I thought Henley was a score draw. We didn't do as well as we hoped, but we did a lot better than the Tories hoped we would do. Part of the discourse seems to be that we should, whatever the political circumstances, be taking seats off the Tories. I think there are two main issues about this. The first is that many of us still see the Tories as more like our natural enemies than Labour; the assumption is that we have less common ground with the Tories than with Labour. I think that that just makes us complicit with the “middle ground” discourse where Tories are right, Labour are left, and we have a thin sliver of middle ground off which we get squeezed when one of the other parties does well. We shouldn't acquiesce in this discourse because it is crap. Complete unvarnished smelly crap. It suits Labour and the Tories, and it suits the media because a) they can present an easy image that will sell newspapers, without anybody having to think too hard and b) it's a lot easier to hold positions if you have somebody that you're against, and generally speaking there is only room in people's minds for one enemy at a time. Therefore bipolar politics appeals to those who are supposed to interpret our politics to us, as well as to both Tories and Labour.
The second issue is that the Tory vote is no longer soft, far from it. We could only count on the kind of swings we have become familiar with when the Tories were seen as both nasty and incompetent. That combination is unusual and is unlikely to return. David Cameron has done a very good and very disciplined sales job in convincing the electorate at large that the Tories are no longer nasty, and has avoided the issue of competence by having no policies. The fact that the Tories are still in large measure nasty means nothing – it's the perception that counts. And the policy issue may come back to bite him at election time. But that should be neither our chief strategy nor our chief hope. We are better placed than we have been in the past to tell our own story rather than relying on footnotes to other narratives. I like the current nostrum that we are the challengers to the Tories in the south and to Labour in the north, but that still positions us in terms of other parties. We know that we have more voters who are genuine LibDems and will stick with us because they like us, as other parties' fortunes ebb and flow. Maybe we should be working better at what some of us call the narrative. The “liberal” party in contrast to two authoritarian parties. We localise, they both centralise. And so on.
In terms of by-election tactics I'll admit to being an agnostic. Chris Rennard's account, with figures that we were not privy to when we started the debate, says that we are still taking votes off the Tories – just not enough in the case of Henley. Maybe Glasgow East gives us a chance to see how well we can take votes off Labour. I can see the rationale for the things we do, and they have served us well in an environment where political inertia and the local and national media are often against us. That will continue to be so. Henley is a case in point. We had an excellent story about Howell and the hospital campaign and (I'm not sure but I believe) it was simply ignored by the local BBC station, whereas they made a big thing of Cameron's vapid threat to sue us. I guess that raises the question of whether we worked effectively enough on the media – I don't know. But we will continue to have to fight that for a long time; the media are wedded to that two party left right concept of politics.
One thing we can still do is tell the truth. This often comes under the heading of negative campaigning, but I think there is a place in politics for saying things about your opponents that nobody else would say. If we hadn't made a fuss about Howell's links with developers, and about his lies over the local hospital campaign, nobody else would have mentioned them. We should, I think, continue to point out to the electorate that the Tories have not changed all that much despite Cameron's attempts to keep the lid on their hard right trough swilling tendencies. After all, they do continue to give us plenty of ammunition.