Lib Dem victory in Richmond means little for the UK, but much for themselves

Liberal Democrats may be happy at ousting Zac Goldsmith, but their long road back to relevancy is only just beginning, and this won’t halt Heathrow Expansion nor Brexit.

By Sam Shenton | 3rd December 2016

Thursday night saw the biggest political upset… well, in a few weeks, as the Liberal Democrats’ candidate Sarah Olney defeated Zac Goldsmith in the Richmond Park by-election. Called after Goldsmith’s resignation as an MP after the announcement of the government’s support for the building of a third runway at Heathrow Airport in the constituency, Zac Goldsmith perceived an easy fight with a decent majority returning him as an independent Member of Parliament as the outcome. Instead, 1,800 more voters voted for his Lib Dem opponent, electing the Liberal Democrats’ only woman MP.

There have been varying takes for what this means for Heathrow Expansion, for Brexit, and for the Liberal Democrats’ electoral prospects going forward. Heathrow Expansion is unlikely to be stalled because of a publicity stunt held at the behest of an MP with an ego-problem; that is, the government’s theoretical working majority may have been cut, but the proposals are set to be voted on by MPs in the next year — and it is unlikely that those proposals will be defeated with the government’s support for the expansion, as well as Labour’s possible support and the support of the Northern Ireland Unionists.

The by-election in Richmond Park may well have been called because of the issue of Airport Expansion, but it didn’t finish with that as the key issue. Brexit, and more specifically the UK’s membership of the Single Market became a key focus of the Labour and Liberal Democrat campaigns, with the Lib Dems positioning themselves as the ‘stop-Brexit’ candidate. Since her election, the new MP, Sarah Olney, has committed to voting against the triggering of Article 50 in parliament, while the Lib Dems as a whole have committed to holding a second referendum on the issue. With the constituency being heavily in favour of remaining in the European Union, it was unsurprising that the Liberal Democrats, with their unapologetically pro-EU platform, did well against Goldsmith who came out for ‘Leave’ in his London Mayoral campaign.

The implications of this victory on Brexit have been called momentous, with former Lib Dem leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg saying it shows “hard Brexiteers must thing again.” But does it really? This is one of the most pro-Remain constituencies in the entirety of the UK, with the average house price over £780k, and where many use the nearby Heathrow Airport to fly regularly (ironic?). It’s a wealthy inner London constituency with very few links to working class voters that overwhelmingly backed the Leave cause just 6 months ago, meaning that this victory almost certainly doesn’t pave the way for a proper case against Brexit. If the Lib Dems want to prove there is a serious backlash against the vote to Leave the EU, they must demonstrate their appeal to voters in places like Sleaford, which voted 70% Leave and has a by-election next week.

Where this by-election victory is meaningful, however, is when it comes to predicting the electoral prospects of the party, and indeed of others around them. It’s clear that among Remain voters, the Lib Dems are striking a cord on the doorstep, and more by-elections in heavily Remain seats could well bring more MPs to the Lib Dem bench. Considering there are 17 Remain voting seats with Tory MPs where the “hard Brexit supporting” Conservatives are the incumbent against second place Lib Dems, the prospect for Lib Dem gains in a snap General Election is a distinct possibility – particularly if the context of that election is giving a mandate to trigger Article 50. While many saw the Lib Dems almost as dead donkeys after their years in coalition, the threat they now propose to the Conservatives in Remain areas and former Lib Dem areas that the Tories won at the next election has significantly increased.

The Labour Party should probably be partying at the thought of a Conservative meltdown at the hands of their former coalition partners, and yet, Jeremy Corbyn’s party is at even greater risk than it was before. Already concerned with the possible loss of their socially conservative wing of their voter coalition in the North of England and South Wales to the new leader of UKIP, Paul Nuttall, the party now faces a second crisis. The Lib Dems are described now by some commentators as ‘London’s UKIP,’ targeting Labour’s Remain voting, socially liberal base who are unhappy with the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, particularly since the EU Referendum saw him call for the immediate triggering of Article 50. The fact that Labour lost their deposit and actually got fewer votes than the Lib Dems’ eventual majority in Richmond Park and less than their own membership figure in the constituency, the idea that the Labour support is soft and ripe for the taking by resurgent Liberal Democrats is one that should not be easily dismissed.

The new Liberal Democrat MP, Sarah Olney, has already faced criticism for her lack of ability in interviews and she will soon have to adjust to life as the only woman MP in her party, and the prospects for the party now look better than what they did a few weeks ago. Could this be the come back for the Lib Dems? Yes, perhaps, so long as Labour’s troubles continue and the resilience to Brexit among Remain voters continues into a General Election (unlikely if it isn’t held until 2020). Will it affect Brexit or Heathrow Expansion, however? No. Not one bit. Brexit is happening. And we’re gonna make a… you get the picture.