Richmond Park: what happens next for Sarah Olney and her team?

10 years ago, I was part of the team in the last by-electon we gained, when Willie Rennie spectacularly won Dunfermline and West Fife in then Chancellor Gordon Brown’s backyard. At that time it was a political earthquake. It was also a huge victory at a time of crisis for our party. Only weeks before, Charles Kennedy had resigned as leader. During the by-election campaign there seemed to be a tabloid scandal about our leadership candidates around every half hour. We still came through and elected Willie as our 63rd MP.

A decade on, we only have a 7th of that number and the Richmond Park by-election win comes at a time when our party has stared down extinction. It confirms what we have come to realise over the past few months – that the old adage that where we have a presence, and are willing to put the effort in, we can have some spectacular results. That should also impress anyone who might be thinking about backing us financially. That backing in turn gives us the capacity to expand our operations, creating a virtuous cycle. We have to make sure that we seize this moment.

Sarah Olney enters the Commons as part of a band of 9 and as the only woman. The 8 men will need to make extra effort to make sure that they welcome her and listen to her.  One of the things we found really useful was the advice and support from colleagues and I’m sure that they will have lots of helpful advice for her and her team.  Susan Kramer as the previous MP for the constituency will no doubt be a marvellous help too.

On Monday, she will head across the river to Parliament and will approach the Speaker’s Table, flanked by two of our MPs. At a guess, I’d say Tim Farron and Nick Clegg, but I might be wrong. She’ll take the oath, sign her name in the book and from that point on, she will be officially an MP.

However, I expect she’s getting casework calls already. I had been dealing with casework during the by-election, a role that I went on to do full time for Willie for the next four and a half years. In HQ on the Friday morning, we were getting calls from people. Even though we had zero parliamentary resources, we had to get on with helping them.  Again, colleagues in other offices were brilliant with advice on how to navigate the system and get help from places like the Tax Credit Office and the DWP.

You kind of expect the mother of parliaments to be a bit more on the ball with sorting out its newest members. Not so much. If you are elected at a General Election, there are masses of inductions and stuff that you go through. You don’t get that if you win at a by-election. You have to learn on the hoof.

At least we had our by-election HQ. In 2003, when Sarah Teather won Brent East,  she had to work from her kitchen until Parliament reconvened in the Autumn.

Even when Parliament was sitting, it took about two months for us to get all the equipment we needed to run our office properly. Sarah will probably find she has a Westminster office in a turret of the furthest away Norman Shaw building so she’ll have to practice her running to get to votes on time.

Those first few months in Dunfermline were fantastic as we got into a routine of surgeries and getting to know key figures in the various local communities and helping people with their problems. For four years, it was the best job I ever had. I hope that Sarah and her team find the experience as enriching and rewarding as we did. It’s full on, but being in a position to improve people’s lives and do some good is an enormous privilege.

* 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 Underhill 2nd Dec '16 - 1:08pm

    The BBC Daily Politics on Friday 2/12/16 summed up the week in 60 seconds without mentioning a parliamentary by-election in Richmond Park. Let’s be charitable and assume that they put together their package before the result was known. Maybe they will mention it on the Sunday Politics, or next week.
    We should not get into a debate with Tory MP Bone about alleged BBC bias. We should remain evidence based.

  • Richard Underhill 2nd Dec '16 - 1:13pm

    As a London MP Sarah Olney might be helped by sharing with another London MP for a while.

  • Laurence Cox 2nd Dec '16 - 1:29pm

    @Richard Underhill

    We had Tim Farron being interviewed on the Daily Politics; that is worth much more than a brief mention on the week in 60 seconds.

  • Mick Taylor 2nd Dec '16 - 1:31pm

    What is needed now is that all the people who helped in Richmond enjoy today and spend the weekend and next week in Seaford.

  • Hope they go to SLeaford!
    Will history show that losing the referendum was the best thing that could have happened to the Lib Dems, given us a platform distinct from others. which has significant support. After Torrington, Orpington, Rochdale and Eastbourne by elections we suddenly spurted in the Opinion Polls from single figures to the teens. Let us hope history repeats.

  • theakes

    The parties position on the EU may have helped, but it’s a Labour front bench of Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott and Thornberry that is the best thing to happen to the Lib Dems.

  • Andrew McCaig 2nd Dec '16 - 2:11pm

    Sarah is going to have to learn to deal with hostile interviewers ambushing you after a euphoric night without sleep. (See talk radio and a million retweets…)

    I would have done no better I am sure, but in the cold light of day the answer to the question “when will there be another by-election in Richmond Park” is “There WILL be a chance for RP voters to democratically judge me in 2020. I want the SAME chance to vote on the terms of Brexit, but you and your friends want to deny me that chance. Why?”

