29 January 2017

The Richmond Park By-Election, 2016

The parliamentary by-election in the Richmond Park constituency held on 1 December 2016 was unusual, even for a by-election. It came about because the incumbent Conservative MP, Zac Goldsmith, had committed himself at the time of the 2015 general election, to resigning should a Tory government chose to proceed with a third runway at nearby London Heathrow. Earlier in 2016 Goldsmith had run for the Conservatives in the London Mayoral election – had he and not Sadiq Khan won, he would have resigned his seat then.

Because of the Conservative government’s Heathrow decision, in the December by-election Goldsmith stood as an Independent. Labour and the Liberal Democrats put up candidates against him but not UKIP, the Conservatives or the Green Party. In the June 2016 EU Referendum Goldsmith had supported Leave. The Liberal Democrat candidate in the by-election made it clear that she, like her party nationally post-Referendum, now supported Britain remaining in the Single Market. When the results came out, press coverage concentrated on Goldsmith’s losing his seat and the surge in the Liberal Democrat vote:

Much of the comment pointed to the high levels of Remain support locally in the Referendum earlier in the year. Anyone who attempts to look at this relationship more closely will encounter a problem: the Referendum results in London were reported at Borough level, not by parliamentary constituency. As the map below shows, the constituency (PC) of Richmond Park lies mostly in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames (LB RuT) and partly in the Royal (London) Borough of Kingston upon Thames (RB KuT). The rest of LB RuT forms the PC of Twickenham. The RB KuT, except for the wards contributing to the Richmond Park PC, forms the PC of Kingston and Surbiton. 

The Referendum results for LB RuT and RB KuT are shown below in the context of other areas in London and the UK. Both were in the top 10% of Remain favouring areas across the country, but locally KuT was only just above the average for London and RuT was not one of the top 10 London boroughs.

The prevailing opinion was that the Liberal Democrat’s by-election success could be best explained in terms of a reaction to the Referendum. That is to say, local distaste for Brexit in 2016 had replaced local endorsement of Goldsmith’s anti-Heathrow stance in 2015. And there does seem to have been a differential effect in the turnout with the anyone-but-Goldsmith voting holding up quite well.

Perhaps some insight into Goldsmith’s fall from grace can be found in his original rise to favour revealed by comparing Richmond Park to the other two constituencies mentioned above in the three consecutive general elections of 2005, 2010 and 2015:

In 2005, all three were comfortably held by the Liberal Democrats, part of a cluster of seats in south west London which they had built up in previous elections. In 2010, the Tories improved their position moderately in Kingston and Surbiton and Twickenham but made a considerable improvement in Richmond Park where their candidate, Goldsmith, was elected. In 2015, all three seats became Tory-held, some of the former Liberal Democrat voters apparently preferring Labour or Green after five years of coalition. The Conservatives would probably have done better but for the rise of UKIP.

Does the 2016 by-election herald a return to favour for the Liberal Democrats and offer prospects of regaining the other two constituencies? If there were to be by-elections in either of them soon, the answer is probably yes, given the enthusiasm in the boroughs concerned for Remain and the small Conservative majorities by comparison with Goldsmith’s in2015. However, once the UK has exercised Article 50 in March 2017, events will move on and the key issues for voters at the next general election, quite possibly three years away, are not yet obvious.

After the 2015 election and until December 2016, there was only one Liberal Democrat MP in London, Tom Brake (a far from household name), in Carshalton and Wallington, the seat he has held since 1997. That constituency lies in the LB of Sutton together with the PC of Sutton and Cheam. In the Referendum LB Sutton was 28th among the London boroughs by pro-Remain ranking and one of only five of the 32 boroughs to be more pro-Leave than the UK as a whole (Table 2 above).

It seems obvious from the general election results 2005-2015 above and Brake's small majority in 2015 that the Tories would have added his scalp to their collection but for the votes taken by UKIP. If there were to be a by-election in Carshalton and Wallington in the near future, it could well be taken by the Tories. This raises the interesting point that the anti-Leave position currently adopted by the Liberal Democrats may not work for them everywhere as well as it did in Richmond Park – Labour’s problem writ small. 

A future post will look more closely at the national Liberal Democrat position post -Referendum in terms of the constituencies now held and those they might want to regain. Another will provide some further analysis of the London boroughs and the parliamentary constituencies within their boundaries.