After every by-election I write pretty much the same blog post. By elections tell us almost nothing about the state of public opinion, but are nevertheless extremely important in setting the political weather. This one is no different.

First, why they don’t tell us much. By elections are not little mini general elections. They take place in but a single constituency, which is not necessarily representative of the country as a whole. Richmond Park is an extremely affluent slice of South West London – it is not like other places. In a by election that it appears the Lib Dems successfully steered onto the issue of Brexit it is wildly unrepresentative – on Chris Hanretty’s estimates it voted 72% to remain, making it one of the thirty most remainy constituencies in Britain (and the fourth most remainy out of the 330 Tory constituencies). Secondly, by elections don’t change the government. In a real election the public are heavily influenced by issues like who they trust to run the country, who will the best PM. By elections don’t change that, so there are different dynamics. Thirdly, the intensity of campaigning is different, so larger swings are common. Campaigning was a particularly unusual issue here because Goldsmith was running as an independent – while some conservative MPs came to help him out, he did not have the might of the Conservative party machine behind him, while the Lib Dems appear to have thrown the kitchen sink, worktop, cooker, etc at it.

So it’s an unusual event in an unusual area that, in isolation, tells us little. It does, however, serve as an illustration of a wider pattern we’ve been seeing in local government by elections, where the Lib Dems have been doing very well. Lib Dems always out perform in local by-elections (and simplistic analyses of them has long been a straw for their supporters to grasp in dark times) but even by their own high standards they’ve been pulling out very positive results that have not been reflected in national polling. My best guess is that the explanation for this is something along the lines of people having stopped wanting to punish the Lib Dems. Having seen them humiliated and almost wiped out of parliament, they think they’ve had their medicine and now when a nice Lib Dem candidate comes along in a by-election people are again willing to give them a hearing. They aren’t doing well at a national level because people don’t hear them – they are the fourth party in votes and seats and struggle to get much coverage.

The impact of this victory will, therefore, be important. It will get the Lib Dems a hearing, remind people they are there and can win. Expect to see a Lib Dem boost in the national opinion polls, like they enjoyed after by-election victories years ago. The Lib Dems have a long history of using by election victories to show they are a viable party and to get themselves noticed. This could be another.

There’s another important impact too, that on the crude Parliamentary maths. Theresa May had a majority of 12, now it’s 10. As that is whittled away defeats become more likely…and an early election becomes more likely. The by election tells us little about what would happen in such an early election. Richmond Park is an extremely pro-EU seat, while a general election would be fought in a country that voted for Brexit. More than three-quarters of Conservative seats voted to Leave (and most those those that didn’t were far closer than Richmond Park). Don’t imagine that the swathe of Lib Dems seats the Conservatives won in 2015 are all itching to go back to the Lib Dems purely on the issue of Brexit – looking at Hanretty’s estimates, 20 of the 27 Lib Dem seats that the Conservatives gained in 2015 voted to Leave the EU.

Previous polling has suggested that the Lib Dems could indeed do very well in an early election fought around the issue of Brexit, and I think that is the case (especially if they are the only explicitly pro-membership party and can win pro-European support from Labour). Nevertheless, those same polls also suggested a very solid overall win for the Conservative party. Britain is NOT just a bigger version of Richmond Park.


789 Responses to “What Richmond Park can tell us…”

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  1. I wonder Lord Neuberger’s comment that if the SC finds that parliamentary approval for triggering A50 is required then the Sewell Convention will apply is the reason for Lord Keen’s unscheduled further intervention.

  2. Tancred “it’s brexiteers v remainers from now on”
    Brexiteers have the task of making Brexit work
    Remainers can only achieve the end of ‘Remain’ either by such pressure as makes any agreement to ‘leave’ between UK and EU tantamount to staying in, or by undermining attempts (Government attempts) to make Brexit work.
    Either way, such actions are opposed to implementing the result of the referendum, which both major parties have said they will respect.
    “Let’s hope it doesn’t end the same way as roundheads v cavaliers.”
    It seems to me that the battles were fought before the referendum, Leave won, and the king’s head came off on 24th June, when Cameron resigned.
    IIRC Cromwell had a few difficulties with the Scots before the civil wars ended.

