WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THE RICHMOND BY-ELECTION?

by Chris Jarvis

Last Thursday, failed London Mayoral candidate and prominent racist Zac Goldsmith became the first incumbent MP since 1986 to lose their seat in a by-election, having triggered the vote in the constituency by resigning in protest at the decision of the Government led by his own party to commit to building a third runway at Heathrow airport. Overturning a 23,000 majority, the Liberal Democrats’ Sarah Olney won the seat of Richmond Park and will now become the ninth MP for the party.

The constituency is a strange one. Mostly highly affluent and nestled in the blur between London and Surrey, its electorate voted overwhelmingly to continue Britain’s membership of the European Union. The seat has swung between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in multiple elections. Election turnout is frequently substantially higher than average. Falling under the flightpath of the airport, it’s one of the few constituencies where a single local issue dominates much of the political debate.

Much like the seat itself, last week’s by-election was out of the ordinary. For one, it had an incumbent MP — a rarity in the world of by-elections as most take place when an MP dies or resigns through scandal. From time to time through, anomalies occur either through an MP crossing the house and changing their party allegiances, or else through a protest resignation.

Much like the seat itself, last week’s by-election was out of the ordinary.

An additional abnormality was that most of the major political part­ies chose not to contest the election. Zac Goldsmith, as part of his protest, was standing as an independent and his former party— the Tories — chose not to stand a candidate. UKIP didn’t stand either, endorsing Goldsmith due to his position as an outspoken Brexiteer. The Greens stood aside, in the hope of avoiding splitting the ‘progressive’ vote and giving Sarah Olney a free run. Labour attempted fashionable uniqueness, by putting forward railway enthusiast, bookish academic and Owen Smith fan — Christian Woolmar — to fight the election. On the day he polled 1,515 votes, fewer than the number of Labour members in the constituency.

(No Third Runway, via stopheathrowexpansion.co.uk)

(No Third Runway, via stopheathrowexpansion.co.uk)

In this sense, the election became a battle of a coalition of the right — Zac, the Tories and UKIP — against a coalition of the left and centre — the Greens and Lib Dems, with Labour floating around in irrelevance. In ordinary circumstances, I wouldn’t welcome a victory for the Liberal Democrats, a party with all the cumulative moral fibre of Judas Iscariot, Grima Wormtongue and Lando Calrissian and the ideological integrity of Stretch Armstrong, but these aren’t ordinary circumstances.

A seat like Richmond Park is unlikely to become a bastion of socialism any time soon. With its cricket clubs, horse riders and Michelin Star restaurants, the constituency is far more playground of the elite and far less hills of the Sierra Maestra, Paris Commune or Petrograd Soviet. A Labour Party led by a man who has said ‘we can learn a great deal’ from Karl Marx is unlikely to inspire many of the residents of Richmond to the barricades and bring them flocking to the ballot box to put a cross next to the red party. Nor are they likely to put their faith in the Greens, who have a co-leader whose political CV includes a chain of arrests for non-violent direct action. The sole thing the parties standing in the seat can achieve is to attract just enough potential Lib Dem voters to help the Tories win it.

A Labour Party led by a man who has said ‘we can learn a great deal’ from Karl Marx is unlikely to inspire many of the residents of Richmond to the barricades

The political realities of Richmond Park dictate that the seat — so long as its demographic, social and economic conditions persist — will be a battleground between the Liberal Democrats and the Tories, and no one else will get a look in. Like so much of the country under our anachronistic, unfair and class and racially biased electoral system, there exists little or no political choice for the electorate. With this being the case, parties with overlapping — if in many areas incongruent — political programmes and values must concede that collaboration at specific times and in specific areas is necessary.

(Grima Wormtongue and Lord Theoden / Still, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, via marbarcondotorg))

(Grima Wormtongue and King Theoden / Still, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, via marbarcondotorg))

Richmond Park is one of those areas, and this is one of those times. Our political context is dark, with austerity and privatisation continuing, anti-migration rhetoric and policy inflicting misery and fuelling racism and Tory incompetence around Brexit threatening economic disaster. All of this running parallel with a resurgent, confident and buoyant hard right, from Donald Trump to UKIP and from Marine Le Pen to Gert Wilders, holding the momentum and ascendancy. The response of the broad left — socialists, greens, socially progressive liberals — cannot be to go to war with each other, ignore the political backdrop and close our eyes to the realities of our electoral system. The priority must be to remove the Conservatives from office, using whatever means we can — whether that be on the streets or at the ballot box.

The response of the broad left — socialists, greens, socially progressive liberals — cannot be to go to war with each other

Thankfully, Richmond Park, in part sets the precedent for that — with the Green Party’s decision to stand aside quite possibly having helped to tip Sarah Olney over the line. There are a splattering of other constituencies where similar efforts could substantially increase the proportion of progressives in parliament — seats like Gower, Brighton Kemptown, Isle of Wight or Bath, as well as others —where collaboration under new constituency boundaries could ensure MPs like Clive Lewis or Caroline Lucas don’t get unseated.

Failing to do so will allow the Tories to walk back into government in 2020 with ease. Not only will the ‘left’ vote be split in too many seats to secure representation, but party resources will be unnecessarily stretched. Why spend time, money and volunteers trying to remove Caroline Lucas from office, while UKIP snap at Labour’s heals in the North and Midlands? Doing so doesn’t serve the interests of the values Labour would seek to see integrated into political reality, but only diminishes the likelihood of that eventuality.

Sticking dogmatically to the tribal politics of old lets the Tories off the hook. Instead, we could build an alliance which helps to kick the Tories out of government, abandon the electoral system antithetical to democracy and progress and start to build a better world and a better politics. How soon is now?

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