The byelections are the twists and turns of British politics. While a surprise victory can be quite fleeting – many of the most famous are overturned in the next general election – a shock result can have a disproportionate impact. The astonishing victory of the Liberal Democrats in Chesham and Amersham has such potential. In the 2019 general election, the Conservatives won over 55% of the vote. On Friday, they woke up to find that their support had dropped to just over a third.
This twist, however, has been pointed out in advance. The Tories’ victory in the deindustrialised northern port town of Hartlepool and their defeat at Chesham and Amersham, a suburban siege in southern England, are signs of a structural change in British politics. Progressive parties, Lib Dems and Labor, are gaining ground in traditional conservative centers in the south, while Tories are making headway in the north and the Midlands.
Still, the circumstances were benign for the Lib Dems, the largely appeased UK central party. Chesham and Amersham voted to stay in the 2016 EU referendum and the Lib Dems made significant progress there in the local elections. The contest, sparked by the death of the longtime incumbent MP, offered a free protest vote against a majority-assured government.
More importantly, however, there was something to protest. Headquarters is at the forefront of two important planning issues. The first is the high-speed train project two; the second and probably the most crucial is the government’s desire to expand housing construction in the south.
The latter is to be achieved through a reform of planning and centrally directed housing construction targets for councils. A number of Conservative MPs from the south, including former Prime Minister Theresa May, are deeply concerned about these proposals. They are numerous enough to threaten the majority of the government and they have already obtained some concessions. A Liberal Democrat victory in Chesham and Amersham will give these rebels ammunition.
This concern fuels the deeper fear among conservatives in the south that the party leadership is simply neglecting these areas, in the same way that Labor took for granted some supporters in the north. As a result, Chesham and Amersham could push the Conservative leadership into a course correction. Some recognition of the problem would be wise – not least because it always makes good sense to pay attention to voters – but an overreaction that saw a substantial pullback in housing construction would be wrong.
The UK housing shortage is an urgent problem that any government must tackle with a serious commitment to building hundreds of thousands of new homes. Neither planning reform nor HS2 should be abandoned. The Tories must also think about their long-term interests: the lack of affordable housing in the South East, especially London, is one of the factors pushing younger and more left voters deeper into the suburbs and , most likely, preventing them from becoming more conservative as they age.
Politics, however, requires ministers to be alert to the anti-development trend on their own backbenchers. The government may need to be less centralizing and give more weight to additional infrastructure – schools, hospitals, transport, etc. – required by demographic growth. There are undoubtedly compromises on the planning reforms that could be proposed. Ultimately, however, not all concerns can be assuaged and the government should not give in. New houses are needed and must be built.