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. @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?”

    There is nothing rational or logical about brexit – it is just a moment of national insanity. Much like the calls to cut immigration will now result in greater non-EU immigration as fruit and vegetables go unpicked and rot in fields.

  2. @Tancred

    I shouldn’t worry about the fruit and vegetables. That land will be needed for the 2m homes we’re going to build anyway…

  3. Tancred
    “…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.”

    That’s more or less what I said. G’night all.

  4. A comfortable win for the Tories at Sleaford, where they look to have found an appealing local candidate.

    A strong result for the Conservatives, and a good outcome for UKIP and the Lib Dems. Labour can only take solace from avoiding fifth place, by just outperforming the Lincolnshire Independent.

    The Labour performance demands explanation: there really is no excuse. They finished second last time and should therefore have been the natural challengers. The anti-Tory vote should have coalesced around Labour, especially with UKIP in disarray, and the Lib Dems nowhere.

    Instead, they finished fourth, and nearly fifth.

    This is where seemingly irrelevant by-election results acquire significance. I was very struck by the fact that the bookmakers very quickly dismissed any thoughts of a good Labour performance. They were 100/1 to win from the outset.

    In a curious way, Sleaford will be quickly forgotten by all concerned except Labour. It really is a dreadful showing, and there is no obvious legitimate explanation. In a quiet way, it is the clearest confirmation yet that Corbyn-style Labour is completely unelectable.

    It won’t go unnoticed by the PLP.

    Bear in mind that this comes after Corbyn has had a decent few weeks.

  5. Millie,
    By my calculation the winner got the support of about 15% of her constituents eligible to vote. 20% of those registered, which I would reduce proportionately for those missing from the registers.

    I would call that a very uncomfortable win for democracy. Demonstrating the potential as discussed earlier for both opinion and actual polls to be upset by unexpected groups turning out on a particular day.

    Lib dems the only group to actually increase their number of votes cast.

  6. Ironic that Zac’s vote* in Richmond fell less (numerically and as a % of the no of votes he got in 2015) than the Conservatives in Sleaford did from 2015.

    Roughly 34,000 to 18,000 in RP compared to 35,000 to 17,500 in Sleaford.

    Zac has a 39% majority overturned. Dr Johnson increased Cons majority to 41% in Sleaford.

    Shows what an enormous difference turnout (and split opposition) make. Or, putting it another way, how motivated people are not just to turn out for the incumbent, but actively against the incumbent. Zac became increasingly polarising, Dr Johnson gave no cause for people to dislike her personally (a lot easier when you’re not the incumbent MP, obviously).

  7. Danny

    That’s quite typical for by-elections, especially in December. I wouldn’t worry about Democracy too much based on the Sleaford by-election. :)

    Plus, it’s not so hard to be the only party to increase your vote numerically when you start from close to zero.

  8. Millie

    This doesn’t really tell us anything about Labour. They were 40% behind in the first place, nearly.

    As someone else pointed out on the constituency thread, the only marginal by-election where they were competitive – Tooting – they held fairly comfortably. Maybe things have changed since then, but a by-election in Sleaford won’t tell us that.

  9. @BT Says..

    In Sleaford the main threat to the Conservatives was UKIP.

    As a long time observer of politics in Yorkshire, UKIP’s Victoria Ayling is well known to me. She always seemed a very marmite candidate, and always had the ability to antagonise others very easily.

    I think if UKIP had picked a more open and friendly candidate, they might have done much better, and made life much tougher for the Conservative candidate.

  10. “just to put the scale of the Con win into context, in by-elections held while the Conservatives were in government, it was:

    – The largest Con vote since Richmond, 1989 (if Richmond Park 2016 is excluded)
    – The largest Con share of the vote since Beaconsfield, 1982.
    – The largest Con % lead and largest Con majority since Arundel & Shoreham, 1971.”

    comment on pb

  11. @Colin

    Theresa May will take many positives from Sleaford.

    I could list a number of things that are currently happening in the country, that the the Government are not handling well. Under such circumstances an opposition that looks like being competitive would start to be the recepticle of the protest against it

  12. @Colin

    Theresa May will take many positives from Sleaford.

