Can anyone recall when the party of government last came fifth in a by election? This is surely the biggest story of the Henley by election. Just over a year since Labour faced up to the fact that Blair had become ‘a bit of a liability’, Labour MPs would have hoped Brown to be a safe pair of hands. It is stunning just how much support has drained away from the Labour Party in just twelve months. In fact, it’s less than twelve months since GB was ramping up expectations of a snap autumn election to get his own mandate!
I cannot recall in my political lifetime a party losing so much support so quickly.
What else can we deduce from the final count? The Tories are clearly learning lessons from us on how to fight by elections. For all they criticise us, they now fight by elections exactly in the same way as we have learned to. This is the primary reason that we only ‘held our own’ in Henley. Lib Dem tactitions need to be working out now what our strategy must be next time. Clearly, the Tory Party has begun to behave like a serious political force again. We must be concerned about the threat that they pose to our held seats in LD/Con fights in the next general election. But the Tories have weaknesses that we need to exploit. They are still a divided party (hence the David Davis show) and there is still a gap between the smooth Cameronite image and the average local Tory activist. As has been pointed out, your average Tory PPC is still likely to be a eurosceptic Thatcherite rather than a Cameron style ‘liberal’ conservative. I know the difference between us and the Tories – but I’m not convinced the man in the street necessarily does. We need to communicate what Liberal Democracy is to a wider audience.
Meanwhile, the New Labour project is surely in terminal decline. We must be ready to strike hard in LD/Lab marginals. Surely every Labour MP with a majority of less than 5 digits must be feeling very nervous this weekend.
We have much to be optimistic about – but much hard work to do!