The Lib Dems win in Richmond Park won’t stop Brexit, but it is significant for other reasons.

Zac Goldsmith, who lost his House of Commons seat in last night's by-election in Richmond Park.
Zac Goldsmith, who lost his House of Commons seat in last night’s by-election in Richmond Park.

The result of yesterday’s by-election in Richmond Park is an interesting one in that although it may foreshadow a somewhat remarkable political comeback for the Liberal Democrats, it is extremely unlikely to actually change anything.

When Zach Goldsmith forced this by-election following his resignation from Parliament over the Government’s approval of a third runway at Heathrow Airport, he did so to honour a promise he had made to his prospective constituents prior to being elected in the 2010 and 2015 General Elections. He hoped that he would be comfortably re-elected to served as a quasi-independent champion for those against the expansion of Heathrow. But, with all the major candidates running in this by-election being against Heathrow expansion the Liberal Democrats were able to turn the by-election into a referendum on Goldsmith’s support for Brexit, with candidate Sarah Olney pledging to vote against the triggering of Article 50 and to “resist Brexit in its current form”. In Richmond Park, whose residents voted more than two-to-one in favour of remaining in the European Union, this strategy seems to have worked. The Liberal Democrats were able to overturn Goldsmith’s majority of 23,000 with a swing of 30.4 percent, to ultimately win by almost 2,000 votes which, in a seat which Goldsmith was widely expected to retain, is quite some margin. The Lib Dems pro-EU stance clearly helped them win, but as Editor of The Spectator (and Richmond Park constitutent) Fraser Nelson recognises, it was also “it was a victory for good, old-fashioned campaigning. And the fact that it was, in effect, a two horse race. A referendum on Zac, and his decision to call a by-election.” The two-horse race point is particularly significant with the results suggesting that many who would ordinarily back Labour, switched to the Lib Dems to block Goldsmith. Labour candidate Christian Wolmar received 1,515 votes, which is less than the number of Labour members who live in Richmond Park, whilst there was also reports that many Labour activists were campaigning on behalf of the Lib Dems in the days before the vote. What this comes back to though is Goldsmith’s Brexit stance which, in a constituency as pro-Remain as Richmond Park, was never going to go down well.

But, although the Lib Dems victory was impressive, and there pro-EU message clearly had a significant effect, it is not really going to change the direction of travel. In short, despite what the Lib Dems have promised in campaigning for this by-election, Brexit will still go ahead. The Lib Dems now have nine MPs who will vote against Article 50. The SNP have indicated that all their 55 MPs will vote against Article 50, whilst five Labour MPs (David Lammy, Catherine West, Daniel Zeichner, Geraint Davies, and Owen Smith) have said that they will vote against the triggering of Article 50, as has Conservative MP Ken Clarke. This would make seventy MPs voting against Article 50, not nearly enough to ‘overturn’ the referendum by voting down Article 50. So to suggest that last night’s Lib Dem victory in Richmond Park will change the course of Brexit is pretty absurd.

Where it might have an effect however, is in highlighting the views of those 48 percent of voters who didn’t back Brexit, which may in turn lead to the Government pursuing more of a ‘soft Brexit’, i.e. leaving the European Union but looking to remain a part of the Single Market. This is something that many in the Government would likely support, and David Davis and Boris Johnson have both indicated that they may support something like this. Davis indicated yesterday that the Government would strongly consider a deal which involved paying into the EU budget in return for Single Market membership, whilst Boris Johnson is reported to have sad that he’s in favour of the continuing free movement of people between the EU and the UK.

However, overall this by-election is set to have a relatively small (if any) impact upon the direction of policy. Where it may have an impact is in the re-alignment of the political parties on the back of a Liberal Democrat resurgence. As Leader, Tim Farron has looked to establish the Lib Dems as a so-called ‘party of the 48 percent’, and the results in the by-elections in Richmond Park, and last month in Witney, suggest that he is being successful in doing so. Farron described last night’s result as, “ a remarkable, come-from-nowhere upset that will terrify the Conservatives.” It seems a bit strong to suggest that it will terrify the Conservatives, but it could certainly give the Conservatives some difficulty at the next General Election. Remember that it was typically Conservative surges in Liberal Democrat seats which secured them their majority at the 2015 General Election, and many of these seats like Bath, Cheltenham, Kingston and Surbiton, and Twickenham voted Remain in the EU Referendum. It would be unsurprising to see swings towards the Lib Dems in these constituencies similar to what we’ve seen in Witney and Richmond Park. In addition there are the likes of Wokingham and Chipping Barnet which both voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU but are occupied by Conservative MPs who backed Brexit, John Redwood and Theresa Villiers respectively. It would be unsurprising for the Lib Dems to also challenge in these seats.

