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. Tancred

    “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!”

    I doubt it, from the actual voting figures it looks as though Remainers all voted LD.

  2. My Muslim neighbour gives me a Xmas card every year, and I am a gay agnostic who ignores Xmas. My local corner shop is run by a Buddhist and the veg shop by a Sikh family.

    No talk of assimilation or the Borg or of some collective failure of which we are all part.

  3. alec and Tancred

    i agree . i think Starmer is very good and may be a future leader of the labour party and certainly will be part of a strong Labour team post 2020 when the “disappeared”return.
    But it is precisely because he is such a good communicator that Labour needs in its own interest to keep him quiet.It needs one clear message going out to its heartlands ,namely that it supports Brexit. that is the only way it is going to avoid disaster.

  4. TOH & Tancred
    Please explain how you relate % voting Remain in the referendum to changes in %s voting LD, or Tory or UKIP between General Election and By-election.

  5. TOH
    ‘I doubt it, from the actual voting figures it looks as though Remainers all voted LD.’

    That does not look likely. The LibDems only managed 11% – I would expect Remainers to be much higher than that.
    I suspect that the Tories were helped a fair bit here by having a local Doctor as their candidate.

  6. CatManJeff – “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. ”

    Dunno – I think you are underestimating how irritating Cameron and Osborne were and the sheer relief that they are gone.

    Mrs May and Mr Hammond are several notches higher in quality – do you remember how Cameron felt obliged to comment on every single twitter storm going? In between playing Fruit Ninja? I’m not sure how the nation put up with the silliness for so long, and at some point public patience would have snapped and votes would have switched to whichever party looked a bit better.

    Mrs May’s populartity is founded on the way she gave them all the chop – it’s what the public secretly wanted to do, and people felt very cheered at the spectacle.

  7. S Thomas – ” i think Starmer is very good and may be a future leader of the labour party and certainly will be part of a strong Labour team post 2020 when the “disappeared”return.”

    Starmer looks weird – I think it’s his hairstyle, it’s all you notice.

    Lab would be better off finding a seat for Ed Balls. His popularity is based on his normality, there are millions of over-weight middle-aged dads out there who do dad-dancing. Plus his big achievement is keeping us out of the euro which people are grateful for across the political spectrum.

  8. The gift that keeps on giving…. Jeremy Corbyn.

    A dreadful poll for Labour, preceded by two truly awful by-election results for them considering that they are the Opposition and are now 18 months into a Parliament.

    I’ve predicted before we’ll see Labour at 23%, which was Labour’s all time low in 1982/3, and been rebuked by some.

    Anybody still willing to bet Jezza, Abbott and Co can’t shave off 2 more percentage points?

  9. @Tancred et al

    Misogyny in certain parts of certain immigrant populations is cultural (and far from universal). It is nothing to do with Islam. It will dissipate over time, although we are talking many years – generations.

  10. @ToH

    IIRC the Remain estimate for Sleaford and North Hykeham as about 45%, so clearly a lot, even most, of ‘Remainers’ voted for parties that are actioning Brexit: Labour or Tories.

    May’s challenge is to keep the pro-Remain Tory voters behind her; since these account for around 14-15% of ALL voters there would be a massive impact on polling IF the Lib Dems or (ridiculous though it now seems) Labour were able to peel them off from the Tories.

    Just as a thought experiment (as it is never going to happen) but if Brexit were to go badly and the LDems could attract all those pro-Remain Tory voters, the polls would look roughly like:
    Tory 27%
    LDem 26%
    Labour 25%
    UKIP 12%
    Other 10%
    …which would be interesting!

  11. Am I right in thinking 25% is the lowest since just before the 2010 GE?

  12. @Robin

    It does us no good sticking our heads in the sand when we dismiss misogyny as not a product of Islam. It is endemic in the religious literature. Women even have to worship at the back of a mosque separated from the men to this day.

    From the Quran:

    (2:282) “And call to witness, from among your men, two witnesses. And if two men be not found then a man and two women.”

    (2:228) “and the men are a degree above them” (talking about women)

    (2:223) “Your wives are as a tilth unto you; so approach your tilth when or how ye will…”

    (53:27) – “Those who believe not in the Hereafter, name the angels with female names.”

    From the Hadith:

    Sahih Muslim (4:1039) “A’isha said to Muhammad: ‘You have made us equal to the dogs and the asses'” (Muhammad’s wife)

    Sahih Bukhari (6:301) [Muhammad said, ‘Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man?’ They replied in the affirmative. He said, ‘This is the deficiency in her intelligence.'”

    The 4th Caliph, Muhammad’s cousin: “The entire woman is an evil. And what is worse is that it is a necessary evil.”

    Traditional Islamic Saying: “A woman’s heaven is beneath her husband’s feet.”

    “Women are like cows, horses, and camels, for all are ridden.” (Tafsir al-Qurtubi)

    Even in 21st Century Muslim leaders have similar attitudes like
    Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who said that men and women are not equal: “Our religion has defined a position for women in society: motherhood.”

    So what Thoughtful has learned is hardly surprising. In fact it would be surprising if it wasn’t happening.

