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Was the Richmond Park by-election really a setback for Brexit?

Was it really Brexit which swung Richmond Park to the Lib Dems?

Zac Goldsmith, campaigning in 2008, by Busillis, Wikimedia Commons.

Zac Goldsmith’s billionaire father, Sir James Goldsmith, tried to upset the 1997 general election with his personally-financed Referendum Party, whose objective was to force a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. The campaign failed, Sir James himself winning a negligible number of votes in Putney (where I live); two months later, he died of pancreatic cancer.

Zac – rich, good-looking, glamorous – was quickly seen as a potential star by Tory chieftains once he decided that his credentials as an environmentalist could co-exist with a mainstream political career. Richmond Park is right next door to Putney, having been re-shaped as a constituency in 1997, with the new boundaries seen as more favourable to the Liberal Democrats than the old Richmond and Barnes seat held by Jeremy Hanley. Despite a turnout of nearly 80%, Hanley lost to Jenny Tonge by a margin of 5.2%.

Four years later, she held the seat against a new candidate, almost doubling her percentage lead to 10.1%. When Tonge was replaced by Susan Kramer as the Lib Dem candidate in 2005, the seat was retained, but by a margin of just 7.1%.

In those three elections, the average Lib Dem vote was 24,282 (46.4%), against a Tory average of 20,400 (38.9%). Enter Zac, in 2010: the LibDems scored their highest ever vote – 25,370 – but the Tory vote soared to 29,461, giving Goldsmith a lead of nearly 7%, having captured 49.7% of the votes cast. The Labour share of the vote continued its steady decline, from 12.6% in 1997 to 5% in 2010.

                                    ***********************

1997 result              (turnout 79.5%)

LibDem                     25,353          44.7%

Conservative            22,422         39.5%

Labour                         7,172           8.3%

Referendum               1,467            2.6%

Others                            523            1.0%

                                    ***********************

2001 result                (turnout 67.6%)

LibDem                      23,444          47.7%

Conservative              18,480          37.6%

Labour                           5,541          11.3%

Green                            1,223             2.5%

UKIP                                  348             0.7%

Other                                115             0.2

                                    **********************

2005 result                 (turnout 72.8%)

LibDem                        24,011           46.7%

Conservative              20,280           39.5%

Labour                           4,769              8.3%

Green                            1,379              2.7%

UKIP                                  458              0.9%

Others                              478               0.9%

                                    **********************        

2010 result               (turnout 76.9%)

Conservative              29,461           49.7%

LibDem                        25,370           42.8%

Labour                           2,979              5.0%

UKIP                                669                1.1%

Green                             572                 1.0%

Others                            217                 0.3%

                                    ***********************           

Then came 2015, with the slaughter of Lib Dems across the nation: their Richmond Park candidate did not even win 20% of votes cast, the Labour share, by default, jumped to 12%, and Goldsmith was supported by 34,404 voters – a remarkable (but surely not repeatable) 58% share.

2015 result                 (turnout 76.6%)

Conservative              34,404           58.2%

LibDem                        11,389           19.3%

Labour                           7,296            12.3%

Green                            3,548              6.0%

UKIP                               2,464              4.2%

                                    ***********************

So how was that stunning result overturned so decisively just 18 months later, with the Liberal Democrats more than doubling their share of the vote? The proximity to the June referendum and the high profile the Lib Dems had maintained since June in opposing Leave (and especially the idea of a “hard Brexit”) certainly invited the media to view the outcome through the Brexit prism. LibDem leader Tim Farron, and his Richmond Park victor, Sarah Olney both claimed the result as a rejection of Brexit, and in particular a hard Brexit, which would see the UK leaving the single market, the customs union, the European Court of Justice and free movement of labour.

Now, the Lib Dems had hundreds of volunteers working in the constituency in the weeks before polling day, and perhaps they spoke to their thousands of supporters before reaching this conclusion. But all the evidence strongly suggests they cannot be right.

