The Richmond Park by-election showed Brexit is the new dividing line

6 Dec 2016

 If Britain’s narrow vote to leave the European Union has taught us anything, it is the main issues currently dividing the country are cultural, not economic. Since June 23rd, debates and disagreements have been shaped by Brexit, destroying former loyalties and leaving sections of the electorate up for grabs like never before.


That split was clearly on show in this week’s by-election in Richmond Park. Despite Zac Goldsmith’s attempts to focus attention on his opposition to the proposed third runway at Heathrow Airport (the sole reason behind his decision to resign), the Liberal Democrats made sure the by-election was a second referendum on Brexit. Located in a borough where 72 per cent voted to stay in the EU, according to research conducted by the University of East Anglia, the 28th most pro-Remain area in the country.


Searching for a way out of the political wilderness, the Liberal Democrats have cleverly positioned themselves as the “party of the 48%”, knowing full well that, come what may, the Conservative government has a duty to deliver Brexit whilst Labour are currently caught between two opposing sets of voters, leaving their message increasingly muddled and contradictory.


Thanks to a tireless campaign that saw them carry out more than 150,000 door knocks and 50,000 conversations, the Liberal Democrats successfully dictated the terms of the by-election. They constantly hammered Goldsmith on his opposition to EU membership, covering pamphlets and posters in Europhilic slogans reminding voters of the difference between the incumbent’s views and those of the majority of his now former constituents.


In the end, Goldsmith was unable to counter a clever and dedicated campaign that hit him where it hurt the most. Since winning Richmond Park back from the Liberal Democrats in 2010 (establishing a 23,000 Conservative majority in the process), he has proven to be a popular and likeable figure, but his stand over Heathrow expansion, as principled as it may have been, was never going to be enough to keep his main challenger at bay. Sarah Olney had also vociferously opposed a third runway, leaving Brexit as the only issue separating the two candidates and, in the process, placing the ball firmly in the Liberal Democrats’ court. One pamphlet delivered in the run-up to the by-election was entitled “Your choice on Thursday” and showed two arrows pointing to “hard Brexit” and the “single market”, leaving Goldsmith’s newsletter concerned primarily with Heathrow expansion looking weak and ineffective.


Whilst one extra Liberal Democrat in the House of Commons is unlikely to affect the government’s stance on Brexit, the by-election result has shown that, post-June 23rd, many voters seem willing to back the candidate that is closest to them when it comes to Britain’s future relationship with the EU. In the case of Richmond Park, it was an unofficial “progressive alliance” that resulted in Goldsmith’s defeat and propelled Olney to a stunning victory.


Despite deciding to put forward a candidate (even after several senior figures in the party argued against doing so), Labour were trounced and suffered a humiliating defeat. The 3.67% of the vote that they gained was their lowest total in a contested London by-election since 1905, whilst their loss of 8.67% indicates that an informal progressive alliance did indeed take place, even without the party’s blessing. The Green Party stood aside and rallied behind Olney, and it is safe to say that most, if not all, of the 3,548 constituents that voted for them in last year’s general election shifted to the Liberal Democrats this time round.


Labour are in a tough position and can be excused for not explicitly backing a progressive alliance, but, whether they like it or not, future “alliances” on both sides of the political spectrum are a real possibility. With Brexit as the new dividing line in British politics, the Liberal Democrats’ new strategy will be to target seats in which voters overwhelmingly backed Remain. Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Greens, hailed Olney’s by-election win as a “step forward” for a progressive alliance, whilst Clive Lewis, the Shadow Business Secretary, told a debate at the University of Oxford last month: “we [the left] have to start thinking how the centre, progressive parties of this country can form enough of an electoral working pact to be able to keep the Tories out”.


Jeremy Corbyn and his allies are yet to be persuaded, and, mindful of their struggles in the north, are unlikely to be any time soon. However, the decision by Remain-voting Richmond Park constituents to flock to the most pro-EU candidate available shows that tactical voting over Brexit could prove to be an important issue at the next general election, particularly if Theresa May decides to call one in the spring of 2017.


It works both ways,of course, and that is why Labour currently find themselves in such a tricky situation. 23 of the 30 most pro-Brexit constituencies are currently held by MPs who voted to remain, with Labour politicians making up 17 of those. Any hint of hesitancy – not to mention outright hostility – towards Brexit is going to leave Labour MPs in anti-EU constituencies in a precarious position, emboldening their opponents and resulting in potentially close contests in traditionally safe seats like Kingston-Upon-Hull East and Mansfield.


Both saw a reduction in Labour’s majority in 2015 as well as sharp increases in the support for UKIP, who, with Paul Nuttall now installed as their new leader, are set to embark on a dedicated and carefully planned fight to target Labour in the north. With Brexit as the new dividing line and cultural differences splitting the country like never before, Labour have the most to fear from a split that is playing havoc with the political landscape; leaving them in danger at both ends of the country and in desperate need of a clear and coherent strategy.


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