If ever a county could be labelled a traditional Tory Shire, surely Shropshire has always ticked the requisite blue boxes. Still unique in that it remains a sizeable landmass in the middle of England without a single city, Shropshire is the largely rural border between the West Midlands and Wales, with its sole concession to post-war redevelopment being the Newtown of Telford. A familiar feature of 19th century novels penned both before and after the 1832 Reform Act, the campaign trail of the landowners’ chosen candidate is so entrenched as part of the archaic fabric of English political life that it’s revealing to discover such a system survived the termination of the old Rotten Boroughs. The Parliamentary constituency of North Shropshire was established the same year as the Reform Act, yet continued the practise of electing two members to Parliament, initially divided between the Tories and the Whigs. Within a couple of years, both victors represented the Conservative Party and the dual members remained that way until further reform in 1885, when the constituency was abolished and split into four separate constituencies electing one member each.
In 1983, the constituency of North Shropshire was revived and upheld the traditions of a century before by remaining a Tory seat. John Biffin was the first MP to represent North Shropshire in the modern era, replaced by Owen Paterson fourteen years later; Paterson’s recent…er…difficulties provoked his resignation at the worst possible time for the Government, and a by-election coming so hot on the heels of revelations of last year’s restrictions-busting Christmas parties left the ancient ownership of this constituency up for grabs for the first time in living memory. Whilst it was still unimaginable to envisage North Shropshire falling into the divided hands of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats clearly fancied their chances as the resurrected protest vote for the disgruntled Tory voter now that UKIP no longer poses the threat it once did. And, despite the constituency voting Leave in 2016, the one-time cheerleaders for a second referendum were deemed the only option to a deeply unpopular administration masquerading as the lifelong leaseholders of the constituency.
At the final count, it was a chartered accountant by the name of Helen Morgan who took the seat from the Tories with an impressive swing of 34 percent. At the last General Election in December 2019, Owen Paterson had retained the seat he’d held since 1997 with 62.7 percent of the vote and a majority of 22,949. North Shropshire is the second safe Tory seat in a row to fall to the Lib Dems in a by-election, following the overturning of the Chesham and Amersham constituency from a 16,000 Conservative majority earlier this year. Whilst nobody would foolishly claim either victory is comparable to the legendary Orpington by-election of 1962 – which served as a devastating blow to Harold Macmillan’s crumbling authority – there’s no escaping the fact that two by-election blows in a row can be read as a humiliating rejection of the current shower running the show.
Perhaps the difference between now and Eric Lubbock’s shock triumph almost sixty years ago is that the Liberal revival of the early 60s proved to Harold Wilson (when he took charge of Labour a few months later) that there was a widespread groundswell of dissatisfaction with the Tory Government which Labour was in a far better position to capitalise on than the ill-prepared Liberal Party. Labour managed it in 1964, yet even though the party finished runner-up this time round in North Shropshire, it’s still difficult to picture Keir Starmer replicating Wilson’s achievement a couple of years from now. The political landscape is far more fragmented in 2021 than it was in 1962 – and it’d take a supreme optimist to see that altering by 2023 or ’24.
Boasting a majority of 5,925, the newest Member of Parliament was understandably overjoyed at evicting the governing party from one of its oldest backyards. She claimed many Labour voters opted for her as the best bet to oust the Tories, and this is a pattern we can probably expect to see regularly in the run-up to the next General Election, when so few Labour candidates inspire enough confidence to seriously threaten the Government outside of the remaining Labour constituencies that didn’t fall to the Tories last time round. ‘Tonight the people of North Shropshire have spoken on behalf of the British people,’ said Ms Morgan. ‘They have said loudly and clearly: “Boris Johnson, the party is over”.’ She went on to add, ‘In rural Shropshire today – just like Buckinghamshire in June – we have won the support of people who have always voted Conservative and people who have always opposed them…thousands of lifelong Conservative voters, dismayed by Boris Johnson’s lack of decency and fed up with being taken for granted – and thousands of lifelong Labour voters, choosing to lend their votes to the candidate who can defeat the Conservatives.’
If tactical voting of this nature proves to be a recurring trend that is extended into the next General Election, such a situation will still not ensure a Labour victory; a narrower Tory triumph will be the only predictable outcome, despite a significant improvement in Lib Dem fortunes since the dark days of Jo Swinson’s disastrous misjudgement of the national mood on the subject of Brexit. A merger between Labour and the Lib Dems – a far more permanent arrangement than a mere coalition for convenience – is the sole way forward if either party expects to oust an immovable party even as sunk in sleaze, corruption and outright dishonesty as the current Conservative crop. The blatant absence of a genuine opposition to Boris’s rancid administration is emphasised by the endless support provided to his pandemic policies by Starmer’s barmy army; rather than flocking around the red flag, voters in seats such as North Shropshire are registering their complaints in the ballot box by ticking the Lib Dem candidate as opposed to the Labour one. This is not a recipe for overturning a sizeable Tory majority across the country.
Labour’s problems are manifold in winning back the confidence of the electorate. With over a decade having passed since Gordon Brown’s brief tenure at No.10, the legacy of New Labour can’t even be blamed anymore as the source of the public’s mistrust in the traditional alternative to the Tories. Through the uninspired Emperor’s New Clothes of Ed Miliband to the asylum-taking revolution of Jezza’s lunatics, the Labour Party has struggled to connect beyond its hardcore fan-base over the past five or six years and still hasn’t flushed out the toxic remnants of the Corbyn era, with the Identity Politics domination of the frontbench remaining a deterrent to the wider electorate. Following a similar flirtation with minority pursuits, the Lib Dems have experienced their own rejection by voters and appear to have addressed the issue of late by switching focus to the genuine concerns of the many rather than the First World obsessions of the few. Labour could learn lessons from that, but they won’t do so by denying only women have cervixes or propping up Boris every time he goes back on his word and introduces ever more draconian curbs on civil liberties.
Yes, the loss of North Shropshire is a blow to the Tories – and an embarrassing one, at that; but a governing party losing a by-election when it has held power for over a decade isn’t necessarily an indication that the governing party’s days in office are numbered. For that to be the case there has to be a mass conviction that the opposition is a government-in-waiting, as was found in 1964, 1979 and 1997. Right now, despite the car crash that is Boris Johnson’s administration, who really believes Keir Starmer has the best pair of hands to take control of the steering wheel? Well, certainly not the Labour voters of North Shropshire.
© The Editor