It would be ridiculous to suggest that the Liberal Democrat result in Crewe & Nantwich wasn’t a disappointment. But given the huge determination to give Labour a beating, I suppose it was an achievement to not be squeezed even more than we were. A slight drop in our vote is in hindsight not a bad result, but given the work that went in and the amazing reception that our candidate Elizabeth Shenton was getting, it is still a huge let down.
The biggest lesson of this campaign is not the anger that people felt towards Brown and the way that people are sick to death of Labour. Nor is it that the Conservatives are now suddenly a credible party to vote for yet again, although both of those are clearly significant lessons from Crewe & Nantwich. No, the most significant thing that has come out of this campaign is that the Tories are learning how to campaign effectively. I have never seen a Conservative activist at 4am before, but when I got to the street where I was delivering Good Mornings, the Tories had been there already and were still delivering. The quality of the Conservative literature in the by-election was good, and included magazines, blue letters and Focus-style ‘In Touch’ leaflets. They clearly still don’t get why the Liberal Democrats do these leaflets and what the theory is behind them as some of them weren’t as effective as they could have been. But the fact they are copying them shows that they realise they work and they are catching up. The Liberal Democrats have got used to being the best campaigners in politics and punching above their weight, but this by-election shows that things are changing and we can’t rest on our laurels.
The huge swing to the Conservatives was not unexpected to anyone who saw the canvassing returns (which as the person who input them all in to EARS I did), but the reassuring thing for Liberal Democrats is that there are a lot of people out there who are still undecided about the other parties and are tempted to vote Lib Dem. The Lib Dem hope was that on polling day, the huge number of undecided Labour and Conservative voters would decide to vote Liberal Democrat. Unfortunately they didn’t, and the motivation to give Labour a kicking was too tempting, something that could still scupper us as a party though if we don’t play the next general election right.
Crewe & Nantwich Constituency reminds me a lot of Eastleigh Constituency. It is surrounded by more affluent constituencies, and despite having a large formerly industrial town at its core, the constituency is largely made up middle class housing estate and well-off towns and villages. So when the media talks about this by-election as proving that the Tories can now win in the North and pick up the votes of ordinary working class voters who were once reliable for Labour, I am less convinced.
Firstly, Gwyneth Dunwoody clearly had a very high personal vote, far more than most MPs have or think they have. So her death simply meant that some of that personal vote will unwind and so instantly making the seat more marginal., despite Tamsin Dunwoody being the candidate.
Secondly, my perception is that many of the traditional working class Labour votes just stayed at home, and some even switched to the Lib Dems (as was shown in the local elections when the Lib Dems picked up Crewe South from Labour). Much of the constituency, including Crewe itself, is made up of middle class housing estates of the sort that swung from Conservative to Labour in 1997. The fact that they swung back to the Conservatives this time should be a worry to Labour anyway, but these were the people who moved on mass to the Conservatives. The fact though that some working class Labour voters can move to the Conservatives or just not vote, shows how much the negative image of the Conservatives has been neutralised.
The Crewe & Nantwich by-election along with the local and London mayoral elections are an undoubted triumph for David Cameron. But what I don’t detect is a huge enthusiasm for Cameron being Prime Minister. Cameron is not yet Blair. People want to beat Labour, and they will vote for who can do that best. That is why the Liberal Democrats were squeezed so badly in Crewe & Nantwich and in the London mayoral elections, despite having the best candidates in both. The positive for the Liberal Democrats is that the party can do very well at the next general election where people believe they can win. That is why the Liberal Democrats did very well in places as diverse as Sheffield, South Lakeland, Burnley, Eastleigh, St. Alban’s and Cheltenham in the local elections.
As I’ve mentioned candidates, I have to say something about Elizabeth Shenton. Most Liberal Democrat staff have at some point had to work for a candidate that they either don’t like or don’t think is any good. But in this by-election, everyone loved working for Elizabeth Shenton. She was really good at talking to voters, listening to what they had to say and relating to what they had to say, but she was also continually cheerful, she mucked in and helped with the mundane tasks like cleaning and washing the pots, she would also make a point of chatting to everyone who was there full-time and asking them how things were going. Most of all though you got a real sense that she actually cared about people and was in politics for all the right reasons. I sincerely hope she does eventually get elected to parliament as she is probably the nicest and most genuine candidate I have ever worked for.
Talking about her candidature though brings me on to the small controversy about us re-selecting our candidate for the by-election. It did have some affect on our vote, but only in a very small way, and with some people it was because they believed the previous male candidate had been ditched so we could have an all-woman shortlist. Well, we did have an all-woman shortlist, but that was simply because the best applicants were women. I still think it makes sense to re-select in these circumstances as the pressure and stress placed on a Lib Dem candidate at a by-election is very different from a general election. To put it simply, how many PPCs normally have to face Jeremy Paxman?
This posting has turned in to a huge tome on the by-election. So I will finish off with two bits of trivia and one slightly enigmatic comment.
- Gemma Garrett and her Beauties for Britain party are planning to stand in Henley, and contrary to the media coverage, they aren’t complete bimbos and they seem quite bright actually.
- Two of the people working on the Lib Dem campaign have history with Tamsin Dunwoody. I was the regional agent in West Wales in 2003 when she was elected as an AM there. Hywel Davies who ran our by-election print room in Crewe was the Lib Dem candidate against her when she lost in 2007.
- Ask people who were there on polling day about the man with the owl.
All in all, and despite me being unhappy with having to go there straight after the local elections and despite the result, this was one of the most enjoyable elections I have been part of.
Photo: Taken by me. This was the view from my office window throughout the by-election. Fairly mundane admittedly but I got quite attached to the comings and goings at the Chesapeake factory behind our office.