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.

Labour rebels shouldn’t fear the fate of the SDP.

v218-Jeremy-Corbyn-Get-v2.jpg
Could Corbyn’s re-election prompt a split?

On Saturday, Jeremy Corbyn will be announced as having retained the leadership of the Labour Party. I strongly expect that he will have achieved a higher percentage of the vote than in 2015. This is little to do with Owen Smith, rather a reflection of the extent to which the membership of the party has changed since Corbyn’s election as leader.

Once Corbyn is announced as having retained the leadership, talk will invariably return to whether the party will reunite or whether it will split.

For many months, there have been suggestions that the moderates (or Blairites) in the Parliamentary Labour Party are planning to split off if Corbyn continues as leader. Many moderate Labour MPs have been vocal in their concerns about Labour’s electability under Corbyn, and it is clear that they want things to change.

However, up to now one thing that they have all been unequivocal about, is that they don’t wish to see the party split. Generally, when asked the standard question regarding the prospect of a split, Labour MPs have responded by citing the example of the Labour MPs who split from the party in 1981 and formed the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

The-SDP-Gang-of-Four-001.jpg
The ‘Gang of Four’ who formed the SDP. 

The SDP was founded by four senior Labour Party members known collectively as the ‘Gang of Four’: David Owen, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, and Bill Rodgers. They were joined by twenty-eight other defecting MPs from the Labour Party, and one MP who defected from the Conservatives. However, despite their early success in attracting MPs, the SDP would struggle to retain them in general elections. In the 1983 General Election, the First-Past-The-Post system meant that just six SDP MPs were elected. It is clear today that this failure still haunts Labour MPs who might otherwise consider a split.

Writing in the i on Wednesday, Labour MP and former Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna, suggested that in the event of a split, any new party would simply suffer the same fate as the SDP.

Twenty-eight MPs defected from Labour to the SDP back then but just 6 SDP MPs were elected in the 1983 election that followed. That split of the Left was a gift to the Right, which saw 18 years of Tory rule as the consequence. This is why I know of no Labour MP now who wants to repeat the same mistake and doom our country to the same fate.

From this, it would seem abundantly clear that Umunna believes that any split would be unsuccessful, and that this view is backed up by the evidence from 1981, as well as evidence that the First-Past-The-Post electoral system tends to discriminate against third-parties.

Chuka-Umunna.jpg
Labour MP Chuka Umunna has suggested that a split would be unsuccessful. 

However, the political landscape is much changed since then. Nowadays, it would definitely be possible to make a success of a similar sort of split.

One of the main reasons for this is the advent of the internet, in particular social media, and its use in political campaigning.

The 24-hour news cycle which exists primarily as a result of the internet, means that any new political movement can gain instant traction all around the country, and indeed all around the world. Recently, we have seen abundant examples of how internet savvy campaigning has brought success to campaigns which experts dismissed as having little chance. Take the example of Donald Trump’s campaign for the Republican nomination for President. Trump recognised the power of social media and the internet in order to build his own political movement, and managed to build something which differed hugely from the campaigns being run by his opponents, most of whom were firmly part of the political establishment.

483208412-real-estate-tycoon-donald-trump-flashes-the-thumbs-up.jpg.CROP.promo-xlarge2.jpg
Donald Trump’s success has been built around the savvy use of social media, and the ability to differentiate himself from the political establishment. 

Similarly, Labour rebels can take inspiration from inside their own party. Jeremy Corbyn’s unlikely rise to the leadership of the Labour Party was characterised by his use of social media to draw young people to his rallies and build a movement in support of his candidacy.

Corbyn4.jpg
Corbyn used social media to draw huge crowds to his rallies, and build a social movement from nothing. 

Overall, although it is still desirable to able to call upon a party machine of volunteers to roam the streets and knock on doors when campaigning, it is no longer the only way to gain support. Online advertising and fundraising can reach out to potential voters like never before.

Trump and Corbyn show the way to go. Both attracted the votes of people who wouldn’t normally be voting in their respective elections. Now Corbyn has as good as populated the membership of the Labour Party with these supporters gained during the first leadership campaign. Rebel MPs need to do a similar thing. There will be millions of available voters who want a credible alternative to the main parties, and it is these people who can be targeted when creating a new party. This targeting can be done in a way that wasn’t possible in 1981, and means that a split today could be significantly more successful than the SDP debacle.

