Tiverton and Honiton byelection victory shows the Lib Dem revival is the real deal – Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP

In 1993, a young Liberal Democrat campaign organiser on the south coast of England was confronted with a problem.

Tuesday, 28th June 2022, 4:45 pm
Newly elected Lib Dem MP Richard Foord celebrates with supporters in Tiverton after the party's historic by-election victory (Picture: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)
Newly elected Lib Dem MP Richard Foord celebrates with supporters in Tiverton after the party's historic by-election victory (Picture: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

Too many volunteers had turned up at the campaign office for the work he had available for them to do, in aid of the local by-election. Happily the office was split over two levels so the organiser put the upstairs team in charge of bundling the leaflets, only to deliver the completed bundles to the downstairs team who would then be asked to count the leaflets in each bundle for certainty.

The by-election was for the parliamentary constituency of Christchurch, it was won by the Lib Dems and turned out to be the biggest electoral upset in UK political history. The young organiser’s name was Willie Rennie.

For years, the name Christchurch carried with it an almost totemic potency amongst political anoraks and Liberal Democrats alike (stop sniggering at the back, there is a difference). The record-breaking win seemed utterly unassailable in its place in the record books, and then on Thursday, that record was swept away.

From the quiet hamlets and market towns of Tiverton and Honiton a shockwave emerged as the Liberal Democrats took one of the safest Tory seats in the country, overturning a Tory lead of more than 27,000 votes.

It is a result that will rock the political establishment and could very well represent the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of Boris Johnson’s time in Number 10.

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Many have sought to explain our win as a protest vote, or some kind of aberration, but allow me to present why this is yet further evidence of a Liberal Democrat resurgence that has been quietly bubbling away under the surface of UK politics for some time.

For starters, this wasn’t a fluke. In the last year, the Liberal Democrats have taken three seemingly impregnable ‘blue wall’ Tory citadels. In addition to Tiverton and Honiton, we have won Chesham and Amersham, and North Shropshire. All three were won with swings of around 25-30 per cent and two of them from third place. To put that in context, with just half that sort of swing, we’d take something like 50 seats off the Conservatives.

"Ah but the Lib Dems are just freakishly good at winning by-elections," I hear you cry. That may be true, but it fits a pattern of revival we’re seeing countrywide and is self-evident in over 200 council gains at the recent local elections. In Scotland alone and against the odds, we increased our councillor base by nearly 30 per cent.

Door by door, street by street, we are being met with renewed enthusiasm. In rural and metropolitan areas alike, people are starting to remember that when you back the Liberal Democrats and return them to elected office, you get a local champion who will fight for you and those around you all year round, not just at election time.

As the full extent of SNP incompetence is laid bare, as they try to plunge the country into deeper uncertainty and division, by seeking to hold a referendum at a time when nobody wants one and with the Tories in freefall, the Scottish Lib Dems are quietly preparing for success. Tiverton shows us the way.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western