Chesham and Amersham: a promising sign for a 'progressive alliance'
After the sad passing of Conservative MP Cheryl Gillan, who had been battling cancer, in April 2021, tributes poured in from all sides of British politics to praise a long-serving MP who had dutifully represented her Chesham and Amersham constituency since 1992. As soon as the respects were paid, attention promptly turned to the subsequent by-election that would take place, but few in the world of political punditry anticipated anything other than a safe Conservative hold. Chesham and Amersham is situated in true-blue Buckinghamshire, made up of voters that are better-educated, in better jobs and wealthier than the nation as a whole. Although the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats have constantly jostled for second place, the seat has been Tory since its creation. To put into context how dominant the Conservative vote here usually is, their lowest ever winning margin was recorded in February 1974, where former MP Ian Gilmour defeated the Labour candidate by ‘just’ 19 percentage points.
The recent by-election, therefore, ought to have been nothing but a Tory shoe-in. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, were quietly confident about their chances after some encouraging internal polling. It still looked as though the Tories would win comfortably, but perhaps only by single figures. This itself would still have been an achievement given the seat’s history.
In the end the result was not even remotely close. But amazingly, it was not the Conservatives who won. On a 30-point swing, the Liberal Democrats’ Sarah Green overturned the Tories’ huge 16,000 majority to win by a stunning 8,000 votes. This was a victory so comprehensive for a party that has been in the political abyss since the end of the coalition government in 2015 that Chesham and Amersham is now their third safest seat (granted, they only have twelve of them!).
In many ways, this by-election could be seen as a total outlier whose trends would not materialise under the conditions of general election. There were several unique issues in play, particularly the Conservative government’s laissez-faire planning laws which have enraged communities. In many rural areas such as Buckinghamshire, this has pitted traditional Tory voters against the government, and one imagines that many of the votes lost by the Conservatives in Chesham and Amersham belonged to ‘NIMBYs’ who will most likely switch back to the Tories at the next opportunity.
However, the demography of this constituency – wealthier, pro-Remain, and better-educated – corroborates some of the trends observed in the May local elections, which saw the Tories’ grip on their traditional south-eastern strongholds weaken significantly. Chesham and Amersham is another such area. It appears as though Boris Johnson’s populist flair isn’t washing down as well in the ‘shires than it has in the ‘Red Wall’. This ought to be a big wake-up call for Tory strategists. There is a slew of vulnerable Tories in traditionally ‘blue’ seats – particularly ones which voted to stay in the EU – who have found their seats becoming increasingly marginal. If there is not a concerted attempt at winning back the Major and Cameron Tories, the government could have a serious problem going into the 2024 election. For now, at least, the message hasn’t yet sunk in – Johnson reacted to the loss in Chesham and Amersham by calling the result ‘a bit bizarre’, and his well-beaten Tory candidate took to Twitter to sulk, whinge and insult the intelligence of the very people whose votes he had been trying to court.
The biggest cause for optimism that resulted from this by-election, however, lies in the markedly lower vote shares received by the two other progressive candidates in Chesham and Amersham. Labour’s Natasa Panetelic ended up with a mere 622 votes – the worst result ever for a Labour candidate in a by-election. While Labour’s far-left have attempted to exploit this stat to undermine Keir Starmer’s frail stewardship of the party, it is vital to remember that many of those who voted for Sarah Green were likely the same voters who helped Labour to a second-place finish in 2017. It feels somewhat contrarian as a Labour supporter to be justifying such a poor performance for my own party, but I take a great deal of relief in the fact that many progressives appear to be waking up to the need for tactical voting.
The key obstruction to electoral co-operation, however, lies in the party leaderships. Labour committed an unforgivable PR faux pax in Chesham and Amersham by dispatching some of the party’s biggest figures, including deputy leader Angela Rayner, to the area to stump for Pantelic, when the local Labour Party ought to have ran a skeleton campaign. They would have known full well that Labour was on course to come a distant third, but the partisan habits of its leadership led them not only to undermine themselves when the results eventually came in, but more seriously, to hand the Tories a potential lifeline.
Fortunately, the voters in Chesham and Amersham were much wiser than the Labour leadership, but there is a plethora of marginal seats that could be won from the Tories at the next election, which will be crucial to weakening, if not eliminating, the Conservatives’ thumping parliamentary majority. Labour, Lib Dem and Green activists at grassroots level are already doing a great job at facilitating cross-party cooperation, but success will ultimately only come when these three party leaderships finally decide to leave their partisan bickering at the door and agree a tactical non-aggression pact, at the very least. Recent events tell us that this is still a long way off, but the results in Chesham and Amersham offer a glimmer of hope at what a true progressive alliance could achieve.