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.


Background

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?


Build-Up

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.


Campaign

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.


Result

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.


Conclusions

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.

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