Richmond Park is an important milestone – but it’s only the start

Well, we’re winning parliamentary by-elections again. Who’d have thought it possible on that awful night almost 19 months ago?

Liberal Democrats everywhere are grinning this morning. We’ve seen the brilliant local government results over the past few months. We saw the amazing Liz Leffman surge forward in the Tory heartland of Witney in October. Now, we have actually won another MP.

We shouldn’t under-estimate how massive a task winning Richmond Park was. It’s only been 37 days since Zac resigned. We had just over 5 weeks to change the agenda from Heathrow to Brexit and win the argument. A combination of clever literature, a fantastic candidate and an army of activists prepared to drop everything did it. Way back in the 90s when we were winning by-elections all the time, we had at least 3 times as long to make our case.

We also shouldn’t under-estimate how important it was that we won this. It was a seat we used to hold with a whacking great Remain vote. If we hadn’t, even if we had had a Witney type surge, people would have doubted our ability to change the political weather.

Sarah Olney’s victory has shown that we have still got what it takes to win the big moments. That is incredibly important for the outside world to see. Theresa May will be hoping that her MPs in similar seats to Richmond, where there is Liberal Democrat history, don’t cause any further by-elections.

For Zac supporters to complain that we had our big party machine and they didn’t is disingenuous at best. The right wing press were on his side and he had the implicit and explicit backing of the local and national Conservatives. The Tories didn’t want to risk splitting the vote and letting us in. That didn’t go so well for them. The right wing alliance was defeated by a progressive one.

The decision of the Greens to stand down and the political courage of Caroline Lucas putting her progressive alliance money where her mouth is was hugely important. The Greens, as their vote unsqueezed, took 3.500 votes just 18 months ago. Their normal level of support in that seat had been around about 1200-1400 since 1997. Sarah’s majority was 1872. Do the maths. The Women’s Equality Party similarly chose not to contest the seat and back Sarah. Labour did stand and they lost their deposit as their voters understood what they needed to do.

There is something of a dilemma now for the Liberal Democrats. The problem is that there are few places where us standing down would make a similar difference, but we can’t be the ones who benefit all the time. We can’t get all snooty about it and say that they benefit from a progressive candidate winning. We need to recognise the sacrifice for them in terms of an opportunity to build local profile and membership that a by-election gives.

There is a job of work to do to turn the mood music of politics away from the disgusting and divisive rhetoric we hear from the right and we have more chance of success if we work together.  That doesn’t necessarily mean standing aside in elections, although there might be times when there is an obvious reason to do so. It means all of us getting out there and fighting the Tories, not each other.

Jo Swinson had some interesting  points to make about this on Facebook this morning, which I reproduce with her permission:

By-election victories can change the political weather. 13 years ago the amazing Sarah Teather won Brent East in a blow to the then Labour Government and its disastrous policy on Iraq. Today the brilliant Sarah Olney is the new MP for Richmond Park, defeating a UKIP-endorsed Brexiteer who earlier this year ran a nasty mayoral campaign that sought to divide London on race.

This is a historic win for the Liberal Democrats, and it has wider significance too: it is a win for the values of openness and tolerance. The Greens stood aside and Caroline Lucas openly backed Sarah. Labour didn’t but many Labour supporters understood how best to progress their values here. At the More United action day, I campaigned with former Labour members and activists. A friend of mine who is a long-standing, card-carrying Labour member joined me at the Lib Dem HQ to campaign for Sarah.

This year has felt like our cherished liberal values are under threat like never before. As we (finally!) wake up to an election result worth cheering, it’s worth reflecting that we need to continue to work together to make this victory a turning point for our politics.

It’s hard to imagine a by-election where us stepping aside would be beneficial, but we need to look at this on a case by case basis. Similarly, at a general election, we don’t want to stand aside in too many places because national vote share is a key factor in determining our funding. However there may be a few places, such as the changed Brighton constituency being contested by Caroline Lucas, where it may be sensible to do so. We will need to get smarter about combating the inevitable Tory backlash, too. We saw the damage the Miliband/SNP thing did – although the potency of that argument has diminished a bit given the disaster this government has wreaked.

