My column which should have appeared in today’s Midweek Herald
The Liberal Democrats have achieved an historic victory in the Tiverton and Honiton by-election. I warmly congratulate Richard Foord and wish him the very best as the area’s first non-Conservative MP for over a century. The result shows, as he says, that we have spoken for the country and told our disgraced prime minister, Boris Johnson, to go and to go now.
But it is more than that. It is a rejection of twelve wasted years of Conservative government which have left Britain diminished by Brexit, our NHS and public services starved, and many people facing hardship this coming winter. Voters have recognised that far from being ‘levelled up’, the South West has been left further and further behind. People agree that the Tories have ‘taken Devon for granted’ as the Lib Dem leaflets rightly put it.
One of the good things for me about the by-election campaign was the chance it gave me to meet more readers of this column. One man I spoke to thought it was too anti-Tory. But now we know the result, it appears that my criticisms are in tune with what many residents are thinking. Previous Conservative voters are themselves becoming ‘anti-Tory’, because the party is no longer ‘conservative’ in the traditional sense. No wonder the three openly far-right candidates did so poorly – the extreme right is now represented by the Conservatives!
A grassroots progressive alliance
The result was the result of an impressively professional Lib Dem campaign but also of a genuine progressive alliance at the grass roots. Moderate former Conservatives, Labour and Green voters all joined together to prevent Boris Johnson’s candidate winning. Many activists from other parties including the East Devon Alliance of Independents joined the Lib Dem campaign.
My Independent colleague Claire Wright ruled herself out to avoid splitting the Lib Dem vote, when it became clear that they had the best chance of winning. It has to be said that the Labour Party did themselves no favours by campaigning so vigorously only to lose their deposit. The Greens got almost as many votes without campaigning and their candidate wisely acknowledged that tactical voting was necessary.
Richard’s task is our task
Richard Foord faces a formidable task. He must speak up on all the issues he picked up in his campaign and address the consequences of decades of government neglect. While bedding in at Westminster, he also needs to make himself much more available and better known to voters than Neil Parish was, perhaps through public meetings and monthly surgeries in each of the area’s towns.
These are not just Richard’s problems, however. The by-election campaign mobilised voters with the help of Lib Dem activists from all over the country, but the new progressive majority in the area is not strongly enough organised in our local communities. Lib Dems, Labour, Greens and EDA need to find ways of working together to build a support base which can make this week’s historic change permanent.
The challenge of consolidating the victory
The size of Richard’s victory gives me hope that it is more than a flash in the pan. Hard though it was, it could prove however to have been the easy bit. The Tories will try to sneak back in at the general election when boundaries change, presumably with a less hapless candidate. In this context, Richard’s majority will probably be squeezed. The votes ‘wasted’ on Labour and the Greens could be the difference between success and failure.
This takes us back to the national crisis. Johnson intends to defy the voters and cling on. To be sure of getting rid of him in the next election, the Lib Dems, Labour and the Greens need to come together at the national level. The crisis in our country is enormous and it requires a new kind of cooperative politics. Together we have won the by-election battle, but we need even greater unity to win the bigger prize.