Monday, 5 December 2016

Richmond Park: Liberal Democrat fightback?

So: what does the Richmond Park byelection mean? How best to place it in context, speculate about its likely effects? The first and most important thing to say is: it means absolutely nothing. Voters love a chance to aim a kick at governments they have absolutely no intention of supplanting. The ex-Conservative MP who lost his seat, Zac Goldsmith, has failed to cover himself in glory over the last year, and was an easy target for some pretty angry fairly small 'l'-liberal and pro-EU voters disappointed when Mr Goldsmith appeared to go all-out to trash his previously-independent image.

The history books are also full of Liberal Democrat byelection gains, sometimes on huge swings, that went back to their previous allegiance come the subsequent General Election (think Christchurch in 1993 and 1997). Last and by no means least, if you take a look at successful Liberal Democrat gains from the Conservatives since their historic triumph at Orpington in 1962 (above), you will see that the result in Richmond Park is perfectly normal and indeed average for this sort of thing. There are eleven Liberal Democrat gains on a swing smaller than this one, and nine larger. Small byelection gain: no-one hurt (except Mr Goldsmith).

Even so, and as usual on this blog, we think it likely that are some lessons to be teased out here. The first thing to say is that the Liberal Democrats are likely to get something of a polling boost from Richmond Park. Third parties - indeed, at the moment fourth parties in the Commons - desperately need attention. They need publicity, that oxygen of political life, to get onto the public's radar. Well, they managed that this week, just as the new Social Democratic Party secured vital wins in 1981 at Crosby and in 1982 at Glasgow Hillhead. Without byelections, the SDP might never have achieved the political afterburners and the stratospheric poll ratings that they did manage: the Liberal Democrats have to hope for the same effect now. 

Our analysis of polling boosts following such byelections - Liberal, SDP and Liberal Democrat gains from the Conservatives - should offer the party a little bit of hope. Since 1962, the average boost in the polls provided by these wins has been 3.2 points one month afterwards, 2.3 two months afterwards, and 1.9 three months later. Given that the Liberal Democrats are currently languishing at about eight per cent in the national polls, that might see them break into double figures and rival the United Kingdom Independence Party for third place in the polls: not much, perhaps, but something. The effect will fade a little as the New Year goes on, but the added attention - and the boost to confidence - gained in Richmond Park is probably worth having.

The more important point to note here is that this result might give the Liberal Democrats a little bit of a guidebook on where to focus their very limited resources. Richmond Park is one of the most affluent seats in the country, full of established richer families and young professionals. It is also very, very pro-European, and was the twenty-eighth most Remain constituency in the country at this year's European Union referendum. Only 28% of inhabitants voted Leave (you can download all the data here). So here's the thing: the Liberal Democrats now know that they can get some sort of purchase back in the political arena if they focus on wealthier, pro-European areas with Conservative MPs. 

It's important to stress that public opinion on this question doesn't seem to have moved much since the referendum, though there have been a couple of polls putting Remain ahead again. And voters hardly gave Sarah Olney, Richmond Park's new MP, a ringing pro-European endorsement given the fact that everyone's vote fell. Remain voters were probably just that bit more motivated to turn out (on a very cold day) and give the Government a bloody nose. But that's the point: differential turnout is as good as anything else in winning seats, and the Liberal Democrats can also squeeze the Labour vote (as they did in Richmond Park), then so much the better.

There are probably only a few seats where all this holds. We've taken a look at the top forty Liberal Democrat targets currently held by the Conservatives and 'scored' them in a very crude manner - just adding together the (percentage) Conservative majority and the Leave vote back in June. We do know that this risks adding apples up with pears, with two scores reported along very different ranges, but bear with us. The lower the score, the more vulnerable these seats are to the pro-European Liberal Democrats if this issue continues to dominate British politics (it probably will, by the way). 

The results? Well, if we were making Liberal Democrat strategy, our top targets would be the following nine seats: Twickenham; Bath; Kingston and Surbiton; Lewes; Cheadle; Oxford West; Cheltenham; Thornbury and Yate; and Sutton and Cheam. The two Conservative MPs in these seats who voted Leave might be well advised to start mending fences with some of their Remainer constituents, or they might be looking for a job after the next election. So Maria Caulfield in Lewes and Paul Scully in Sutton and Cheam better not get all that comfortable in their House of Commons offices just yet. Some Conservative Leave MPs in the next five seats on this measure - Derek Thomas in St Ives, Will Quince in Colchester, and maybe Christopher Davies in Brecon and Radnor - should also probably feel quite a bit less secure in their jobs this week. 

There's a wider point here, as well. The Liberal Democrats now have a chance to get into full cry about an issue they feel passionately about. They get to pass the authenticity test. They must now shout, over and over and over again, about how pro-European they are. It doesn't matter how sick they get of it. Remember 'tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime'? You have to repeat a sound bite every day for years if you want it to gain traction, especially if you're as small and as starved of media attention as the yellow team now are. Because they have a precious opportunity to corral the 22% or so of voters who actively want a new referendum - Britons who are very, very upset about the result of the EU referendum, and who would like to reverse it if they could. Public opinion may not have changed much, but it is pretty divided. 21% of the voters are more than happy to keep free movement if that's the price of free trade with the EU; 28% would 'probably' go along with it. That's half the country open to a very soft Brexit indeed - many, many more people than currently say they will vote for Tim Farron's party. 

Is this defying democracy? Not really. Leave campaigners wouldn't have given up if they'd lost the referendum. Parties don't just disband themselves if they lose a General Election. And most importantly, that sort of theoretical question doesn't matter. The Liberal Democrats now have a cause. They have cut-through, even among tepid Remain voters and agnostic Leave supporters who will see a party that at least believes what it says - and says it clearly. Labour is tragically divided, and in a terrible dilemma, over Brexit - torn between Leave-leaning northern towns and Remain-focused southern cities: its response to this crisis has been tepid at best, and incoherent at worst. Polls now show that the Liberal Democrats could even rival or overtake Labour if they are the party of 'Remain', and Labour is in favour of Brexit. Although we'd take such projections with a pinch of salt, they should clearly spy an opportunity here.

It's no surprise, from this angle, that there does seem to be some stirring in the Liberal Democrats' part of the political woods. It isn't much, yet, but it does amount to signs of life. Their national poll rating may remain in the doldrums, but where they have activists and enthusiasm, they are beginning to show up and spring back from their disastrous performance at the 2015 General Election. They have now made 21 local byelection gains since the last major round of such elections back in May: they made another on the same night as their success in Richmond Park.

So the Liberal Democrats now know the ten to twenty seats where they should focus their energies. They know their issue. They have a cause. The ball is at their feet. It might only be a tennis ball, but hey, this is all looking a lot better than they could have hoped for last year. They might be able to get back to where they were before 1997, returning something up to twenty MPs. It's a start. Can they seize the moment? Well, time will tell. Time's funny like that.