  13. Angus Reid consistently polled Labour at 24% during the 2010 election campaign, but they were out of line with pretty much every other pollster who were showing 27-29%.

    Before that, there were quite a few polling companies showing Labour at anywhere between 20 and 25% in the summer/autumn of 2009.

  14. @Sea Change

    Don’t really want to start trawling the bible for similar. But let’s just start with Eve being held responsible for the Fall of Man.

    Are you saying that all Jews are misogynistic because the orthodox religion also requires women and men to pray separately (and a variety of other requirements including wearing of wigs, the concept of ‘niddah’ )…?

    Religious texts are chock full of reflections of the prevailing culture of the time. Conservatives use these to back up/justify their prejudice, progressives ignore or discount them.

  15. Oh God what have I started !

    It was only supposed to be a comment on the fact that since the start of the year Gender might have an effect on the outcome of elections in certain areas, and then to explain the reasons why that is!

  16. @Robin

    I agree with you. The Christian faith was misogynist. The Jewish faith still is in orthodox circles.

    Until they have reformations they will continue to be so. And that is the problem.

  17. This is an unbelievable quote from Vernon Coaker on the Sleaford by-election: “we’re proud of what we did. We kept our deposit which some people said we were going to lose. Some people said we were going to come fifth, we didn’t come fifth.

    How far can Labour fall with expectations like that from the campaign manager?

  18. Christianity, truly practiced according to the New Testament, is not misogynist. Christianity doesn’t pretend women and men are the same thing, but deeply respects both.

    Anyone practicing misogyny (termed in Google Dictionary as “dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women.”) in the name of Christianity is simply not practising the scriptures that their ‘faith’ is based on, so can’t be regarded as representing Christianity.

    Misogyny is certainly not practiced where I go to.

  19. There seems to be a rapidly developing split in Labour following the Andy Burnham speech linked to here yesterday.

    “Her call for restrictions follows outspoken interventions by a host of senior Labour MPs, including Shadow Cabinet Member John Healey , and prominent backbenchers Andy Burnham, Frank Field and Dan Jarvis .”

    One thing for certain is that a party engaged in civil war finds it next to impossible to win a general election.

    This is something worth watching in the next few weeks, because unchecked it will almost certainly be reflected in the polls.

  20. @Sea Change – “How far can Labour fall with expectations like that from the campaign manager?”

    The goal of the Corbyn people is to remake the Labour party in their image – but they can’t while all those non-Corbynites are sitting in safe Labour seats.

    They can either de-select them in an ugly battle. Or let the public do the dirty work by removing them from Parliament at the next election, at which point the Corbyn people have a clean slate to select the types of candidates that agree with them.

    I think that is their strategy, and that’s why they are content with how things are going. They genuinely mean to shed about 80 MPs to make space for new more Corbynite candidates.

  21. CANDY

    To achieve that surely Corbyn would have to intentionally lose the next election, and that would mean he would resign following it.

    Even if he didn’t he isn’t a young man and we would be talking 9 years to the next election with all the new MPs in place.

  22. The Labour party cannot continue as is:
    Abraham Lincoln said “a house divided against itself cannot stand”.
    The problem is the so called broad church or, in Tony Blair’s words, “Big Tent” politics forced by FPP. There has to be a wall or tent wall defining outside from in. There is a process of redefinition going on, as always this will mean some at the extremes will no longer feel the Labour Party is their party. I cannot see this as a short term fall out, the policy differences are too fundamental.
    In polling terms Labour’s House is shaking at the foundations. Realignment in politics is always difficult. However that said the realignment is external in addition to being internal, as always the politician that feels the zeitgeist and develops a rhetoric that applies that feeling to his/her policies is likely to be most successful, not sure there is anyone in the Labour Party in Parliament able to do this. But perhaps cometh the hour——–

  23. @Thoughtful

    I think the Corbyn faction loathes the non-Corbynites more than they dislike the Conservatives or Libdems.

    Corbyn himself may not remain as leader after the election (though I wouldn’t rule it out, he was extraordinarily tenacious in his leadership elections, and admires the leader-for-life type of Castro and Scargill).

    But I think they believe that all Lab’s problems are down to the presence of the non-Corbynites and that getting rid of them any way they can will “help” their cause – losing the election would be the easiest way as they can say “Tristram lost because the public didn’t like him”, etc. They also want any successor to be from the Corbynite faction, and the only way to achieve that is to reduce the non-Corbynite MPs.

  24. What interests me about the current Labour situation is the possibility of the party going the same way in England and Wales as it has just done in Scotland.

    FPTP creates a tipping point below which seats won decline precipitously: round 22-23%, IIRC.

    If in 2020 Labour is squeezed between resurgent LDs in the south and UKIP in the north, surely there must be real prospect of its being reduced to a rump? After all, it happened to the Liberals who lost three quarters of their seats in the 1924 GE, leaving them with just 40 (OK, not helped by the National Liberal thing: but who knows what splits await Labour?)