    I could list a number of things that are currently happening in the country, that the Government are not handling well. Under such circumstances an opposition that looks like being competitive would start to be the receptacle of the protest against it.

    Labour in Sleaford and Richmond have gone backwards. That must be very concerning. If Labour want to be in the fight at the next GE it needs to gain 50+ seats. Where will these come from?
    Scotland? Out of play for a generation, or several generations.
    The South or South West? The Lib Dems are fighting back hard, and starting to keep deposits (very psychologically important). Labour look likely to be third place.
    The Shires? Solid blue and any protest going to UKIP or maybe Lib Dem.

    Labour look safer in their heartlands and parts London, but there are not enough seats there to get close to 50 extra seats.

    I don’t think there is a broad positive warmth for the Conservatives, but with opposition splintered across various parties, and key indicators (such as economic competence, Leadership etc) being even worse among these opposition parties, that doesn’t matter.

    2020 may be a comfortable win for the party perceived to be considered least worst option – the Conservatives – unless somethings really radical happens.

  13. Catmanjeff

    That’s a fair summary i think. Clearly a good result for the Tories as Colin points out with his historical comparisons. 66% of voters supporting Brexit candidates.

  14. Tancred

    ” The cheerful, rich, elitist remainers are the cavaliers”

    Except that there are many Cheerful, rich, elitist Brexiters like myself and friends. As it happens I suspect I would also have fought for the King during the ECW if I had been alive then.

  15. @TOH – “As it happens I suspect I would also have fought for the King during the ECW if I had been alive then.”

    I doubt it. You’re a democrat, after all.

  16. I don’t think Sleaford tells us a huge amount. There were no expectations of any unusual happening, and the expectations were met.

    The relative positions of the parties, and increases/decreases in vote share, shouldn’t be looked at with too much interest because of the low turnout. Without detailed polling inside the constituency (and who would bother?) we just don’t know how much of the limited change is due to differential turnout, an unwinding of tactical voting or other factors. As always with by-elections my starting point is “nothing to see here” unless someone can convince me otherwise.

    Labour are struggling a bit with a lack of a USP on the Brexit issue. Tories have the “getting on with it” narrative. LDs have the “let’s stop it narrative”. UKIP have the “no backsliding narrative”. All Labour have is the “you need to consult with us before we definitely back you, but we will definitely back you anyway” narrative which may be sensible in the long term as a way of hedging against hostility from particular voter groups but isn’t likely to enthuse anyone to get off the sofa to come and agree with it.

    As and when Brexit moves off the top of the agenda, Labour may enter sunnier climes on issues like the NHS and care of the elderly where they do have a strong and clear message that might get people motivated. But I think the Brexit cloud is going to rain on their parade for some time to come.

  17. CMJ

    I agree.

    She is lucky to have Corbyn.

  18. @Alec

    I am not sure why, but in my heart I have always been certain I would have been a Royalist too. I am not sure if this is just me patterning my modern opinions onto a totally different circumstance, an innate sense of conservatism, or a strong preference for evolution over revolution. I suspect I would have been a “reluctant Royalist”, wanting reform of the monarchy but no prepared to see it swept away by force even if I didn’t agree with the position the monarch took.

    It’s not as if the 17th century English parliament was actually that democratic after all….

  19. Alec

    You are both right and wrong there Alec. If the Queen acted like Charles !st today I would of course be on th side of parliment. When looking at history however I always try to place myself in the context of the time and how it was perceived by ordinary people. As a Royalist I would have sided with the king even if I had misgivings as did many during that period of our history.

  20. CMJ

    Meant to add that imo EU politics will be the focus of change & interest next year-arguably having more effect on UK than anything TM or her political opponents do.

  21. NeilA

    Snap!

  22. The Sleaford is good for Cons, but doesn’t have the same feel as Richmond – it isn’t newsworthy, and probably doesn’t mean any shift in narrative or momentum.

    It does, I suspect, confirm that Brexit is dominating everything. The Labour position is probably going to be the biggest talking point, and this will be negative for Labour. It’s seems pretty clear that the anti Brexit vote, unimportant as it is in places like Sleaford, is coalescing around the Lib Dems, but this is hardly surprising, as Labour are wallowing around without a clear policy.