    Jacob Rees-Mogg’s speech, in particular his question about who was to be advised by the ‘advisory referendum’ is worth listening to.

  3. Perhaps readers might like to consider the reasoning behind McDonalds decision to move its European base from Luxembourg to the UK announced today.

  4. Hireton

    It’s looking increasingly like the entire reason for the UK Government wanting to take the Royal Prerogative route was to avoid the need to consult the devolved nations.

    However the SC rules, the role of the devolved nations in the UK constitution has been pushed up the political agenda in a way that the Tories would not have wanted.

    If the SC upholds the UK Government appeal, then they do not need to consult – and potentially the SC could side-step the devolution arguments as being irrelevant. But the Tory government view will remain in the public arena – and may have political consequences.

    If the appeal is rejected, then it is inconceivable that the SC doesn’t rule on the devolved arguments.

    If it rejects them – that may have political consequences.

    If it upholds them – the Westminster Parliament can ignore them if it wishes (no one argues otherwise), but that may have political consequences too.

    We “are living in interesting times” (as no Chinese proverb ever said – but probably should have).

  5. @ Hireton re Lord Keen’s appearance

    I am not sure about that. But certainly the Agnew submissions which I am only now getting the chance to read fully, do ask the Court to decide whether an LCM should be sought in the event that the Court decides that parliament must trigger S 50.

    I doubt if the Court has made any decision on either of those matters but they certainly might concern Keen.

    In addition, looking at the NI government’s position, the Agnew submission asks for clarification on this point. Assume the Court decides Parliament must trigger s.50 and that a LCM must be sought. However, the NI Assembly may decide against a LCM. In that situation, the EU might decide that the UK had failed to meet its own constitutional requirements in submitting its withdrawal from the EU. (see para 145 Agnew)

    The Agnew submission is going to cause difficulty, I think.

  6. @oldnat

    Indeed. I think the SG can benefit whatever the verdict.

    Interestingly, the SC’s deliberations before they reach their judgement (s) will be led off by the most junior Justice. That is Lord Hodge, one of the two Scottish justices.

  7. dave,
    “It seems to me that the battles were fought before the referendum, Leave won, and the king’s head came off on 24th June, when Cameron resigned.”

    We all know how that eventually ended, with the reinstatement of the monarchy because the alternative was worse. The civil war is an interesting analogy for Brexit.

  8. On a sentimental note: 2 matters of great pride for my country in 2016

    1.The exercise of free choice by a free people in a free vote;

    2.The exercise of reasoned law in open courteous proceedings in the supreme court;

    Not many places on the planet where this could have happened.Brings a tear to the metaphorical eye.

  9. oldnat,
    “If it upholds them – the Westminster Parliament can ignore them if it wishes (no one argues otherwise), but that may have political consequences too.”

    I dont know what was said today, but the headline quote from yesterday actually did not say that Scotland was powerless to prevent Brexit. It appeared to say that Scotland might have powers to prevent changes in its status within the Uk, which changes might follow from Brexit. Or, westminster can Brexit, but only if it does not affect the rights of the Scottish government. Whether these are affected might be complex. It could end up with a very convoluted brexit agreement, or grounds for an appeal to the european court on the validity of article 50 notice, on the basis the UK government had failed to respect the rights of Scotland.

    It is possible the Scots might wish to leave the matter now and start a new case if the government actually fails to hold a consultation. They might need an offence to complain about.

  10. S Thomas

    And wasn’t it great that your country was part of a political union that allowed the government of your country to have a vote on leaving that union, when it thought it was right to do so?

    Can you imagine how dispiriting it would be if your country was part of a political union that would threaten to arrest your government leaders for suggesting such a thing (like Spain) or insist that only the union could authorise a referendum in your country (like the UK).

    Had that been the case, your sentimental notes might have been a lament.

    Some political unions are much more democratic than others!

  11. Danny

    “Headline quotes” are often misleading!

    If the SC rules that the devolved nations must be consulted, there is nothing in the submissions that I have seen, that would justify the SC in ruling that the Westminster Parliament could not overrule or ignore such lack of LCMs.

    Northern Ireland may be different, if the SC accept the argument that Westminster is no longer wholly sovereign with regard to NI, as the UK Parliament transferred part of that sovereignty to the people in NI.

