Sunday, 11 December 2016

The Sleaford and North Hykeham By-Election

The Sleaford and North Hykeham By-Election

I ended my previous post the subject of which was the Richmond Park By Election with these words;

'Another thing that is untested is whether the reverse also applies, and whether Leave voters would also switch traditional party allegiances to support a Leave candidate. We may learn more about that from the Sleaford & North Hykeham By Election which shall be the subject of my next post.'


In terms of the Remain/Leave paradigm Sleaford and North Hykeham is a different type of seat from Richmond Park. The area voted overwhelmingly Leave, and the outgoing MP Stephen Phillips was also a Leave supporter, and he was not standing again to seek re-election.  Phillips resigned for a reason that surprised many commentators in that he objected to what he saw as the Government's attempt to bypass the rule of law by appealing to the Supreme Court against the High Court's ruling that the triggering of Article 50 be a matter for Parliament rather than the Executive alone.  He was also reported as saying that the Conservative Party had become UKIP-lite and he could no longer call himself a Conservative. Phillips was, and indeed is, a barrister, and it is a well known maxim that a lawyer in Parliament is a lawyer first and a Parliamentarian second.  It's a little surprising that none of his fellow lawyers have yet followed his path out of Parliament given the written assaults by the press on the independent judiciary the government have let pass without official objection.

Sleaford and North Hykeham is a safe Conservative constituency, returning only Conservatives MPs since its creation. The majority in 2015 was 24,000 with Labour in second place. UKIP had failed to make the sort of impact in this part of Lincolnshire they had managed in some others. Another regular feature in Lincolnshire politics is the presence of The Lincolnshire Independents, who hold seats on the county council and who came 4th in the constituency, ahead of UKIP in 2010.

Election Line-up

The Greens again decided not to stand in the By Election, but unlike in Richmond Park where they did so in the name of a Progressive Alliance, here they decided to back Sarah Stock, an Independent standing on a platform of defending Lincolnshire Health Services. They called on Labour to follow suit, without success.

This all meant that the public perception was that is was extremely unlikely that the seat would change hands, which again is different from Richmond Park where it was a distinct possibility from the off.

We can however examine the questions raised by the Richmond Park result and which I addressed in my earlier post, namely;

1. Are Conservative and Labour Remainers prepared to vote for a candidate from another party with a greater chance of success if that candidate is clearly for Remaining in the EU and says they will vote accordingly?

2. Are LibDem voters prepared to do the same?

3. Are Leave voters prepared to do likewise in order to ensure a pro-Leave candidate wins?

The Conservatives and UKIP field Leave candidates. The labour candidate said he had voted Remain but was now in favour of accepting 'the majority verdict'. The Liberal Democrat was pro-Remain. Leavers therefore had three parties they could vote for, and remainers one.

Election Result.

Conservatives 17,570 53.5 -2.7
UKIP 4,426 13.5 -2.2
Liberal Democrats 3,606 11.0 +5.3
Labour 3,363 10.2 -7.1
Lincolnshire Independents 2,892 8.8 +3.1
Independents 462 1.4 +1.4

The Conservatives successfully held the seat but due to a low turnout their actual number of votes halved.

UKIP moved from third place in 2015 to second in the By Election, but their share of the vote fell.  This is significant because with the turnout dropping from 70% in 2015 to 37% accepted wisdom would decree that the most motivated would vote in higher numbers and with membership of the EU being such a prominent issue UKIP voters should have been easily motivated. In straight number terms the vote was less than half of what it had been in 2015.

Labour likewise dropped both in terms of votes cast and percentage share.  Their woes continue.

In contrast, the LibDems, the only overtly pro-Remain party in the contest, saw not only their share of the vote rise but their vote in actual numbers rise, despite the reduced turnout. They moved from fourth in 2015 to third place.


1. The LibDem vote was increased by Remain voters witching their usual party allegiance.
2. This was in part suppressed by the perceived safeness of the seat.
3. UKIP are failing to capitalise on their success in the referendum.
4. There is now a noticeable re-alignment of politics along Remain/Leave lines.
5. This alignment is more significant in seats where a Remainer victory is a real possibility.
6. Leavers have not yet had the need to organise themselves around a single candidate to oppose either a sitting Remainer or to defend a Remain challenge in a pro-Leave area.
7. LibDem voters have not yet had either a need nor an opportunity to witch their allegiance to support a Remain candidate.

