Reflections on a by-election in Witney

This is essentially my ‘hot take’ on the Witney by-election. At time of writing it’s almost 10pm here in South Korea. So I’m prioritising speed over things like finding links to support my assertions, redrafting and proofreading. If that leads to problems, please point it out in the comments and I will try to rectify them.

1: The Liberal Democrats can go on the offensive again

The 2015 General Election showed the incumbency advantage enjoyed by Lib Dems to be hugely overrated. However, for the duration of the coalition it was basically all we had going for us. From 2010 onwards, all our attempts to break into new territory or appeal to new groups of voters floundered. We could only seriously compete in (some of) our existing seats.

That dynamic seems to have shifted. It must be a mathematical certainty that the bulk of people who voted Lib Dem yesterday didn’t do so in 2015. That supports the pattern that we’ve seen in a string of spectacular local council by-election wins.

It’s important not to get carried away here. What we are describing is mostly potential rather than actual. The Party still has basically the same poll ratings it had in our annus horribilis of 2015. And I’m not sure whether affluent rural and suburban remain voting Tory areas are a great platform for a broader resurgence. If Labour gets its act together we could still be stuffed. But at least for now our potential to decline exists alongside the tantalising possibility of growth.

Or put another way in the ecosystem that is British politics, the Liberal Democrats are now predators as well as prey.

2: It’s going to take a miracle to stop a Hard Brexit

The implosion of the Labour Party has turned Britain into a version of one of those American congressional districts gerrymandered to make it an impregnable Republican fortress that as a result has a really hardline congressman more worried about pleasing the handful of ideologues who vote in primaries than in the opinions of the broader electorate.

The events that followed the Brexit vote would not lead you to suspect that Leave had only squeaked a victory by less than the margin of error of a standard opinion poll. It seems that the only view the government seems interested in are those of the most ardent outers and it will do that by delivering a maximalist version of Brexit. This fact will doubtless distress the 48% who voted to remain and presumably at least some of the leavers who were told quite explicitly that they could ‘have their cake and eat it’. But broad swathes of the country being opposed to the direction the government is going in does not matter to Theresa May. As long as there is no credible threat to Conservative rule from another party, all she has to do to maintain her premiership is keep her own deeply eurosceptic party happy.

A win in Witney might have shaken that sense of invulnerability. I am, of course, not criticising anyone involved in the campaign for not securing that an outright victory. Getting to a strong second from basically nowhere is an incredible achievement that was at the very limits of what could realistically be achieved. But that’s kind of the point: we’re running out of plausible ways to prevent our country blundering out of the Single Market.

3: Cosmopolitanism is the opium of the elites?

The past few years have been taxing for the left-wing parties. A key reason for that is they’ve tended to rely on combining their traditional base amongst the unionised working class with strong support from middle class professionals. The increasing prominence of issues of culture and identity has frayed and in some cases broken this alignment because the two halves of it generally have very different views on the merits of an open society.

A commonly articulated response to this problem is that social democratic parties need to pursue a more resolutely left-wing economic agenda. This will supposedly increase the salience of the traditional left-right dichotomy and consequently downplay the problematic open-closed one.

I doubt this will work. I see little evidence that the working class voters who are the audience for this socialist sound and fury will fall for this misdirection. I find the notion that their cultural grievances are just sublimated economic anxiety unconvincing and I suspect they would find it a tad patronising. The Sanders and Corbyn movements have tried this approach and yet appear to draw the vast bulk of their support from the middle class left.

Rather than accentuating economic issues to appeal to a shrinking working class, it would probably be wiser to accentuate cultural ones and appeal to the growing populations of graduates and minorities. This is what seems to be the coalition that will allow the Democrats to win the White House for a third time in a row. It is the affluent suburbs of big cities where Clinton seems to be making the biggest gains against Trump. Witney is essentially what one of those areas looks like in a British context. The successes enjoyed first by Remain and then the Lib Dems in the seat indicate that achieving something similar in British politics is not impossible.

So perhaps the trick to making left-wing politics work in the 21st century is using social liberalism to get wealthy professionals to vote against their short run economic self-interest. Sort of like the Marxist concept of false consciousness but turned on its head.

Not saying that will be an easy trick to pull off but it seems like a more promising avenue to explore than hoping postwar socialism will suddenly start working again.

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