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Lessons of Richmond Park

zac_goldsmith_mp_at_a_new_conversation_with_the_centre-right_about_climate_change-2What can be read into the by-election result at Richmond Park? A 23,000 Conservative majority has been turned into a narrow win for the Lib Dems and a lost deposit for Labour. One blogger drew the comforting conclusion that this was down to the anti-Corbyn characteristics of the Labour candidate. Well, maybe.

In reality, this was obviously a contest more about Brexit than anything else. Constituents in this area voted by 70% in the referendum to Remain in the EU. Since then, the Lib Dems have championed the minority Remainers, a plausible option for a minority party, promising a fresh referendum. It is far more difficult for Labour to offer this and stand a credible chance of winning the next general election – but the Lib Dems have no serious ambitions to do this.

Labours poor result could be partly attributed to a high degree of tactical voting. The long, unnecessary, bruising leadership contest has dented Labours lead in the polls as well. There also remains a lack of clarity in the public mind over what precisely Labours position is. The leadership favours a soft Brexit, guaranteeing access to the single market and the free movement of labour. Others orbit around this, some still clearly advocating Remain, others talking up the benefits of Brexit.

If Richmond Park is typical of the rest of the country, Labour could be in trouble. What if – and its a big if – the EU referendum really has transformed the political landscape and elections now are going to be decided less on class and other traditional identifiers and much more on where people stand on the issue of Europe? With Theresa Mays government under internal and external pressure to proceed quickly to a hard Brexit, and the Lib Dems committed to Remain, there is a real danger of Labour being squeezed out, given its more subtle embrace of withdrawal while preserving the most economically useful features of the EU. After all, isnt a soft Brexiteer really just someone who would prefer to Remain? And if you really want a soft Brexit, wouldnt you be more likely to vote for a party committed to Remain, on the grounds that this will put more pressure on a Conservative government leaning towards a hard Brexit? And while Labour as a party seeking to win a governmental majority cant be seen to frontally oppose the majority of the electorate on Brexit, this is not something that affects the positions taken by ordinary voters.

Fortunately, these hypotheses may be premature. Firstly, Richmond Park is not a typical constituency, if such a thing exists. Its wealthy, privileged suburban and southern – economically rightwing, if more socially liberal – classic Remain territory. Secondly, it would be simplistic to generalise from one result that all electoral politics in the UK must now be viewed through the prism of the EU referendum result. Thirdly, the willingness of the broader electorate to forget the Lib Dems support for Tory policies through five years of coalition government should not be assumed as a given. Compass and others may be rushing to include the Lib Dems in a progressive alliance but voters may be a bit more circumspect about this sudden reinvention. 

Labour will have to hold its nerve. In one council by-election on Thursday, Labour convincingly beat UKIP and the Tories in Crewe in a three-way battle. If the Party is to see off the rightwing threat in traditional Labour heartlands, it must continue the patient work of reframing the conversation in terms of what kind of Brexit best meets the interests of working class people.

This is not such a complex message as some might think. John Prescott, writing in the Mirror after the result, said: “What Labour must do is own Brexit and spell out a vision that’s not only about getting the best deal from Europe – it’s about how we REALLY let the people take control.” He went on to explain how the opportunity of Brexit could be used to recast society in a fairer way: “Our net contribution to Europe is about £12 billion a year. People shouldn’t stop with taking back control from Brussels bureaucrats. They should demand the reclaimed money and powers aren’t left with Westminster’s faceless mandarins and out-of-touch southern ­politicians. They should be pushed back to the people so they can spend the money and use the powers closer to home. And I’d replace the House of Lords with a Senate for the Nations and Regions that better reflects the makeup of the UK.”

The idea of using Brexit to reconfigure our constitution is a radical one that Labour should seize with both hands. After all, many Brexiteers keep repeating that the referendum was all about sovereignty, that is, where power lies. So let’s join that conversation.

One further thing can be gleaned from Richmond Park. The scale of the Lib Dem victory suggests that some of the Tories safest seats would be at risk as long as the EU issue remains dominant. That means that a snap general election in 2017 now looks a lot less likely than a few weeks ago.

17 Comments

  1. Karl Stewart says:

    I really like the second part of your article, which talks about how Labour can “own” Brexit and make it work for the people.

