Even though Liz Leffman didn’t achieve what would have been an improbable victory, the Liberal Democrats still did remarkably well in the Witney by-election. To come from a poor fourth place to a strong second and slashing the Tory majority has put the party back in play in British politics. It’s also heartening to see The Greens beat the repellent UKIP into fifth place.
It’s not an unexpected result either. Although the Liberal Democrats have been stuck in single figures in national opinion polls they’ve been winning council by-elections on double-digit swings all over the country, but especially in Tory heartlands. One or two such victories might be explained away as flukes influenced by local personalities, but there have been enough of them lately to show a clear pattern. The party gets little attention in the national media, but on the ground in actual election campaigns voters are receptive to the party’s message.
The Tories should be worried. Under Theresa May’s leadership they have pivoted into an English nationalist party with the intention of destroying UKIP and peeling working-class social conservatives away from Labour. But that strategy only works in the absence of a viable Liberal Democrat challenge to their opposite flank. There is far lower-hanging fruit that Witney, and a Libdem revival will cost the Tories seats.
David Herdson of Political Betting thinks otherwise, suggesting it’s a reversion to the early 90s with the Libdems merely displacing UKIP as the protest vote party. But it could be more than that; they are the only party with a clear and unambiguous position on what has to be the most important political issue of our time.