Labour should be worried about the Richmond Park result, not the Tories.

Labour should be worried about the Richmond Park result, not the Tories.

The Unexpected Twist in Richmond Park By-Election


In a year filled with disappointments for internationalists in Britain and abroad, there was a glimmer of relief in the recent Richmond Park by-election. The Liberal Democrats strategically positioned the election as an opportunity for voters to voice their skepticism about Brexit, and it paid off. Sarah Olney emerged victorious, increasing the Lib Dems’ vote-share by a staggering 30.4 points.

The campaign against her opponent, Zac Goldsmith, cunningly covered the issue of expanding Heathrow Airport’s third runway, which the greenish Lib Dems were also opposed to. By focusing on this issue and framing the election as a choice about Europe, Goldsmith’s opponents effectively undermined his campaign.

At first glance, it may seem that the Conservatives took the biggest hit in this by-election. As I mentioned in my previous column, the Liberal Democrats have been making significant strides in prosperous yet liberal parts of the country that voted Conservative in the last election but supported Remain in the Brexit referendum. This trend began with a series of victories in council by-elections and continued with a strong showing in the race to replace David Cameron as the MP for Witney. Richmond Park, a posh metropolitan area where 75% of voters backed staying in the EU, provided the perfect test for this trend. Our chart, illustrating the change in the Lib Dem vote-share in Tory areas that supported Remain, accurately predicted the election result within a couple of points.

This outcome may cause anxiety among some Conservative MPs. After all, it was the surge of victories in Lib Dem seats that gave the party its majority last year. However, it’s crucial to remember that this Lib Dem support is soft. In many of these areas, voters switched allegiances at the last minute, influenced by Tory warnings about the Scottish National Party’s potential influence in a Labour government. With particular focus on Remain-stronghold areas like Bath, Cheltenham, Kingston & Surbiton, and Twickenham, the Liberal Democrats now pose a renewed threat to the Conservatives.

But Conservatives should not hit the panic button just yet. Richmond Park’s strong support for Remain is an anomaly. As an independent candidate (although the Tories did not field a candidate against him), Mr. Goldsmith did not benefit from a party machine. Additionally, being a single by-election, the Lib Dems could concentrate their limited resources on Richmond Park, leaving their opponents without the opportunity to attack their national leadership. The next general election will be different. Regardless of how Brexit unfolds by 2020, the inevitable Conservative “vote Farron, get Corbyn” fear-mongering campaign will make last year’s “vote Clegg, get Miliband and Salmond” onslaught appear tame.

The true message from the Richmond Park by-election lies in Labour’s defeat. The party obtained only 3.7% of votes, down from 12.3% last year, and even lost their deposit. Interestingly, Labour’s vote count was fewer than its claimed membership in the seat. This result may be a reflection of tactical voting, with left-wing voters supporting Olney. However, it also highlights Labour’s lackluster stance on Europe and its general unease.

This outcome is part of a larger structural shift. Three or four years ago, with UKIP’s rise and the Lib Dems in power with the Tories, there were discussions about the fragmentation of the right-wing in British politics. However, that period now seems to have passed. The 2015 election saw the Conservatives absorb the Lib Dems’ centrist flank. The Brexit vote and Theresa May’s nationalist approach have attracted some Tory defectors back to UKIP, resulting in the party consistently polling above 40%.

Today, the fragmentation is occurring predominantly on the left. Under its new leader, Paul Nuttall, UKIP has become a significant problem for Labour, especially in post-industrial areas that traditionally voted for Labour but supported Brexit. In Scotland, Labour support has been usurped by the SNP. The latest ICM poll even shows the Conservatives, of all parties, with twice the vote share of Labour, 22% to 11%. The Liberal Democrats are also chipping away at Labour’s control over Remain-voting progressive individuals in urban and university towns like Cambridge, Manchester Withington, and Cardiff Central. Furthermore, internal factions within the Labour party, ranging from moderates to Corbynites, contribute to the ongoing fragmentation.

Given this fragmentation, an open-minded Labour Party should consider adopting a more federal approach to politics. The formation of alliances, electoral pacts, and semi-detached regional branches could enable the left-of-center parties to build a coalition capable of winning power under the first-past-the-post electoral system. Cross-party initiatives like Paddy Ashdown’s “More United,” which rallied support for Olney in Richmond, are already emerging. However, only a few individuals within Labour exhibit an appetite for such pluralism. Take, for example, the typical tweet from a moderate MP on the night of the election: “Off to bed, hope to wake to news of Labour victory in #RichmondPark. If not, really don’t care who wins.”

This monumental conundrum, navigating multiple battles on different fronts, defending both a metropolitan and nativist flank, resisting tribalistic instincts, may prove to be beyond the abilities of even a charismatic, persuasive Labour leader. Yet, in the hands of Jeremy Corbyn, whose electoral toxicity hasn’t been fully realized yet, it could reshape the political landscape for decades to come. Imagine a scenario where the Lib Dems, Labour, and UKIP all consistently poll at around 15-20%, with the SNP dominating in Scotland, and the Conservatives taking the remaining share of votes. Under the first-past-the-post system, this would be a recipe for a series of Conservative landslides. Predictions during these volatile times are precarious, and a chaotic, disorderly Brexit (as suggested by Lord Kerr, a former diplomat) could reshape the landscape in unimaginable ways. Therefore, for those who believe that the result in Richmond Park was a straightforward blow to the Tories, it’s time to think again.