The Liberal Democrats have overturned Zac Goldsmith’s majority of 23,000, winning the Richmond byelection my 1,872 votes. This was a stunning victory where they were able to turn the byelection into a vote on Brexit. Richmond voted massively in favour of Remain, and the Lib Dems played to this. In addition, the Labour candidate lost his deposit.
This was a strange byelection in which both the Convervatives and UKIP chose not to run and put their backing behind Goldsmith. Seeing the importance of this seat in making a hard Brexit harder, the Green party also pulled out of the race, throwing their backing behind the Lib Dems. However, despite calls from three Labour frontbenchers not to field a candidate to give the Lib Dems a better chance of winning, the Labour leadership chose to field one. Leading members of the party said that as a national party, Labour had to contest every seat. Fortunately, the Richmond voters were smart enough to realise that the electoral system is rigged, that it has historically split the centre and left vote in favour of the right, and chose to ignore the Labour candidate. I think there is no Labour supporter that is upset that there is now a Lib Dem MP in place of Goldsmith, and most are probably happy about this.
Does this result show that it is now time to take the idea of a progressive electoral alliance seriously? Dissenters may argue that there was no alliance here, and the result was a favourable one. That by not fielding candidates in seats, you reduce electoral choice. That you will let down the party members who have worked so hard for you. That the Lib Dems and Greens are too different from Labour.
I would argue that this was a unique simple vote, in one place, where it was easy to argue that Labour shouldn’t be voted for. On a national scale this would be difficult. Reducing choice is a red herring, as by providing choice, centre and left wing parties reduce the chance of a favourable outcome. The party members would surely rather an end to talk of hard Brexit, the end of immigrant bashing, the end of swingeing austerity that a progressive alliance could stop. Yes, the Lib Dems went into government with the Tories and did some terrible things, but their values are not so different from Labour’s. The differences are more about how to get to a destination rather than what destination to get to. What they did in power with the Tories would not be the same as what they would do in power with Labour. What is more, it is likely that Labour would be the larger party in such an alliance. To outright refuse such an idea shows a failure to understand that the political landscape has changed, that the old rules don’t apply, that a united right will wreak havoc on a disunited centre left. It also fails to recognise the difficulty Labour will have winning the next election by itself, even if Corbyn’s approval ratings went through the roof.
After the last election, the number of marginal seats that Labour will contest reduced to 98. 49 of these seats are Labour and 49 of the seats are not. This means that even if Labour kept all its marginals and won all the other marginals it contests, it would still not have enough seats to win the election. Labour, then, has a decision to make. Is it really going to stick to the line that it is a ‘national party’, that it cannot work with the Lib Dems and the Greens, that Labour’s version of politics is the only one. Or will it accept that it has much in common with the Lib Dems and Greens, and that it would be far better, for Labour and for the nation, if a coalition of these parties, and perhaps the SNP, if these parties worked together to dethrone a party that has increased debt to 90.6% of GDP, that has no money for social care, and wanted to punish school children for having parents who were illegal immigrants. Oh yes, and walked us blindly into Brexit.
The Fascists got their name from ‘fasces’, which means a bound bundle of wooden rods. It symbolised strength in unity, showing an understanding that togetherness can overcome everything. The parties of the centre left need to learn from this. Rather than spend scarce resources on fighting each other, they should focus resources on the seats they are most likely to win, supporting each other in the battle against the right and the forces of Brexit. This is not the time to play the ‘holier than thou’ game. It is the time to organise and focus attention on the real enemy. Richmond shows that if Labour steps aside in close contests, the enemy can be defeated.