Shenton spent more of her concession speech attacking the Conservatives than Labour.

Secondly we have a massive flank to protect against a Tory landslide. Half the parliamentry party could find its self vulnerable the national tide. FPTP results can be brutal and irrational. In a Comical Ali operation I notice that many blogs have latched on to the 7.1% swing from Labour to LD. We even have lists of seats we would win. thats fine but if we are playing that game can we also have the much longer list of seats we would lose to the Tories on last nights results?

Isn’t some of the salavating over the prospect of a Henley by election a outworking of a sub concious desire to return to childhood when the Tories were bad and we won this sort of seat in the south in By elections. A desire to shy away from the more complex post labour world we are actually in.

To repeat myself I agree with you. Over analysising a single result would be wrong but three stark facts spring from the results table to me.

1. very high turnout. Labour voters aren’t abstaining in protest anymore, they want this lot out.

2. Clearly massive direct Lab to Cons switching. What ever we think do we have to accept that the Tory brand decontamination process is working ? and what does that mean to us ?

3. we live in a world where the Conservatives can win By Elections. This inevitably makes them look more credible in the eyes of the political class. We need to accept that is going to shape the way the media percives them.

by David Morton on May 23, 2008 at 11:39 am. Reply #

Ahem, I meant Timpson, have corrected. (Clearly I had an Edward & Mrs Simpson flashback).

Chris – why is there a huge difference “between the Tories being hugely unpopular and Labour being hugely unpopular”? For the Lib Dems the opportunity is clear: we keep most of the gains we made against the Tories in ’97, and add further by picking off Labour at the next election. Seems quite plausible to me.

by Stephen Tall on May 23, 2008 at 11:41 am. Reply #


Because we gained a lot of our parliamentary seats from the Tories when they were deeply unpopular. If they are no longer unpopular they are likely to take many of them back. What David Morton said.

Chris Phillips

by cgp on May 23, 2008 at 11:53 am. Reply #

Well said David Morton.

by Dan on May 23, 2008 at 11:58 am. Reply #

Probably not the right place to say this, but I resigned from the private forum; our opponents have updated their campaigning strategies and methods, while our campaign remained firmly rooted in the ‘Rennardista’ past.

Two centrally organised campaigns in two months, London and Crewe that have not performed, while elsewhere we have done well, should raise some questions, but inevitably won’t.

Like as not, it will take David Norton’s scenario to come true BEFORE any necessary changes are made.

And that’s sad. Both during the leadership campaign and during the ‘100 Days’ I argued strongly for the need for a root and branch review of our strategy not a ‘don’t touch any sacred cows’ quicky committee which is what we got – by the way did it ever report back and what did it say?

Of course, vested interests quickly established their feet under the Cleggite Table and now we are suffering the consequences.

by Martin Land on May 23, 2008 at 12:16 pm. Reply #

It means we’re going to have to be defensive. Never mind all that talk about “not being satisfied with being the third party”, reality is this results suggests strongly we’re not going to break out of that, and so we must make sure at least we’re a sizeable third party. That means holding onto the seats we have – our MPs have to concentrate on being good constituency people. We may be able to make some gains from Labour where we can establish ourselves locally as the clear challengers, but we have to target those carefully.

by Matthew Huntbach on May 23, 2008 at 12:32 pm. Reply #

Except Lib Dems are not serious challengers for power. The Charlie Kennedy factor did for that – attacked Labour too much before 2005 in the great swing to the left.

by Lovely on May 23, 2008 at 12:34 pm. Reply #

So, the Tories have al last learned how to do by-elections. We will have to smarten our act for Henley. Where they start well ahead, they will be the devil to catch.

by David Heigham on May 23, 2008 at 1:40 pm. Reply #

What conclusions should we draw? The only conclusion we should ever draw from any election:

Next time, work even harder!

Millions of disgruntled Labour voters are out there waiting for us to knock on their doors.