In the short term, the most important thing we can do is try to win over the public mood against Brexit before Article 50 is triggered. I find the “anti-democratic” argument ridiculous. The people said one thing on 23 June. They might think differently when confronted with the reality of what Brexit would mean. They have the right to have another say. Saying that they don’t is kind of like saying that because the people voted in a Conservative majority in 2015, there should be no argument against the government. The right of the people to change their mind is the very essence of democracy. If you deny the people their right, you’re straying into despot territory.

The Brexiteers know that they would be struggling to get a majority to back a deal and that’s why they won’t allow a further vote.

This result is truly worthy of celebration, but we can’t party for too long. Theresa May intends to move Article 50 within 118 days. We have work to do. That starts now in Sleaford and North Hykeham. Ross Pepper has been fighting a spirited campaign in a seat which has not in the past been our strongest area. As a former inhabitant of the East Midlands, it’s been great to see. Let’s put our energies into making sure he has a significant improvement in vote share next Thursday. Then we have to win the argument in the rest of the country, to make people realise that rushing into triggering Article 50 is not the right course.



* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Richard Armitage 2nd Dec '16 - 10:22am

    Congratulations. It also good to see you have given the Labour voters who voted tactically credit.

  • Very well balanced, celebratory, but cautious and well thought through summary, i thought here Caron.

    Last night Andrew Neil asked a very challenging question (the Lib Dem’s will be undoubtably challenged much more now – sign of being taken seriously again). I thought is was the one point where Susan Cramer didn’t have an excellent well thought through answer.

    He said words to the effect: If it goes to a referendum on the deal and Europe knows we are having a second vote, they will give us the worst deal possible as they are desperate for us not to leave. Therefore a second referendum completely undermines our negotiating position.

    I think this needs a well thought out answer at the highest level, which does not simply divide the population in the other direction, otherwise it starts to undermine Sarah (and the party’s) excellent open, tolerant and above all *united* message which came through loud and clear last night.

    Brilliant result though – as I said elsewhere, this is a day for celebration, very well done to Sarah and all the team down in Richmond – Stunning!

  • A great win and a fillip for the party and liberal values.
    However, whilst all involved in Richmond was watching the count, I was watching Question Time coming from Wakefield (67% Leave).
    If we are to make a difference we need to recognise the feelings of people like this. It is not enough to be pro European, we need to be pro Britain in Europe. If anything comes through from last nights program it is that it is ‘immigration stupid’. This is the battlefield we need to shape. This will become evident in the upcoming by-election in Sleaford and North Hykeham. This is where this issue needs to be honed into a much more nuanced argument for the future. Above all we need to get away from the combative tones on all sides to one of providing solutions. A solution that addresses the fears of people in Wakefield whilst remaining a part of Europe.

  • Matt (Bristol) 2nd Dec '16 - 11:29am

    This is great. It is so good to be part of a party that has a measurable, publically visible impact on British politics again.

    But now, after two by-elections in wealthy South-Eastern areas, it gets harder.

    A lot of what Nick Tyrone says, chimes with me (to an extent):

    I really hope Ross Pepper does well in Sleaford, and can’t see enormous arguments in favour of our standing down – the Labour candidate is not taking a very liberal line, the resigning Tory MP who was pro-asylum seekers and pro-the-rule-of-law on the Supreme Court judgement is nowhere to be seen, and UKIP are surely going to throw the kitchen sink at it. There needs to be a liberal, progressive alternative.

    But … it sounds like we are up against it in parts of the North of England. The sheer fury on Question Time from Wakefield last night was like a wall – where audience-member after audience-member sought to rhetorically (?mis)interpret any delay at all to a unilateral Hard Brexit, any suggestions that it was more complex than that, as a judgemental slap in the face to working-class-northerners by rich southerners. Tim Farron came in for some abuse.

    Working through these issues could involve deep and painful questions about who we are now as a party.

