Sarah Olney interview part 2: The Richmond Park campaign

You can read part 1 here.

You were up against a well-supported, well-known and well-funded opponent in Zac Goldsmith, how did you win?

I was very lucky. I won’t deny it. I had the full Lib Dem by-election machine behind me. Because we thought we could win, they decided to really go for it. I had a group of people who knew what they were doing. They built a fabulous team and mobilised all those volunteers. I was very fortunate to have that support.

We were also able to fundraise. This was important, as we managed to neutralise Zac Goldsmith’s advantage over us. You would think finances would be his huge advantage, but there is only a certain amount you are allowed to spend, and, through fundraising, we were able to spend as much as he was.

It was so important to have all those thousands of volunteers descend to Richmond Park. They pounded the pavements. They delivered leaflets and canvassed. There is no substitute for doing all the door-to-door work over many weeks. I was so so lucky that so many people came and helped.

I think Zac helped too by running his own not so good campaign. And having run that mayoral campaign, it did put a lot of people off.

Are you not missing something?

Am I? What?

I feel you are being rather modest. As important as those you’ve just mentioned may be, you were the candidate, and the public voted for the person standing. What do you feel you brought to the campaign?

It’s really difficult for me to say for two reasons. Firstly, it’s never easy to be objective about yourself. Secondly, I have no experience of any other previous campaign. This is the first parliamentary campaign I’ve been involved in. I do not have a frame of reference as to how much impact the candidate has. I guess I must have been a positive influence in some way. I think it may have something to do with being the non-political politician, if you know what I mean. I don’t feel I’m the right person to ask about the impact I personally had.

Some people revel in talking about themselves!

Not me.

Did you expect to win?

I had a funny feeling we might, but I had that from when the by-election was called. At that time, there was no reason whatsoever to think we would win. We always knew there was a chance, a road to victory, if we just kept getting the leaflets out and pushing it as much as possible. If we did that, we knew we could win. The campaign team were tracking the numbers as they went through. Sometimes they shared them with me, sometimes not. So throughout, we always knew there was a possibility we could win. It wasn’t like it dawned on us at midnight on polling day. I was sitting in my living room watching the coverage on the tele. That was when I realised we probably had won.

Were you prepared when you won on that night?

No. I wasn’t remotely prepared. Not just because I was an accountant when elected, but I had very little experience in the field of politics. I hadn’t been a councillor, never worked around parliament, never worked in a public policy or PR role and had no lobbying experience. I had none of those experiences to draw upon. I’m still trying to figure out how it all fits together and the role of an MP within that.

In a way, it’s an advantage. I haven’t come in with an expectation of what an MP is supposed to do. I haven’t, for example, crossed the floor from being a lobbyist to being an MP and haven’t responded to lobbyists the way that they expect to be responded to. As an MP, I’m a blank slate. I’m learning as I go along.

So your lack of experience is working for as well as against you?

I think so. I get many responses from people who say they voted for me or like me because I am a bit of a fresh face. They feel they can relate to me more because I’m a normal person who’s gone into politics rather than a politician, and that does work quite well. Obviously, there’s a limit. At some point, people’s expectations of their MPs need to be fulfilled, so I do need to figure out quite quickly what those are.

In his speech to Conference yesterday, introducing you, Nick Clegg said it was the most remarkable by-election victory he’d ever known. He also lauded you personally. How did praise like that feel coming from someone with the stature of Nick?

I was watching my toes curl as I sat there. I find it difficult to listen to people saying that kind of thing. It is nice. I’m obviously very flattered. As I say, I have no frame of reference. I haven’t sat in the hall and listened to other by-election candidates being applauded before.

But when somebody who was the Deputy Prime Minister and one of the most successful leaders of the party in history, says that about you, someone who wasn’t even involved in politics two years ago, it must be almost surreal?

It is very strange. I think that’s one of the things I’m struggling with because everything has happened so fast. I’m still putting one foot in front of the other. I’m yet to be able to step back and look at the wider picture. So when Nick says that, it’s like ‘That’s just Nick, my new colleague, the guy I sit next to in the Commons.’ That’s what I think. Not ‘Oh my God, that’s Nick Clegg, the former Deputy PM.’ It just doesn’t work on that level. It’s more like ‘Thanks Nick, that’s nice of you!’

Did you thank him afterwards?

I don’t think I saw him afterwards. I was whisked away for selfies and various other things.


(To be continued tomorrow.)

* Rob May is a Political History PhD student and Lib Dem activist.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Richard Underhill 28th Mar '17 - 11:23am

    Some credit should go to Susan Kramer, whose credibility as a recent MP and as a former candidate for Mayor of London obviously had an effect on the voters and on the local newspaper. Susan was also excellent on TV on election night as we waited for the result.

