It seems that Zac Goldsmith’s 2016 vanity project is finally over, leaving myself and doubtless thousands of others with an overdose of schadenfreude. As the Conservative candidate, he failed to retain the London Mayoralty after a filthy dog whistle campaign during which Goldsmith went from being a shameless scaremongering schemer to an embarrassing uber-posh clown who couldn’t even hold a pint glass. Anyways, after spending a few months in recovery, here he was again, triggering a by-election in protest to the government’s plans for Heathrow expansion.
#BackZac then tried to pitch his re-election as a protest against said government… Even though he didn’t face an opposing Conservative candidate, had Conservative MPs, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, campaign for him, and even though every other major candidate also opposed a third runway at Heathrow. I suppose Goldsmith had hoped that his name recognition and track record as a decent local MP would be enough to hold on to a seat where he had a 23,000 majority. However, turns out the residents of Richmond thought Brexit, of which Goldsmith is a supporter, was a slightly more important issue. Needless to say, the Liberal Democrats are overflowing with pride, but aside from bashing Zac Goldsmith, there are perhaps more worthwhile takeaways from this by-election.
First of all, let’s dispell some of the unwarranted excitement. This result is not exactly the spectacular turnaround the Liberal Democrats need to shift their ailing fortunes. Let us not forget that Richmond Park was a former Lib Dem seat with a Pro-Brexit MP that voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union. In other words, if the Lib Dems failed to win here, they might as well have given up and disbanded. Instead, they won the seat by a narrow margin: but that only shows that the party still has some life left in it. It is not sufficient evidence to suggest a nationwide comeback. Indeed, the latest national polls still have the party stuck at around the same share of the vote as they received in 2015.
Two more things:
- The Richmond result was only achieved after the Lib Dems poured money, people (including their most high profile figures), and resources into the seat (which they still only won narrowly). There is absolutely no chance in hell that they’ll be able to replicate such an operation nationally in the event of a general election.
- By-elections almost always feature large swings against the government, partly as a result of lower voter turnout. Despite what you may hear from the dozens of pundits who are calling this a “shock” victory, the Richmond result is only part of a predictable electoral trend.
Neither is the Richmond Park result likely to drastically (or at all) effect Theresa May’s Brexit strategy. The Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, made a bold claim today that 20,000 votes in a wealthy South London constituency amounts to a fierce battle cry against hard Brexit, however, it should again be pointed out that Richmond Park voted overwhelmingly to remain, meaning nothing has necessarily changed on a national level. Now, it is true that the dozens of Conservative MPs currently representing former Lib Dem seats might be worried by this result. However, due to the completely shambolic state of Labour at the moment, this does not present as strong of a threat in a general election as would otherwise be the case. Sure, let’s be optimistic and say the Lib Dems manage to flip back 20-30 seats, however, that won’t matter if the Tories gain another 50 from Labour.
Finally, hurrah for tactical voting! Despite objections from several of its MPs, Labour made the unfortunate decision to stand a candidate against Goldsmith and the Lib Dems. This created a massive problem since Labour had nowhere near enough support in Richmond to ever hope of winning the seat (trust me, I’ve canvassed for them there once), but enough to prevent Goldsmith from losing it. The Lib Dem’s Sarah Olney only won by 2,000 votes, while Labour pulled in 7,000 at the last general election. Fortunately, most Labour voters realised the nature of this two horse race and made sure to unseat the Conservative. Hats off to them.
Now, wouldn’t it be great if we actually had an electoral system that didn’t require people to engage in tactical voting? Unfortunately, the only way we can realistically achieve electoral reform is from a position of power, and whether we like it or not, we will have to use first past the post to get there. As such, the Richmond result might have actually provided us with a great case study of the so-called “progressive alliance” in action. After all, the Greens (who got 3,500 votes in 2015) decided to live up to their “greater good” slogan and didn’t stand a candidate. Hats off to them as well.
And farewell Zac, you won’t be missed.