    Do we prioritise those parts of our DNA that say we exist to provide democratic representation and reform that enables communities to find a voice, or do we prioritise our instincts towards internationalism, Europeanism and free enterprise whilst serving the needs and self-image of our palpable existing middle- to upper-middle-class audience and membership?

    I know it’s more complex than that and I really hope we don’t have to choose in such a black and white way.

  • @Mike S
    I think you could make the argument in reverse. Europe has seen what happens when the UK is threatened with death and destruction. It could easily be that Europe offers concessions in order to temp us to stay.

  • William Ross 2nd Dec '16 - 12:01pm

    Dear LibDems

    Congrats on your win in Richmond which is worth celebration on your part. I was confident that you would win, and I said as much in an exchange with Katharine Pindar yesterday.

    However, my Brexiteer analysis is that this exceptional result does little to change anything and if this was indeed a referendum on Brexit then the result was ghastly for you. Richmond is one of the, if not the most, pro-Remain constituency in the UK. The sitting MP triggered a by-election exiting his party in Heathrow protest. He lost the support of his party and antagonised the electorate with his mayoral campaign. He was a Brexiteer in Richmond! Sarah agreed with him on his bye-election issue
    ( Heathrow). Labour were unelectable. Everything was in your favour.

    What actually happened is that in a low poll ( strange for a Brexit referendum re-run) Sarah got 49.5% of the vote, narrowly defeating the unpopular weakened very wealthy Brexiteer. If Richmond was a referendum on Brexit then the Remain vote fell by 20% points.

    Make all the hay you can but do not doubt that we know the reality. Brexit is coming with us out of the Single Market. And much more important than Richmond on Thursday, Italy and Austria are coming on for Sunday……..

  • Lorenzo Cherin 2nd Dec '16 - 12:48pm

    We must be pen to a deal in Brighton and support Caroline Lucas . I am not of the view that with a general leftward drift in the Labour or Green parties an alliance is possible now , but as an individual, she is excellent and intelligent even though I sometimes disagree with her strongly , I like her.

    Personalities count in politics . It is a reason why in my view our left wingers on our party left or others are wrong on mayors . Yes they must be accountable and govern with a strong cabinet and councillors. But electors like strong personalities. Sarah Olney, like Caroline Lucas, is one . Someone I find I can look at and listen to . Warm , friendly , humourous , and has gravitas. I rate her, we must see her go far .

    Congratulations again to her and our frontline campaigners , and all of us doing our bit !

  • Laurence Cox 2nd Dec '16 - 1:48pm

    If we cannot make a deal with Labour, we can certainly make a deal with the Greens. It might be something like us standing down in Caroline Lucas’ seat while the Greens give us a free run in Lewes and so on. As small parties, we both know that we cannot target a majority of Parliamentary seats, so it makes sense to concentrate our efforts. What is essential is that both parties must be committed to electoral reform; until Labour realise that it is in their best interests too I cannot see them joining a progressive alliance. We did it in the 1980s when the Liberals and the SDP were separate but worked together; if any agreement is only for a limited number of seats rather than dividing up the whole country there will be less opposition to candidates standing down.

  • Paul Pettinger 2nd Dec '16 - 2:16pm

    Mike S – I don’t think the EU wants to bully the UK into staying. Look what happened when George Osbourne was perceived as trying to bully electors into voting remain by threatening a punishing emergency budget – it backfired. The EU won’t want to keep on board a resentful or vengeful UK – it would cause a great of havoc. Andrew Neil’s line of questioning just supports the unpopular hard Brexit stitch up.

  • William Ross
    Europe shall all hang separately eh?

  • Standing down in Brighton isn’t going to help the Green’s much, they had a very strong majority last time so it won’t change anything. I think the prime seat the Green’s would have in mind is Bristol West, but that’s a lot of votes to give up.

  • We should of course be thankful to the Greens for stepping aside in Richmond, but that absolutely does not mean we shouldn’t contest Caroline Lucas in Brighton. The two situations are totally different.

    In Richmond we were trying to get rid of a Conservative MP (I know we was standing as an independent but really he was a Tory), so the more progressive parties joining together to oust him was a good plan.

