Be honest – did you really expect this to happen? We just fought three parliamentary by-elections (2 of the 3 where we started in 4th place) where our “worst” result was nearly doubling our vote and pushing Labour into 4th place in Sleaford and North Hykeham.
In Witney, the Lib Dems achieved our biggest swing against the Conservatives since 1997. That success led on to the amazing result in Richmond Park where we wiped out a 23,000 Tory majority with the biggest Lib Dem by-election vote increase since 1993.
These were spectacular results and everyone in the party should be proud of what we’ve just achieved together. I want to thank every single person who helped make this happen. When you add these results onto the 21 council seats we’ve gained since May, you can see a real change in politics happening.
I want to tell you how we did it. At first glance, Witney wasn’t exactly the best prospect for a major Lib Dem by-election revival. A vote of just 6.9%, 4th place and over 31,000 votes behind the Tories is a challenging place to start from.
But the reaction on social media, particularly from our new members showed that there was a massive appetite to put up a strong fight. Our Campaign Manager Jon Aylwin and fantastic candidate Liz Leffman put together a fantastic campaign. They were supported by volunteers in numbers we hadn’t seen since the by-election in Eastleigh in 2013.
Their efforts cut the Tory majority down to 5,000 votes, winning 30% of the vote and achieving the best Tory to Lib Dem swing since 1997. The Conservatives were shocked, the media were shocked and in truth, I think quite a few Lib Dems were shocked too.
Just three days after Witney, Zac Goldsmith resigned his seat. Although we were 23,000 votes behind, there was one simple objective for us – WIN.
A poll in the Evening Standard put us 28% behind at the start of the campaign. The Conservative decision not to field a candidate further helped Zac. The media wrote us off, but we didn’t waver for a second.
In Sarah Olney, we knew we had a strong candidate with a great story – only having joined the party 18 months ago. We had an amazing Campaign Team led by James Lillis and again the support of thousands of Lib Dem volunteers.
Our strategy was simple – show the voters of Richmond Park that we were just as strong on opposing Heathrow as Zac, but we were very different on Brexit and on the NHS. This election was our chance to tell the government that it is on the wrong path on these issues.
The rest is history. Our vote grew week by week and by the final week our own figures showed us overtaking Zac Goldsmith – who was still the strongest opposition candidate I think we have ever faced at a by-election. On polling day we had a clear margin of success (overturning the likely deficit in postal votes).
With the strong result in Sleaford the following week, it was a tremendous end to 2016. Thanks to everyone who helped achieve this and let’s make 2017 even better.