Richmond Park byelection: what exactly is it for?

As our South West train pulled out of busy Vauxhall station, Tim Farron – pleasant manner, daybreak coffee, Preston accent – set out his case for what the Richmond Park byelection is about. “Any byelection, any kind of election, is about what the electorate says it’s about,” he said. We were heading for Richmond station, travelling against the morning peak travel flow. It was, Farron thought, the seventh time he had struck out for the famously handsome London suburban town since his party picked a candidate to try to boot the famously handsome Zac Goldsmith out of his famously handsome Richmond Park parliamentary seat.

“My sense is that Heathrow expansion was, of course, the big thing that everyone talked about in the first week,” Farron went on. He had a point, of course. Indeed, the byelection is only happening because Goldsmith chose to keep a promise he made to Richmond Park electors when challenging the then Lib Dem incumbent Susan Kramer during the 2010 general election campaign that he would, if elected, resign and re-fight the seat as an independent should a Conservative government go back on the promise that had been made by the then shiny new party leader David Cameron in 2009 that if he became prime minister Heathrow airport would not be expanded, “no ifs, no buts”.

But Goldsmith isn’t the only candidate against expansion. The Lib Dems as a party are too. And while Labour appears in favour despite the reluctance of its leader, its Richmond Park hopeful is not. Farron argued that it is the seat’s electorate that has pushed the airport down the pecking order of issues, though given that the Tories aren’t running a candidate, leaving the case in favour of expansion unmade in local hustings or media debate, it’s hard to see how it could have gone anywhere else. “It’s not off the agenda, but people don’t seem to think this byelection is going to shift the dialogue on that, because all the candidates are against it,” Farron reasoned. “Whereas the thing that is going to have the most lasting and significant impact on peoples’ lives is Brexit and the nature of it, if it happens.”

Note that pregnant “if”. The Lib Dems, historically super-europhile and down to just eight MPs, have said that unless the government promises British voters a second referendum on the deal it strikes at the end of negotiations over the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, it will vote against the triggering of those negotiations through the formal mechanism of article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. With this stance, Farron’s party is effectively seeking to claim the 48% who voted to remain in the EU as their own. That’s 48% nationally, of course. In the borough of Richmond-upon-Thames remain took a massive 69.3% of the vote, one of the highest shares in 60% remain-backing Greater London.

The scope for the byelection to be – or be seen as being – a sort of local referendum on the Brexit one is down to Goldsmith, representing one of the borough’s two constituencies, being a noted leaver. Moreover, he is one who has sustained damage to his formerly almost saintly reputation thanks to his shockingly negative and deservedly disastrous London mayor campaign just a few months ago, which sought to create anxiety over his Labour rival Sadiq Khan being Muslim.

It also offers the Lib Dems hope of recovery from its recent, miserable electoral decline. Goldsmith’s defeat of Kramer in 2010 was the start of the collapse of a strong Lib Dem position in this region of Greater London, where the party has since lost three more of the five seats they once held to Conservatives. They also lost control of Richmond Council to the Tories in 2010. Kingston went the same way four years later. Sutton Council and the parliamentary constituency of Carshalton and Wallington are all that’s left of the old orange riviera. Across the capital as a whole the party has just 113 councillors out of 1,851 and one member of the 25-strong London Assembly.

They are, though, taking heart from a generally increasing vote share in borough byelections since the general election and from gaining a Richmond council seat in the neighbouring Twickenham constituency last July. With Labour in parliament all over the place on Brexit, Farron hopes to build nationally on the big swing they secured at the Witney byelection in October. That’s why he’s been willing to trundle from Vauxhall through Clapham Junction and Putney to Richmond so often.

Outside the destination station, Lib Dem activists handed local commuters a four-page spoof of Square Mile free sheet City AM to alarm them on their journeys into town. “Britain’s Brexit Black Hole” bellowed the front page, along with a snapshot of Nigel Farage and his giant gob and the news that “Ukip Backs Zac (see page two)”. On the pavement, candidate Sarah Olney sought engagement. She’s 39, lives locally and works as an accountant at the National Physical Laboratory in nearby Teddington, a world-renowned metrology centre. That means it’s good at measuring thing. Dimwits, it appears, need not apply.

Though it was cold, Olney was sunny-bright despite the Surrey Comet – Richmond is in that zone of ambivalence where the metropolis and the Home Counties meet – reporting that her husband had worked for Heathrow between 2003 and 2007 on Terminal 5. The Lib Dems say the project had already been signed off and that Olney’s husband has subsequently turned down work connected with plans for a third runway at the airport. On the wide pavement, a man of South Asian appearance with a professional manner and businesslike attire talked to Olney for an animated couple of minutes about Brexit and his disquiet over the Goldsmith mayoral campaign, which tried to persuade Hindus and Sikhs to reject Khan, before dashing for his train. The candidate then stood with Farron for a smart phone video shoot: “It’s eight days until a byelection that could change the direction of our country,” her leader said.