    My point, however, I think remains valid. Whatever the SC decides is likely to have political consequences.

    As the SDLP MP pointed out in Parliament yesterday, there are multi-layered understandings among people in NI (and Scotland and Wales too, I think) as to what devolution meant, and the permanence of the powers devolved.

    If the SC decides that these understandings have no basis in UK constitutional law and, therefore, that those understandings were sold on a false premise, then the political consequences that might flow from that decision should surprise no one.

  12. @oldnat

    Looking at the Keen second submission it seems aimed at establishing that the Sewell Convention is not justiciable. The SC could.accept that and not rule on it .

  13. For me, a major issue for NI, Scotland and Wales is that they get sufficient resources from UK Gov to competently deal with the cascaded powers on agri / fisheries / regional development.

    You can foresee a massive expansion of some UK Gov depts, and Barnett consequential “crumbs” won’t be sufficient for the devolved nations.

  14. Hireton

    Looking at the Keen second submission it seems aimed at establishing that the Sewell Convention is not justiciable. The SC could accept that and not rule on it .”

    Though that would (in political terms) be ruling on it, as it would mean leaving any judgement as to the nature of consultations with the devolved administrations entirely a matter for the UK Government and/or Parliament.

    So back to square one! What do the devolution settlements actually mean?

    If the SC don’t deal with this now, they are going to have to do it at some future point.

    There is also the possibility of someone (probably from Ireland) raising the entire issue of UK “constitutional procedures” per Article 50 at the ECJ.

  15. What happens if the non binding nature of the referendum causes the government real problems in taking forward Brexit, with Parliament not happy to agree unconditional Article 50 triggering and/or no consent from devolved parts of the UK ?

    In this situation which is not impossible, i could see Government facing a choice between a general election or a long Parliamentary process to try to engineer a Brexit position they can obtain agreement on. An election would not resolve the political position, unless a party won a large majority with mostly MP’s pro any version of Brexit. There is no guarantee that government could obtain a Parliamentary majority to engineer an agreed Brexit, that they could actually gain agreement with the EU.

    When you see the difficulty that Theresa May is going to have, you can understand why David Cameron walked away.

  16. “As a case in point, the NFU yesterday was demanding additional immigration from non-EU because EU is not meeting demand for farm workers.”

    if you import millions of workers to do work that is below average productivity then you automatically reduce average productivity and reducing average productivity is slow motion economic suicide.

    the only good solution in that situation is technology that increases the productivity of that work thus increasing wages to the point where people want those jobs

    California is the prime example of this disastrous policy – after silicon valley leaves because of the increasing tax burden, California will be 3rd world

    if farmers themselves can’t afford to r&d the technology needed then the govt should have been doing it decades ago

  17. SC expect to make a decision “by the end of January”

    https://twitter.com/UKSupremeCourt/status/806943949311000577

    If the UK Parliament has to legislate, then that’s a very tight timetable to table Article 50 before April Fool’s Day arrives.

    If the devolved nations have to be consulted (even if to be ignored) then that becomes even tighter.

  18. On a slightly different, but related, issue, is there any mileage in the idea that the PM appointed BJ to the post of Secretary for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs with the purpose of destroying the political career of said BJ, and with it the secondary (or even primary!) purpose of destroying the pro-Brexit juggernaut? If not, why did she appoint him?

    Just wondering…….

  19. @ R HUCKLE
    “What happens if the non binding nature of the referendum causes the government real problems in taking forward Brexit, with Parliament not happy to agree unconditional Article 50 triggering and/or no consent from devolved parts of the UK ?”

    Non-binding, advisory, tyranny of the majority……..clutching at straws?

    I think both Labour and the Tories have given a strong indication of their interpretation of the result.

  20. thoughtful

    ” Boris tells the truth, this time about Saudi Arabia, and theri involvement in what he calls proxy wars in the Middle East.”

    the wikileaks state dept. emails mentioned Saudi etc funding Isis to overthrow Assad

    so the govt/bbc etc are basically helping Isis permanently cleanse the middle east of Christians and others in exchange for what?

    taking away a russian naval base?

  21. @DANNY

    “We all know how that eventually ended, with the reinstatement of the monarchy because the alternative was worse. The civil war is an interesting analogy for Brexit.”

