IN A year of grim defeats for internationalists in Britain and abroad, a morsel of relief. The Liberal Democrats pitched yesterday’s by-election in Richmond Park as a chance for voters to voice scepticism about Brexit. The gambit worked: Sarah Olney took the south-west London seat with an increased vote-share of 30.4 points. Zac Goldsmith, the languidly aristocratic Brexiteer who fought a dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty in May, had triggered the vote in October by resigning from the Conservatives in protest at plans to build a third runway at nearby Heathrow Airport. By covering off this issue (the greenish Lib Dems are also opposed) and making the choice about Europe, his opponents pulled the rug from under him.
It is tempting to see this primarily as a blow for the Tories. As I wrote in my column in September, the Lib Dems have been doing strikingly well in those prosperous but relatively liberal parts of the country that voted Conservative at the last election but for Remain in the Brexit referendum. First came a series of triumphs in council by-elections in such places, then a strong showing at the election to replace David Cameron as MP for Witney. Richmond Park, a posh, metropolitan place where 75% of voters were for staying in the EU, could hardly be a better test of the trend. Indeed, the line on our chart plotting the change in the Lib Dem vote share against support for Remain in Tory areas predicted yesterday’s result to within a couple of points of accuracy.
All of which will give some Conservative MPs the jitters. It was a surge of wins in Lib Dem seats that gave the party its majority last year. That vote is soft: in many of these places voters switched at the last minute, spooked by Tory warnings about the influence Scottish nationalists would have on a Labour government. Especially in those that voted Remain—think Bath, Cheltenham, Kingston & Surbiton, Twickenham—the Lib Dems look newly threatening.
Yet nor should Conservatives panic. Richmond Park voted unusually strongly for Remain. Standing as an independent (even if the Tories did not run a candidate against him) Mr Goldsmith did not have a party machine behind him. It being a single by-election, the Lib Dems could concentrate their limited resources—Richmondites will be relieved now to be able to go to the shops without being buttonholed by Tim Farron on the way—and deny their opponents the chance to talk about national leadership. The next general election will be different: however badly Brexit is going in 2020, the inevitable Conservative “vote Farron, get Corbyn” scare campaign will make last year’s “vote Clegg, get Miliband and Salmond” onslaught look like a picnic.
Which points to the real message from Richmond. The outgoing MP may be a Conservative (until recently, at least). But the loser was Labour. The party took 3.7% of votes, down from 12.3% last year, and lost its deposit. It obtained fewer votes (1,515) than it has members in the seat (it claims over 1,600). That may reflect tactical voting: left-wing voters lending support to Ms Olney. But it also speaks to Labour’s lacklustre voice on Europe (notwithstanding the wise appointment of Sir Keir Starmer as its Brexit spokesman) and general funk.
And it speaks to a wider structural evolution. Three or four years ago, with UKIP on the rise and the Lib Dems in power with the Tories, the talk was of the fragmentation of the right of British politics. That period seems to have passed. The 2015 election saw the Conservatives consume the Lib Dems’ centrist flank. The Brexit vote and Theresa May’s nationalist tilt has attracted back some Tory defectors to UKIP (hence her party now routinely exceeds 40% in polls).
Today the fragmentation is more on the left. Particularly under Paul Nuttall, its statist new leader, UKIP is now overwhelmingly a problem for Labour; especially in the sort of post-industrial areas that have long voted for the party but strongly supported Brexit. In Scotland, Labour support has been gobbled up by the SNP: the latest ICM poll puts the Conservatives (the Conservatives!) there on double Labour’s vote share, 22% to 11%. And the Lib Dems are clearly loosening Labour’s grip on Remain-voting progressive types in the comfortable parts of the big cities and in university towns (think Cambridge, Manchester Withington, Cardiff Central). And that’s without going into the fragmentation taking place within the party itself, among its moderates, the Corbynites and the spectrum of shades in between.
Confronted with this fragmentation, an open-minded Labour Party might start thinking about a more federal approach to politics; alliances, electoral pacts and semi-detached regional branches together enabling the British left-of-centre to build a coalition that could one day win power under first-past-the-post. Cross-party initiatives like Paddy Ashdown’s “More United”, which helped rally support for Ms Olney in Richmond, are sprouting up. But only a few in Labour evince an appetite for such pluralism. Take this typical tweet last night from a moderate MP: “Off to bed, hope to wake to news of Labour victory in #RichmondPark. If not, really don’t care who wins.”
This giant conundrum—fighting multiple battles on multiple fronts, defending a metropolitan flank and a nativist one simultaneously, resisting an instinctive tribalism—could be beyond the abilities even of a charismatic, collegiate and persuasive Labour leader. But landing on the desk of Jeremy Corbyn, the full scale of whose electoral toxicity is yet to emerge, it could reshape the political landscape over the next decades: think the Lib Dems, Labour and UKIP all on around 15-20%, the SNP dominant in Scotland, and the Tories taking the rest. All of which, under first-past-the-post, is a recipe for a succession of Conservative landslides. Making predictions in these volatile times is a risky business: a chaotic, disorderly Brexit (a possibility Lord Kerr, a top former diplomat, on Monday put at above 50%) could reshape the landscape in other ways hard to imagine now. But if you think the Richmond Park result was a straightforward blow to the Tories, think again.