But will they be distracted by Stoke Central?
The Tories love governing, Labour loves protesting and the Lib Dem love winning elections. With the return to form of the Lib Dems in gaining by-elections, all is now once again well with the world. They might still be languishing in fourth place in the national polls but in actual elections, Farron’s party has been performing admirably well over the last year and in particular over the last few months.
Thursday produced two more spectacular examples in local by-elections, where they gained one seat from the Conservatives on a 23% swing in Hertfordshire, and another from Labour in Sunderland (from fourth) on a swing of no less than 35%. This ties in with a tweet I saw this week from Glen O’Hara that traditionally Labour voters are very much considering the Lib Dems as an alternative. Obviously, we should be wary of reading too much into two by-elections, never mind a single tweet, particularly when the national polls indicate only a modest Lib Dem recovery. Even so, the runes are there to be read.
Which begs the question: can they follow up on their gain in Richmond Park with another Westminster gain? Neither upcoming contest looks particularly fertile ground on the face of it. The Lib Dems lost their deposit in both seats, finishing fourth in Copeland and fifth in Stoke. Only twice in British history has a party won a by-election from fourth or lower (the SNP in Glasgow Govan in 1988 and George Galloway for Respect in Bradford West in 2012). However, these are strange times and both seats do offer opportunities.
In Stoke, the Lib Dems have the stronger history to fall back on. They finished second in 2005 and 2010, and although they lost most of their votes in 2015, they lost them to Labour. If a substantial Lab-LD swing is now taking place or at least there to be won, then unless Labour can recover the votes they themselves lost to UKIP, they could easily be vulnerable to whichever party established itself as the main challenger. However, their second places were not particularly strong: their best vote share was 21.7% in 2010, which was still 17% behind Labour and below their national average that year.
On the other hand, while the Lib Dems have a much weaker record in Copeland, they have two advantages (one of which may yet also apply to Stoke). Firstly, both Tories and Labour look to be running entirely negative campaigns, with Labour attacking the Conservatives over NHS concerns (which has some local resonance), and the Tories going on Corbyn and his anti-nuclear stance. The problem there is that in a two- (or more) party system, mutual negative campaigning can simply depress the votes of both parties that engage in it, to the benefit of a third party.
And that third party is the Lib Dems. Their toxicity from the Coalition years is clearly declining. They are once again becoming the ‘none of the above’ party in small FPTP elections where they can focus a campaign, which is something UKIP struggles to do. With UKIP having won a referendum and lost a role, with Labour suffering under catastrophic leadership, and with the Tories a little unsteady under a defensive and cautious May, the door has again opened to the Lib Dems everywhere outside of Scotland.
The second and more certain point about Copeland is that it’s very, very remote. It’s a trek for someone living in Greater Manchester, never mind the South. Local resources will matter more than in most by-elections, particularly with Stoke a more accessible alternative for MPs to help out in. Although the Lib Dems have little presence in Copeland itself, they have plenty in neighbouring Westmorland & Lonsdale: Tim Farron’s constituency (though even that isn’t particularly close to most Copeland voters).
What of the Lib Dems’ European stance? Won’t this be a disadvantage in two strongly Leave seats? To an extent, yes, but only to an extent. The reality is that there were plenty of Remain voters too, even in Leave seats. More relevantly, Brexit won’t be the only issue. If the Lib Dems can establish themselves as a clean alternative to the parties throwing mud, they have a chance to do something extraordinary.
But only in one of the seats. By-elections are labour-intensive and expensive (even more so when the MP future-dates his resignation). All parties except Labour have a choice to make about which to prioritise but the Lib Dems most of all. After all, winning by-elections is what they’re about. Copeland, where they’re up to 50/1 should be that choice.