What does Witney mean for the #Libdemfightback?

The Lib Dems came an impressive second in the Witney by-election. Does this signal a change in fortunes?

Yesterday saw two by-elections: one in Witney, the former seat of David Cameron who stood down after failing in his bid to keep the UK in the European Union; the other in Batley and Spen which went uncontested by the other mainstream parties following the tragic murder of Labour MP Jo Cox in the summer.

The results came in this morning and both seats were predictably won by the incumbent party. Witney was taken by local Tory candidate, Robert Courts, and Labour’s Tracy Babin in Batley and Spen.

Therefore, the only real story (and it is quite a big one) is the Liberal Democrats coming an impressive second in the Witney contest. The Lib Dems got 30% of the vote and in doing so moved from fourth place in the previous election. More notably they did so reducing the Conservative’s majority from a rock solid 25,000 to a paltry in comparison 5,700. This represented an almost 20% swing to the Lib Dems, the biggest swing towards the party in two decades.

Witney was never a seat that the Lib Dems intended to win, apart from in their wildest ambitions that could have been stoked by some overzealous reporting. Nevertheless, it is exactly the type of seat the party is dead set on winning – albeit more marginal versions.

But what does this mean for the #Libdemfightback?

  1. The message is working. At Lib Dem conference Tim Farron made big play about the need for the party to speak for the 48% i.e. those who voted to remain in the EU. Witney is a good example of a seat where a majority voted to remain.
  2. Hope for those who need it. Despite an increase in membership since the 2015 general election and another boost post-referendum, many of the party’s grassroots have been facing despair. Delivering a solid result in a high-profile seat such as this will be fuel for optimism in the party ranks and shows that there is indeed the possibility a bright light albeit potentially at the end of a long tunnel.
  3. They ain’t dead, yet. Politics is in a state of flux. With UKIP imploding, the Tories swerving from right to left and Labour having an existential crisis the political ground is shifting. That the Lib Dem result is the only real story in these by-elections is important as it will remind those who had voted for the Lib Dems in the past that they can still be a progressive force in British politics.

The Lib Dems threw everything at Witney in terms of money and personnel – Tim Farron was there no less than five times and it is reported a team of 1,000 were there over the course of the weekend before the vote. They will certainly not be able to do this for every seat come the general election.

Nevertheless, the party has also demonstrated success in council by-elections showing gains where the Conservatives and Labour have lost. When the Government publishes its decision on airport capacity next week with an expected backing for Heathrow expansion will Zac Goldsmith’s resignation for the Tories in Richmond provide the party with a seat that it can win? It certainly wouldn’t need a swing like Witney to do so.