Potential rebel MPs also tend to cite our First-Past-The-Post electoral system as cause for concern, by stating that it discriminates against third-parties, and that as such any new party would be doomed to failure. However, although FPTP has historically been difficult for third-parties, it doesn’t have to be. In the 2015 Canadian Federal Election, Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party showed that it is possible for a third-party to win an election under FPTP. The Liberal Party began the campaign in third place in the polls with only 26% support, but when the campaign concluded, they had won 39.5% of the popular vote, which equated to a parliamentary majority. In Canada, The Liberal Party proved that it was possible for a third-party to win under FPTP if they were able to appeal beyond their usual base of support, whilst also campaigning on a platform distinctively different from other parties in the election. If a new party formed of rebel Labour MPs were able to follow the blueprint set by the successful Canadian Liberal Party, then they could be successful regardless of our electoral system.

o-JUSTIN-TRUDEAU-facebook.jpg
The success of Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party provides a blueprint for success for a new third party. 
With the Conservative Party having shifted to the right under Theresa May and Labour having lurched to the left under Jeremy Corbyn, their is a large enough space in the political centre for a new party. With such a large gap in the centre, it would easy for a new party to campaign on a platform reasonably distinctive from the offering of the two main parties, and as such they could be successful regardless of FPTP.

o-THERESA-MAY-facebook.jpg
Theresa May has shifted the Conservative Party to the right, leaving a space in the centre. 

In any case, Labour MPs would have absolutely nothing to lose by splitting off and forming a new party. Although they may feel a great degree of loyalty to their current party, they certainly won’t feel the same degree of loyalty to Corbyn. As such, it is hard to see many of the moderate, centrist Labour MPs will be willing to pledge allegiance to a Labour Party run by Corbyn and John McDonnell. It increasingly sounds as though any Labour MPs who chooses not to support the leadership will be deselected at the next election, whilst many more could lose seats through a combination of the boundary review and Corbyn’s unpopular policies.

gettyimages-490411032.jpg
It’s difficult to see moderate Labour MPs pledging allegiance to a party run by Corbyn and McDonnell, meaning many will be deselected. 
As a result, many of these Labour MPs could lose their seats anyway. Therefore, why not split off and try and save themselves, and their ideals, from extinction. With the political landscape in such a state of flux, there should be little to fear from splitting off. Rebel MPs should take the plunge and give it a go, because the way their party is heading it could be just about the last chance they get to ensure their values continue to be represented in the House of Commons.

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.

Labour rebels would be foolish not to unite around one candidate.

Splitting the anti-Corbyn vote would be suicidal to their chances of deposing the incumbent party leader.

pjimage

With Owen Smith announcing that he would enter the Labour leadership contest and challenge incumbent Jeremy Corbyn, there are now three names on the ballot paper for the forthcoming leadership election. Former Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Smith, joins former Shadow Secretary of State for Business Angela Eagle in challenging Corbyn. Both have launched their campaigns on the grounds that they can unite the party and heal the divisions which have opened up in the months following the election of Corbyn as the party leader. However, this promise to heal divisions within the party loses credence when it becomes apparent that the rebels cannot even agree upon who should challenge Corbyn for the leadership.

In the last Labour leadership election Jeremy Corbyn strolled to victory, winning 59.5 per cent of the first preference vote. The rebels insist that Corbyn’s support has declined to such an extent that he is beatable in the forthcoming leadership challenge. However, even with just one challenger taking part in the contest, the rebels are relying upon a significant swing away from Corbyn in order to depose him. For the original challenger Angela Eagle to have defeated Corbyn, she would have required a swing of around ten percent away from the current leader. In recent YouGov polling, data suggests that Corbyn retains enough support to defeat any challenger by a margin of around 50–47. However, this margin increases when potential challengers for the leadership are suggested. Polling undertaken at the same time suggests that Corbyn would defeat Angela Eagle by a margin of 50–40, with 10 per cent of those surveyed responding ‘don’t know’ or ‘would not vote’. This polling suggests that even when there is just one candidate opposing Corbyn, they are fighting a losing battle.

Therefore, it seems foolish that Owen Smith has also decided to enter the race. Surely all this will achieve is to split the anti-Corbyn vote? This would make it near-impossible for Corbyn to be defeated in the upcoming leadership challenge. In actual fact, Owen Smith is a more credible candidate for the leadership than Angela Eagle. Having only entered Parliament in the 2010 General Election, he is not tainted by Labour’s time in Government and so would be in a better place to win a future general election. Although having said this, Smith may be a better candidate than Eagle, but he is still a sub-par candidate overall.

In this case he has dithered too long, and by entering the leadership election at this stage, all his presence will do is split the anti-Corbyn vote. In turn, this will guarantee Jeremy Corbyn as the Leader of the Labour Party for the foreseeable future.

Ultimately, whoever challenges Corbyn seemingly has little chance of beating him. It seems likely that Corbyn will win the leadership challenge, and that this will serve to renew his mandate as party leader.

Following this, the moderate elements of the Labour Party will be forced to split if they wish to be seen as a credible option in any future general election. Overall, this would be their best option. Rather than putting their energy into promoting sub-par candidates to usurp Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party, they should look to form a new party that can seize the centre-ground and offer the UK the credible opposition that has been so lacking for the past ten months.