What 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.
Labour’s poor result could be partly attributed to a high degree of tactical voting. The long, unnecessary, bruising leadership contest has dented Labour’s lead in the polls as well. There also remains a lack of clarity in the public mind over what precisely Labour’s 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 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? With Theresa May’s 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, isn’t a soft Brexiteer really just someone who would prefer to Remain? And if you really want a soft Brexit, wouldn’t 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 can’t 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. It’s 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.