All byelections are exceptional and Richmond’s more than most, notes Lindsey German
It might be sensible to look beyond the ridiculous hype over the Richmond by election. The first bit of hype is that this is an unparalleled victory for the Lib Dems. In fact it was a Lib Dem seat until 2010, when Zac Goldsmith won it. The big majority for him in 2015 says more about the Lib Dems being blamed for the coalition government than it does about Goldsmiths support. The very posh western riverside suburbs, of which Richmond is the poshest, have long had a strong Lib Dem and to an extent Green base. Labour is never going to win here.
Goldsmith wanted this to be about the third Heathrow runway but all the candidates were opposed to it, thus neutralising the issue in this election. What it became about was in my opinion three things: The Tory government, Brexit and Goldsmith himself. On the first, I have to say I find the polls hard to believe because when there is actually an electoral contest they do much worse than expected, both here and in the Witney byelection, and in local contests. This election result makes May more vulnerable and I think we will see lots of trouble for her in the new year.
The second issue was Brexit, the Lib Dems made it a big issue given Goldsmiths support for leave. They reckon they won 30% of Tory leave voters to vote LibDem. Maybe, but as political scientistJohn Curtice said on the radio, there were a hell of a lot of remain voters who stuck with the Tories, given that it was 70% remain in the constituency. Insofar as people voted Lib Dem in Richmond, that isn't so surprising, but it doesn't mean an endorsement of the Lib Dems strategy to vote against triggering Article 50. Indeed I can think of little more that would provoke anger from working class leave voters than for the Richmond by election to be held up as a justification for ignoring their vote.
The third issue which the Lib Dems admit was a factor was Goldsmith’s own reputation. It may not be apparent to non Londoners, but his racist campaign against Labour mayor Sadiq Khan, amplified by Cameron, caused him terrible damage at the time and is obviously still doing so. Lib Dems reported Labour leave voters who were won to them to get rid of Goldsmith.
I'm very glad that his career has ended in such public failure because it is all that he deserves. But I don't see this victory as one for the left. Those who do should reflect on the Lib Dems and their record on propping up a Tory government, backing student fees, the bedroom tax and every neoliberal policy put forward. And the Lib Dems line on reversing the referendum result is profoundly undemocratic.
Labour was unsurprisingly squeezed in Richmond, but Labour’s task is to present an alternative to the Brexit being put by May and to argue for using it to create jobs and end austerity. There can be no unity with the Lib Dems over that if we are serious about promoting working class interests.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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