After Zac Goldsmith’s decision to step down as an MP and trigger a by-election in Richmond Park, the Liberal Democrats are excited. They’re getting hot under their collars because they think they can snatch back a seat they lost to the Tories in 2010 and add to their lowly tally of eight MPs. A new poll out today suggests their chances don’t look good: the BMG phone survey puts Zac 27 points ahead of his Lib Dem rival Sarah Olney in the upcoming election. But is it really safe to write off the Lib Dems’ chances so easily?
The party is, against all the odds, enjoying something of a resurgence of late: membership is soaring and Tim Farron is doing his best to make his party the destination of choice for disgruntled ‘Remainers’. It’s a strategy that seems to be paying off: in Witney, one of the most Europhile areas of the country, the party managed a 19 per cent swing in the by-election for David Cameron’s old seat last week. If they could slightly better that result on December 1st, and they’ll certainly be throwing everything they have at doing so, they’d win in Richmond.
If they pulled it off, they’d be back to winning ways in a seat that was previously a Lib Dem stronghold. In each election between 1997 to 2010, the party won more than 40 per cent of the vote. Even when the Lib Dem’s Susan Kramer was beaten by Goldsmith six years ago, she still achieved 25,370 votes (42.8 per cent). It seems even in defeat, the Lib Dems have never been far behind in Richmond.
Admittedly, it is true that the party has a long way to come back from its decimation in 2015. Last time out, their share of the vote was slashed to less than 20 per cent. Support for Labour and the Greens shot up, too, with the parties gaining 7,296 and 3,548 votes respectively. This means a Lib Dem win relies on voters returning to the fold and forgiving and forgotting the sins of the coalition.
One way the Lib Dems hope they can win back voters is by being unashamedly pro-Remain. The party has cast itself as the voice of the 48 per cent in Brexit Britain. That’s certainly a factor that will help them do well in Richmond. In the EU referendum, 69.29 per cent backed ‘Remain’ in the area, making it the 20th biggest outpost of the Europhile vote in the whole country. Of course, there were still some ‘Leavers’ in Richmond – most notably Zac Goldsmith himself. But they’re in the minority and that’s why the Lib Dems want to make this by-election all about Brexit. If they can turn the spin into the reality on the ground they have a very good chance of victory.
On Brexit, it’s worth remembering that Ukip has decided to back Zac. In theory that should hand around four per cent of the vote to Goldsmith. But while Farage’s endorsement of Goldsmith might win over some Kippers, there’s a danger it could toxify his name among the wider electorate in Richmond.
But it was Heathrow – not Brexit – which triggered this by-election in the first place. On this issue, the Lib Dems – who are opposed to expansion – are on the right side of the vote. In polling conducted by Populus over the summer, 52 per cent of those surveyed in Richmond Park were against expansion, 39 per cent strongly so, compared to the 38 per cent who supported a third runway. This issue is much less clear cut than the furore surrounding Brexit however. And while the Lib Dems are against a third runway, their opposition is much less fiery than Goldsmith’s – something that will work in his favour.
In terms of the ground war, though, the Lib Dems have a big advantage. Yes, Goldsmith has deep pockets he can reach into. But those resources will struggle to match the Lib Dems’ army of rejuvenated activists ready to blanket the constituency with leaflets and canvassers. As Goldsmith will presumably not have access to the Tory party machinery, including voter data, this surely must make his task all the harder. How many Conservative activists can Goldsmith motivate to campaign for him when he is not explicitly running as one of them?
Goldsmith does, though, have the power of incumbency, and that it highly significant. He won the constituency by over 25,000 votes in 2015. He also won in the Richmond-upon-Thames borough in the 2016 London Mayoral election, claiming 41,753 votes, and won in every council ward in the borough in the Richmond Park parliamentary constituency in that election. His vote though did drop slightly in all but one of these wards from the 2015 General Election. While the Lib Dems candidate Sarah Olney is local, she’ll struggle to match Goldsmith’s name recognition.
The bookmakers, normally a fairly good marker, think there is almost nothing to call between Goldsmith and the Lib Dems. Betfair put Goldsmith at 10/11, while the Lib Dems are 11/10. It is close on Ladbrokes too – Goldsmith has odds of 4/6, with the Lib Dems again at 11/10.
Given that the Conservatives are not running a candidate, and that talk of the Lib Dems running as the one anti-Tory/anti-Goldsmith candidate have been quashed by Labour, that majority is still his to lose. But the big question in this race is whether the Lib Dems’ electoral machine can triumph over Goldsmith’s name recognition. If they succeed, the Richmond by-election could finally mark a change of fortunes for the party.