    It is an interesting analogy, but the referendum is not the war. War means violence and bloodshed, and one hopes this will not happen.

    The brexiteers are definitely the puritans – all populists to a man (and woman). The cheerful, rich, elitist remainers are the cavaliers.

    If the battle of Naseby were fought today it would be with tanks and precision bombing. In 1990 nobody believed a civil war would ever be fought again in Europe, then we had the break-up of Yugoslavia.

  22. “Danny
    “Headline quotes” are often misleading!”
    @oldnat December 8th, 2016 at 6:43 pm

    Hmm, surely not:

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4009108/Brexit-slash-150-000-EU-citizens-annual-net-immigration-Britain-independent-study-reveals.html
    Brexit could slash 150,000 EU citizens from annual net immigration to Britain and boost wage for poor workers, independent study reveals

    “Annual net migration to the UK from European Union countries could be slashed by as much as 150,000 as a result of Brexit, a new study has revealed.

    “The drop could damage the economy would be likely to boost the wages of the poorest workers, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (Niesr) said.

    “Under the central scenario, low-paid workers who currently face competition from overseas labour in sectors like catering, hotels and care services might see a wage rise of 0.12 per cent by 2020 and 0.51 per cent by 2030.”

    No wonder the leavers won, with quality journalism like this. It makes me recall the definition of egregious in Yes Minister.

  23. MRJONES

    The war in Syria is over a gas pipeline which Qatar wanted to build, but Assad gave the permissions to Iran.

    Russia supplies most of the Gas into Western Europe hence their interests in keeping that market.

    What’s in it for us the people? very little if not nothing, but check out things like donations to the Clinton foundation – which incidentally have now dried up since she lost. According to Blairs biographers nearly all of his money came from oil rich Sunni Muslim Middle Eastern regimes.

    Do a little research and you’ll begin to see for yourself the truth behind much of the Wests actions in the region.

  24. If anyone is up for predicting the Sleaford result?

    Of the main parties last time, here is the result:

    Con – 56.2%
    Lab – 17.3%
    UKIP – 15.7%
    LD – 5.7%

    How about this for scoring?

    For each party, take away the real result from the prediction. Square the result. Add the squares for all of the predictions for each main party. Divide this by four. Lowest wins.

    I’ll keep a spreadsheet, and post a link to result. The winner gets bragging rights :-)

    My prediction:

    Con – 46
    Lab – 10
    UKIP – 27
    LD – 12

  25. Tancred

    “The brexiteers are definitely the puritans – all populists to a man (and woman). The cheerful, rich, elitist remainers are the cavaliers”

    And the Scots and Irish had their own, different, agendas in their own parochial civil wars – which sometimes interacted with the parochial one in England, but were very different.

    Plus ca change ……..

  26. I remember posting here a piece about a man who was a university academic who claimed to have a formula which would correctly predict the next President, and although people here poo pooed it at the time, he did, once again correctly predict that Donald Trump would win, although I cannot recall what the numbers were.

    Maybe it is possible to write some kind of equation which gets us nearer to the true figures an election will deliver.

  27. i noted that Clegg voted against the Labour amendment last night. His constituency voted leave. He led a party which originally promised a referendum upon the EU but then changed its mind.He sat in coalition with the tories who promised a referendum and did not campaign against it at the 2015 election. He participated in the referendum campaign and i presume would have accepted the outcome if it had been to remain and would no doubt have been outraged if ,in those circumstances, the tories had pressed ahead with brexit.He now votes against accepting Brexit under any circumstances but tells us that the only solution is ,yes, a second referendum the result of which he will accept only if it reverses the first referendum.That does not seem very liberal or democratic but he is a man of principle as any loan paying university student will vouch for.

  28. S Thomas

    Chris Hanretty’s model gives an estimate of 36% Leave for Clegg’s constituency.

  29. Sorbus

    I also saw that only one (I don’t know who) of the 89 MPs who voted against the Lab/Con motion yesterday, represented a constituency that had voted Leave.

    I am unaware of any convention (though the London right wing press seem to have invented one) that MPs are required to vote in accordance with what they are told a majority of voters in E&W meant when they voted to leave the EU.