  25. @ Candy

    I don’t think you understand the Psyche of the Labour Party: there about 30/40 M.P.s that cannot work with Corbyn too much difference. There are then about 30/40 M.P.s Happy with Corbyn. The others in Parliament are not overly concerned with Corbyn’s economic approach but are deeply worried by his foreign policy/defence approach. That latter group could work with either group of 30/40 and their tribal loyalty to Labour would mean that they would work at it.
    Corbyn’s approach is to consolidate internal party mechanisms to ensure a continuation of the left’s structural control over the party and to rid the party of the “right wing” 30/40 M.P.s he is not too much concerned with the others as long as the left has control over policy.

  26. @WB

    No. The large majority of MPs have a lot in common with Corbyn in policy terms. There are some exceptions, his approach to Brexit being one of them. But the primary reason for concern is simply that he is totally **** useless.


    Deliberately shedding MPs is not a strategy for removing anti-Corbynites. There is no reason to suppose they are not in safe seats, or that they will underperform compared to the party average.

  27. Dave “ozymandias” Cameron looks a sad character these days. maybe he should form a roadshow with Blair and sing Streisand songs to American college students

  28. wb

    “cometh the hour….”


  29. My knowledge of Russian history is fairly sketchy, but is the Labour situation reminiscent of Russia c1917, with the Corbynites being equivalent to Bolsheviks and the others equivalent to Mensheviks?

    Perhaps Corbyn sees himself as the British Lenin?

  30. Pete B

    I remember Lenin the lion on television.Wasn’t he stuffed.

  31. 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?”

    globalist economics
    -> trade deficit
    -> debt and welfare
    -> selling off assets
    -> 3rd world

    so the answer is obvious

  32. S Thomas
    Lol! Lenin the lion ran off with my shilling to become a member of his club. I never got my badge :-(

  33. @WB @Robin

    Consider the problem of Corbyn’s successor.

    He naturally wants this person to be from his own faction. They would need 15% of MPs + MEPs to nominate them, if there is no sitting leader – given Lab’s current 231 MPs plus 20 MEPs, this means 37 nominations, But there arn’t 37 Corbynites.

    But shrink the Parliamentary party and suddenly it’s doable. So to control his party and it’s future, Corbyn needs some Lab MPs to lose their seats. Maintaining seats or gaining seats would make choosing his successor out of reach.

    Of course the non-Corbynites are playing the same game. They believe that if Corbyn loses the next election badly, it proves that Corbynism doesn’t work and they get to seize control of their party again.

    So the whole of the Parliamentary Labour party have concluded that defeat solves their problems, as long as they can individually hang on to their seats amidst the carnage.

    It’s extraordinary, but that appears to be what is happening.

  34. Bigfatron: “IIRC the Remain estimate for Sleaford and North Hykeham as about 45%, so clearly a lot, even most, of ‘Remainers’ voted for parties that are actioning Brexit: Labour or Tories.”
    45% of what? The electorate of 88,000? That’s 40,000 voters, so most of them didn’t vote at all. Leavers, at 55% amount to 48,000, so a lot of them didn’t vote either.
    With the by-election turnout under 33,000, down to 37%, the votes for Conservatives, UKIP and even Labour (none of them now promoting Remain) add up to about 25,000, so plenty votes available without any Remainers voting for them.
    Also there were 17,000 Tory GE election voters who didn’t vote yesterday.
    I suggest trying to discern which parties were supported by Remainers and which by Leavers to account for the swings, is a pretty fruitless exercise.

  35. YouGov Poll tables.

    Labour have lost 31% of their 2015 voters.

    65% of Lab 2015 vote think JC would not “make the best PM”
    41% of Lab VI IN THIS POLL think so too !!!

    Britain still “Right to vote Leave ” by 44 to 42……………..and who would “handle Brexit best” produces :-

    Con 26%
    Lab 9%

    Yes-that is NINE % .

    Given that Brexit is going to be issue number one for a while , that is dire for Labour.

  36. Mr Jones

    Dementia may be upon me but did the selling off of assets to foreign interests begin on June 23rd 2016?

    Perhaps Old Nat is still trying to work out exactly what was the submission of Lord Wolfe to the SC and as to why anybody bothered to pay the rail fare.

  37. Labour

    neoliberal/globalist economics is basically cheap labor economics – both off-shoring and immigration – and it doesn’t matter how many economists are paid to say supply and demand doesn’t apply to labour the people being hammered know it does.

    So Labour are stuffed unless
    1) they admit that over supply of labour is an issue
    2) they can persuade people that it’s possible to afford enough welfare to compensate for the deliberate over supply of labour.

    However, from a Cubanista point of view, at 200k or 300k a year that’s 2-3 million new voters every couple of elections so all they have to do is sit tight and wait and eventually they win.

  38. S Thomas

    He’s trying to have an anti-nationalist dig at a cliche “nasty foreigners buying our industry” and doesn’t see the argument is the same argument he’d use in reverse against the economic effects of colonialism (if Britain was doing it).


    You have missed the other side of the economic equation which is the so called ‘benefit’ immigration brings to GDP.

    It’s a simple fact that more head count means more spending regardless of whether the money is earned or comes from benefits.

    Mass uncontrolled immigration is what kept Camerons coalition government on the financial rails.

    More people = more means more borrowing is possible while keeping the same ratio

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