Labour and Lib Dems’ new strategic relationship will strike fear in Tory hearts

On the face of it, nothing much happened in Old Bexley and Sidcup yesterday. The by-election produced a pretty bog standard midterm shift from the governing party to the opposition. The Conservatives fell 13 points to 51.5 per cent. Labour rose seven points to 30.9 per cent. The constituency stayed in Tory hands.


But underneath that result, something rather striking happened. The Liberal Democrat vote plummeted five points to just three per cent. And that was not because of a poor showing by Ed Davey’s party. It was because they effectively stood aside to give Labour a clear run. We seem to be witnessing the start of an informal, organic anti-Tory strategic arrangement.

No-one expected this seat to be an upset. Old Bexley and Sidcup has been Conservative since it was created in 1983. Even in 1997, the party secured a seven per cent majority. Barring an asteroid hitting the earth, it’ll still be Conservative at the next general election, no matter who ends up in Downing Street.

It’s not part of the Blue Wall – that smattering of Remain-voting Conservative seats in the South with high numbers of graduates and professionals feeling alienated from the government. Just 22.6 per cent of its electorate are graduates. It voted 62 per cent Leave in the referendum. It has an 89 per cent white population. It has a higher-than-average number of people aged over-65. Basically, this is a classic constituency for the modern Conservative party. Johnson is having a rough time of it at the moment, but it would have to be many degrees worse for places like this to be in the running.

All of which makes it seem like yesterday’s vote was pretty boring. Labour were doing well enough to stay in the game, the Tories well enough to dispel talk of disaster. Nothing of any interest.

Except for the Lib Dem vote. That was the real eye-opener.

For years now, and particularly since the 2019 election, progressive voters have been calling for a formal alliance between the non-Tory parties. And you can see why. Look at a seat like the Cities of London and Westminster. In the last general election, the Lib Dems secured 13,096 votes, Labour 11,624 and the Tory candidates sailed through the middle with 17,049. It’s a classic case of how badly the first-past-the-post system punishes a split vote on the left.

But the Lib Dems and Labour have been knocking the suggestion back. Voters don’t like the smell of a top-level stitch up, they say, and anyway local parties wouldn’t countenance it. Even in 1997, when Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown were working closely together, there was no formal pact. They just generally tried to stay out of each other’s way so that each could inflict maximum damage on the government.

And that, on the face of it, seems to be what is happening now. “What I see is a party led by Keir Starmer, who shares our view – that we’ve got to remove Boris Johnson from 10 Downing Street,” Lib Dem leader Ed Davey said last month. “They will campaign in areas where they think they can win and we’ll campaign in areas that we think we can win. We have to manage our resources carefully. It’s no secret that we haven’t put all our effort into some by-elections.”

The Lib Dems therefore didn’t really get involved in this by-election. They consequently fell five points and lost their deposit. But they are focusing on a by-election in the seat vacated by sleaze-ridden MP Owen Paterson on 16 December. “We certainly want to make our case in North Shropshire,” Davey said.

What’s interesting is that Labour seems to be playing ball. The party finished second in Paterson’s seat in 2019, but it seems to be standing aside for Davey so the Lib Dems can monopolise the anti-government vote.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. Labour effectively stood to one side during the Chesham and Amersham by-election in June, scoring just 622 votes and allowing Lib Dem Sarah Green to secure a shocking 25 point swing. Weeks later, the Lib Dems were pretty much invisible in the bitterly fought Batley and Spen by-election, which arguably allowed Labour to retain the seat.

That puts all eyes firmly on North Shropshire in two weeks’ time. The seat shouldn’t be in play. It has a massive 40 per cent Tory majority. But it is ground zero of the Tory sleaze scandal. Conservative figures are getting jittery. The Lib Dems seem increasingly bullish about it. And Labour looks set to allow them a clear run.

There isn’t going to be a formal progressive alliance. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that Labour and the Liberal Democrats are pursuing an organic strategic relationship, in which they prioritise their resources in those seats where they think they have the greatest chance of winning. In short, it looks like they’re getting their act together. And that, more than a 13 point fall in their vote share, will put fear in Tory hearts.