Scottish Lib Dems can take heart from by-election win

In 1993, a young Liberal Democrat campaign organiser was dispatched to the sleepy seaside community of Christchurch to act as an election agent.

Helen Morgan, winner of the North Shropshire by-election after overturning a Conservative majority of nearly 23,000, symbolically bursts Boris Johnson's 'bubble'
Helen Morgan, winner of the North Shropshire by-election after overturning a Conservative majority of nearly 23,000, symbolically bursts Boris Johnson's 'bubble'

He was put in charge of the Lib Dem by-election campaign for a constituency that had always been a ​rock-solid Conservative stronghold. What transpired was the greatest election upset in British political history. We won with over 60 per cent of the vote and that young organiser was credited with delivering the victory. He goes by the name of Willie Rennie.

After our huge constituency wins in May, Willie and I were asked travelled down to North Shropshire to help the Lib Dems in the by-election there. We were part of a tartan army of Lib Dem activists which travelled down from Scotland and knocked over 14,000 doors. Whilst the Lib Dem victory on Friday fell just short of the historic swing achieved in Christchurch, it was the first time we’d achieved such a feat from third place, overhauling La​bour and the Conservatives from a starting point of just 10 per cent. This was no protest vote or quirk of tactical vote- such contests reward the nearest challenger. This was an out-and-out Liberal Democrat victory.

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There are lessons for Scottish politics in North Shropshire. For years the SNP have been selling the narrative that Scotland is just wired differently than England; that seats like North Shropshire were proof positive that huge swathes of middle England were lost to the Tories for good and that as such, Scotland is forever anchored to Tory-voting England. Yet on Thursday, the Lib Dems showed that a majority of progressive voters can be found and energised in any corner of these islands. From voters outraged at an out of touch Prime Minister to more local concerns about ambulance waits and bin collections, it was clear that the Lib Dems stood at the intersection of the public mood.

Secondly, the by-election win showed that you don’t need to be in second place to challenge for electoral victory. North Shropshire is a warm reminder that the Lib Dems can build coalitions of voters that others can’t. In the Venn-diagram of political persuasion, it showed that under the right conditions there is a wider cross section of people who are open to voting for us that there is any other party. We just need to give them a reason.

In Scotland there are a rash of seats, particularly in our areas of traditional strength like the Highlands, the North East and the Borders, where for now we are behind the SNP and the Tories but with the chaotic Boris Johnson in Downing Street and concerns increasing over Nicola Sturgeon's handling of public services, we will be looking to mount a challenge in the future.

North Shropshire will galvanise my party and give it much needed encouragement. Editorials this weekend, proclaimed that the Lib Dems are back and that we should be taken seriously again. It will also remind Lib Dems toiling away in forgotten streets the country over that a thousand seemingly tiny acts of public service can move a mountain of public opinion. That if you elect a Lib Dem, you’ll get a representative who will fight to take down a corrupt Prime Minister and sort out your bins in the same afternoon.