    Tories will be relieved that UKIP did not threaten seriously here, which is probably the main message from the result.

  23. Sad to see the media circus over the abuse in football problem gathering pace.

    We really learn nothing as a country. Whilst media coverage is extremely useful for focusing attention on an issue, using these “category” abuse issues to sell papers/advertising is really dangerous. The media compete with each other to present the problem in the most simplified and dramatic terms, delve deeper and deeper into areas that should be the subject of investigation rather than reportage, and once again set the traps for everyone to fall into later on (distorted priorities, harassment of those not proven to have done anything wrong, failure of court cases due to inappropriate publicity and speculation etc).

  24. @Alec

    “It does, I suspect, confirm that Brexit is dominating everything. The Labour position is probably going to be the biggest talking point, and this will be negative for Labour. It’s seems pretty clear that the anti Brexit vote, unimportant as it is in places like Sleaford, is coalescing around the Lib Dems, but this is hardly surprising, as Labour are wallowing around without a clear policy.”

    There is nothing Lab can do about this in the short term. The Ukip and LD positions are clear as they are absolutes. Lab cannot adopt an absolute policy in this area. It has to be nuanced.

  25. One thing that occurs to me on 2016 by elections is that it’s been a good year for women (and please nobody be crass about it not being a good year for Jo Cox).

    This is the 8th by election this parliament. Of those seats Cox was the only woman MP elected in 2015.

    The balance is now five women to three men in the representation of those seats. And four of those women have compelling stories, from the profession of Johnson to the ethnicity of Allin-Khan to the glitz of Brabin. Olney has the enthusiastic localism that may make a long term “fortress LD” MP. Only Furniss appears to be a bit of a party hack (I am sure she is fantastic and lovely, but on CV alone there’s nothing much to see).

    A good haul I think. The prospects for women in politics in the UK do seem quite bright.

  26. NEIL A

    Perhaps I could ask posters here there views on this phenomenon happening in several Northern towns.

    The Labour party has a policy of ‘imposing’ female candidates on certain wards. Where these wards have a high Muslim population they are refusing to elect a female, and standing their own male alternative as an independent who then is elected with a huge majority, thus bypassing Labour wishes.

    Difficult to know how to counter this kind of cultural misogyny and Labour will never criticise their brown eyed boys, but what should be done to counter what is yet another example of a total refusal to compromise or integrate with the society in which they have come to live?

  27. Thoughtless. Give it a rest and show a bit more respect. You were asked to stop this dogmatic xenophobic dog whistling.

  28. MARK W

    If you have evidence to show the piece I have written is untrue in any way then please present it.

    If you have any evidence to show that I have an irrational fear of foreigners then again produce it.

    simply trying to shut down debate and truth by the use oif meaningless bully words is no longer acceptable.

    This growing phenomenon has a direct effect on polling in these constituencies which vote in a different way depending on whether a PPC is male or female, and pollsters now need to take this into account.

  29. labour

    Labour needs to devise a 2020 strategy. Starmer and the neo-remainers need to be silenced. The Party needs to not only accept A50 but make its core northern and midland vote aware that it is supporting it so they do not drift to UKIP.
    The london /south vote will have to be sacrificed for now.
    Any other strategy risks a second scotland for them.
    After 2020 they can revert to “normal”.

  30. warming to a theme. in fact the best thing Corbyn can do is to replace starmer. He might be the toast of labour legal dinner parties with his plans and his strategies but as Tom Watson knows what plays well in Islington is killing Labour in Stoke, Bilston, Dudley and Tipton etc

  31. @ Thoughtful:

    I think you are putting the cart before the horse surely it is for you to produce evidence to support the argument you raise:
    Which wards had female candidates imposed? What was the relative result? Which independent candidates were former Labour members? Did they win? What evidence demonstrates that the reason they won was their gender as opposed to policies espoused?
    To ask for evidence that you are wrong requires research which would be too detailed in the absence of such information.
    Secondly you should not be surprised at the reaction to your posts when you use derogatory phrases about sections of the community such as “brown eyed boys”.
    Reasoned debate requires the provision of information and not opinion expressed in pejorative terms.

