Liberal Democrats target upset in leafy South East by-election

The safe Conservative seat of Chesham and Amersham is not where you would expect to find activists from the Liberal Democrats knocking on doors and wooing would-be voters. Yet the UK’s main centrist party is hoping that after more than three decades of Tory representation residents are in the mood for change. 

On June 17, voters in the Buckinghamshire constituency north-west of London will elect their next MP, following the death in April of Cheryl Gillan, a former cabinet minister who had represented the region since 1992. 

Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey believes that this by-election could serve as an opportunity to reinvigorate the area’s left-leaning base and address growing discontent over local issues ranging from road potholes to HS2, the high speed rail project set to link London with the north of England. 

He also hopes it will be a springboard for a party that has seen its national popularity slump since 2015, when its five years in coalition government with the Tories came to an unceremonious end at that year’s general election.

The party’s by-election campaign centres on local planning and house building. “People are deeply troubled by the government’s planning proposals,” Davey told the Financial Times during a campaign tour of the constituency. “People have come out here for quality of life, to be able to commute and now they’ve sort of been chased by the bulldozers if Boris gets his way.” 

Sir Ed Davey argued that planning proposals had helped the Lib Dems attract disgruntled Conservative voters, both in Chesham and Amersham and beyond © Charlie Bibby/FT

The government’s planning bill, set to be voted on later this year, aims to make it easier for developers to build new houses in so-called “growth zones”. Ministers have argued that the legislation will boost the number of green homes being built and help young people get on to the housing ladder.

However, Conservative backbenchers — including former prime minister Theresa May — have pushed back on the proposals. They argue they would reduce affordable housing and negatively affect local communities.

Davey argued that the proposals had helped the party to attract disgruntled Conservative voters, both in Chesham and Amersham and beyond. “We are seeing a promising number of Conservatives switching to us, because they want to say no, . . . we don’t want these planning reforms.”

In last month’s local elections the Lib Dems went from having zero seats on Amersham town council to taking control. It also made gains in the nearby counties of Surrey and Hertfordshire and saw its representation on councils across England and Wales rise to 12.5 per cent, about double its standing in recent national opinion polls.

In last month’s local elections the Lib Dems went from having zero seats on Amersham town council to taking control. © Charlie Bibby/FT

Concerns surrounding the local economy and recovery from the pandemic remain rife in the constituency, Davey added. “There have been three million people excluded from government support and in places like Chesham and Amersham you have a lot of small businesses and self-employed people who just missed out on all the help”, he said. 

“People are really disappointed. They feel that they’ve worked hard and paid their taxes and when the chips are down, the government has forgotten them”. 

“Keeping the high street going I think is one of the big things”, argued local resident Dipesh Amin, 38. He said that since working from home, he had felt more closely tied to his local community. As a result, ensuring the survival of local businesses as restrictions lift remains one of his key priorities as a voter. 

Victory for the Lib Dems is far from certain. While the party saw its vote jump 13 per cent in the 2019 election, Gillan still won more than twice as many votes as the centrist force which now has only 11 MPs, down from 57 in 2010.

Anthony Wells, director of political research at YouGov said that winning the seat could prove “challenging” for the Lib Dems.

“When the party won [by-elections] in the 1990s and 2000s, there was an unpopular government that people wanted to protest against. The biggest problem for the Liberal Democrats now is that the government isn’t actually unpopular”. The latest national YouGov polling puts the Tories at 44 per cent.

Conservative candidate Peter Fleet, is campaigning on a pledge to protect the greenbelt, boost the recovery of local high streets and clamp down on antisocial behaviour. He was joined by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the campaign trail in Chesham last week.

Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Sir Ed Davey and their prospective parliamentary candidate, Sarah Green believe shifting demographics in the constituency gives the party a good chance of success in the by-election © Charlie Bibby/FT

Despite the ruling party’s grip on the area, Lib Dem candidate Sarah Green, who runs a training company, believes the Tories’ support is softening.

“There is a real — especially among Tory switchers — sense of frustration with their own government and their own party”, she said. “My core message is about being a local voice, a local champion. Standing up for the area and not being beholden to the Tory chief whip”.

“The region’s shifting demographics may also soften the Conservative vote”, Green said. In recent years, Amersham and Chesham, which are connected to London’s Underground, have proved popular with young families searching for a quieter pace of life with easy access to the capital.

In an area that has typically not been seen as being up for grabs, having had two longstanding and well known Conservative MPs since 1974, the flurry of political activity sparked by the by-election has not been lost on local residents.

“I quite like the fact that activists have knocked on the door and been really friendly about it”, said Amersham resident Azeem Fahy.

“I’ve lived here for quite a while now and this is the most engagement in a local election that I have experienced”, the 25-year old added.

Davey conceded that his party was facing an uphill struggle to overturn decades of local Conservative supremacy in the area and rebuild the party’s support across the country. But he argued that starting local and ensuring that the party had a clear message around policies such as planning would be vital.

“We have seen by-elections where the Liberal Democrats have won from further behind . . . It’s still a mountain to climb but we’re more than half way up there, we can see the summit.”

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