I remember it well. There was a giant red cockerel, and a man in a kilt, and Lord Sutch of the Monster Raving Loony Party, and a result – announced on the 30th July 1993 – that seemed to presage a profound change in British politics. As we found out later, it did and it didn’t.
You may remember it too. The by-election was in Christchurch in Dorset when John Major was Prime Minister and was facing the fall-out from Black Wednesday and the Maastricht Treaty and the Back to Basics debacle and the result was a swing from the Tories to the Lib Dems of 35%.
Twenty-eight years later, it feels like the same thing could be happening again. The by-election this time was in North Shropshire and it happened as the Prime Minister Boris Johnson was facing the fall-out from the wallpaper scandal and the Owen Paterson affair and the Christmas parties and the result was a swing from the Tories to the Lib Dems of 34%. In both cases, the Tory majorities were around 23,000.
The question all of this raises, naturally, is what happens next and the example of Christchurch may be instructive. Back then, the victorious Liberal Democrat candidate Diana Maddock, flanked by the giant cockerel and the man in a kilt and Lord Sutch, said that the voters were sending the Conservative government a message about crime and the under-funding of schools and hospitals. She also said the Tories would ignore the message at their peril and it turned out she was right: the Tories lost the next election to Tony Blair.
In the wake of North Shropshire, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton thinks something similar could be happening again and in fact he goes further. The by-election victory in North Shropshire, he said, was part of a wave of new hope for voters who feel abandoned by Boris Johnson’s Conservative party and Nicola Sturgeon’s nationalists.
But can he be right? In some ways, there are signs he might be. One of the reasons the Tories lost the Christchurch election in ’93 was tactical voting – people were willing to switch around to defeat the Tories – and the same thing undoubtedly happened in North Shropshire last week. It’s also worth noting that the Tories have lost many, many by-elections only to go on to win the general election, but never on the scale of Christchurch and North Shropshire. The wound may be just too deep.
However, in other ways, the comparison between Christchurch and Shropshire shows how much has changed over time because in recent years the concept of tactical voting has acquired a new dimension in some parts of the country. Back in ’97 for example, Scots scunnered with the Tories voted either Labour or Lib Dem and the result was the famous Tory wipe-out in which the Conservatives lost all their Scottish seats. It helped hand Tony Blair his win.
However, much of the mindset and behaviour has changed in Scotland since then – triggered unintentionally by Blair’s policy on devolution and what has happened since. First of all, in some cases the Scottish nationalist ideology has become more virulent – witness the Scottish voter who, in the wake of the North Shropshire result, asked why an election in a “foreign country” mattered. That kind of outlook is not only unpleasant, it rules out any kind of tactical vote for Labour or the Lib Dems in the minds of many voters.
Additionally, a new kind of tactical voting has emerged in Scotland since 2014 and in that respect it may be useful to look at a Scottish council by-election that was held the same time as North Shropshire. What that election, in Argyll and Bute, shows is that on the same day that the Conservative vote was collapsing in Shropshire it was actually going up in Scotland. The Tories held their place on Argyll and Bute council with an increase in their vote of 11.3%.
Now obviously, there are limits to the conclusions we can draw here. Argyll and Bute was a council election and the turnout was extremely low at 29%. Labour also didn’t stand in the seat and, like many council elections, independent candidates, and local issues, played their part.
However, the fact that the Tory vote in the Scottish election went up significantly, combined with the fact that the SNP vote also went up by five per cent, suggests that tactical voting still means something different in Scotland. It means that many voters in days of crisis, with the constitution and independence uppermost in their minds, are driven to vote either SNP or Conservative in a bid to either promote or stop independence.
This, I’m sorry to tell Alex Cole-Hamilton, is not good news for his prediction that North Shropshire is a sign of a wave of new hope for voters fed up with Johnson and/or Sturgeon. Mr Cole-Hamilton may be right about some constituencies in England – indeed, so bad is the Johnson government and so big was the swing in North Shropshire that it seems likely that something similar to the post-Christchurch effect will happen again at the next general election i.e. a large amount of anti-Tory voting.
But the problem is that if the recent Scottish voting patterns show no signs of budging – and I see nothing to suggest that they will – then the North Shropshire effect may not spread to Scotland or at least it may not spread far enough to create the kind of effect that Mr Cole-Hamilton hopes for – his so-called “new wave”. Yes, there may be many more voters willing to vote Labour at the next election, but not enough in Scotland to secure a win. The most they can hope for, realistically, is a minority government.
All of this, I’m afraid to say, adds a big dose of doubt and despondency to the delight of North Shropshire. Unhappiness with Johnson’s government is clearly beginning to show and most of the usual factors – the number of scandals, length of time in government, by-election defeats, etc – are in place for a Tory defeat just like they were in the 90s.
However, I’m afraid, strong as it is, the anti-Tory effect will not be enough. Recent events have given a lot of us new hope for Scotland – the hope at least of change – but I fear that the hope is about to be dashed. Mr Cole-Hamilton’s “new wave” exists, and it could have dramatic effects. But we should also be honest: the new wave is unlikely to reach Scotland’s shores.