    It’s immensely frustrating that there’s this enormous, gaping open goal in front of us and no-one wants to score the goal – instead they want to stand there whining.

    Some excellent points there – let’s cut out the moaning and the sel-criticism and start making the confident and positive case for a Labpur Brexit.

    Don’t like the first part of your article though. Why talk about Richmond? That’s old news and who cares?

    1. Imran Khan says:

      The article is about the Richmond by election?

      1. Richard MacKinnon says:

        Fair point Imran.
        Karl Stewart’s philosophy appears to be, don’t talk about the bad stuff, talk about other stuff and the bad stuff will go away.
        A by-election where the Tories don’t stand and Labour loses its deposit, “That’s old news and who cares?” Brilliant.

        1. Karl Stewart says:

          Richard, there are plenty of hobbies and pastimes for people like yourself with nothing worthwhile to do.

          Fishing? Hill-walking? Gardening? For example.

          1. Imran Khan says:

            This of course means you have no reply. Worth speaking of.

        2. Richard MacKinnon says:

          And when you try and be helpful and point out just how far his comments miss the mark he gets all arsy.
          Karl Stewart is not the only commentator on Left Futures that prefers to ridicule rather than challenge criticism. I think it is symptomatic of the present state of the Labour Party. Sycophants and nepotism rule, critical analysis and objective thinking seem to make some people uneasy. I wonder why?

          1. Karl Stewart says:

            …aqua-aerobics? stamp collecting? or even you need something a bit more exciting, maybe train-spotting?

          2. Imran Khan says:

            Don’t seem to be able to reply to Karl’s last post. He seems to have given up and left you with the field Richard.

  2. James Martin says:

    “What if – and it’s a big if – the EU referendum really has transformed the political landscape and elections now are going to be decided less on class and other traditional identifiers and much more on where people stand on the issue of Europe?” Although of course Brexit *is* about class, and another example among much of the British left of how socialism has been replaced by liberalism when it comes to supporting things like free movement that drives down wages. Working class voters in my ex-cotton town understood that well enough which is why there was a very large vote to leave.

    But I agree with Karl, Prescott’s article was an interesting read for lots of reasons, not least because it did give a concise socialist argument for the type of Brexit that we want instead of what the Tories want, but at the same time not threatening to stop Brexit and Article 50 as many in the PLP (including Corbyn last month) have stupidly done.

    The question here is that if Prescott can come up with these clear left positions on this subject then why can’t Corbyn with decades of Euroscepticism behind him? The failures of Corbyn and McDonnell in this area has been eye watering and damaging and I see no signs of them even realising how badly they are doing. It appears they care more about appeasing the right wing wreckers in the PLP these days than in putting forward clear socialist arguments, and if they are not careful very soon the patience of those who have supported them will run out as the increasing question will be what was the point of electing Corbyn to the leadership in the first place?

  3. Karl Stewart says:

    I agree with your frustration James.

    But a few weeks ago, John McDonnell said in a speech:

    “…Labour accepts the referendum result as the voice of the majority and we must embrace the enormous opportunities to reshape our country that Brexit has opened for us.

    “In that way we can speak again to those who were left behind and offer a positive, ambitious vision instead of leaving the field open to divisive Trump-style politics…”

    And then he was roundly attacked by the whining Blairites for it. Unfortunately, instead of standing his ground – which would have helped Labour win more support around the country – he seems to have backed down since.

    Why oh why do they want to appease these whiny moaners? I just can’t see the sense of it. Let them go and join the LibDems…who cares?

  4. Eleanor Firman says:

    Prescott’s senate of the nations is a creative idea and worth researching simply for the sake of exposing the contradictory nature of the unwritten constitution, but let’s not forget Alex Salmond has been building the Scottish fintech industry to overtake London for some years now so the whole idea could just be a Game of Deckchairs). But more fundamental than that, I do think the writer and comments so far underestimate how difficult it is for Corbyn and McDonnell to get their baseline narrative across a biased media and out to a wider public that is so divided and unsettled. They don’t have the party machine and PLP underlining it, so it really sticks in the public imagination. Do we really need policy tweets every 2 minutes? Do people really think global capital isn’t prepared to start WW3 rather than have a single claw filed and blunted?

