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.