We’ve got elections to win in two years – so get knocking and don’t let the Tories get there first!

by Joe Taylor on May 23, 2008 at 1:46 pm. Reply #

This is one result.

In a seat where, realistically we might have hoped to push Labour into third but were never going to win in a three week campaign.

We have had some good results in the past year – advancing and holding the Tories back in Southall and Sedgefield, retaining control of a swath of big towns and cities like Liverpool, Hull, Watford and Newcastle and adding Sheffield, St Albans and Burnley. We made gains against both Labour AND the Conservatives across the country and increased our total of seats and councils from the 2004 high-water mark.

We’ve also had some disappointments. London, Crewe, West Lindsey to name just a couple.

A few years ago, coming third in a by-election would have been par for the course. Coming third in just about any election would have been expected. We now expect to win seats. We WANT to win seats. But when you play for the big wins you have to live with the occasional big loss as well.

Crewe was bad. Henley can be better. At the general election we have to go out there and win seats NOT from Labour, Not from the Conservatives – but FOR the Liberal Democrats.

by benjamin on May 23, 2008 at 1:51 pm. Reply #

Good points all round I think….I think Henley will be a big test of how much we can withstand the pressure of a resurgent Conservative Party.

David Morton makes good points, it’s totally possible that we could lose as many seats to the Tories as we gain from Labour. The real contest is to determine who will be the opposition to the next Conservative government so while it make electoral sense to train more of our guns on Labour I think that would be wrong. We need to prove that we can hold the Conservatives to account and to paraphrase Eric Pickles last night that the best way to get Lib Dem policies is to vote Lib Dem. This is definatly a time for clear blue water between us and the Tories. We need to explain and draw out the differences between our two parties and their program into sharp contrast.

It is my belife that the party squeezed at the next election will be Labour and in the seats we are second we will benefit from anti-Labour tactical voting. In those seats where we start from a low base the focus needs to be on building from the bottom up and spreading awareness of ourselves. We have two years to the next election so we should treat this as a long run in….in the seats where we are strong pushing over the tipping point…in the seats where we are not starting effectively from scratch.

by Darrell on May 23, 2008 at 1:57 pm. Reply #

“Clearly I had an Edward & Mrs Simpson flashback.”

You’ve aged remarkably well, Stephen!

Mildly disappointing is how I’d call it too.

I like David Morton’s analysis and sympathise (per my own post today) with Martin Land’s frustration.

But I think the extra factor to be thrown into the mix of how we repair our campaignng strategy is the enormous drag factor of the national media not liking us. It’s not as simple as throwing out Rennardism and starting again. I’m not sayng we can’t do *anything* about the national media problem (and I think Clegg has the right approach in simply bypassing the national machine wherever possible) but we mustn’t be surprisd if, say,we completely revamp our campaigning armoury and still find ourselves with the same vote share. Whatever we do on the ground always has the potential to be wiped away at a stroke by the entrenched two-party consensus. We ought to improve ourcampaigning for its own sake, not because we’re expecting it to make The Difference. It won’t, by itself.

In particular we’d be unwise to adopt the same tactics as the oter two parties, who operate broadly speaking with the approval of the national press.

by Alix on May 23, 2008 at 1:58 pm. Reply #

Ben, Crewe wasn’t bad.

We fought off the two-party squeeze better than we did in the London elections only a few weeks ago.

So the Tories aren’t as strong up north, while Labour weakness is clearly nationwide.

by Oranjepan on May 23, 2008 at 2:10 pm. Reply #

David Morton’s analysis is spot on. I’m not sure Martin Land’s criticism of the style of our campaign is entirely correct. If anything C&N shows the Conservatives have finally learnt how to copy our ‘Rennardista’ by-election tactics. I understand their campaign was all people and MPs in volume, post offices, and winning here / two-horse race messages. But from a more credible base of a good second place.

While it may not be a comfort that the Conservatives can match our ground war, and punch stronger on the phones and media campaign, much of that is down to better financing and motivation, not campaign team weaknesses.