  • Nice interview. However…
    Sorry but I can’t allow the claim of Nick Clegg as ‘one of the most successful leaders of the party in history’ to pass without comment. I know Nick is now enjoying something of a renaissance as Brexit spokesman – and he is doing a fine job on that. But under his leadership we went from 56 MPs to 8, 12 MEPs to 1, 15 MSPs to 5… Do I need to go on? AMs, councillors, members, finances, poll ratings, general credibility and trust: every one of these fell disastrously. I don’t want to open up yet another discussion on whether we right to go into coalition. FWIW I think we were, BUT we then failed dismally to project a positive distinct Liberal identity within the govt, and when it became clear that our strategy was failing there was no serious attempt to change it. And that has to be down to the leader.
    I know some will say the 2010 GE result was good, but actually most of us at the time (including Nick I believe) were fairly disappointed on the night to have fallen back in both seats and votes.
    I really don’t mean to be negative or nasty. I just think we have to be honest about what’s happened to this party in the last 7 years or so. The fightback is definitely very real. But so too is what happened before it.

  • Hi TonyJ. I’m glad you liked the interview. And thank you for your comments. I was hoping an eagle-eyed observer would challenge me on the point that you quite rightly raised. I intend to write an article defending my, albeit controversial, statement, and I look forward to hearing your response to it.

  • Thanks Rob. So refreshing to be able to express an opinion on social media and get a genuinely friendly, /human/ response! Why, it’s almost like we’re having a real conversation!! 8=0)
    I’ll look forward to seeing your article.

  • Hi Tony, a small correction. You say our vote fell back at the 2010 election. It didn’t. It was the best result in percentage of vote since 1983.

  • Fair enough. Thanks for the correction. We got 22% in 2005 and 23% in 2010. Net loss of 5 seats though. I think my overall point stands.

  • I’m not sure it would class as the most “remarkable by-election victory ever known”. Though was Nick a party member for Eastbourne or Ribble Valley. Let alone Edge Hill, Orpington or Bermondsey. Let alone Hamilton, Glasgow Govan, Carmarthen, Bradford West or somewhere like Ashfield in the late 70s. Or ones that get forgotten as holds but were hugely significant like Darlington or Glasgow Garscadden.

    Richmond was a seat with a strong historic Lib Dem presence which had elected Lib Dem MPs fairly recently and where the party had been preparing for a by-election for some time (either over Heathrow or if Zac won the Mayoral election – which he was favourite for at some points). It was on of those “no middle ground” by-elections which was an impressive win but would have been a disaster to lose.

  • Bill le Breton 29th Mar '17 - 3:31pm

    but the Party’s target in 2010 was 100+ seats

    and for the first time we were part of the leader’s debate; think what Paddy or Charles would have made of that exposure.

    as it was, in the first debate we made the expected leap in the polls, but when we came under the inevitable counter attack we went quiet. we failed to respond to the negative campaign, which is the biggest mistake in politics. rebuttal is the art of such campaigns.

    our campaign manager who had never fought a political campaign before froze, as did the leader, hoping that the poll boost would hold for the remaining fortnight. of course it didn’t.

    the 2010 campaign was a shocker, with resources being sprayed around instead of being concentrated as in all campaigns since 1992.

    it has to be said that it was the first campaign for many years that Chris Rennard had not be part of, but Chris was not the only star political campaigner in the ranks of the Liberal Democrats. anyone who had a clue about campaigning was ignored.

    Leaders must be judged on those who they appoint. The campaign appointments post 2007 were appalling. The 2015 campaign was also appalling, with no realistic assessment of ground strength, push polling that gave campaign leaders a false sense of how things were going, and then of course the BluKip campaign that strengthened both the Tory and Ukip waverers decision to desert the Liberal Democrats in our held seats.

  • Rob, I’m afraid you are deluding yourself if you really believe Nick was anything other than the worst leader this party has ever had. He became leader – He reorganised the party (aka the Bones Commission) to streamline (allegedly) its work – He appointed his chosen supporters to key roles – He led us in a 2010 general election – He had a party political broadcast focussed solely on him called Say Goodbye to Broken promises – He became DPM because a fluke in electoral arithmetic led to the Lib Dems holding the balance of power despite losing 5 seats – He broke his pledge and condemned the party to near oblivion.

    The Conservatives and the others of the authoritarian far right must think themselves so blessed that so many of those on the liberal left are so naïve as to believe that Jeremy Corbyn who is losing Labour votes, and Nick Clegg who almost destroyed our party are icons to be almost worshipped. They must believe they will be in power for decades. The problem is – They may well be right.

  • The past is past, we have to learn from the horrible mistakes we made, within which I include myself. Forget coalitions, let a minority government take effect, keep our feet on the ground not operate in the realms of unreality, be distinctly different, especially in places like Scotland, do not renege on front line financial promises that people really care about, know when to get out of arrangements, do not keep attempting to bolster ourselves with false illusions, keep expectations within the real world and the magic word, be REALISTIC at all times.

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