Reflections on Rochester and Strood

November 24, 2014 12:36 PM

Rochester Cathedral (By 2006SweepsCath1.JPG: User:ClemRutter derivative work: SilkTork (2006SweepsCath1.JPG) [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)])Unless our campaign was a foolish attempt to try and help the Tories win and stave off another UKIP upsurge, polling less than 1% in a parliamentary by-election should be considered as unacceptable, and such a result was not in my opinion unavoidable.

We should not allow such a result ever again, because polling the lowest vote of any major party, in any by-election ever, casts doubt on our status as a 'major party', damages us in the wards and constituencies that we can win next year, and undermines morale, membership and fundraising.

I have read in some places that 'we have been there before'. No we haven't. Not in terms of parliamentary by-elections in England anyway. We were in a worse position in national polls in 1988 - 90 after the 'split' with the Owenite SDP. When I became Director of Campaigns & Elections in August 1989, the party had recently polled just 6% in the European elections following which MORI had put us on 4% in Westminster voting intentions (just above the 'margin of error').

But in by-elections like Mid-Staffordshire in March 1990, (where we were heavily squeezed as Labour gained the seat) our candidate Tim Jones polled 11% (whilst also seeing off the Owenite SDP 'spoiler' candidate who got 2.5%). Lord David Sutch of the Monster Raving Loony Party polled 336 votes (just 13 votes fewer than us in Rochester last week). Candy Piercy was a major player in the campaign and resources were much tighter than now, but we made an effort even though the 'Campaigns Department' had only me and Candy employed at the time.

In the Bootle by-election of May 1990, we faced both so-called 'Liberal' as well as 'Owenite SDP' opponents. In very unfavourable territory, we still polled 8.9% (down 4%) and came within 31 votes of beating the Conservatives for second place. The late Mike Harskin (then editor of Liberal Democrat News) helped me with all the leaflets. The Monster Raving Loony Party polled 1.2% in Bootle, beating the Owenite SDP (0.4%). Very shortly afterwards David Owen packed up his pretence at being a political party. Seeing off the Owenite 'spoiler' SDP helped to pave the way for our victory in Eastbourne in October that year.

We were still at 8% nationally when we won the Eastbourne by-election in October 1990 (after I overcame Paddy Ashdown's initial opposition to fighting it!) Sadly some key members of the team, including Pat Wainwright and Bill MacCormick, are no longer in the party. The campaign there (in which Paul Jacobs was agent, I was Campaign Director and Paul Burstow helped me to write the leaflets) overturned a 16,923 Conservative majority for us to win by 4,550, and resulted in us more than doubling our national opinion poll rating to 18%. The 'spoiler' candidate, from what I then called "Michael Meadowcroft's Liberal Party" polled 1.1% in that campaign.

I have also read suggestions that we only suffered the same drop in support as the Conservatives. But the Conservative drop of 14.4% from 49.2% to 34.8% (when the byelection was caused by the defection of the Tory MP) is nothing like the Lib Dem drop in support of 15.5% from 16.4% to 0.9%. Yes we were squeezed, but we have resisted the squeeze before. The last parliamentary by-election before the 1997 General Election saw huge 'squeeze' pressure on us in Wirral South, as Labour gained the seat, and both Labour and the Conservatives poured huge resources into the campaign compared to our tiny budget. But Flo Clucas, with agent Gerald Vernon-Jackson, ensured that we polled a respectable 10% compared to our 13% share in the previous General Election.

I certainly don't want to decry the tremendous efforts of Geoff Juby and a small local team including Graham Colley who worked incredibly hard in difficult circumstances. The whole party should be grateful to those who went to help them. But to avoid such results as Rochester again, the party must change its approach to such by-elections, and to all the various sets of elections in which we need to try and sustain our support and build again for the future.