The by-election came about due to a successful recall petition which was signed by more than the 10% of constituents required to bring about a by-election. In fact 19% (10,005) signed.
The recall petition was enabled because the then Conservative party MP, Chris Davies, was found guilty of fake invoices worth £700 for nine framed photographs for his office. He was fined £1500 and sentenced to 50 hours of community work.
This petition was actively campaigned for by the Liberal Democratic party, supported by Plaid Cymru, the Greens and the Labour party. The Conservative party opposed it. There was clearly a political motivation for the recall petition, greatly influenced by the current Brexit situation.
The local Conservative party re-adopted Chris Davies as their candidate. He has said in his defence that his expenses situation was caused by an administrative error. Many believe that his expenses mistake has been blown out of proportion and that the recall petition was more to do with lack of confidence in the government. He had many supporters who believed he had been a very good constituency MP.
Results: see here. Turnout was 59.6%, the highest by-election turnout since 1997, General Election turnout: 74.6%.
Some key points:
1.) This is a 2016 referendum vote leave constituency ( 53.3%).
2.) The LibDems won because their campaign has focussed on uniting the Remain voters behind their candidate, LibDem Welsh leader Jane Dodds.
In support of this, Plaid Cymru and the Greens decided not to field candidates but instead back Ms Dodds. However, Plaid only had 3.1% of the vote in 2017 while the Greens did not stand then (when they did stand in 2015, they achieved 3.1%). It is no guarantee that they were all “remain” voters.
The LibDem campaign was run by one of their key election strategists and their MP’s, including party leader Jo Swinson, visited the constituency on a number of occasions.The LibDems had a very clever election strategy which focussed on local issues, weaknesses in government policy such as austerity, and downplaying the Brexit issue. Their campaign presentation was slick and professional and was superior to that of the other parties.
3.) There were six candidates standing, Conservative, Liberal Democrats, the Brexit party (TBP), Labour, UKIP and the Monster Raving Loony party.
4.) The Conservatives might regret backing a candidate who was found guilty of expenses fraud, even though this was not the major issue in the by-election. Did it cost them the 1400 odd votes they needed to win in a tightly fought contest? It is clear by his vote count however that he was not as affected as some might have thought.
5.) The Conservatives suffered because their Party leadership race was on at the beginning of the by-election thus they initially did not get the party big guns and indeed others down to the constituency to help. They were in some turmoil but once Boris Johnson had won the leadership election, he offered to come and help Chris Davies which he did last Tuesday. However, many thought it was too little too late and the constituency media coverage was not what it could have been. Could the Prime Minister have made more of a difference?
6.) The Conservatives had to contend with TBP standing in this election, knowing that TBP had performed exceptionally well in the EU elections and in the recent Peterborough by-election where TBP’s Mike Greene achieved 28.9%, narrowly missing becoming the constituency’s MP. However, that was when the Conservative party was still under the leadership of Theresa May.
TBP’s 10.4% of the votes could well have been the main reason the Conservatives lost and the result demonstrates how vulnerable the Conservatives are electorally until they deliver Brexit. The result certainly does not undermine the Leave argument, as there were still more votes for Leave parties than Remain ones in this constituency.
7.) The Brexit issue is an important one to most electors, so who the party leader is and their Brexit standpoint counts for a lot. Chris Davies undoubtedly received some form of electoral boost because of Boris Johnson becoming party leader. It also helped him that he is a key Brexit supporter. However, TBP pointed out that Chris Davies voted for Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement and therefore they do not consider him a strong Brexiteer. This could have gone against him in obtaining the vital votes needed to win.
8.) Des Parkinson, TBP’s candidate, was a local candidate, having been a Police Chief Superintendent with strong Brexit credentials as former UKIP candidate on numerous occasions. This was apparently not sufficient, nor was the anti-establishment stance a sufficient vote winner. It also did not help that party leader Nigel Farage did not turn up to give support. The lesson for TBP has to be to think more on strategy and policy presentation. There was nothing wrong with their candidate as such, he performed reasonably well on TV, except it was commented he did not smile enough!
9.) The dilemma the voters had is that they knew that if their former MP lost his fight to retain his seat, then the government’s overall majority would be reduced from two to one MP. This is crucial in respect of leaving the EU with or without a deal.
10.) The Libdems won this seat primarily because there was a split “leave” vote between the Conservatives and TBP who were in a catch 22 type situation: should they, on this occasion only, have not stood, because of the Conservative’s wafer thin majority in Parliament? Is not achieving Brexit more important than electing an MP at this crucial moment in time? TBP might well be accused of hindering Brexit by the unintended consequences of their actions.
11.) Labour candidate Tom Davies, who is a local Councillor, did not perform well, only narrowly keeping his deposit, due to the mixed messages the Labour party has been giving on Brexit, even though his message to voters was very much Remain. The LibDems sought the “remain” Labour voters and TBP sought their “leave” voters.
12.) UKIP’s Liz Phillips’ performance was a disaster for the party, achieving less votes than the Official Monster Raving Loony Party. Bizarrely, she was actually standing against one of her former colleagues. UKIP are still suffering due to a large exodus to TBP and to bitter internal divisions. UKIP desperately need to find a way out of the mess they are in.
There will certainly be many implications of this by-election which will merit discussion.
Photo by Kerry Buckley