The next post will try to assess exactly where we are now in relation to Brexit post-referendum.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

The Richmond Park By Election

The Richmond Park By Election.

My interest in Richmond Park? I'm local, just across the border on the wrong side of the tracks (for participation in the by election), in Kingston & Surbiton and I've worked in Richmond, and lived in and politically campaigned in some of the Kingston parts of the Richmond Park seat. My 5 children were also born in the constituency at Kingston hospital. I know the politics of the area beyond the numbers.

Richmond Park wasn't the first Parliamentary By Election since the referendum, but it was the first one in which the seat had changed hands in recent years.


The Parliamentary Constituency of Richmond Park was created by the boundary changes that were implemented before the 1997 General Election. It comprised the whole of the previously existing constituency of Richmond & Barnes, which was the part of Richmond Borough south of the Thames, and the northern part of the Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames. Richmond is the only London Borough that crosses the Thames. The constituency of Kingston-upon-Thames was abolished with its southern parts moving to the new constituency of Kingston & Surbiton and it's northern parts forming part of Richmond Park. The boundary between the two constituencies is best seen if you take a suburban loop train out of Waterloo and if you are facing direction of travel the part of your journey from before New Malden Station, through Norbiton, and Kingston until you reach the river takes you alone the boundary with Kingston & Surbiton on your left and Richmond Park on your right.

In the 1997 General Election both Constituencies were won by the Liberal Democrats when they won a string of seats in SW London stretching from Twickenham to Carshalton. The Conservatives re-took Richmond Park in 2010, and subsequently Kingston & Surbiton in 2015 when the LibDem vote collapsed.

Heathrow Airport Expansion

There have been plans to extend Heathrow Airport by building a third runway for at least the last 40 years.  It is supposed to be necessary to meet alleged demand for air travel. I remain unconvinced. The political significance is that all politicians with constituencies, or those who aspire to represent constituencies, that would be adversely affected have consistently opposed the building of the third runaway. It is possibly the only issue that unites John McDonnell, whose constituency of Hayes & Harlington includes Heathrow, Boris Johnson, Zac Goldsmith and, at one time at least, Theresa May.

In 2015 Goldsmith had promised his constituents that he would continue to oppose the third runway and that if the government's recommendation for increase air capacity, expected in 2016,  was to expand Heathrow, that he would resign as a Conservative MP and seek re-election as an Independent.

As the date for publication of the government's recommendation approached talk of Goldsmith's promise increased, and he again confirmed his intention to stick to his word.

The EU Referendum

In the meantime of course we had had the disastrous EU referendum and it was widely suspected that the divisions it had created with its 52-48 result had caused a re-alignment of political identities. The question to be answered was this; Do people view themselves politically as aligned to a specific party or do people see themselves primarily as Remainers or Leavers?

Richmond Park would provide an excellent testing ground as over 70% of Richmond Borough had voted for Remain in the EU Referendum, and yet Zac Goldsmith had argued in favour of Leave. In brief a majority in Richmond Park voted Conservative in 2015 and a majority in Richmond Park voted Remain in 2016. It can therefore be concluded that there is a large number of Conservative Remainers in Richmond Park. Would they vote for the Conservative candidate, albeit one calling himself Independent, or would they vote for a pro-Remain candidate?


As it became clearer that a parliamentary By Election was a serious possibility pro-EU campaigners started debating tactics for delivering a pro-Remain victory. I myself made contact with Vote for Europe to see if they could enlist the services of a prominent pro-Remain spokesperson to stand as an Independent. I also contacted the local Liberal Democrats, Labour and Green parties to see if any or preferably all of them would stand aside in favour of such a candidate as they had done in 1997 for Martin Bell in Tatton.

The envisaged scenario at this point was that Goldsmith would stand as an Independent with the Conservatives fielding an official candidate, UKIP would field a candidate and the three of them would scrap over the Leave vote while a single Remain candidate would sweep up the Remain vote and win. This was not to be.

For Labour and The Greens one question had to be answered; Was the proposed 'Remain' candidate opposed to Heathrow Expansion? The policy of both parties locally and for the Greens Nationally as well, was opposition to Heathrow Expansion and they couldn't back a candidate who was not anti-expansion.

The local LibDems replied referring the matter up to someone else and I never heard back from them.

Once the decision was announced that expansion of Heathrow by building a third runway was the preferred option for increasing air capacity, Goldsmith consulted with his local party and promptly resigned, triggering a by election.

