Witney could be a turning point for the Lib Dems

The result in the Witney by-election was a substantial swing to the LibDems, jumping from fourth place on 6.8% to second place on 30.2%. Liz Leffman and her team did an outstanding job, and the party was clearly ready to rally to the cause.

Over the next few days there were speculations about what that would mean if replicated at a General Election, with estimates of the number of seats likely to switch from Tory to LibDem put between 26 and 51. The statistician in me is wary of those extrapolations: there are lots of unknowns at by-elections, and British politics is especially turbulent at the moment.

On the other hand, political parties usually spend a long time building up profiles of voters. Lots of volunteers flooding in at the last minute is not a good substitute for that prolonged work, so there is more to the surge in Witney than simply the number of people who came to campaign. In fact, it will be far easier to win back people who voted LibDem in 2010, now they are able to see the difference between the Tories on their own and the Tories in coalition with LibDems.

But at the very least, the sheer numbers of LibDems who went to Witney, and the positive energy around the campaign, show we are in good heart. A recent article in The Economist rightly suggests that this could well be a turning point for the LibDems – proof that we are very much back in business – though it also counsels that this there is a long way to go.

Right now what is at stake is much bigger than one political party. Labour are manifestly not a credible “government-in-waiting”. The Conservatives are split, in hoc to their right wing extreme, and concentrating power in the executive (some might say the Prime Minister’s office) in a way that is a big challenge to parliamentary democracy.

Where do people go who naturally inhabit the centre ground, and are concerned by the increasingly-obvious dangers of Brexit – both in terms of economics and of ideals?

The Witney result should unsettle Theresa May. It needs to spark a more conciliar, collaborative and co-operative approach, particularly to the EU. It should also push people to engage with the real reasons for people voting “Leave”, which seems to have been more to do with frustration at the status quo than a real understanding of the serious consequences of leaving.

The tragic irony is that there are a range of inspiring voices for change in the EU, including Guy Verhofstadt, of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe and Yannis Varoufakis. I suspect that many of those who voted Leave would have been enthusiastic supporters of some of these reforms if they were more widely known: staying in the EU and supporting changes within might actually be the best way to get what many of those who voted Leave were wanting.

Originally published on Liberal Democrat Voice, 24 October 2016.

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