Witney campaign helps Lib Dems escape wilderness.

Witney campaign helps Lib Dems escape wilderness.

The Liberal Democrats’ “Comeback” in Witney By-Election

Images: Oxfordshire and Lib Dems

The recent by-election in Witney, the well-heeled Oxfordshire seat previously held by former Prime Minister David Cameron, has brought renewed hope for the Liberal Democrats. With a significant rise in their vote share from 6.7% to 30.2%, party leader Tim Farron ecstatically declared that they were “back in the political big time” and proudly proclaimed, “We are the comeback kids!”

However, it is important to exercise caution before reading too much into this result. The Conservative vote was expected to decline, given Cameron’s personal appeal, and the support was unlikely to shift to Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, a leader currently facing many challenges. UKIP and the Green Party were also less viable options for the flightier parts of the Conservative vote. This left the Liberal Democrats, who strategically focused their attention on Witney, a luxury that was not possible in a general election. It is worth noting that the only other by-election held on the same day was in Batley and Spen, where all mainstream parties chose not to stand as a mark of respect for the murdered Labour MP, Jo Cox. As a result, the Liberal Democrats had the opportunity to give Witney significant attention, with Tim Farron alone visiting the constituency five times.

Nonetheless, the Liberal Democrats should still take solace in this result. The 19-point swing in their favor indicates a potential bottoming out of their long slump, which began during their unpopular participation in the previous coalition government. While it may not be a complete “comeback,” it signals the tentative beginnings of one.

More significantly, this result reflects the party’s new strategy. Previously, as a coalition partner with the Conservatives under Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats seemed to be a “split-the-difference” party, offering a middle ground between the two major parties. However, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the Labour leader, the Brexit vote, and Prime Minister Theresa May’s initial authoritative approach have provided the Liberal Democrats with an opportunity to sharpen their liberal, centrist identity.

Mark Pack and David Howarth, two party strategists, argue that the Liberal Democrats performed poorly in the last general election because they lacked a core base of loyal voters. Unlike Labour and the Conservatives, who can rely on their deep institutional network and traditional voter bases, the Liberal Democrats have struggled to establish a dedicated group of supporters. Therefore, their task is to build a core base of approximately 20% of voters who align with the party’s pro-openness reformism. These voters are socially liberal, internationalist, pro-European, tech-savvy, and well-educated. To achieve this, the party must focus its efforts on recruiting and campaigning in a more rigorous and targeted manner.

Under the first-past-the-post electoral system in the UK, this strategy opens up opportunities for the Liberal Democrats to concentrate their resources in certain metropolitan constituencies where they could potentially come out on top. These include prosperous enclaves in southern England, university towns, and affluent areas of major cities. Tim Farron’s recent speech at the party’s main annual gathering, where he pledged to stand up for Britain’s role in Europe, was a declaration of love and commitment to these places.

This brings us back to Witney, a rolling, well-to-do area consisting of smart villages and hi-tech business parks near Oxford. The residents of Witney, who had largely voted to Remain in the EU during the Brexit referendum, became the focus of this campaign. The Liberal Democrats urged them to reject the nationalist rhetoric from the Conservative Party conference and send a message to the government about the importance of staying in the single market and avoiding a “hard” break with the European Union. While the Liberal Democrat candidate, Liz Leffman, did not emerge as the winner, she secured a larger-than-expected vote share. The Tories had even warned of a potential 30% vote share for the Liberal Democrats, indicating their anticipation of a higher result.

This outcome in Witney should be seen as a proof-of-concept for the Liberal Democrats. By emphasizing their starkly liberal personality and focusing on relevant issues, particularly the ongoing battles over Brexit, they have an opportunity to navigate their way out of the political wilderness. It is important to note that one by-election does not establish a trend, and an early general election next year may come too soon for a widespread revival. Nevertheless, this is a significant start for the Liberal Democrats on their journey towards rejuvenation.