My (many) Liberal Democrat friends are ecstatic. The party has just won the parliamentary by-election in Richmond Park, overturning a massive majority from the sitting MP, Zac Goldsmith. As the dust slowly settles, what is there to learn about the state of British politics?
Richmond Park is quite close to where I live. I have been visiting it since the 1980s, helping out the local Liberals and then Liberal Democrats, including a few visits this time. It consists of the suburb of Richmond, together with a slice of Kingston, near Richmond Park, nearly up to Kingston town centre, and including the local hospital. The seat, and its predecessors, has been the scene of epic battles between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. After a series of close results, the Lib Dems won it in the Tory collapse of 1997, with the rather eccentric Jenny Tonge as their MP (she kept testing the boundaries of what respectable politicians it could say about the Israel-Palestine conflict, transgressing on occasion – she has now left the party). She held the seat in 2001, but then stepped down. In the high water mark election of 2005 for the Lib Dems, which gave the party the illusion that seats that could be readily handed on from one candidate to another, the Lib Dems held the seat with Susan Kramer.
But in 2010 Zac Goldsmith, a local boy and inheritor of a substantial fortune, took the seat back for the Conservatives. He held it with a crushing majority (with 58% of the vote) in the Lib Dem meltdown of 2015, though the Lib Dem candidate, Robin Meltzer, managed to hang on to second place with 18% – a feat that could by no means be taken for granted. Many Lib Dem activists sighed and suggested that the influx of rich voters meant that the seat was gone for good.
But Mr Goldsmith was an independent minded MP, who had campaigned hard against the expansion of nearby Heathrow airport – which blights an area that otherwise offers sites of outstanding beauty. This is necessary for anybody that aspires to be an MP there. When the Conservative government under the new prime minister, Theresa May, finally opted to expand the airport, Mr Goldsmith fulfilled a campaign promise by resigning and standing as an independent. But the Conservatives did not put up a candidate against him, undermining his claim of independence.
Notwithstanding the mountain that the Lib Dems had to climb, expectations on the party were high. They had surged in the Witney by election, and a similar surge might take the seat for them. The Lib Dems had been doing well in local by elections (as well as Witney) over the summer, though their national poll rating remained dismal. To prove that that this improved electoral performance had substance, many commentators suggested that it was an election they had to win. All Liberal and Liberal Democrat revivals since 1945 had been led by spectacular parliamentary by election wins. If not here, where was that boost going to come from?
But Mr Goldsmith had clout on the issue that triggered the election: Heathrow. The Lib Dems had campaigned just as hard on the issue, and the government’s decision had proved the party’s contention that the best way to prevent the government from pressing ahead was for a strong Lib Dem party in coalition. Five years of coalition had held off the considerable political pressure for expansion. (Though Lib Dems might want to ask themselves why the party showed backbone on Heathrow, but not student fees). Barely a year of even a small Conservative majority and the resistance to expansion folded. But that’s a subtle argument, and the Lib Dems needed something bigger to shift enough votes their way. And so they campaigned on Brexit. Mr Goldsmith is a prominent supporter of hard Brexit, while the constituency voted 69% to remain in the EU. That did the trick.
What does this mean? Let’s start with the red herrings. First it says nothing about the state of play in Britain’s battle over Brexit. One of the strongest Remain constituencies voted for an anti Brexit MP. That does not change the calculations for a large majority of MPs, whose constituents voted to leave. What would change the nature of the debate is a large number of Brexit voters changing their mind. With 45% of the electorate still voting for Mr Goldsmith, there was no sign of that.
A second red herring is that the collapse of the Labour vote (they lost their deposit, polling less than their party’s membership in the constituency). This is what happens in this sort of by election, and says nothing about the party’s chances in a future general election. A resurgent Lib Dem party could be a worry, but Labour still holds the aces, and this should not be a problem for a half-way competent leadership. Indeed if the Lib Dems draw off Remain voters from the Tories, it could help Labour. That Labour voters can be persuaded to vote Lib Dem tactically does not hurt Labour at all. The reversal of this trend in 2015 was a disaster for Labour.
The first lesson I would draw is that the Lib Dems have nailed their colours to the pro-EU mast. That seems to cover about a quarter of the electorate, a big enough pool for the party to fish in in its current state. It answers the question “what is the point of the Lib Dems?”, as the Tories adopt Brexit as their own, and Labour collapse into muddle. Those Lib Dems, like me, who are inching towards some form of reconciliation will have to bite their tongues. We need to understand that this is the best way of that the party can demonstrate its open, liberal values and present itself as a bastion against the rise of nativism and intolerance. It does not quite answer the question of whether the party is going for a core vote strategy, though. If the party gets the by election bug they will be tempted to water the message down in pro Brexit constituencies.
The next lesson is that organisation matters in British politics, and that the Lib Dems still have it. It was possible to feel sorry for the Zac supporters, overwhelmed by a blitz of Lib Dem literature and canvassing, while not having adequate data themselves. Many of them felt shell-shocked, and the graceless Mr Goldsmith whinged about being crushed by a machine. This delighted Lib Dem activists. Having been written off in 2015, after being crushed by a ruthless Tory machine, to be accused of being a ruthless machine themselves is a compliment indeed. The party pulled together, mobilising old members and new, in an optimistic, cheerful campaign, led by their candidate, Sarah Olney, who only joined the party in 2015. Both Labour and the Conservatives, with their bigger and better party machines, will take note, and will not be too upset. Breakaway parties, such as some Labour members were contemplating earlier in the year, look as hopeless an enterprise as ever. Lesser parties, including the Greens and Ukip, are presented with a big challenge.
A further point of interest comes from the fact that Ukip and the Greens did not put up candidates, and instead deferred to Mr Goldsmith and the Lib Dems respectively. The former reflects Ukip’s current turmoil, and the party is weak locally – it has created no debt on the Conservatives. The Greens’ move is more significant. They too were in a weak position, and faced being crushed by the Lib Dem juggernaut, as Labour were. By pulling out they made a virtue out of this weakness and will have softened the attitude of Lib Dems to do electoral deals with party in future, as part of a “progressive alliance”. Under Britain’s first past the post electoral system this kind of dealing is a logical response that may well take hold. Labour came under quite a bit of pressure from many of its members to do the same. There was never much chance of this from the still very tribal Labour party with its weak leadership – and Lib Dems will be relieved. They do not want to be under any kind of obligation to Labour under its current leadership.
What we don’t yet know about this election is whether it will boost the Lib Dems national standing amongst the public. The media is starting to take the party more seriously, but it will be some time before we have enough polling evidence to tell. What is clear is that the party is in fighting form, and has a much greater political weight. That is good news for supporters of liberal values, for which it is the clearest upholder on the British political scene. If Labour and the Conservatives can take their reluctant liberal supporters less for granted as they face the challenge of the populists, it will make all those efforts by the party’s volunteers worthwhile.