The small hours of Thursday morning saw a political earthquake in North Shropshire, as the Liberal Democrats shattered the Conservatives’ majority of 20,000 to win the seat by a comfortable margin.
A rural seat where 60 percent voted Leave in the EU referendum, North Shropshire may not at first glance appear a natural LibDem target seat. Indeed, they finished a distant third at the 2019 election, on just ten percent of the vote.
This time around, however, with disgraced MP Owen Paterson standing down in the wake of a lobbying scandal, the LibDems sensed a chance for a seismic upset with their local candidate, Helen Morgan. This contrasted sharply with the Tories’ Birmingham-based candidate, who is said to have been told to avoid media as much as possible, especially with new Christmas party revelations hitting the government every day.
Crucially, there seemed to be a tacit agreement between Labour and the LibDems that Labour would focus their efforts on Old Bexley and Sidcup, which held a parliamentary byelection two weeks ago, while leaving the LibDems to challenge the Tories in North Shropshire.
The huge swing achieved by the LibDems shows that many Labour and Green voters backed them in protest against Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, paving the way for a stunning victory.
Labour MP for Norwich South Clive Lewis is a leading advocate of a ‘Progressive Alliance’ – an electoral pact between Labour, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, based on a commitment to Proportional Representation and a shared opposition to the threat to UK democracy posed by the Conservative Party.
On the eve of the election, Lewis commented on Twitter: “I hope the Tories get the byelection bloody-nose they deserve. Obvs I want @UKLabour to give it them. But ultimately who gives it to them is secondary to the fact they receive one.”
Today he tweeted his thoughts on the result.
“The electoral mountain the Labour Party needs to form a new Government just got a little bit smaller. We should learn from that.
“I think the North Shropshire byelection result shows us that for Labour to form a Government at the next General Election, we will have to concede there are some seats we will always struggle to win, yet where the Tories can still be beaten.
A Progressive Alliance is about a pragmatic and unsentimental assessment of your own and your opponents strengths and weaknesses, and acting upon that rather than romantic notions of ‘total victory’ that bear little resemblance to the reality we face.
Until we grasp this, we’ll keep stubbornly banging our heads against an electoral brick wall rather than elegantly stepping around it.
We must also note that yet again voters have shown they are more sophisticated than their electoral system and the politicians who run it. However it is framed, we need an electoral system that reflects this complexity.