    Lib Dems everywhere should resist this “antidemocratic” argument whenever it is voiced. Calling for another vote can NEVER be antidemocratic. It is the Leave side that wants to fossilise one vote on one day in stone to the detriment of future generations

  • Alasdair Brooks 2nd Dec '16 - 2:18pm

    A quick note in reponse to Frank Little’s comment…

    I have no idea if Prof. Curtice commented on Richmond Park during the campaign, but he hasn’t been quiet this morning. His immediate analysis is, as it happens, fairly encouraging to LibDem supporters:

    And I honestly can’t remember what he said in the lead-up to the 9 Feb 2006 Dunfermline by-election – it’s a long time since I lived in Dalgety Bay – but given that the party’s own leaked minutes from an 11 Jan 2006 meeting made it clear that the LibDem leadership didn’t think Rennie had a chance of winning, and were mainly aiming to finish ahead of the SNP, if he did fail to predict a LibDem victory he was in good company (though I don’t doubt Caron and the rest of Rennie’s team were delighted to prove everyone wrong).

  • I’m hoping that after a very busy few weeks, Sarah enjoys a well earned early night tonight, and doesn’t bother setting the alarm for tomorrow morning!

    Every politician, and political commentator is, of course, speaking to every media outlet available to put their own spin onto the significance of the results, and what it does or does not prove. Unsurprisingly, the results generally proves what they thought in advance. However, there’s no doubt that the Tories are rattled. A strong message coming out from a number of media sources is how we (and I don’t just mean the LibDems) got the benefit from collaborative working. I think the result in Witney got a few people thinking, fortunately, and the result was the proof of the pudding.

    Ultimately, the significance of the result is that the Tories have a reduced majority, the LibDems have an extra member, and Sarah is our newest MP. I hope Sarah, after he nice sleep, will get plenty of support to become the best MP she can be. Being new to active politics is both a blessing and a curse. There will be a lot to learn, She’s got three and a half years to prove herself before the “2nd vote”. As an aside, I fully agree that it should be easy to respond to the “2nd referendum jibes”, but I can’t believe the PR people thought Sarah would get anything but petty sniping from from Bradbury, whose only goal was to try to trip her up. Sarah will need to do the tough interviews, but everyone wanted to speak to her today, so the perfect excuse to pick and choose.

    When it comes to being sworn in, I imagine she will have Tim on hand. He’s the current leader and his profile and popularity is growing. However, I think it would be a mistake to have the former leader there too. It’s looking back, and comes with baggage. It’s up to Sarah, and she may have one MP that she feels particularly close to, but with all else being equal, I’d pick Tom Brake as a fellow London LibDem MP, who is also relatively new to the job.

  • Sorry, had a brain f*rt there. Tom isn’t new to the job, but he is a fellow London MP, and a natural ally for Sarah.

    (I’m blaming too much excitement last night and today)

  • Have to agree with Andrew McCaig that it was not a brilliant idea for Sarah’s team to allow her onto Julia Hartley-Brewers radio show, has given the right wing press more chance to make their idiotic arguments and make our party look weak and confused.
    Going onto a show with such a hostile host when you are exhausted after the campaign and new to politics is not sensible.

    Also agree we must resist these arguments that Brexit vote only means hard-Brexit and that any further vote is undemocratic. Also we must resist comparing parliamentary vote with the referendum, Hartley-Brewer saying there should be a second vote as Sarah didn’t get 50% was typical of the woman but ignores the fact that multi-candidate first past the post is not the same as 2 choice referendum. Very few MPs get 50% of the vote, including some of the cabinet (Amber Rudd for example).

  • Andrew McCaig 2nd Dec '16 - 9:28pm

    Jon Moore,

    I think the key point is actually that voters in Richmond park WILL get another vote in a few short years time.. They get that even when MP’s have far more than 50%. But when there is a referendum where on a particular day a scant 52% of those who bothered to vote gave the result Hartley-Brewer wanted, then there should be no more votes for a generation or two!

    (of course we do need to be careful not to keep ruling out referenda in Scotland on the same grounds as Harley-Brewer)

  • Sue Sutherland 3rd Dec '16 - 1:59pm

    One thing I hope that Sarah’s election will do is to encourage our parliamentary party to be more publicly dismissive of Westminster’s antiquated ways. The SNP were critical of traditions when they arrived en masse and I think we should be too. Jeremy Corbyn tried to change the way PMQs are handled and that’s the one thing I admire about him. Unfortunately when we were in Coalition we seemed to be overwhelmed by our own glory rather than being critical of Parliament the institution. I think we should be looking at reform in the relationship between the public and Parliament and not only the voting system and the House of Lords. A declaration by our peers that they will vote for reform as proposed by the Lib Dems would help, although I realise that Brexit has to be the top priority.
    By the way I thought Julia HB was poisonous and affected in her questions rather than attempting to have a serious hostile interview so don’t let’s be demoralised by her.

  • Regarding the interview by Julia whatever her name is. Brewer is it. I have been a PR rep for an organisation with a hostile media asking questions and I have to say that I was struggling with the opening question and it took time for me to understand what the interviewer was saying herself, ie comparing the by election to the Referendum and calls for a second one.
    Brewer 10 Olney nil. It should be a learning experience but I suspect many MPs will have some sympathy for her after being interviewed by prominent media personnel who frequently give an impression of being more interested in their own presentation and selves than the person they are interviewing, purporting to ask questions that seemingly appear closer to statements.
    My advice do not be bullied into media interviews that you do not want to do. Better an empty seat and get on with your constituency work quietly, effectively and efficiently.

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