Waking up to discover there’s been a Liberal Democrat by-election victory isn’t an unusual experience, but it has become a relatively rare one. After what felt like a continual wave of success through the 80s and 90s, Liberal Democrat wins slowed to a trickle and in the past decade there have only been three: the defence of Eastleigh in 2013, Richmond Park in 2016 and now Brecon and Radnorshire in 2019.
Let’s start with the the negative. After both Eastleigh and Richmond Park, it was loudly proclaimed that the Liberal Democrats were back, the party’s campaign strategy had now been battle tested and proven successful, so everyone could now happily steam ahead to the next election.
Both seats were then lost at the next General Election, Eastleigh as one of the wave of 2015 losses that saw the party shrink from 57 seats to 8, Richmond Park one of the narrow 2017 losses as the party lost a few but gained more to end up on 12. So before we get too caught up in the celebrations, it’s worth remembering that a single by-election win doesn’t mean the party’s overall strategy is instantly proven correct. A by-election is an intensely focused competition in a single seat, and that intensity can’t be replaced at a general election when you’re trying to fight in dozens or hundreds of seats. That, especially, was the lesson the party failed to learn from Eastleigh.
So, when we’re looking at the lessons of Brecon and Radnorshire it’s worth remembering those caveats and not falling into the trap of assuming one by-election can change everything.
For me, there are two interesting factors at play. The first is one that’s not been commented on much, but it’s that the old Liberal appeal to rural Cdeltic seats appears to be back. The signs of revival over the past few months have often been confined to urban and suburban areas, so winning the largest constituency in England and Wales is a good sign that the party can appeal to rural areas, which could bring a few more seats into play that might not have been obvious from local election results.
More importantly, one of the keys to victory yesterday was that some parties were willing to unite behind a cause while others remained divided. Specifically, the Liberal Democrats benefited from other parties (especially Plaid Cymru and the…