Next stop, a short uphill trip through avenues of elegant terraces, was the Vineyard primary school, where, as young scholars scootered by, Olney was told by a local woman accompanying a child for a friend that though she leaned towards Conservatives she’d go Lib Dem this time. Goldsmith’s mayoral tactics came up again. One of the school’s governors told her in a friendly way that he was disappointed that an eight-page Lib Dem publication called Park Life failed to mention education. “We’ve got rid of all the so-called fat,” he said, speaking of straining budgets. “We’ve only got people left to cut.” Olney conceded that he had a point about the campaign literature, though she can certainly claim that she is going big on another cuts issue, the funding of the NHS. The school stands near the lip of the Terrace Gardens on Richmond Hill close to the Thames from where, on a clear day, you can see Windsor Castle. Down the slope in the Hollyhock Cafe, to a background of baby yowls and coffee machine hiss, Farron and Olney communed with locals, mostly women, both young and older.

Goldsmith took 58.2% of the vote in 2015, with more than triple the number of crosses in boxes the Lib Dem candidate secured in finishing second. Can she possibly overturn such a majority? An opinion poll conducted near the end of October gave Goldsmith 45% to Olney’s 22%. What would she consider a good result? Naturally, she says she’s going all out to win. But: “I’m fairly sure that we can take a big chunk out of his majority, and I hope that would be enough to send a message if we didn’t win.” That message would be that “Theresa May is going to lose seats if she pursues a hard Brexit” and that, with “Labour in disarray, it’s the Lib Dems she needs to look out for, rather than Ukip.”

Much of the Richmond Park landscape seems timeless, with its riverside communities and royal herd of deer, but its political map is hard to read with certainty as byelection day of 1 December nears. New Statesman’s Stephen Bush has written that, contrary to common belief, there is strong evidence that Goldsmith “has no personal vote worth talking about” and that any he did have will have been weakened by his Brexit stance and that toxic mayoral campaign.

As Bush observed, Richmond Park contains many of the types of higher-educated Londoners likely to have been turned off by both. This seems underlined by Sadiq Khan’s taking the lion’s share of second preference votes in the mayoral vote, which made his winning margin overwhelming rather than just very large. The decision of the local Green Party to stand aside in favour of Olney ought to help her too. And she has made the calculation that going a bit further than her party over the article 50 vote will be another factor in her favour: she says she’ll vote against it regardless of what it says or any promise of a second referendum and is seeking “a personal mandate” for doing so.

Christian Wolmar, an Islingtonian running for Labour from an HQ in Sheen Lane in Mortlake, takes a more flexible stance. “I think it’s a disaster that we’ve chosen to leave the EU,’ he says. “My instinct is that I would vote against article 50 as an MP. I certainly couldn’t vote for some single-line bill. But if there was more detail, I’d consider voting for it depending on what it said.” Wolmar, who made a genuinely grassroots bid to become Labour’s mayoral candidate, says he’s encouraged by the doorstep response he’s been getting in a seat where his party has become accustomed to finishing a distant third

“People are so pleased to see a Labour candidate,” he says. “There’s been a lot of anti-Tory tactical voting here.” Wolmar declines to define what a good result for him would be, but says he aims to at least establish a good Labour base in Richmond Park for the future. He mocks a comment by Olney that she would not have been helped had Labour too decided not to field a candidate because that would have linked her by association with Jeremy Corbyn. “Labour voters associate the Lib Dems were being in coalition with the Tories, the bedroom tax and all the rest of it,” he says.

Olney is very new to politics, having only joined the Lib Dems last summer. In the cafe she talked observantly about local housing issues, noting the needs of older people and the migration of their sons and daughters to Croydon or Staines because property prices are so very high, but Wolmar claims the Lib Dems will regret her inexperience, citing an uncomfortable Evening Standard interview.

The other large part of the Richmond Park equation and by far the oddest is what exactly is in it for Goldsmith. With various prominent Tories out supporting him, his campaign looks more like that of the Heathrow dissident wing of London and Home Counties Conservatism being indulged by the Tory mothership than a truly independent one.

Goldsmith said a year ago that he regrets his promise to bring about a byelection over Heathrow. Earlier this month, he said that he regrets the direction his mayoral campaign took. Keeping his Heathrow pledge might be seen as demonstrating that he is, after all, the man of principle he and his admirers have kept insisting that he is. By contrast, it might be seen as his last chance to salvage what’s left of that reputation. Should he lose next Thursday, his portfolio of regrets will be complete.

Dave Hill is the author of Zac versus Sadiq: the Fight to become London Mayor, available here and here.