It was then things took a strange serious of turns.  Firstly, the Conservatives announced they would not be fielding a candidate.  This had not happened since the Bristol South by election of 1963 which had a unique set of circumstances. Secondly UKIP announced they supported Goldsmith and gave him their backing. He probably didn't want their support, but this had the effect of consolidating the Leave vote behind one candidate. Thirdly, the Liberal Democrats announced they already had a prospective candidate in place, Sarah Olney, who lives in the constituency.

The announcement of the Liberal Democrat candidate put paid to all talk of a Unity Remain candidate and made it inevitable that Labour would also fight the by election.

The Richmond Park Labour Party came under pressure both locally and from some national figures within Labour not to stand a candidate.  They, however, commenced their selection procedure attracting interest from a number of ambitious would-be MPs. In the end they selected Christian Wolmar, a well known rail transport expert and author as the Labour candidate. I was aware of Wolmar's policy background in relation to transport issues without knowing he was a member of the Labour Party. For a by election with the potential to be centred around transport policy Wolmar was a sensible choice.

A number of Independents and other candidates also stood.

The Greens had been approached by a number of organisations like Progress about being part of a Progressive Alliance and the candidate from 2015, Andree Frieze, decided not to stand. The Progressive Alliance idea now has time to take shape in advance of the 2018 London Borough Elections. Frieze was supported in her decision by her party locally and nationally. Caroline Lucas, Green Party Leader came to a public meeting in Richmond which I attended in which she applauded Frieze's decision. Lucas later went on to personally endorse Sarah Olney, the LibDem candidate, which Frieze herself and her party did not do.


For all Heathrow expansion provided the catalyst for the by election, and despite Goldsmith best efforts to make it about his opposition to it, in the end it was not a significant factor in the result for the simple reason that none of the main candidates were in favour of it; all were opposed. The by election became about two things, Goldsmith's record as an MP, and Brexit.

As a local MP Goldsmith had built up a degree of support but earlier in the year he had fought a divisive, racially charged and unsuccessful London Mayoral campaign which had dissipated much of the goodwill constituents felt towards him personally. The Liberal Democrats however seized on the issue of Brexit and used their long standing pro-EU position to their benefit. Christian Wolmar, the Labour candidate, also stated that if elected he would vote against the triggering of Article 50, the legal mechanism for starting the EU Exit procedure which went beyond his party's position at the time.

Despite standing as an 'Independent' Goldsmith was supported in his campaign by many Conservative MPs including Teresa Villiers, Tania Mathias and controvertially Jacob Ress-Mogg who is an outspoken supporter of Heathrow expansion.

The LibDems threw their national resources behind Olney's campaign with activists coming in from all over the country and on at least one occasion from their sister party in Denmark.  This prompted Goldsmith to complain that he was up against a national campaign and for Christian Wolmar to joke that he was surprised there were any trees left in Richmond Park due to the numbers of leaflets the LibDems were distributing.


In the end the LibDems overturned Goldsmith 23,000 majority from just the year before to win by just under 2,000 votes on a 53% turnout. The Labour vote collapsed with Wolmar losing his deposit.


OK, that history may be interesting to political geeks like me but, what can we learn from it?

Firstly, the collapse of the Labour Vote was largely tactical. It needs to be seen in the context of a constituency where before 2015 Labour voters has loaned their votes to the Liberal Democrats.  In 2015 they called in that loan and voted from the heart in opposition to the LibDems forming a coalition Government with the Conservatives, so the 2015 Labour vote was more a true reflection of their support in the constituency.

Secondly, we can conclude that the political landscape is unrecognisable from before the referendum.  People are no longer as politically tribal as they once were. A significant number of people who voted Conservative in 2015 voted LibDem in 2016 on the issue of the UK's membership of the EU. They are prepared to quite clearly vote tactically if they believe it will be effective; and,

Thirdly, the key issue of the day is the UK's membership of the EU.

Remainers may have lost the advisory referendum but they are organising and don't consider the fight to be over, they were just caught with a sucker punch in the first round. Conservative and Labour Remainers are prepared to vote for a candidate from another party with a greater chance of success if that candidate is clearly for Remaining in the EU and says they will vote accordingly. There has not yet been an opportunity to test whether this applies to LibDem voters in a constituency where another party, Labour or Green or even Conservative, would be in a better position to take a seat from a Leaver candidate or from UKIP.

Another thing that is untested is whether the reverse also applies, and whether Leave voters would also switch traditional party allegiances to support a Leave candidate. We may learn more about that from the Sleaford & North Hykeham By Election which shall be the subject of my next post.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Brexit - Part One

The first in what may be a series of posts on Brexit.

