Mile End Institute

Richmond Park: Heathrow vs Brexit and the shape of politics to come?

Nick Barlow explores how the forthcoming Richmond by-election could change the rules of British politics.

29 November 2016

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The history of the Liberal Democrats and their predecessor parties are littered with tales of famous by-election victories. 

From Orpington in 1962 through to Eastleigh in 2013, the party used the platform provided by by-elections to both test its campaigning techniques and raise its national profile.

As the party attempts to rebuild and reposition itself following the bruising verdict of the electorate on its role in the coalition in the 2015 election, it has again found itself in a position where a by-election can leapfrog it back into the public consciousness.

The Richmond Park by-election has come about following the sitting Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith’s decision to resign and stand as an independent to challenge Heathrow expansion. 

While he was elected with a 20,000 majority in 2015, the seat was previously held by the Liberal Democrats from 1997 to 2010, and the party remained the main challenger in the seat. 

Complicating Goldsmith’s plans, the party is also against Heathrow expansion, and the refusal of the Conservatives to stand an ‘official’ candidate against him means that none of the main candidates in the election actually oppose his position on Heathrow.

This has led the Liberal Democrats to instead position the by-election as being on a different issue, where Goldsmith’s views are at odds with his constituents: Brexit.

Richmond Park was one of the most strongly pro-Remain areas in the EU referendum, with 72% voting to remain, yet Goldsmith campaigned for a Leave vote. 

Having established themselves as perhaps the most pro-European party over many years, this has provided a natural angle of attack for the Liberal Democrat campaign.

Goldsmith’s line is that the by-election is the way for people to send a message about Heathrow expansion. Sarah Olney, the Liberal Democrat candidate instead suggests that it’s a way to send a message about Brexit by returning an MP who’ll vote against triggering Article 50.

Both have also found their positions being publicly backed by other parties. 

Goldsmith has received UKIP’s endorsement, while Olney has benefited from the Green Party choosing not to stand a candidate and actively campaign for her instead, including a visit from Caroline Lucas, and has also received the endorsement of several pro-European campaign groups. (Some Labour MPs suggested they should also stand down, but the party is fielding a candidate).

Third party by-election successes are often based on winning the local narrative of the election, putting forward the local champion against the national narrative of the main parties. 

The current climate, however, puts the Liberal Democrats in the somewhat odd position of championing a national, even international, campaign theme against a candidate promising to be an independent local voice. 

If the strategy succeeds and Olney is elected on Saturday, then Richmond Park could be a very important moment in British politics for three reasons.

Firstly, it would provide concrete proof that the Liberal Democrats haven’t been finished off by the coalition. 

Having already achieved a swing against the Conservatives of over 20% at the Witney by-election earlier this year, it would signal that the party remains a significant threat to Conservative seats in the south, especially those that backed Remain.

Second, it would provide a massive boost for those seeking a shakeup of British politics. 

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has positioned the party as a new home for centrist Labour voters, especially pro-European ones, and this would vindicate that strategy. 

Similarly, the Green Party’s withdrawal from the by-election came with the explicit support of the party’s co-leaders, Caroline Lucas and Jon Bartley. Lucas has co-edited a book – The Alternative – seeking a new co-operation between the parties of the centre and left (one of her co-editors, Lisa Nandy, was one of the Labour MPs who suggested they should stand down in Richmond Park) and being able to point to the successful results of collaboration in Richmond Park would help to spread that message.

Finally, it would be proof that pro-European policies are not dead in British politics. 

Political discourse since the referendum has centred on issues around what sort of Brexit it will be, with little space for those who suggest it doesn’t have to happen. 

With former Prime Ministers Major and Blair speaking up this week on the principle of a second referendum, a pro-European victory in Richmond Park may embolden other figures to join their ranks.

In a continuation of by-election tradition, all parties are reporting that it appears to be close with just a few days before polling day, and that every vote will count. In determining the future shape of British politics, however, the votes in Richmond Park may count for more than just electing a single MP.

Nick Barlow is a PhD candidate at QMUL's School of Politics and International Relations and a Liberal Democrat Councillor in Colchester.