Richmond reveals a traditional party system in flux

Published by the ipaper (31st October, 2016)

Zac Goldsmith presents himself as a man of principle, honouring his promise to stand down and trigger a by-election after the government gave the green light to Heathrow expansion. The former Tory MP is posing as a green crusader fighting “the most polluting, most disruptive, most expensive option” for solving Britain’s runway shortage in south-east England. He seeks electoral acclaim as that rare beast: a politician prepared to risk his job in defence of his constituents and defiance of his boss.

Inevitably there have been jibes that it is easy for a man who inherited great wealth from his billionaire father to stand on principle when his pay as an MP is little more than small change. His wealth, however, is irrelevant to the issues he is raising. But since by-elections cost taxpayers about a quarter of a million pounds, it is fair to ask what is the real point of this self-serving stunt? After all, we know most Richmond Park constituents oppose Heathrow’s third runway – and whoever wins the contest will represent their resentments.

Goldsmith deserves respect for his dogged green views. But the primary purpose of this ballot is pointless, except to make the likeable MP look like a man on serious mission. It does, I guess, highlight how middle-class nimbyism frustrates building of essential British infrastructure, ideally paving the way for deeper planning reform as we confront a housing crisis alongside this tortuously slow crawl towards building a new runway. Yet this could be a fascinating fight that shows shifting tectonic plates beneath the surface of British politics.

Goldsmith is standing before his prosperous constituents as an independent after six years as a Conservative MP. Yet few will be fooled, especially in a seat found to be the nation’s best educated a few years ago. The Tories are not standing against him, recognition both of their open support and that voters facing more noisy flights over their homes would give them a drubbing. The last thing Theresa May wants so early in her prime ministerial career is an embarrassing electoral defeat.

He has, however, won formal support from Ukip. For a man seen to symbolise David Cameron’s party modernisation, this might once have seemed surprising. Sadly, this is no longer the case. London voters may recall how Goldsmith’s poor mayoral campaign sought to stir up anti-Muslim feeling against his Labour rival Sadiq Khan. It was the dirtiest kind of dog-whistle politics. He was also a fervent backer of Brexit, following in the Eurosceptic footsteps of his father. So these days Goldsmith is the sort of fellow who finds favour with Nigel Farage’s fervent army of Little Englanders.

Yet as Ukip dissolves into farce having achieved its core Brexit aim, perhaps this pact is a portent for the future. Farage’s successor lasted just 18 days. Steven Woolfe, the next leadership frontrunner, quit after a punch-up in the European Parliament and warned the party is in a death spiral. Its loudest voice is Raheem Kassam, who sounds like a misogynist student politician. Meanwhile May’s new-look Tories carefully target Ukip’s voters, from hard Brexit to the revival of grammar schools. This leaves Ukip fighting for survival when Farage finally leaves the stage.

On the left there is similar disarray. Labour has descended into dysfunctionality, torn between feuding factions and under a leader incapable of offering a real threat to the government. Three of the more interesting MPs from different wings came together last week to suggest the party step aside in this ballot to boost the chances of a Liberal Democrat upset. This was a brave break from intractable tribalism that scars British politics, yet was slapped down. But in floating the idea of a progressive alliance, the trio shone light on a path ahead that breaks free from current party chains.

Given Labour’s response, Goldsmith should be secure. He won a huge 23,000-vote majority in last year’s general election and has quasi-celebrity status. Yet Heathrow is a sideshow. Looming over this by-election, as it looms over everything in Britain, is the dark shadow of Brexit. More than two-thirds of Richmond voters wanted to stay in the European Union. Now the rest of the capital’s population will be looking to them for a reminder that London remains a tolerant and open-minded place whose future is threatened by this foolish decision.

This can only benefit the Lib Dems. The party has a lightweight leader who would struggle to seem significant on a parish council, but unlike Labour stands firmly in line with the capital’s cultural values on Europe and immigration. It performed well earlier this month in Cameron’s old constituency of Witney, with a hefty swing that slashed the blue majority. If they pulled off this upset, there would be feverish talk of revival – although it is worth noting they are bumping along the bottom on single figures in opinion polls.

Regardless of the result, this by-election indicates the possible direction of political evolution on the right, the left and in the centre. It shows a traditional party system in flux amid profound electoral discontent with mainstream politics. Now Brexit has thrown into sharp relief the divisions cleaving this country like so many others, but politicians carry on playing tribal games of the past. Britain faces turbulence over flight paths caused by a failure to build new runways, turbulence over the economy caused by extrication from Europe – and turbulence in politics caused by a struggle to accept change and adapt to new terrain.

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