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Labour can take hope from the North Shropshire by-election

Labour can take hope from the North Shropshire by-election

In the early hours of the 17th of December 2021, Boris Johnson was dealt with another blow when the Liberal Democrats won the  seat of North Shropshire, which had been safe and true blue for almost 200 years. The new MP, Helen Morgan, overturned a 22,949 majority and won comfortably by nearly 6,000 votes, a huge swing of 37%. The by-election was triggered after a corruption scandal involving Owen Paterson. The Standards Committee recommended that he was suspended for a month for using his position as a Member of Parliament to lobby on behalf of two companies, yet the Conservatives voted to block it. Although the Government U-turned after public backlash and scrutiny over Tory MPs’ second jobs, Owen Paterson resigned, saying he was leaving ‘the cruel world of politics.’ Given that Paterson’s suspension would have been over by now had the government accepted it, it’s likely the Conservatives are deeply regretting their response to the scandal.

The Conservative candidate for the by-election was a barrister from Birmingham, Neil Shastri-Hurst. Helen Morgan, the Liberal Democrat, was born and raised in the constituency and had run in the previous election, coming third with 10% of the vote. Throughout the campaign, the media and the Liberal Democrats predicted that the party had the strongest chance of taking the seat from the Conservatives. Yet in the 2019 election Labour had come second and the Labour candidate, Ben Wood, was also born and raised in the constituency. During the election, there were many Liberal Democrats and Labour members who argued that the Labour should have a ‘paper candidate’, who would not campaign at all. It was hoped this could unite the anti-Conservative vote in order to increase the chances of Tory downfall. I understand the reasons behind this logic, but I do not think an electoral pact would have been as simple as many suggest. It was not guaranteed that all Labour voters would automatically vote for the Liberal Democrats, given their facilitation of the Tories’ catastrophic programme of austerity, leading to welfare cuts and weakened public services. Also, in 2019 they were promising to reverse the Brexit referendum decision, and this reputation may still be unpopular with Labour voters who voted to Leave.

Instead, it was left to voters to vote tactically, and as a result, Labour had a 12% swing away from them. The Liberal Democrat win is seen as positive for Labour because Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, is not actively hostile against them. Paddy Ashdown believed in the 1990s that the Liberal Democrats performed better in Tory areas when the Labour leader was seen as a moderate, such as Blair, because then voters were not scared of a Labour government. Only the Liberal Democrats have a realistic chance of unseating prominent individual Conservatives, such as Dominic Raab. Crucially, though, this result should give Labour hope that even the most loyal Conservative supporters are angry with Johnson’s government, the sleaze, lies and incompetence. With Labour 9 points ahead, they need to capitalise on the discontent and anger. It is amazing to think that, if this swing was achieved in every seat, the Conservatives would only have three seats left… hopefully, this is the beginning of the end of Johnson’s toxic government.

Millie Clatworthy

18 Dec 2021