After nearly every UK parliamentary by-election there are 24 hours of discussion in the commentariat about ‘the lessons to be learned’ and then it’s business as usual. Richmond Park has interest because the result is indeed an upset.
One lesson needs to be drawn by Mr Zac Goldsmith: early retirement. After the shipwreck of his distasteful campaign against Sadiq Khan for the London mayoralty – with its racist overtones – and all the posturing over the third runway for Heathrow with the ‘sacrificial’ resignation of his seat (although he still enjoyed both Conservative and UKIP support for re-election) he and his gruesome family should now take the hint and retire from the stage with as much grace as they can muster.
Another lesson is that Brexit is now the main staple of our political diet probably for years to come, as much as protectionism and the Corn Laws in the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The run-up to the by-election had witnessed another comic turn laid on for public delectation by Mrs May’s ministers who have clearly not picked up on her incantations about ‘running narratives’.
Mr Johnson tells four EU ambassadors that he is in favour of retaining free movement and then, with his customary reverence for truth, denies what he said. Mr Davies tells the Commons in public session (so denial here would be trickier) that paying into the EU budget after Brexit could be looked at if it kept access to the single market. So, we finally wave goodbye to those £350 million promised for the NHS. And then there’s the saga of the apparatchik of a Conservative MP nobody had ever heard of, the photographed notes, and the thoughts of Mr Davies on plans for Brexit: so any passing minor political functionary is to get the full briefing on the negotiations denied to Parliament and the people. It is not Brexit which keeps Mrs May awake at night. It is the Brexit ministers she appointed. Not so much the coalition of the willing but the confederacy of the whacky.
The third lesson is that opposition to Brexit and ‘the will of the people’ (an elusive concept with tones redolent of the 1930s) is not such ballot box poison after all. Yes, Richmond Park was one of the most pro-Remain constituencies in the June 23rd referendum, and is not demographically the most typical. But manifestly, voters wanted to talk about Brexit. They worry about ‘hard Brexit’ and the economic damage and the isolation it would inflict, and the incapacity of ministers to organise negotiations. It’s only a short step to imagine a possible sea-change in public opinion. But for that to happen cooperation between progressives who reject UK isolation and populist nationalism is required.
For the fourth and perhaps most important lesson to be drawn from this by-election is for the Labour Party. To say that the result was a disaster is to understate things. For Labour to garner 3% of the vote cannot be blamed on the candidate (highly qualified) or the campaigning skills of the Liberal Democrats (where were the legions of Corbynistas when you need them or is the humdrum reality of campaigning in elections too much of a chore?). The Labour wipe-out in part reflects the failure of Mr Corbyn to articulate a credible programme. But it also shows that progressive voters are one step ahead of their politicians. Given a chance they will back the candidate they think most likely to give echo to their views. But this is a high risk game. If Labour’s campaign had been less than totally abject, if just one thousand more votes had been held onto, then Mr Goldsmith would have scraped through.
And this was a seat where tactical voting was straightforward, where clearly the Liberal Democrats were best placed to take on the Tory/UKIP pact. Other by-elections will follow very shortly where the choices for voters now searching alternatives to the Tory Brexit government are less apparent. So if Labour is interested in anything other than political posturing, if it wants to shape a democratic alternative, then it should heed those people in its ranks, including in its shadow cabinet, who now see cooperation with progressives from other parties as the only way forward.
What should have happened for Richmond Park was that the moment Mr Goldsmith triggered the by-election there should have been a conversation between Mr Corbyn, Mr Farron and Mrs Lucas about how to proceed and who was best placed to be the standard bearer for the progressives. This should be the rule for every by-election coming up. This is the way to erode Mrs May’s now very slim majority in Parliament.
The discussion needs to be wider than one of electoral mechanics. It should embrace points of political convergence (Europe, saving the NHS, resisting selectivity in schools) which could be put to the fore in any by-election. Where time permits, the decision as to who might be the best candidate for any campaign should be decided by an open primary in the constituency. It’s extra work for the parties, but a bonus in terms of taking arguments to the voters and in deepening democracy.
If this approach is successful in by-elections, the parties may then be emboldened to formalise arrangements in an electoral pact with, after a negotiation constituency by constituency, parties standing down in favour of others best placed to win for the progressive anti-populist cause. The pact would be a temporary one pending the introduction of full proportional representation which is the only democratic basis on which elections may be fought in a multi-party system.
So it is Mr Corbyn who has the hard choices after Richmond Park. Should he and his party cling to their ideological purity and organisational exclusivity? Or should he reach out, show that he is interested in winning not just the control structures in his own party but in leading resistance to populism, crude nationalism and injustice.
He should just look what is happening on our doorstep. The ignominious departure of Mr Hollande and the wasteland that is the French left, imprisoned by its refusal to countenance any threat to its sectarian certainties. Or to Italy, with disaster for the Italian left written so plainly on the wall. Or Austria.
With the populist tide as dangerous a threat as any since the 1930s, will progressives here and elsewhere make the intelligent choices needed to reverse it?