On that point, Joe’s comment about working harder is a bit ‘Boxer’ from Animal Farm. There’s a limit to how much you can achieve with volunteers, and the more you crack the whip the more you wear people out. That’s not a sustainable model, particularly not when morale could be higher.

Onwards to Henley… where personally I feel we’ve two targets: 1) and most achieveable – squeezing Labour to the point where they lose their deposit and 2) hoping for a Tory gaffe that makes winning the seat a possibility.

On our own narrative I sincerely hope Nick’s recent tax-cutting aspiration will play a major part in the campaign. Henley will represent a very good opportunity to test a narrative for holding the South come the General Election.

by Andy Mayer on May 23, 2008 at 2:28 pm. Reply #

I don’t think the tories are going to be able to use the same style of campaign in Henley as in C&N – they’d be making our arguments for us, yet expecting the electorate to use opposite logic.

An anti-government protest in Henley? That’s perverse, especially with Boris now in situ in London’s ‘government’.

I quite like the ‘left in a lurch’ line for this one.

by Oranjepan on May 23, 2008 at 2:48 pm. Reply #

“I quite like the ‘left in a lurch’ line for this one.”

I’m sure whatever message is used will be properly tested. My hunch on this one though is that it will leave most of the voters feeling decided ‘so what’. Boris was a popular MP and most people will wish him well in his new role. Further Henley is not a socially-deprived area where the MP needs to wade knee-deep through casework to get to their desk every morning. So it’s not like inner London where losing the MP really can make a big impact on a large number of people’s lives. Nor do I think a ‘he left you for London’ line will matter much given many Henley residents are commuters.

by Andy Mayer on May 23, 2008 at 4:12 pm. Reply #

I quite like the ‘left in a lurch’ line for this one.

I should probably add to the above by saying your proposed line would still be better than anything that smacked of a ‘lurch to the left’ from us 🙂

by Andy Mayer on May 23, 2008 at 4:14 pm. Reply #

or ‘lunched in a lift’?

by Dafs on May 23, 2008 at 4:40 pm. Reply #

Well considering there’s little chance of an anti-Brown feeling causing any swing in the leafy parts of the thames valley we’ve got an oppotunity to really define his style of leadership.

Considering the security of the seat, under current circumstances of a percieved tory revival, anything except a complete wipout will fail to impinge on his personal standing – and with Labour nowhere and likely to fall further we really can’t lose.

Henley is definitely a straight choice, but let’s make it a clear choice.

A victory for us in Henley would be a dream for us as a party and a nightmare for Cameron – and it is a distinct possibility (if an outside one).

by Oranjepan on May 23, 2008 at 5:05 pm. Reply #

As I wrote on my own site, I think perhaps a suitable line on Henley is simply to point out that Cameron is taking Tory voters for mugs. He hasn’t made any policy commitments at all, ergo a Tory voter is voting for little more than a pleasant sounding policy-free haze. We should paint ourselves as the heavyweight alternative to Brown, the people who’ve got Vince and who were warning about all the current economic problems first, and the people with a solid set of alternative proposals for a more liberal Britain. Whereas the Tories have tax cuts for dead millionaires.

by Andy Hinton on May 23, 2008 at 7:34 pm. Reply #

Andy Hinton: Check out their “Agenda for Change” .pdf’s on their website. They’ve also announced what they intend to do RE: Schools and touched on defence recently.

Personally I felt sorry for the Lib Dems at C&N and really hope they do well at the GE [and I’m a Tory]

Personally if it were me I’d be talking to Mr Clegg about drawing up “opposing” lines and policies to run on against Labour, tearing their whole vote apart and bringing the Lib Dems into official opposition. Personally I think that they’d do well to rename themselves the Liberal Party again. Both Cameron and Brown refer to them only as the “liberal Party” now, as do a number of media pundits.