  30. Anyone know what the new Qatari and Chinese owners of the UK’s super-duper totally Brit-controlled national gas grid are going to do with it?

    With all that “take back control” message, I presume that the Brexiteers have an answer?

  31. ON

    Don’t know who the singleton was either. I was trying to avoid a debate about the propriety of an MP voting contrary to the wishes of those of his/her constituents who expressed an opinion (always assuming that one is prepared to accept that voting against that amendment amounted to doing so). Just wanted to correct a factual error. Facts being sacred and all that.

  32. Sorbus

    The singleton may have been Eilidh Whiteford from Banff & Buchan, assuming Hanretty’s analysis is correct.

  33. @OldNat

    “Anyone know what the new Qatari and Chinese owners of the UK’s super-duper totally Brit-controlled national gas grid are going to do with it?
    With all that “take back control” message, I presume that the Brexiteers have an answer?”

    Doh(a)! I guess we now know where the real power lies.

  34. Oldnat

    I presume they are going to use it to supply gas at a profit, and make money doing so?

  35. Neil A

    I presume so too – since the UK won’t be flooded with Qatari and Chinese citizens doing so, I wouldn’t expect you to be concerned.

    However, it’s seems a little contradictory to the Brexiteer’s message to the Leave voters, don’t you think?

    People swallowing simplistic messages like “take back control” often actually think it meant something. Something like Britain actually controlling vital services like gas supply.

    As sophisticated observers of the structure of such things, we both know that it actually doesn’t matter whether the ownership lies with investors living in Qatar, or with Brits simply hiding their ill-gotten gains there or anywhere else.

    My point (and I apologise for not making it clearer) was that this change in ownership makes much of the rhetoric of the ultra Brit Nats even more ridiculous than it was already.

  36. @Oldnat

    I think you’re stretching a bit on the “take back control” thing. I am sure there are some Brit nats, mostly on the left, who want to apply that principle to the means of production as well as to the running of government. But I think most Brexiteers are relaxed about foreign company ownership. After all, Nissan is something of a poster-girl for Brexit (whether she likes it or not).

    Of course, if you believe that something like the gas grid should be in state hands, that’s a whole other argument, but it’s more of a left-right thing than a Leave-Remain thing.

  37. Labour take a seat from Con in the Hosehay and Lightfoot council by-election (Telford and The Wrekin council).

    Lab 45.9 (+20.5)
    Con 38.2 (-3.8)
    Ukip 15.9 (-1.6)

    Con-Lab swing of 12.15%

    However…the Greens and LDs did not stand so the “swing” is highly misleading.

    https://twitter.com/britainelects/status/806994592943968256

    Early reports that Con will hold Sleaford.

  38. The result above was from Horsehay and LightMOOR. Not Lightfoot.

  39. Reports of Sleaford Parliamenrary by-election say turnout could be below 40%. According to Number Chrunchr Politics this would it in the bottom 5 Westminster by-election turnouts.

    https://twitter.com/NCPoliticsUK/status/807005381348171776

  40. Qualification:

    Bottom 5 postwar turnouts in a Tory Westminster seat defence in a by-election.

  41. Neil A

    “But I think most Brexiteers are relaxed about foreign company ownership.”

    You may be correct and those who voted Leave have no concerns about their services being owned by “foreigners”.

    I can only judge their views by the London papers that they read (and which NatCen suggest is closely correlated with EUref vote).

    Obviously, I only see that material when I’m linked to it on social media (or on the few occasions I am in England) so it might be that I get a distorted picture of the xenophobia that I see in the online London editions of the Mail, Express, Sun and Telegraph,

    If you reassure me that these are not representative of the news feed that English readers get, I will, of course, accept your reassurance on that matter.

  42. “But I think most Brexiteers are relaxed about foreign company ownership.”

    If the reaction to the takeover of Cadbury by Kraft is anything to go by, people of all shade of the political spectrum are more than a little wary of UK firms being taken over.

    Manufacturing removed from the UK
    No tax paid on profits made here
    Product cheapened until it is a pale shadow of what it once was.

    My belief is that the vast majority of people want companies to pay their fair share of tax, and they get pretty annoyed when they don’t.

