By-elections are the intrigue of British politics. Although a surprise victory can be completely fleeting – many of the best known will be reversed in the next general election – a shock result can have an exorbitant impact. The amazing Liberal Democratic victory in Chesham and Amersham has just such potential. In the 2019 general election, the Tories had more than 55 percent of the vote. On Friday, they woke up and found that their support had fallen to just over a third.
However, this turn is pre-marked. Both conservatives win in the north the industrialized port town of Hartlepool and their loss in Chesham and Amersham, a seat for commuting belts in the south of England, are signs of a structural shift in British politics. The progressive parties, the Lib Dems and Labor, are gaining ground in the traditional Tory heartlands of the south, while the Conservatives are making progress in the north and midlands.
Nevertheless, the conditions were favorable for the Lib Dems, Britain’s largely capable center party. Chesham and Amersham voted to stay in the EU referendum in 2016, and the Lib Dems have made significant progress there in local elections. The match, caused by the death of the current sitting MP, offers a free protest vote against a government whose majority is safe.
Most importantly, however, there was something to protest about. The seat is at the forefront of two important planning issues. The first is the High Speed Two track project; the second and probably more crucial is the government’s desire to expand house building in the south.
The latter must be achieved through reform of planning and centrally directed housing construction targets for councils. A number of conservative MPs in the south, including former Prime Minister Theresa May, are deeply concerned about these proposals. There is enough to threaten the government’s majority, and they have already obtained concessions. A victory for the Liberal Democrats in Chesham and Amersham will give these rebels ammunition.
This concern responds to the deeper fear among southern Tories that the party leadership is simply neglecting these areas, in the same way that Labor takes some for granted. supporters in the north. As a result, Chesham and Amersham could shift the Tory leadership into a course correction. Some acknowledgment of the problem would be wise – not least because it always makes sense to pay attention to voters – but an overreaction that would lead to a significant decline in house building would be a mistake.
The United Kingdom housing shortage is an urgent matter which should address any government with a serious commitment to the construction of hundreds of thousands of new homes. No planning reform or HS2 should be abandoned. Conservatives also need to think about their long-term interests: a lack of affordable housing in the south-east, especially in London, is one of the reasons why younger, more left-wing voters deeper into the suburbs and probably withholds them more conservatively as they get older.
Nevertheless, politics requires ministers to pay attention to the tendency towards development on their own back seats. The government may need to be less centralized and give more weight to the additional infrastructure – schools, hospitals, transport, etc. – that is being demanded by population growth. There are undoubtedly compromises regarding the planning reforms that can be offered. Ultimately, however, not all worries can be alleviated, and the government should not collapse. New homes are needed and need to be built.