So, rightly, says the latest edition of The Economist:
The party is right to take some solace from the result [in the Witney by-election]. Firstly because the 19-point swing in its favour is the first solid sign that the party’s long slump, during and after its unpopular participation in the last coalition government, is bottoming out and perhaps easing off. A “comeback” in itself it is not, but it might herald the tentative beginnings of one.
Secondly – and more significantly – the result represents the first fruits of the party’s new strategy…
The thinking behind this is set out in a paper published last year by Mark Pack and David Howarth, two party strategists. They argue that the Lib Dems did so badly in last year’s general election, tumbling to eight parliamentary seats, partly because they lack an irreducible core of voters who identify with the party, whose allegiance is such that it can be mobilised even in tough electoral times. Labour, they point out, has the remains of the industrial working class to fall back on; the Tories have their own deep institutional network: churches, golf clubs and the like. The Lib Dems did not, so plunged through their previous electoral floor and kept on falling.
The task before the party, argue the two, is to build that sort of base: a core of perhaps 20% of voters – socially liberal, internationalist, pro-European, tech-savvy and well-educated – who identify with the party’s pro-openness reformism. Accordingly the Lib Dems should focus their research, campaigning and recruitment efforts more rigorously than in the past and in particular search out issues that appeal to and interest this group of voters… Mr Farron’s speech at his party’s main annual gathering last month, pledging to stand up for Britain’s role in Europe, was a sort of love letter to these places.
Hence the relevance of Witney … While the Lib Dems have been doing well in council by-elections in such places in recent months, this was the first parliamentary test. Their campaign focused heavily on Brexit…
So treat Witney as a proof-of-concept. A more starkly liberal personality, deftly conveyed through relevant issues and particularly the ongoing battles over Brexit, offers the Lib Dems a way – albeit a long and treacherous one – out of the political wilderness.