Well done on C&N anyway, shame you didn’t do better.

by James, Swadlincote on May 23, 2008 at 8:43 pm. Reply #

Interesting stuff James, I do believe that you have a good point about the time to take Labour apart generally as our party could benefit by replacing them and may well be able to pass them in the polls.

There will be a lot of disillusioned Labour helpers / members looking for a new party to back / join.

by Paul L on May 23, 2008 at 9:01 pm. Reply #

James: OK, I just went and had a look at those. They’ve done a pretty good job of hiding the links at the bottom of the pages, but yes, there is more policy there than I noticed this morning. Unfortunately, I think the policy content could be expressed in about a third of the space that the document actually takes up, certainly in the case of the education one, which is the one I spent a bit of time sifting through. The rest is mood-music, a ramble through their criticisms of Labour, and a discussion of what happens elsewhere in the world – all very well as part of the policy-making process, but it’s a little bit disingenuous to use it to bulk out your policy documents.

The fact also remains that they only have policy available on Schools, Prisons and Welfare.

by Andy Hinton on May 23, 2008 at 9:19 pm. Reply #

As a party member since 1966 it worries me that Nick is not cutting the mustard. Nice chap, telegenic like Cameron but something just isn’t gelling. I can’t put my finger on the problem, but there is one as C&N and London showed.

by Steve Jobson on May 24, 2008 at 12:55 am. Reply #

Please tell me you aren’t hinting at a third leadership election in 3 years ?

by David Morton on May 24, 2008 at 1:22 am. Reply #

Steve – what utter nonsense. Since Nick was elected we have moved up from 13% to 22% in the latest poll.

The problem is not Nick, but how we are projecting him and our party. C&N and London showed something – but equally so did the gains we nade elsewhere. What we have seen is local parties campaigning more smartly than our central party organisation, that’s all.

by Martin Land on May 24, 2008 at 12:10 pm. Reply #

Just before we beat ourselves up totally, consider a few facts about C&N

1. We were starting from a very clear 3rd place (apart from a welcome ‘blip’ in 2005 the LD vote has been 11-15% in the past)

2. A 3 week campaign

3. The local party is very small

4. They were in the middle of a very difficult set of local elections to a new unitary council – the targetting policy was spot on for the UA (and resulted in 2 gains), but probably not great for a parliamentary byelection!

5. C&N Conservatives have benefitted from considerable support (Ashcroft probably; Coleshill certainly) for the past 2-3 years

Against that background being “squeezed” to probably the best share of the vote (2005 aside) since the seat was created was not bad at all !

by localvoter on May 24, 2008 at 8:58 pm. Reply #

The problem is not Nick, but how we are projecting him and our party.

Or really — as Alix says above — how the media project us. For the commentariat the narrative is still about the Tories and Labour fighting for the center ground. What hasn’t yet “jelled” is the realization that Labour is very nearly a spent force, having sacrificed its core support for power a decade ago and having lost the aspirational middle now.

by FH on May 25, 2008 at 11:02 am. Reply #

I think what the Crewe and Nantwich By election has shown how irrelevant the Liberal Democrats are. They are the party of opportunists and home to a protest vote. Nothing more.

The dropping of the locally selected candidate for a candidate who is more likely to win the constituency is the most glaring manifestation of how unprincipled and leaderless the Lib Dems are/have become.

by Yasmin Zalzala on May 25, 2008 at 3:44 pm. Reply #

Hi Yasmin,

“The dropping of the locally selected candidate” etc etc

Do I really need to explain this again?

It has long been the practice to reselect for byelections (best part of twenty years I believe).

The “locally selected candidate” (Marc Goodwin) applied for reselection, but was unsuccessful. Many of us [myself included] have been through that experience! Most of us do not then throw our toys out of the pram.

LOCAL MEMBERS chose Elizabeth Shenton, who proved an excellent candidate.

by localvoter on May 26, 2008 at 5:38 pm. Reply #

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