  43. Catmanjeff 8:54

    Here is my guess, also posted on the Election Guide thread for the Sleaford Constituency on Tues.

    Con 50
    UKIP 19
    Lab 13
    LD 10

  44. @Thoughtful

    The issues you raise are just as likely to exist in a British owned company. There’s nothing especially altruistic about our own capitalists, I think. Although the old Quaker confectioners are perhaps an exception.

    @Oldnat

    I don’t really go on Facebook much these days. Partly but not mainly because my personal associates are mostly left wing and the EU referendum has brought out (what I regard as) the worst in them and I don’t want to hear it. Mostly though I am just tired of social media in general. I don’t really want to see photographs of people’s lunch and videos of cats (well, ok, maybe the videos of cats…)

    As for print media, my paper when I take it (rarely these days) is The Times, which it won’t surprise you to learn is not a great crusader against the ownership of British businesses by massive foreign conglomerates…

    Which leaves TV and news websites as my main sources of news (well, actually this blog is one of my primary sources most of the time). I heard some nonsense talked by the Leave campaign, but the idea that Brexit would be pretext for taking British industry back into British ownership wasn’t something I noticed at all.

    The closest I saw was probably the Labour Leave campaigners who, a little ironically, were one of only two outfits down this way that ignored the moratorium on campaigning after Jo Cox’s death. The other was an eccentric old boy in Union Jack clothing and a funny hat who ran a sort of one-man Brexit campaign. I don’t remember him talking about foreigners buying our companies, but I wouldn’t have been surprised. I didn’t actually take the trouble to engage with him.

  45. @Catmanjeff

    Con 45%
    UKIP 39%
    Lab 4.8%
    LD 4.2%

  46. Neil A

    I seldom go on to Facebook either nowadays.

    My social media sources are mainly those I choose to follow on Twitter – and you lot!

    However, with the greatest of respect, your choice of news sources is as irrelevant as mine to the issue in contention.

    NatCen noted a close correlation between EUref vote and “news”paper readership of choice.

    I don’t suggest that the printed press necessarily cause the unfortunate attitudes of their readers. It seems likely that people choose to read matter that confirms their prejudices.

    When those sources print nonsense that will appeal to those prejudices, it’s not surprising that their readers lap it up.

  47. According to Guido these are the MPs in constituencies voting Leave who voted against triggering Article 50

    “Labour
    Graham Allen (Nottingham North) Nottingham voted Leave (50.8%)
    Chris Evans (Islwyn) Caerphilly voted Leave (57.6%)
    Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-Under-Lyme) Newcastle-Under-Lyme voted Leave (63%)
    Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) Kirklees voted Leave (55%)
    Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) Sheffield voted Leave (51%)
    Plaid
    Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) Carmarthenshire voted Leave (53.7%)
    Mostly in Wales and the North of England. Ripe UKIP territory… ”

    Polling in those constituencies would be very interesting. I suppose only those few who follow politics would even be aware of how their MP voted, but could that mean perhaps a 5% swing against the incumbent? I haven’t checked, but I wonder how many of those seats would fall to such a swing.

  48. @DAVE

    “Either way, such actions are opposed to implementing the result of the referendum, which both major parties have said they will respect.”

    Not strictly true. I would consider remaining in both the single market and the customs union are an effective ‘remain’, despite leaving the EU organisation. Of course the odds are heavily stacked against this as the outcome, but it’s worth fighting for.

  49. @PETE B

    “Polling in those constituencies would be very interesting. I suppose only those few who follow politics would even be aware of how their MP voted, but could that mean perhaps a 5% swing against the incumbent? I haven’t checked, but I wonder how many of those seats would fall to such a swing.”

    Despite the hysterics of the pro-brexit tabloids most people couldn’t give a monkey’s about what their MPs voted for. A minority will, but unless the seat is marginal it won’t matter an awful lot.

  50. @OLDNAT

    “SC expect to make a decision “by the end of January”
    https://twitter.com/UKSupremeCourt/status/806943949311000577
    If the UK Parliament has to legislate, then that’s a very tight timetable to table Article 50 before April Fool’s Day arrives.
    If the devolved nations have to be consulted (even if to be ignored) then that becomes even tighter.”

    Let’s hope the decision arrives on 31 January then! :-)

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