    However Caroline Lucas is the incumbent in Brighton, she doesn’t need any help from the Lib Dems to win an election. Moreover given the voters in the city, there is almost zero chance of Brighton Pavilion becoming a conservative seat, there is always going to be a “progressive” MP elected – even if all left leaning parties contest the seat – so there is no good reason to give her a free ride and deny the Lib Dem voters of Brighton a chance to vote for their own party.

    That said if there is a situation were to arise in a different constituency where the Green party were in second place and had a good chance of beating the Conservatives then we should step aside and offer to support them.

    While we might agree that it makes sense to work together to remove the conservatives, there still needs to be some competition between the liberal minded parties, or else there really is no point in having separate parties at all.

  • Alasdair Brooks 2nd Dec '16 - 3:29pm

    In response to William Ross…

    Analysis of the Richmond result along the lines of ‘if that was a referendum on Brexit, then actually the LibDems did really badly’ (and yours is hardly the first example – though it is, I note with genuine thanks, politer and more considered than most) does rather tend to ignore the significant differences between a non-party referendum and a constituency by-election where the previous MP remains a candidate. While reaction to the referendum does seem to have played an important part in the excellent result, Goldsmith was still functionally a sitting MP with a majority of 23,000 and vote share of 58% (in the last GE) who was running with the implicit support of both the Conservatives and UKIP.

    So Sarah Olney’s vote share isn’t _just_ reflective of the Remain vote in Richmond. She still had to overcome the built-in constituency MP advantages that Goldsmith had, as well as overcome the innate tribalism of UK politics. These are not inconsiderable factors at the constituency level, and mark points of considerable difference with a national referendum run on a non-partisan basis (even if some parties supported specific viewpoints to varying degrees of enthusiasm) and with no candidate to vote for.

    All of which said, Olney’s victory isn’t going to singlehandedly stop the Prime Minister from triggering Article 50; so you can probably rest easy tonight on that point. What it might do is cause the Prime Minister to revisit specific parts of her approach to triggering Article 50; so I wouldn’t necessarily feel so confident that triggering Article 50 will automatically lead to an exit from the single market.

    As to European vote results, the French presidential election is going to be far more significant here than a vote for the ceremonial non-executive Austrian presidency or an Italian referendum on senate reform. I wouldn’t downplay that either or both could result in victories for a certain type of populist politics, but in terms of functional impact on the future of the EU, the French presidential election is currently the main game in town.

  • Following on from my previous message – The obvious example of the type of constituency where we could help the Green Party would be the Isle of Wight where they came 3rd behind the Conservatives and UKIP.

  • Matt (Bristol) 2nd Dec '16 - 5:10pm

    Who, where and if, we stand down / take our foot off the gas for, depends on what / whom our enemy is.

    Is it Brexit, Hard Brexit, the Tories, or the rotten electoral system?

    for a thought experiment, imagine Carswell falls under a bus tomorrow in mysterious circumstances and Farage contests the seat for UKIP.

    Does the LibDem stand aside, and who do they endorse if they do?

    PS – I think we should not challenge Caroline Lucas in Brighton, if there is an election there in the next 2 years. But 2019 is a long time away…

  • paul barker 2nd Dec '16 - 5:32pm

    Its way too early to speculate on standing or not standing or possible deals. We dont know how far or how fast our Recovery can go & we should not be making assumptions now about how strong we might be in 2020.
    In principle, our big problem has always been Labour, they occupy the space we should be in & yet have always avoided making the sort of Reforms that might really change anything. Now that Labour have largely decided to abandon the Political mainstream there is finally a space for us, if we can take it.
    RP was a first step, Sleaford may be another. Certainly we should make big gains next May but whether any of it will be enough to make the breakthrough, we just dont know.