  32. @Neil A – “I am not sure why, but in my heart I have always been certain I would have been a Royalist too.”

    You would have been. You’re a policeman, so you would do what you were told.

  33. Re the earlier discussion about whether we should care about ownership of key infrastructure passing into foreign hands (specifically, Qatari/Chinese ownership of the gas grid).

    I suspect that in electoral terms it’s a sleeper: potentially significant, but only if elevated into salience by media or political campaigning. If the DM ran crusading front page stories (‘Another one bites the dust’; “Who’s controlling YOUR pipeline?”) on the topic, then people might realise they care, but in the absence of such prompting, their nationalistic impulses are directed elsewhere. As ever, polling info might shed light on this.

    Personally, I am far more worried about loss of economic sovereignty of this type, than by the largely symbolic issues of political sovereignty around EU membership. For instance, Qatar is the world’s largest LNG supplier, and now it’s moving into UK gas distribution. Will this have long term implications? I don’t know, but clearly our relationship with Saudi is predicated on our reliance on it as an arms purchaser.

    And in economic terms, what we’re seeing is the massive trade deficit being financed by the sale of assets. Fine in the short term, but each sale means a bigger share of the profits flowing overseas instead of into the UK economy. Cumulatively, that erodes our surplus in invisibles, so we’re digging ourselves ever deeper into an economic hole of our own making.

    There is, in my view, a huge difference between the sort of inward investment that creates jobs – setting up a new factory or whatever – and the simple transfer of ownership of existing facilities.

  34. WB

    This happened in a ward of a town where I live naming it would reveal that & it’s not something I want to do.

    In one particular ward a Muslim female councillor who had served for a number of years was upstaged by a male independent Muslim councillor. This despite the fact the Labour councillor had run for council leader so was quite senior. I am told she failed to win this, not because of white Labour members, but the Asian Muslim men who voted against her.

    It is happening in a different ward when a vacancy has arisen a female candidate is being imposed and an independent Male candidate looks likely to take what was once a safe Labour seat.

    This is something which is a recent development, because only a few years ago, they were electing women to council office.

    I do have to ask you why it is, when Labour is criticised for its fawning approach to ‘Asian’ Muslim communities it is not seen by Labour supporters as criticism of them, but criticism of a community?

    How is it derogatory of the community to make a claim that a political party is wrong because it favours them?

    There is no pejorative.

  35. THOUGHTFUL

    @”Difficult to know how to counter this kind of cultural misogyny”

    The Government has just received a Report on where this leads to -with recommendations:-

    https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/575973/The_Casey_Review_Report.pdf

  36. Just a quick google search reveals that this is going on all over Britain:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-35504185

    “A Muslim women’s group has written to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn claiming women have been stopped from becoming councillors by Muslim men in the party.”

    Obviously these Muslim women are just ‘racist xenophobic islamophobic bigots?

  37. @RAF – yes, I agree that Labour has a problem regarding Brexit. I reject @S Thomas’ notion that remainers – in Labour or anywhere else – ‘need to be silenced’. That’s a crass and undemocratic approach, typical of a kind of fundamentalist Brexiter that seems to follow the logic that a democratic expression of the people’s will can never, ever be reversed, even if circumstances change completely and regardless of the fact that the majority was tiny.

    Labour’s challenge is to do what oppositions are paid to do, which is to hold the government to account. Largely because Corbyn is utterly useless at parliamentary politics and couldn’t lead his way out of a wet paper bag, they have no strategy on this, so all that is left is the work by Starmer to ask significant questions of the actual process.

    To the fundamentalists like @S Thomas, this looks like trying to frustrate Brexit, because there isn’t anything else Labour is doing. A good opposition would be able to campaign on the key issues of how Labour voters will be affected by the Brexit deal, contrasting their treatment with the secret assurances given to multinationals, and project themselves as the party that is looking after the interests of their core voters, whether or not they voted for Brexit.

    By doing this, they would keep open their options to campaign against the deal if it doesn’t look promising or if public support for Brexit starts to drain away.

    Labour do have a genuine problem in trying to craft a politically viable opposition stance, and they are faced with a historically difficult task, but just at the point when they need a strong, clear thinking leader with a real grasp of strategy, great communication skills and the ability to bring their party together and lead them through a very difficult battlefield, they have re-elected their worst leader imaginable, and so will probably slide away into irrelevance.