So, well then, the EU referendum,  Brexit, what is there left to say about that clusterfuck?

First a confession.  I paid little attention to either of the campaigns at the time. European is part of my identity and I was never going to vote anything but Remain, and overestimated a significant proportion of my countrypersons whom I assumed thought along the same lines, or who would at least understand the benefits of free trade and free movement, even if that only manifested in French lager and Spanish holidays.

It's worth remembering the reason the UK had a referendum on membership of the EU in the first place. A Conservative government with a small majority was elected in 2015 on a committment given by then leader David Cameron on the hoof to hold such a referendum before the end of 2017. The reason for this was, he hoped, to staunch the flow of MPs, activists and voters the Conservative Party was haemorrhaging to the anti-EU UKIP. His plan, as far as I can envisage it was to kill the membership of EU debate by holding a referendum that would confirm the UK's place in the EU and remove UKIP's main argument.  It wouldn't have worked of course, even if the vote had resulting in a Remain majority those who want the UK to leave the EU would have continued to make their false claims and stupid arguments based on a malignant cocktail of nationalism, xenophobia and false nostalgia.

Cameron gambled and lost. He subsequently resigned, not only as PM and leader of his party, but later as an MP. He knew that leaving the EU would most likely destroy the UK's economy and possibly break up the country itself. He just couldn't do it, so he resigned, presuming that his party would elect one of triumphant Leavers to lead it.

What happened next was more farce than tragedy as one Leaver after another started resigning from any position that would enabled them to influence the UK''s progress to Brexit. Nigel Farage, who would never have had any influence anyway, resigned as leader of UKIP. Boris Johnson, the political gadfly former mayor of London announced he wasn't going to stand for the leadership of his party after failing to gain the support of his one time colleague Michael Gove.

Eventually after a process of falling on swords that Shakespeare couldn't have written with a straight face Theresa May emerged as the new Leader of ther Conservative Party and PM. May, who had been Home Secretary under Cameron for 6 years, with a history of political gaffs, had argued on the Remain side of the EU debate. So if Cameron had thought to leave the referendum mess to a Leaver to clear up his plans went unfulfilled.

May then underwent a private metamorphosis and emerged as an arch Brexiteer and pronouncer of meaningless sound bites. Brexit means Brexit we were told, and it would be a success. No one knows what that sentence means as there have never been any published success criteria for Brexit.  Presumably these will be written after the event to show that whatever we get was what we wanted. A bit like when the manager of a team that has just lost 5-0 explains to the incredulous interviewer that his team is making progress as the previous time the fixture was played they lost 6-0.

May then, and I honestly think this was a clever move, brought 3 prominent Leavers into her new Cabinet, creating 2 new posts in the process. These were the aforementioned Johnson, David Davis & Liam Fox, or to give him his full internet title, the Disgraced Former Defence Secretary Liam Fox. To the astonishmennt of all sentient beings in the galaxy she made Johnson Foreign Secretary, one of the top three positions in government and one requiring extraordinary skills of tact and diplomacy, which Johnson's record as a journalist, MP, TV panel show regular, London Mayor and MP again had shown no signs of him possessing. In fact with his polemic writings he has in the past insulted most of our closest trading partners and a good deal of the UK as well. 'What was she thinking' was a common response.

Davis & Fox were given the newly created posts of Brexit Secretary and Minister for Overseas Trade respectively. The latter post has a certain Gilbert & Sullivan quality to it as the UK is prevented from negotiating international trade deals while we remain a member of the EU. Quite what Fox does on a daily basis is a matter of some debate, but this Cerberus was passed the role of negotiating the UK's exit from the EU. That was late July, and since then............ a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

UKIP then elected a new leader, Diane James, an MEP, who was never legally appointed and subsequently resigned the position after 18 days. This left Farage, who had disappeared off to promote his brand of right-wing populism in the US as once again, for the 4th time, as UKIP's leader. The leadership election was re-run, but not before one UKIP MEP was hospitalised in France following an 'altercation' with a fellow UKIP MEP. The victim Stephen Wolfe had been tipped too take over as leader but instead, followed the well worn resignation path. Eventually Paul Nuttall was elected leader of UKIP, and as I write this is still post.

That cannot be said of Richmond Park MP, Zac Goldsmith, whose resignation the subsequent by election it caused I'll address in the next post.

To be continued