  • But the green vote is collapsing all over England and Wales . I for one do not wish to do anything to boost their credibility. Bristl west, we are probably back in 2nd place with the movement of green to labour

  • David Pearce 3rd Dec '16 - 7:41am

    Paul Barker: why do people keep looking at the ‘centre ground as the salvation of political parties, whereas I see it as the kiling zone?
    Blairites are credited with bringing their party to power by moving it to the centre ground. Yet the conservatives fell from power because they were hugely disliked, allowing labour to move into their space. Labour had credibility and the promise of a fresh start. In every election since then the party has done worse. Liberals moved to the centre, and since then have been punished in every election, right up until they adopted Remain as their cause.

    Until labour also adopts remain, libs will do better in every election. If labour fails to adopt remain, or fails to find some other winning strategy which will please its northern heartlands, it will continue to do very badly. It was disastrous of them to attack Corbyn, because they have created an unelectable party in the eyes of voters who see them squablling. But labour MPs also attacked their own core vote by doing this. Labour (and libs) need a strategy which will appeal to Brexiters, not Brexit but an alternative which promises to address the grievances of these people. They voted Brexit to be better off.

  • Bristol West was the greens 2nd best seat, any deal with the greens would have to include it. Are we really so scared as a party of the greens having 2 MPs ? Do we really think a lib Dem 2nd place in Bristol West is so important ? Would we rather have no green candidate in St Ives, Torbay and Thornbury and Yate ? Do we want to present the electorate with a credible broad coalition or ‘do a Clegg’ and spend another General election saying any coalition with the SNP/Green/DUP/Plaid/Labour would be a disaster. Does it matter if we don’t get a distance 2nd place and instead it goes to the Woman’s Equality Party ? Do we wish to see Sarah re-elected or do we antagonise the Greens/WEP/labour inclined who voted tactically ?

  • Caracatus: all I am saying is that currently we are probably running second in Bristol West. Therefore we are the main challengers to the sitting MP. Hence we do not need or want a deal with anyone.
    The other aspect is a failure on the part of some to understand the Conservative voters on the left of that party, they aint going to vote for us if there is a left wing stitch up. Best forget the whole idea.

  • William Ross 3rd Dec '16 - 9:16am

    Words sometimes fail me when reading posts on this site. Take David Pearce above :
    ” They voted Brexit to be better off” . After all this time, he cannot really believe what every opinion poll shows. We voted Brexit to take back control.

    He blithely assumes that Brexit means economic devastation. David: where is the self induced recession, the collapse in the FTSE, the collapse in London property prices, the collapse in foreign investment ( Nissan? Google?), the collapse in consumer spending, the departure of the banks, the punishment budget and so on? You have no economic credibility.

    You cannot have it both ways. Remain predicted devastation on 24 June. There was one Brexit effect, the 15% collapse in the value of sterling ….. to the IMF’s target value.

    Can you get a grip of the real world?

  • William Ross 3rd Dec '16 - 10:52am


    It means the following. The Law of the UK is supreme and we enter into international conventions by direct participation in them. The Supreme Court of the UK is supreme and is subject to no other court. We are in sole control of our borders and immigration policy, and we enact all of our own law including that over employment, competition, the environment etc. It means that we are free to enter into trade agreements with whomever we like and we can set our own external tariffs ( subject to WTO agreed levels). It means that we will never participate in an EU army and we will never use the disastrous euro as our currency. It means that we no longer rely on the EU Commission to spend our own money for us.

    The ordinary people do seem to understand it. I always thought it was kind of simple.

  • @William Ross
    You obviously enjoy swimming upstream as far as this site is concerned but please do not stop. I personally enjoy your comments. They make me think about the things I believe and justify them. I keep an open mind. I hope you do as well.
    On the issue of the economy you site Google and Nissan. Google is a few hundred service jobs in London. It is arguable that Nissan would not have committed to the UK without the secret reassurances that the government made to them and this does not bode well for future investment decision for the car industry and supply chain. On the other hand UBS has just announced that it has decided to locate it’s wealth management operations in Frankfurt. As far as the ECJ is concerned most of it’s decisions are trade and standards related. Personally I don’t really mind whether I have to eat straight bananas given the benefits derived from being part of this club. Unlike yourself I am comfortable with my dual identity of British and European. I have worked in Holland, Germany, Italy and other place in the world outside of the EU. I like the peoples of these countries. They have their cultural nuances but mainly admirable and interesting. I personally think that we will all be a lot poorer as a result of Brexit but that’s not the whole issue and I can see that some people may rather be poorer and ‘Take Back Control’. I, on the other hand do not want to be poorer and see the UK suffer. Nor do I want to be a little Englander. I am old enough to remember this country before we joined the common market and it was not all roses. The world is not simple.