  38. @Somerjohn – “There is, in my view, a huge difference between the sort of inward investment that creates jobs – setting up a new factory or whatever – and the simple transfer of ownership of existing facilities.”

    Absolutely right. This still counts as inward investment, but really it isn’t. It’s a one off sale of a surplus generating asset.

  39. @ Thoughful

    The pejorative was the use of the phrase I outlined not the criticism of the Labour Party.

    More importantly: I am confused as to how imposing female candidates is a fawning approach to Asian Muslim Communities if this is against their “misogynist” tendencies. Surely that is a demonstration of failing to pander?

  40. @TOH

    “That’s a fair summary i think. Clearly a good result for the Tories as Colin points out with his historical comparisons. 66% of voters supporting Brexit candidates.”

    I doubt it. With no chance of the Lib-Dems winning I think many remainers voted tactically for the Tories to keep UKIP out. Even so the Lib-Dems still managed to beat Labour!

  41. A new You Gov poll – hurrah!

    Tory 42% +3%
    Labour 26% -2%
    UKIP 12% -2%
    LDem 11% +2%

    Good for Tories, reasonable for Lib Dems,,not great for UKIP, appalling for Labour.

  42. @S THOMAS

    “warming to a theme. in fact the best thing Corbyn can do is to replace starmer. He might be the toast of labour legal dinner parties with his plans and his strategies but as Tom Watson knows what plays well in Islington is killing Labour in Stoke, Bilston, Dudley and Tipton etc”

    No, quite the opposite. Starmer is one of the few credible people in the Labour front bench. Labour cannot ever win with the cloth cap and whippet brigade.

  43. Sorry – Labour should have read 25%!

  44. @BIGFATRON

    Small but definite signs of a Lib-Dem revival. I expect they’ll be at 15% in national polls at least by the next election, and should pick up more seats with tactical voting.

  45. Think that’s a new low for Labour.

    Not really unexpected.

  46. @TOH

    “Except that there are many Cheerful, rich, elitist Brexiters like myself and friends. As it happens I suspect I would also have fought for the King during the ECW if I had been alive then.”

    I’m sure there are. I was using the civil war as a rough and ready analogy, not an exact like for like comparison. Anyway, demographic analysis hows that most households with assets above £400k voted remain.

  47. @THOUGHTFUL

    “Just a quick google search reveals that this is going on all over Britain:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-35504185
    “A Muslim women’s group has written to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn claiming women have been stopped from becoming councillors by Muslim men in the party.”

    Islam is completely unreformable. People who claim that these people need to ‘integrate’ live in another galaxy, it seems to me. Muslims cannot live in non-Muslim societies; they must wither dominate or get out. This attempt at creating a multi-cultural society has failed utterly.

  48. Bigfatron

    My feelings exactly.

    An all round good poll for the Tories but with some hope for LD’s.
    Conservatives lead Labour 42% to 25%, + 17% up from +12% last time.

    Liberals up 2% to 11%, may reflect benefit from the Richmond by-election. They certainly seem to be making some slow progress and have been for some months now in local by-elections.

    May Leads Corbyn on best Prime Minister 49% to 16%. + 33% up from +26%.

    On the economy the Tories lead 35% to 14%, +21% up from +18% last time.

    The Tory position on all the other issues facing Britain have improved except unemployment where their remains constant. The Tory lead of 5% on Education & schools is interesting, is May’s policy on grammer schools having a positive effect for the Tories?

    Tories 26% & UKIP 15% seen as best to deal with Brexit although don’t knows exceed both at 29%.

    The support for leaving the EU increased to 44% compared with 42% for stay, reversing the last YouGov poll which had a 1% stay margin.

  49. Re the Civil War debate. I’d have been a cavalier because they had better hats.

  50. “This attempt at creating a multi-cultural society has failed utterly.”

    I dunno, so far as religions are concerned, we’ve got atheist, anglican, catholic, hindu, sikh, & jewish people getting along fine. There’s a gap between ‘group X don’t work with multiculruralism’ and ‘multiculturalism has failed utterly’.

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