But, arguably it is not the Conservatives who are giving the Lib Dems a way back. Given that the Conservatives have a huge lead in the polls (with a recent poll putting them on 44 percent — a lead of sixteen over Labour) losing a few seats to the Lib Dems isn’t really going be a blow to their chances of forming a majority government at the next general election. It is Labour who should really be fearing the resurgence of the Liberal Democrats. Labour’s terrible showing in Richmond Park highlighted their weaknesses, and this could allow the Liberal Democrats to squeeze them nationwide. Labour are going to forced to take a decision on whether or not they back Brexit very soon. Given the number of Labour constituencies which backed Brexit, the Labour Party are going to be forced to back Brexit or face seeing a UKIP surge under Paul Nuttall do the same to them in Northern England and Wales, as the SNP did to them in Scotland. But, this stance could have a negative effect in the urban areas which voted Labour in 2015 but also voted to remain the EU. It remains to be seen, but it does not look as if these voters have particularly warmed to Jeremy Corbyn, and so their vote is arguably up for grabs. What the Richmond Park result (and Labour’s terrible showing) highlights is the Labour Party’s complete lack of a voice on Europe.

The vote in Richmond Park was effectively a futile protest vote against the UK leaving the EU, and as a result it won’t exactly have the Conservatives running for cover. However, the same cannot be said of Labour. What the resurgence of the Liberal Democrats proves is that they have opponents everywhere. In Scotland, the SNP took almost all of their seats in 2015, and Labour show no signs of winning them back, having fallen to third in the polls behind the Scottish Conservatives who have surged on the back of Ruth Davidson’s strong leadership. In England, the Conservatives dominate Labour in all of the swing seats which are essential to forming a majority government — in the South and West of England, Labour are polling lower than ever. In the North of England, this week’s election of Paul Nuttall as the new leader of UKIP could put the squeeze on Labour at the next general election in areas which voted heavily for Brexit. Whilst the Lib Dems resurgence proves that Labour can’t be complacent in urban areas either.

Whilst the Liberal Democrats will be celebrating their win in Richmond Park and what they may see as a nationwide resurgence, Labour will be worried, as they are now truly teetering on a cliff edge.

We shouldn’t underestimate the power of Momentum.

If you have been keeping up with UK politics over the last year, then it’s likely that you are familiar with the organisation Momentum. It is a left-wing organisation which was founded in October 2015 in order to support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.

Given that the organisation was set up in support of Corbyn (someone who is completely unelectable and therefore has no chance of becoming Prime Minister), the temptation is to simply dismiss the organisation as a bunch of left-wing fantasists who will have no real influence on UK politics in the years to come. However, this would be an error.

Momentum’s membership now stands at 17,000. In isolation this may not seem like much but, it is growing rapidly. In June, the membership was just 4,000; and it looks set to increase exponentially in the coming months.

This is a group which was formed by people passionate about changing the current political system. At the time, they saw Corbyn as the person to do this. These people are willing to put in hours and hours of time in order to achieve this change, and they will keep campaigning until they do.

Whether the next general election is in 2020, or earlier than that, Corbyn won’t be elected, we can say that for certain. However, the huge support that he has built up within his party is not insignificant. Momentum has an membership of 17,000, whilst the Labour Party is the largest political party in Europe with a membership of half a million. Corbyn’s failure to be elected should give many of the membership of Momentum and the wider party a reality check of sorts (particularly given how big the scale of his defeat could be). This could allow the moderate wing of the party to be successful in putting forward a candidate who is electable as Prime Minister, and is perhaps the reason for the party’s moderates choosing to remain in the party following Corbyn’s reelection, despite rumours to the contrary several months earlier.

Although some of the membership will leave and join the likes of the Green Party and the Socialist Workers Party, the expectation would be that the vast majority will stay — given their support of Corbyn’s brand of left-wing politics it is hardly likely that they will go off and support one of the other main parties.

This mass membership can then be galvanised into supporting a moderate candidate who is leading the party.

Remember that by this time, the Conservatives will have won the last three general elections. It is very rare for parties to win more consecutive elections than this. The Conservatives did it in the 1980s and early 90s with Thatcher and then Major, but it is rare. Many at the Conservative Party conference this week have been suggesting that a Conservative government until 2035 is a certainty. However, it is a fact of political life that all governments become unpopular, and this one isn’t especially popular now. Therefore, to suggest that power until 2035 is certain, seems optimistic to say the least. In short, whilst the next election is a probably foregone conclusion, the one after that is an opportunity for one of the opposition parties to make a mark.

If the membership of Momentum can be harnessed by the moderate (read: electable) wing of the Labour Party, then there is little doubt that it can have a huge impact. The only problem with Momentum is that in Corbyn, they are backing the wrong horse, a candidate who is completely unelectable. Once they get the reality check of a severe electoral loss, then the moderate wing would hope for a swing towards an electable candidate. If this happens, Momentum will be an organisation with a huge amount of power.