In June, over 35,000 electors in Richmond Park ticked the Remain box on the referendum ballot paper, compared with some 15,000 who opted for Leave. Yet on December 1st, the combined vote of the Remain candidates was only 22,000, while the Leave candidates mustered nearly 19,000 votes. A ratio of 54:46 is far worse than the 73:27 by which Remain outscored Leave in June. If Brexit was indeed the key factor in Richmond Park, the result suggests a massive movement towards Leave in the six months since June – a shift of 20%, giving Leave an overwhelming current majority of 72:28, rather than June’s 52:48. That is simply not credible.

So what actually happened? My reading is that a combination of an hubristic sense of entitlement and a mild swing back to the Lib Dems since May 2015 settled Goldsmith’s hash. He had foolishly made a pledge to resign as a Conservative MP if his government approved the long-standing recommendation from the Inquiry chaired by Howard Davies to allow Heathrow to build a third runway. Even more foolishly, he then acted on that pledge, ignoring his party’s fragile majority in the Commons, and the fact that no other West London MP opposed to the third runway had given such a pointless undertaking.

The absurdity of Goldsmith’s decision was exposed as soon as the list of candidates for the by-election revealed that they were all opposed to a third runway: so voting for him would make no difference on that score. Moreover, even though the Conservatives embarked on a “damage control” exercise, by not fielding a candidate of their own (and so risking a split amongst their supporters which would allow any LibDem victor to claim to have beaten the government, rather than a vain Don Quixote), it was evident that the Tories were on a lose/lose trajectory. As an “independent”, Goldsmith was denied access to the local party’s valuable database, and many party workers who had supported him in 2015 sat on their hands this time around. Disloyalty is a cardinal sin amongst Tories.

Moreover, Goldsmith had form. He had accepted the invitation from the London Conservatives to stand as their successor to Boris Johnson in the mayoralty contest just seven months earlier, which might have forced the Richmond Park Tories to find a new candidate, and face an unwanted opportunity for the LibDems to claw back local ground after the 2015 debacle. As it was, his lacklustre – and arguably illiberal – campaign left him trailing 13 percentage points behind Labour’s Sadiq Khan, eliminating the need for a by-election then: so to impose one now, so unnecessarily, proved a real irritant, not just for party workers, but for many thousands who had previously voted for Goldsmith.

Those canvassing for Goldsmith knew his – and their – fate well before polling day. 16,000 of the 34,000 who had voted for him last May failed to do so this December: a resounding expression of either disapproval or indifference. At the same time, the Lib Dems – able in a by-election to concentrate resources on a single seat in a way that was impossible in a general election – staged a predictable bounce back from the dismal result in 2015: very creditable for such an inexperienced candidate. Even so, and despite almost eliminating Labour, Sarah Olney’s total of 20,510 votes was well below the 24,282 that the Lib Dems averaged in 1997, 2001 and 2005, even if her share of the vote was slightly higher than in those three contests.

2016 result                 (turnout 53.4%)

LibDem                        20,510         49.7%

Independent              18,638          45.1%

Labour                            1,515            3.7%

Pro-Leave Ind                  173            0.4%

Others                               447            1.1%

                                    ***************************

Most local observers expect that a new Conservative candidate at the next general election will dislodge Ms Olney. She, at least, can expect to join her Lib Dem predecessors as MP for Richmond Park in the House of Lords (though Jenny Tonge has now been ousted from the Lib Dems due to allegations of anti-Semitism while speaking up for Palestinian rights).

Goldsmith, rightly, can expect no such preferment. His hubris and his resultant humiliation may have been on a minor scale compared to his father, nearly 20 years ago, but his career is surely over. And we should all resist trying to impose a “Brexit dimension” on that result, whenever it occurs, just as we should regard with strong scepticism the Lib Dem claim in December that their victory in Richmond Park represented some kind of rejection of Brexit. Voters, not candidates, decide what elections are about.

About the author

David Elstein is Chairman of openDemocracy's Board. He is also Chairman of the Broadcasting Policy Group. 


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