One thinks of Neil Kinnock’s infamous “we’re alright!” histrionics at the 1992 Labour party conference in Sheffield (Labour were expected to take power but John Major’s Tories held on to a majority) or of Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s red-faced rant after losing the Democratic primary poll in Iowa in 2004 (he went from being among the favourites to dropping out a few weeks later).
If I was a betting man, I would state that last week’s footage of Ed Davey knocking down a ‘wall’ of blue cardboard boxes with a hammer may well be soon added to this inglorious list.
Davey was on a high following his Liberal Democrat party winning a stunning by-election victory in Chesham and Amersham where Sarah Green overturned a 16,000 majority. Given that the Lib Dems had taken such a safe Tory seat, and the fact that there are approximately 50 constituencies in the South of England with smaller Tory majorities than Chesham, Davey clearly thinks his party can do to the South what the Conservatives have done to former solidly Labour constituencies in the North.
His party have always done well in by-elections and it is no secret that it threw a vast amount of resource at the poll in the hope of pulling off an upset. Where my scepticism comes into play is that I find the result as hard to view as anything more than a protest vote. Tory voters in the Home Counties were swayed by disenchantment over the building of HS2 and new homes, as well as the feeling that the party they traditionally vote for is preoccupied with its newly won seats in the North.
It is here that I make a respectful call for realism. The North has suffered decades of marginalisation in favour of the South East and Home Nations. Government spending per head in the North still pales in comparison to those in and around London. Transport is inadequate to meet demand. Social care, an issue so key to many in the North, remains in the long grass to which it was kicked since the 2019 election. And our skill and productivity levels still lag behind the rest of the country.
This is hardly a picture of reversing the North-South divide at the expense of the latter. To punish the South would be a zero sum game for the UK, rather than a raising of standards across the board to further benefit the entire nation.
While it is obviously natural to have some sympathy for those who oppose the route of HS2 passing through their community, it should be kept in mind that such work is necessary in order to construct an infrastructure project which is absolutely crucial to modernising the UK’s rail industry.
Similarly, the Planning Bill, so unpopular on the Chesham and Amersham doorsteps, is a much-needed revamp of our planning laws which date back to the end of the Second World War and constrain the development of housing to a level of intransigence which would be comical if it were not so serious.
One by-election is not going to change this situation, nor reverse the tide against it.
The result has been painted as changing of the guard that sees a growing number of graduates living in commuter towns around London and other southern cities who are dissatisfied with Brexit and want change.
Given this only applies to certain areas of the so-called Blue Wall, not its entirety, I find this argument to be flimsy.
The result was not a victory for the Lib Dems but rather a triumph for NIMBY-ism from people who shudder at the sight of cranes or bulldozers. They have only known prosperity and seen very little change over the last few decades that was not positive.
The UK’s future success will rely on a creating a country in which opportunity is felt evenly around its regions and in which success does not rely upon being based in the South East.
The current Government talks big on this front but, as yet, delivery has been thin.
If the Blue Wall threat is real then it cannot take its new seats in the North for granted.
It must deliver or be left with nothing.