What next for moderate Labour MPs?

With the reelection of Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party we have reached a crucial juncture in the future of UK politics. One way or another, it is hard not to foresee a significant restructuring of the political landscape in the UK.

Corbyn and others of a similar ideological ilk have spent the duration of this leadership campaign tightening their grip upon the Labour Party, and look set to move the party’s policy platform even further leftwards. Given that Corbyn & Co were already on a different planet ideologically to much of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), it is hard to see how normal service can possibly be resumed following the conclusion of the leadership campaign.

There has always been the potential, bubbling under the surface, for serious conflict between the different factions of the Labour Party. But the fissures which have opened up during the first year of Corbyn’s leadership now look as though they cannot be fixed. Anyone who witnessed the back and forth between John McDonnell and Alastair Campbell on Question Time last week (which allegedly almost ended with a punch-up!) can testify to this. These two individuals illustrate just how diametrically opposed the different parts of the Labour Party are, and it is difficult to see how this will be salvageable as Corbyn continues to lead the party.

So where do the moderates go from here?

There will be many who argue that they should simply stay on and serve their party, whether that means accepting a role in Corbyn’s new Shadow Cabinet or remaining on the back benches. However, it is hard to see how this can be sustainable. Rumour has it that Corbyn and his team are preparing to deselect any MPs who don’t pledge allegiance to Corbyn. Given that many of these moderates differ so greatly from Corbyn in terms of ideology, it is hard to see how they would be able to bring themselves to do this. Contrary to popular opinion, not all politicians have the Andy Burnham-esque quality of being able to completely disregard their principles for the purposes of retaining a high-flying career.

Given that these MPs won’t pledge allegiance to Corbyn, by remaining part of the Labour Party they would effectively be putting themselves out to pasture until being deselected and replaced with a fervent Corbynite prior to the next general election. This could be as soon as next May, or as far away as 2020, but there is little doubt that it is coming. Therefore, if moderate Labour MPs want to stay and fight for what they believe in, then they have little choice but to leave their party.

To many of them, this may seem like a huge jump, which carries huge inherent risks. Most MPs (of any party) feel intrinsically connected to the parties which they represent, and so leaving can feel somewhat like voluntarily cutting off a limb. But, in this case, there is little choice but to take the risk. Corbyn’s ideology has permeated the party to such an extent that there is little or no chance of it returning to its previous state in the next twenty to thirty years. For many of the current crop of moderate Labour MPs, their careers will be over by then. So if they want to have a chance to actively influence political debate in this country, then they have no choice but to leave.

The bigger question, even bigger than ‘should they leave?’, is where would they go?

Realistically, there are three options here.

One, Labour MPs could leave their party but continue to serve their constituents as independent MPs. However, independents often struggle to exert influence in the House of Commons, and rarely win elections. Therefore, it seems unlikely that Labour moderates would be able to find success in this way.

Secondly, Labour MPs could split and form a brand new party. Depending on how many MPs choose to leave, their is a chance that the Speaker of the House of Commons would declare this new party to be the official opposition. There have also been indications that several key Labour Party donors such as Lord Sainsbury and Assem Allam would be willing to fund a new party comprised of moderate Labour MPs. However, even with this funding, any new party would lack the infrastructure and name recognition enjoyed by the existing Labour Party. As a result, they would likely struggle to make any sort of electoral inroads in Labour heartlands. Therefore, this idea could also be a non-starter, although having said this, in our currently fractured political climate there is definitely an opening for a new party.

Thirdly, Labour MPs could leave their party and join the Liberal Democrats. Leader Tim Farron has invited moderates from both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party to join the Lib Dems. Given that the Lib Dems have just eight MPs, this would also effectively be the formation of a new party. In order to make a success of such a plan, it may be the case that a name change is required, in order to move away from a Liberal Democrat brand which was rendered rather toxic by their time spent in government. Overall, this option would likely be the most successful. It would provide the benefits of starting afresh with a new party, whilst also being able to benefit from the existing infrastructure provided by the Lib Dem party machine.

However, it may prove unpalatable to both Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs to share a party. Years of bloody by-election battles between the two parties promoted a general feeling of antipathy, which may be hard to overcome. In addition, with their current roster of just eight MPs, there are many Liberal Democrats who feel that defections from Labour could represent a take-over rather than a merger, which isn’t something they would be overly keen on. But, both groups recognise the need to be electable, and so surely some sort of accommodation could be reached.

