By-elections are usually only of interest to political commentators and obsessives, but this morning’s news that Zac Goldsmith has lost his seat to the Liberal Democrats feels particularly dramatic. This has been made all the more newsworthy by the fact the Lib Dem candidate, Sarah Olney, has been successful in running an anti-Brexit campaign to defeat the pro-Brexit sitting MP. Goldsmith, who resigned as a Conservative and who fought the by-election as an independent, attempted to frame the vote as a ‘referendum’ on Heathrow expansion. He found himself, however, unable to defend his 23,000 majority against a well organised and tenacious Lib Dem by-election machine, who managed to turn the by-election into a de facto vote on the UK’s exit from the EU, to ensure a stunning victory.
There is already plenty of comment and debate about the wider significance of this result. My five key ‘takes’ are as follows:
- The result will not have any impact on the triggering of Article 50: With the High Court ruling last month, the Government faces a number of obstacles before it begins the formal process of leaving the EU and, most likely, will be required to pass legislation through both houses of Parliament. There will be a number of challenges in securing this legislation before the Prime Minister’s deadline of March for triggering Article 50 – not least that she does not have a particularly large majority in the House of Commons. While this by-election result does further reduce that working majority, it is not, however, significant enough to have any material impact on the Government’s approach. In fact, we would expect the Prime Minister to reaffirm her commitment to begin formal proceedings by March.
- This result, in itself, does not represent any wider shift in opinion on Brexit across the UK: While the result will be a source of cheer for ‘the 48 per cent’, it is difficult to conclude that this reflects any wider shift of feeling against Brexit across the country. Richmond Park is one of the most pro-remain seats in the country (70 per cent of voters wanted to remain in the EU), it is also one of the most affluent and well educated. In many respects, it is hardly surprising that their voters wanted to choose a pro-remain MP to represent them.
- It shows the Lib Dem fightback is real: After a tough few years, this morning’s result is extremely welcome news for the Liberal Democrats and shows that their much vaunted ‘fightback’ has considerable substance. While the Party’s national poll ratings remain in single figures, they have over the past few months demonstrated successful victories, on a small scale, in local council by-elections. This result is the biggest yet and the clearest demonstration that the Party is back as an electoral force and also proudly positioning itself as the Party for the Remainers. It may also show that some of the antipathy towards the Lib Dems following their time in Coalition Government may be fading (and perhaps benefiting from the re-emergence of tactical voting from Labour supporters). It is worth noting that this result is also reminiscent of previous by-election victories (eg Newbury and Brent East), where they fought on key issues with considerable enthusiasm and organisation to defeat an incumbent. In many respects, this result could signify that the Liberal Democrats are returning to their pre-Coalition position in British politics.
- This result may dampen enthusiasm for an early election: There have been a number of Conservatives who have been calling on the Prime Minister to hold a snap election, to take advantage of the Party’s substantial lead in the polls and to give Theresa May a fresh mandate to negotiate the UK’s exit from the EU. This by-election result, however, does highlight the considerable risks in taking such an approach anytime soon. If anything, it has demonstrated that the current strength of feeling over Brexit has the potential to trump any other political issue of the day (even something as contentious as Heathrow expansion) which reflects a considerable instability and volatility in UK-wide politics. This does not necessarily mean that Conservatives are suddenly worried about losing a large number of seats to the Liberal Democrats, but does highlight that a 2017 snap general election could, in effect, become a damaging and divisive rerun of this year’s referendum where the trenchant views on both sides – Remain and Leave – could pose a number of threats to the Party and even cause local and national-level splits, leading to unknown constituency-level outcomes.
- The Labour Party still looks lost: The Labour Party were never in the running in Richmond Park and their low share of the vote was to be expected in a two-way fight between Goldsmith and the Lib Dems. Moreover, there appears to be clear evidence of tactical voting among Labour supporters, who voted Lib Dem, in part, due to a high degree of antipathy towards Zac Goldsmith (who was much criticised for his controversial mayoral campaign earlier this year). That said, the sight of a Labour Party candidate losing his deposit in a by-election is clearly not good. In fact, the Richmond Park Labour Party now has more CLP members than voters. Perhaps more worryingly, is that Labour did not seem to have a clear message on the key issue of the campaign. This reflects the fact that Labour lacks a coherent position on several aspects of the UK’s exit from the EU – with key Party figures, including Corbyn, John McDonnell, Keir Starmer and Tom Watson all providing different – and sometimes contradictory – messages. This may be a sign of things to come – in future votes, Labour’s confusing and ambivalent position on Brexit may leave them outflanked and exposed by both sides. An interesting parallel to this, perhaps, is in Scotland where Labour’s relatively ambivalent position on independence has seen them swept away by the SNP, but also outflanked by more strident Conservative Unionists led by the charismatic Ruth Davidson – leading to a seemingly irreversible decline in the Party’s support. Labour will need to ensure that they do not suffer a similar fate south of the Border.