  5. Rob Green says:

    The big lesson of Richmond is that there is a very reactionary pro-Remain corporate capitalist `popular front’ forming headed by the Lib Dems, the Greens, Tony Blair, John Major, Bob Geldof and Richard Branson. This is a very losing formula despite Richmond. In fact a Vlad the Impaler/Eddie Hitler joint ticket would trounce it. If Corbyn heads in that direction and in reality he already has which is why Corbynism is already over then Labour’s Pasokification will recommence and conclude with the disintegration of the party. The real political battle ground is between Far Right Brexit and Socialist Brexit. Until a labour movement party with a radical socialist vision and programme for a post-Brexit Britain and a New European Settlement that rejects the wretched neo-liberal EU emerges then the far right will emerge the winners. Whilst Trump was America’s punishment for the Democrats subverting the Sanders movement and putting up a neo-liberal throwback instead the fizzling out of Corbynism will see a resurgent UKIP on a much more openly fascist programme.

    1. John Penney says:

      Gawd almighty, David, I actually find myself agreeing with everything in your post, above . I’ll have to go and have a lie down !

  6. Tony says:

    “One further thing can be gleaned from Richmond Park. The scale of the Lib Dem victory suggests that some of the Tories’ safest seats would be at risk as long as the EU issue remains dominant. That means that a snap general election in 2017 now looks a lot less likely than a few weeks ago.”

    Yes, thus allowing Corbyn and his supporters more time to consolidate their position within the Labour Party and more time for Labour to recover in the opinion polls.

  7. Bazza says:

    We need policies on Brexit (and everything) that puts all of us diverse working humans beings (who have to sell our labour to live) first.
    For God sake start telling the World it is the labour of the working billions that creates the wealth and makes societies work and the rich and powerful capitalists legally steal our surplus labour!
    And once they have used you all your life you are then dumped; surplus to requirements and hence the crisis of adult social care although of course the Neo-Liberal Barbarians even introduce the market into this mediocre provision.
    Interesting how a New Left Review writer recently made an excellent point – capital wants everything for free – we pay for our education through our taxes, we pay for health delivering healthy workers for capital for free, state-led public investment usually delivers the R&D for free (like the computer) and we mugs even pay our own fares, or via cars, petrol etc. to go to work – subsidising employers so perhaps part of a left wing democratic socialist alternative is to have some things for free too such as free public transport – leading thinkers on transport say there is no silver bullet on transport oh yes from a socialist perspective there is and I have just offered it!
    Free public transport would help the transport poor, the environment, should reduce traffic (attracting people out of cars), lead to safer, quieter roads, less pollution and fresher air, less stress on drivers taking fares and more efficient, would encourage more people to cycle, and could have couriers on board to help passengers and for passenger safety – I remember the petrol strike during Blair’s reign and I saw the future and it works!
    On a lighter a note although I am not interested in the classical conditioning of gambling for the last 3 weeks I have been trying to put a £10 bet on Trump being impeached in his first 4 year term but a major bookies has eventually come back saying they are not offering odds on this – Scardy Cats! Ha! Ha!
    Oh well will just have to send Trump 10 cents to get a decent haircut!
    Solidarity!

  8. Barry Rodin says:

    Having just seen the results of Sleaford (Labour finishing a very poor 4th!), it clearly echoes a lot of the points raised in this post and the comments above.

    First of all I think we must keep our nerve- the electoral harm done to LP by the attempted ‘putsch’ last summer will no doubt take longer than a few months to heal.

    Furthermore, I support the ideas given on how we can go on the offensive and set-out a positive and progressive Brexit. In addition to providing a means to unite progressive political forces on the left, I think it is now critical to seek ways in creating international political alliances and collaboration.

    A key objective is to combat negative political forces associated with neoliberalism and its ability to work in tandem with globalisation, triggering the populist reactionary forces so currently prevalent in advanced economies.

    1. Richard MacKinnon says:

      “A key objective is to combat negative political forces associated with neoliberalism and its ability to work in tandem with globalisation, triggering the populist reactionary forces so currently prevalent in advanced economies”.
      Its a long shot, but it just might work.

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