Ultimately, it is difficult to see how the Labour Party will be able to reunite after Jeremy Corbyn’s reelection as party leader. The political viewpoints of the so-called Blairites are so diametrically opposed to the views of Corbyn and the wider party membership, that continuing in the same party seems unlikely. These moderates aren’t going to be able to bring themselves to sign up for some of Corbyn’s more outlandish policies (nuclear submarines without the warheads anyone?), and so it hard to see how the conflict will be resolved without a split.

The problem with the boundary review.

Earlier this week the Boundary Commission released their proposals for a reduction in English parliamentary seats from 533 to 501 and Welsh parliamentary seats from 40 to 29, as part of a wider scheme to reduce the size of the House of Commons from 650 MPs to just 600.

The aims of this scheme are twofold. Firstly, the review aims to equalise the number of voters in each constituency in order to make the system more democratic, and secondly it aims to reduce the cost of politics by lessening the number of MPs. However, although attempting to increase the democracy of our parliamentary system makes perfect sense, the way the boundary review has attempted to achieve this leaves a lot to be desired.

The aim of equalising the number of voters in each constituency is an admirable one, and one which ostensibly should improve our parliamentary democracy.

Currently, there are a great deal of parliamentary seats with a greatly unequal electorate. For example, Wirral West has an electorate of just 54,232; in stark contrast to Manchester Central with its electorate of 87,339. Therefore, it makes perfect sense to try and equalise constituencies such as this in order for each voter to have the same democratic rights.

However, achieving this by reducing the number of MPs is not the way to go. There are already complaints from the public that MPs don’t spend enough time serving their constituents. For the most part this is because they simply don’t have the time, and tend to represent so many people that it is simply impossible for them to do all of the work requested of them. By reducing the number of MPs we are simply going to make this more difficult, and constituencies would be represented in Parliament to an even lesser degree. To reduce the number of MPs would be a grave error, particularly in a year when we have already lost 73 MEPs. In reality, if we want to equalise the number of voters in each constituency, then we should be increasing the number of MPs.

As well as this, the gerrymandering which has taken place in order to engineer constituencies of the same size means that we are left with constituencies made up of communities which bear little similarity to each other. Many of the new constituencies have been created by combining traditional Conservative and Labour seats. This surely means that whoever is elected in these seats will be representing a relatively small proportion of the seat’s population. What’s more, these new constituencies have been created using data that is almost a year out of date, excluding all those who registered to vote between December and June in advance of the EU Referendum, and the increase in political participation that this brought.

In addition, despite this reduction in the number of parliamentary seats there has been no mooted reduction in the number of Government Ministers. The main job of MPs is to scrutinise the work of the Government. The fact that the number of Ministers isn’t also being reduced means that the Executive will have an even greater presence in Parliament, therefore making the scrutiny of Government proposals considerably more difficult for MPs.

What’s more, the aim of increasing the democracy in our parliamentary system is an admirable one, and it would be hoped that voter turnout could be dramatically increased if people felt that the system was more democratic. However, if the government are so keen on increasing democracy then why won’t they entertain the idea of electoral reform, or reform of the House of Lords? If we are going to go ahead with one set of reforms to improve our democracy, then it would make sense to also check the democracy of other aspects of the system.

Since the boundary review was set up, 144 new peerages have been created. This means that the unelected House of Lords now dwarfs the House of Commons with 796 members. Last week Conservative MP Charles Walker, Chair of the House of Commons Procedures Committee said: “It seems perverse to reduce the number of elected representatives in this place while the Lords continues to gorge itself on new arrivals.” He is absolutely right. For an unelected chamber to be larger than our elected House of Commons seems absurd. Many members of the House of Lords do bring skills and experience to the table which are extremely useful for the scrutiny of Government legislation, however it has increasingly become full of the political allies of past Prime Ministers, who are given peerages as rewards for loyalty. This type of patronage should not be what the House of Lords is about. There does seem to be appetite from within the House of Lords for such reform, with many peers feeling the chamber has become too bloated. Lord Desai says as much in his letter to The Times today. Desai states that slimming down the Lords should be a priority, and that it is the House of Commons which hasn’t favoured reform rather than the Lords itself.

In addition, throughout this boundary review the Government have stated that one of their key aims is to make every vote count. We already know that this is unachievable under the First-Past-The-Post system, yet the Government do not seem inclined to consider electoral reform.

Overall, the idea of equalising constituencies is a good one. It is right that the vote of each UK citizen should be worth the same amount. However, doing it this way has been a mistake. Although the rationale for reducing the number of MPs is to save money, the actual saving will be just £66m over the course of a five-year Parliament. A drop in the ocean in terms of the budget. The significant loss of Parliamentary representation is far more important than this negligible saving. Whilst if we are examining our democracy and looking for improvements, why not further consider electoral reform or reform of the House of Lords? Changes such as this would make people value their right to vote much more, and would lead to a significant improvement of our Parliamentary democracy.