In a year of waking up to so much bad news, today has finally brought some cheer to 2016 with the news that Sarah Olney has defeated Zac Goldsmith to become the new Liberal Democrat MP for Richmond Park. Congratulations to her and the team who delivered this result – yes, it was a winnable by-election, but it still had to be won, and that takes a lot of effort from a lot of people to achieve.
The #LibDemFightback takes a big step forward
This is a great result for the party – the first by-election gain since Dunfermline and West Fife over a decade ago – and a continuation of the trend from local council by-elections of big swings from Conservative to Liberal Democrat, especially in areas that voted Remain in June. It’ll give a massive boost to campaigners across the country, and will likely result in more media coverage and attention. It may even prove to be one of those by-elections that helps to kickstart a rise in the opinion polls as a result of the new focus and coverage. The result should give Tim Farron and the party a bigger platform, now it’s up them to use it.
Progressive alliances can work
Richmond Park offered us a sight not seen since the 80s: multiple party leaders campaigning for a single candidate. The decisions by the Greens and WEP to not stand candidates in favour of endorsing Sarah Olney were as welcome as they were unexpected, and the narrowness of the result (Olney’s majority is smaller than the Green vote in 2015) means they were very likely a critical factor. I’ve said before here that we need to find ways to work together, and this bold step will hopefully lead to a whole lot more. Caroline Lucas and Jon Bartley deserve a lot of praise for making this happen, and for facing down those in their party who were opposed to it. Hopefully, this is the start of something between the parties, not just a one-off.
The question of working together could be a key issue across a lot of parties over the next few months, and might prompt some interesting divisions and new alliances. We’ve seen Scottish politics shift massively over the last few years as independence and unionism become the two key poles of political competition, might the rest of the UK now follow suit and realign around pro-European and pro-Brexit poles? When a Tory MP is cheering on a Lib Dem by-election victory, the tectonic plates of British politics might just be shifting a little bit more.
Labour losing their deposit: all of this has happened before and will happen again
Labour’s vote share fell from double figures to just 3.7% and they lost their deposit. Surely, this must mean they’re going to be wiped out at the next election? Maybe, except exactly the same thing (right down to the 3.7%) happened in the 2000 Romsey by-election, and they did OK in the 2001 election, as I recall. They also slumped lower than that when the Lib Dems gained Newbury and Christchurch at by-elections, which didn’t harm Blair too much in 1997.
Yes, the circumstances are different, but this feels more like a good old fashioned tactical squeeze of the Labour vote rather than some Corbyn-related calamity. Anecdotal evidence from people campaigning in Richmond Park was reporting a big anti-Goldsmith switch from Labour voters, eager to punish him for his nasty campaign against Sadiq Khan in May. There’s not really much good news for Labour in this by-election, but the bad news isn’t as bad as some will make it out to be.