  • Sue Sutherland 3rd Dec '16 - 1:31pm

    I agree with PJ’s 11.24 post. Those of us who want to remain in Europe must give solid hope to the people who see their economic situation and local health and social services deteriorating and blame it on immigration. I also think there is a problem with free movement which Teresa May has generated. In order to cut numbers, the rules on immigration from other countries have become harsher and this has affected British born expats who want to return here with new spouses and children having lived abroad for a while. It’s also affected students. The situation is a mess.
    I’d also like to thank William Ross for his lucid explanation of taking back control. I don’t agree with you, of course, but it has given me heart because I just don’t believe that half the country are ignorant racists or xenophobes, although, sadly, the Brexit result seems to have given those people who are the encouragement they needed to openly indulge their hatred because they think millions of people agree with them. We have to stop this. There were many different reasons for the vote, some of which can be tackled by a change from the domestic economic policies followed by all governments since Thatcher. I do believe that many people have been influenced by the poisonous messages from the right wing press. In other cases we just have to say I disagree with you but I respect your right to your own beliefs.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 3rd Dec '16 - 1:43pm


    We are remaining in Europe even as we are probably leaving the EU !

    It is more than the words , it is the psychology of it. Keep putting it the way you do , it is all the worse . W are Europeans. I , unlike some , do not need a level of governance to tell me that. I was a Londoner all through the years without the sainted GLC !

  • William Ross 3rd Dec '16 - 3:03pm

    PJ and Sue. Thanks for the kind words. I keep an open mind and my brother is a dedicated Remainer. We genuinely are all human even though we have robust disagreements.

    I have mentioned before that LibDemVoice is a site I can visit and challenge views and wind up a little. It also forces me to think out my positions.

    The SNP has no site like this and commentary in too many sites is far too aggressive.

  • ‘Take back control’ is a brilliant piece of political framing which very effectively obscures the real situation. The truth is brexit means swapping one set of trade-offs for another. So for instance I lose the ability to live and work through Europe and in return the UK government gain the ability to strip away employment rights.

  • David Pearce 3rd Dec '16 - 7:12pm

    William Ross,
    the analysis done by pollsters says that 90% of people who believed they would be better off financially with Remain or Leave, voted the way they thought would be better off. There was a small block, about 10% of leave who voted to leave despite believeing they would be worse off for doing so. Its a huge correlation.

    Several opinion polls have come to this exact same conclusion and none contradict it. The truth seems to be that the first consideration in everyone’s mind was which way would they be better off. If they had no firm view either way, only then did they decide based on other issues.

    And that seems to me perfectly sensible, if the EU makes no difference to our economy, why bother with it? I think there are other reasons aside from the economic, but in reality is is a huge trading organisation. Perversely Leave keep saying they want to make new trade deals, and these will involve similar losses of sovereignty as with the EU.

    As to the recession caused by Brexit, there has been no Brexit. No one even knows what Brexit means. Soft Brexit might have minimal economic consequences, though it would seriously diminish Uk influence. The government has allocated billions of pounds to funding the loss of income it expects, and to replace the income which according to its previous expectations it has already lost. The government expects massive negative economic consequences of Brexit, why do you disagree?

    Whatever promises have been made to Nissan, the government cannot bail out every company in this position. They will eventually leave the UK if it becoms clear they no longer have a trade deal with the EU. Similarly the financial sector will go the same way. The long term consequences of Brexit will be far more serious than the short term ones.

    However, there is absolutely no plan how even the short term effects can be paid for. Exit dividend bailing out the NHS? Dream on, the new civil service needed to administer independence seems likely to cost more than our EU subscription.

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