In the past few weeks, much has already been made of the importance of the Witney by-election to the Liberal Democrats. A strong performance here would surely be a signal to the rest of the country that the “Lib Dem Fightback” is well and truly on, and may finally cause the party to reappear in the public / media’s conciousness.
But Witney is more than that, it is a test of the whole direction the party has set itself on ever since the disaster of May last year. Anything less than a strong second place will be seen as a major disappointment, and should be setting off alarm bells at party HQ.
As a constituency that voted to remain a member of the EU, and as a traditionally Conservative seat seemingly unlikely to be the first to fall to Jeremy Corbyn’s quest for a socialist utopia, the question will be asked that if the Lib Dems cannot do well here, where can they? Whilst I am a supporter of the party’s current position on Brexit, a poor result here should be taken as a warning sign that perhaps the message of a second referendum on the terms of any Brexit deal does not resonate with as many voters as we perhaps would like, and a new approach may be required. Meanwhile finishing behind a Labour party in absolute disarray, in the firm grip of the left, will pose major questions of its own, and do nothing but embolden those within the party who already call for the end of Tim Farron’s reign and a return to the helm for Nick Clegg (who in my opinion, despite his media cut through, comes with plenty of obvious heavy baggage of his own).
The last thing the party needs right now is to join the others on a search for its own soul. Whilst Labour and the Conservatives peer inwards, the Lib Dems need to continue to look outwards towards the many disillusioned voters in this country, and this as much as anything else is why a strong result in Witney is crucial. All the signs suggest that we are on course, but if the last year and a half has taught us anything, it’s that nothing should be taken for granted.
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