The headlines last Friday speak of a ‘shock victory’ and a ‘major upset’. The Liberal Democrat candidate, Sarah Olney, has taken the Richmond Park seat from the incumbent, Zac Goldsmith, overturning a huge majority of over 23000 to win by 1872 votes – becoming the party’s only female MP.
Yet – for those of us paying close attention to this contest – this result was perhaps less surprising.
Goldsmith was a popular local MP who had served his constituency well over several years – but this was an election with much more at stake than local representation, and the Lib Dems had, with quiet confidence and significant resources, targeted this seat for some time.
Restraint should be shown about the significance of one by-election in the context of the tectonic shifts taking place in British and global politics at present. However, this victory represents welcome respite after a dreadful year for liberalism, and raises several interesting themes regarding the way ahead.
Brexit and the corrosion of ‘brand Zac’
It may be said that the Lib Dems have been sharpening their knives ever since the announcement that a decision over Heathrow was imminent, but it is perhaps more fitting to suggest that they sharpened Mr Goldsmith’s own sword, onto which he has now fallen. Whilst he may have placed this in the ground over the third runway expansion, this was also opposed by the Liberal Democrats, and the blade metamorphosed quickly into a European rapier given Goldsmith’s favourable stance towards leaving the EU – hugely at odds with his overwhelmingly remain-voting constituency.
‘Brand Zac’ has also been damaged this year as the former golden boy of soft-Toryism showed weakness in allowing a deeply unpleasant and divisive London Mayoral campaign to be run under his name. The endorsement of UKIP in Richmond Park, arguably resulting from this, is perhaps one he would rather have avoided.
Yet this was a by-election predominantly about Brexit – and the result will be seen a victory for ‘the 48%’. Already Guy Verhofstadt, the lead EU negotiator on Brexit, has offered his congratulations – saying ‘Europe is watching and we are proud’.
It is becoming harder for Theresa May to dismiss arguments against hard Brexit as contradicting the will of the people. Succour will be taken by those who seek to stymie if not reverse the process of leaving the European Union – though for now their best hope remains the courts.
A Lib Dem fight back?
The Liberal Democrats have long been good at winning by-elections, and activists and party staff are well used to dropping everything and hot-footing it to a far flung constituency to deliver leaflets and knock on doors. A number of seasoned campaigners went straight from Witney to Richmond and are already checking out train times to Sleaford for the next one. Yet it is clear that Brexit has given the party a new found purpose and a great tactical opportunity. Party membership has surged to over 80,000 since the referendum and will no doubt go up again following the Richmond win.
Labour’s equivocation – not only over Europe but over the whole direction of the party – has clearly opened space for the Liberals to move into, and by targeting resources and pounding the streets in by-elections, the party can chip away at the Tory majority over the coming years, especially in areas that voted remain.
Labour and the ‘progressive alliance’
There has been talk of a ‘progressive alliance’ in British politics – led especially by Caroline Lucas – and the Green’s decision not to run in Richmond Park may well have been decisive in the result. Even Bob Geldoff turned up on the eve of poll outside Richmond Station to urge Labour supporters to vote tactically to defeat Zac. Whether the ‘alliance’ will hold for a general election remains to be seen, but talk of this arrangement has been partly necessitated by the collapse of Labour as a credible alternative government.
This was played out in Richmond too. Labour’s candidate, the journalist Christian Wolmar, has lost his deposit, his margin over Howling Laud Hope of the Monster Raving Loony Party smaller than Olney’s over Goldsmith. Whilst Richmond Park would never be a seat that Labour would target, for their candidate to win less votes than it has local party members is a damning indictment of the current leadership.
A rosier outlook for Christmas
Many people have commented that 2016 has been a bad year for democracy. As Liberals we should argue otherwise. Certainly the establishment has taken a kicking, but this is not without cause. The challenge is how to respond – with positivity and inclusiveness or rancour and division.
For Liberal Democrats and others with a similar outlook, the hope will be that the mince pies will not now taste quite so bitter this Christmas – and the positive messages of the season will not seem so at odds with the direction of travel in global affairs.