What the Richmond result really means

By Chris Rogers December 2, 2016 3:10 pm

Poor Zac Goldsmith.

The now former MP for Richmond triggered a by-election in protest at government policy. Only to be unceremoniously dumped by his constituents in – you guessed it – a protest vote against government policy.

Political commentators have jumped on the shock result of last night’s by-election as a sign of popular discontent at Brexit and the way the process is being managed by Downing Street and ministers. Oh, and of course it also marks the return of the Liberal Democrats to the top table of British politics. Meanwhile, albeit largely overlooked, Labour will be quietly off licking its wounds after its candidate lost his deposit in what was a resounding thumping.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s an important electoral result. If for no other reason than it reduces Theresa May’s working majority in the House of Commons to 14. But here’s what the Richmond result really means…

Anti-establishmentarianism is alive and well

Unless your name is Donald Trump, it’s difficult to find a more concrete example of an anti-establishment vote than an established MP getting booted out of office to a political newcomer. The talking heads have it spot on here – Goldsmith got the electoral equivalent of a P45 because his constituency decided to vote in protest at where the Establishment, by which we mean government, is going with Brexit. It’s a vote against a so-called ‘hard Brexit’, an irony in itself that the EU referendum was a protest vote. As they say, a week’s a long time in politics…

The London-UK disconnect still exists

Remainers can insist Richmond is a sign the British public is scared of hard – or indeed any Brexit – until they’re blue in the face. Doesn’t make it true. What last night’s result showed is that the people of Richmond have rejected hard, or possibly any, Brexit.

But it also shows the continued disconnect between London and the rest of the UK, much of which voted to leave the EU. As if further evidence were needed at the end of a week in which the Commons could barely stifle a yawn over rising petrol prices that affect those outside London reliant on their cars. In the short term, some perspective is needed – Richmond is not a warning shot across the Prime Minister’s bows by the population en masse. Long-term, this disconnect raises some interesting questions around devolution of powers and budgets to local authorities.

It’s too early to judge the rise of the Lib Dems

Sorry Tim Farron. While victory in the Richmond by-election is a stunning upset, it doesn’t mean the Lib Dems are back in the political frame. Last year, the Lib Dems were eviscerated at the General Election. You can’t lose 30 MPs in a night and then claim resurrection after one win 18 months later.

News of a Lib Dem resurgence is premature. There was a substantial mitigating factor for the voting swing in Richmond, namely Brexit. And with Labour struggling to define itself on the issue of the EU, the people of Richmond – either fed up with procrastination or desperate to Remain – voted with their feet to the only viable alternative to Zac Goldsmith.

A few more Lib Dem wins, successful local elections, maybe a mayoral win or two, and we can talk about resurgence. But to claim it now is far too early.

But Labour should be looking over its shoulder

Anyone heard from Labour HQ about the Richmond by-election? Anyone?

Not surprisingly, Labour’s been pretty quiet about the by-election result. After all, they lost their deposit. It was a kick in the teeth of a magnitude not seen since Jade Jones (aka ‘The Headhunter’) won the Taekwondo gold at the Rio Olympics.

A miserable night for Labour is somewhat explained by a vote against (hard) Brexit, given the EU has been a difficult subject for the Party in recent months. But it’s also a reflection of the difficulties the leadership has had of attracting attention in recent months (David Cameron got more press coverage in a month as a former PM than Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Opposition) and a continued public lack of buy-in to the Opposition, the cries of left-wing activists to the contrary.

So while Richmond as a stand-alone result doesn’t represent a Lib Dem resurgence, Party leaders will be thinking – quite rightly – that they’ve an opportunity to really challenge and try and replace Labour in the months and years to come. And UKIP – assuming they manage to hold onto this leader – will also be taking note.

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For media enquiries, please contact Chris Rogers on 020 7793 2536 / 07720 054189, or email Chris.Rogers@whitehouseconsulting.co.uk.

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