Prior to Witney, the Liberal Democrat approach and outcome in Parliamentary by-elections was a continuation of the previous Parliament: put in little effort, get not much of a result. That’s why the effort put into Witney signified a major change in the party’s campaigning approach, as I expanded on in the latest Liberal Democrat Newswire. It wasn’t just the effort that was much higher than before; so too was the resulting Liberal Democrat vote share.
However since that change in approach, we’ve only had by-elections in Conservative-held seats.
Stoke, along with Copeland, is the first test of this new approach in a Labour-held seat. I’ve written before about Copeland, so turning to Stoke this time, it’s an important test for the party because this is just the sort of Labour heartland in which the Liberal Democrats have been able to do well in the past, getting to over 20% of the vote in general elections and winning handfuls of council seats. Not a spectacular breakthrough, but the sort of result we need in many other places too to be an effective voice for liberalism in the face of the dangers of extreme populism.
What’s more, although Stoke-on-Trent Central voted heavily Leave in the European referendum, 65% Leave in fact on Chris Hanretty’s projections, that still leaves 35% who voted Remain. On a likely Parliamentary by-election turnout with a full slate of parties battling for the seat that is even a large enough pool to win the seat.
Add to that the way in which both Tories and even Labour will be pulled towards trying to fend off Ukip, along with Jeremy Corbyn’s unpopularity with a large slug of Labour voters, and it’s by no means unfruitful territory for Liberal Democrats.
The challenge, as with Richmond Park, is to make the election into a mini-referendum on Hard Brexit.
Going from a lost deposit to winning in a short campaign is of course a tall order. But the very fact that a plausibly large enough pool of votes to win exists shows how much progress the Liberal Democrats, and liberal democracy, can make.
As one of the appeals for people to go and help from the party says:
We’re planning to run a campaign like we did in Witney and persuade the thousands of people living in Stoke-on-Trent Central who voted remain and who share our values that there’s a real alternative to UKIP and Labour – who will both be going after leave voters in a desperate race to the bottom.
You too can sign up to help on Saturday here.