At 2.07am on 2nd December 2016, the Liberal Democrats delivered a quiet political earthquake in defeating incumbent Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith at the Richmond Park by-election. Mr. Goldsmith resigned as a Conservative Member of Parliament back in November after the government announced its plans for the expansion of Heathrow airport. Richmond Park was one of nine seats that the Liberal Democrats lost to the Conservatives at the 2010 election. In 2015, their vote in the constituency dropped by 23 per cent making it the 40th safest Conservative seat with a 23,015 majority. Lib Dems everywhere are claiming that the party is back after its near-death experience at the 2015 General Election, but considering the special circumstances and the one-off nature of by-elections, is this strictly true?
When you look at the numbers and consider the fact that the Lib Dems are making gains in local council by-elections, it is certainly compelling to believe that they are making a comeback. There were rumours back in October that the Conservatives would lose Witney to the party and sure enough there was a 19.3% swing from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats, the biggest CON- Lib Dem swing since 1997, but short of that required to gain the seat. Six weeks later, in Richmond Park, the party achieved a 21.73% swing, gained the seat and put to bed weeks of speculation of who would win the constituency. Tim Farron immediately claimed that his party is back and on twitter, some Lib-Dem followers began contemplating what would happen if the huge swing was replicated at a General Election.
But the circumstances in Richmond Park were special. The memory of Zac’s failed mayoral campaign was still very much in the mind of many voters and most importantly, back in June, the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union. Of the three main parties, only the Lib-Dems have expressly stated their continued support for Britain’s EU membership and what better way of testing becoming ‘the party of the 48%’ than by turning the by-election into a referendum on the government’s handling of Brexit. Zac wanted it to be a referendum on the expansion of Heathrow, but the Lib Dems were able to use his Eurosceptic stance to make it about Brexit. In a General Election, it is difficult to know how this strategy would play out. Whilst many former Lib Dem constituencies, such as Cambridge and Lewes did vote to remain, their former heartland in the South West mostly voted to leave, in pleasing one side of their potential electorate, they would be alienating another. However, this is a problem faced by the other two main parties and it is entirely possible that the Lib Dems could pick up remain voters in London from Labour and from the Conservatives in some remain areas of the South. On top of this, the Lib Dems have the opportunity to pick up anti-Corbyn Labour votes. The big question is, would these voters turn out and would they be enough to translate into seats? With the party still trailing on around 8% in the opinion polls it is unlikely but certainly not impossible.
Of course, another complication in Richmond Park was the fact that three of the main parties (the Conservatives, UKIP and the Greens) negated to run candidates meaning the competition wasn’t exactly what the Lib Dems would be facing at a General Election. Some members of Labour’s front bench called for the party not to fight the by-election and figures such as Clive Lewis back a ‘progressive alliance’ for the next election, but this kind of agreement is not something that is likely to come into fruition after the party’s decision to work in coalition with the Conservatives throughout the last parliament. It is also worth commenting that by-elections are not necessarily indicative of the national mood and over the years, there have been some massive swings and gains that have been reversed at the subsequent General Election. For example, Labour did relatively well in by-elections between 1987 and 1992 but went on to lose the election in 1992. The SDP/ Liberal Alliance performed well in by-elections in the 1979 parliament but again, did not make big gains in terms of seats in 1983. There are several reasons for this but the main one is the fact that voters in by-elections know that the result will have a negligible effect on the national picture and therefore vote differently to how they would at a General Election. The other main reason for odd by-election results is the fact that the turnout tends to be low and usually low means below 50%. Local council elections and by-elections are even less reliable as bellwethers as they tend to have incredibly low turnout, sometimes with an electorate of just a few hundred.
Clearly, the Liberal Democrats are not a totally spent force and in time, the voters may forgive Tim Farron’s party for some of its decisions when inside the coalition. At the moment, however, there is little evidence to suggest that the party will return a large block of MPs at a General Election as the circumstances in Richmond Park were not representative enough to give us a clear picture of how the party is performing nationally. On Thursday 8th December, the voters of Sleaford and North Hykeham go to the polls to select their next MP following Stephen Phillips’ resignation. The seat is safe Conservative and in 2015, had a majority just slightly bigger than in Richmond Park. The big difference? This seat voted heavily to leave the European Union. The result there may give us a clearer picture of Lib Dem performance but it is difficult to tell until we have the figures. A left-wing upset here is unlikely, but with the way this year has gone, who knows what might happen.