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Your Voice: Labour’s cluelessness leaves the Lib Dems to rally those against hard Brexit

If Tim Farron’s party can overcome the legacy of coalition, Witney and Richmond Park suggest it could give a voice to the groundswell of anxiety and outrage

John Harris

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukMapping out the likely features of the Brexit Age, it is hard to know where to start. Headlines about government support for the Nissan factory in Sunderland and GDP rising immediately after the referendum do not detract from the big picture: the UK’s post-EU future remains gloomy, and then some. We are, it seems, at the start of a new era of border queues, inflation, renewed austerity, with the prospect of rising unemployment, and the exit from Britain of banksand other financial services. They may be modern villains, but they are also one of the only dependable sources of tax revenue we’ve got left.

Political debate about what happens next is currently carved up between supporters of hard and soft Brexit – with, just to add to all the absurdity, the Labour party saddled with a new position all of its own: as reconfirmed by John McDonnell’s media appearances this week, “hard” in the sense that its leadership is relaxed about Britain having only “access” to the single market, but “soft” in its attitude to immigration. Even among the people who spent the late summer wondering whether the referendum might somehow be annulled, the enemy is now a “destructive” Brexit, not the thing itself.

The pro-EU noise that followed the vote, it seems, has dwindled to almost nothing. You would think that no one is now calling into question what 48% of us voted against.

But listen closely, and you can hear it: people wondering why the UK is doing this at all. This week, a YouGov poll suggested that if a hypothetical Stop Brexit party put up candidates at an election, it would get the support of 25.9% of voters (including 4% of those who voted leave), leaving Labour trailing on 18.7% (the Tories, the poll says, would be on 34%).

Indeed, trawl recent surveys, and you quickly get a sense of the people who are spooked, with good reason: the 36% of people who say Brexit will be “bad for jobs”; the 28% who think there will be negative effects on pensions; the 38% who agree with the no-brainer proposition that leaving the EU will reduce Britain’s influence in the world.

A lot of these people would presumably agree with AC Grayling, who may yet find himself in the unfamiliar position of speaking for a substantial body of public opinion: leaving the EU, he recently tweeted, “is obviously such an incredibly bad idea – just stop it”.

For many people – including me – that kind of talk always triggers a deep ambivalence. If what took the leave side to victory was the support of so-called “left behind” voters who had not been listened to for decades, it still seems to me that arguing they should be ignored may not just be democratically questionable, but a gift to the forces that, even with Ukip apparently imploding, would know a once-in-a-lifetime chance when they saw it, and strike. Witness the pro-Brexit tycoon Arron Banks, who now wants to bankroll nothing less than a “people’s movement”, and give voice to “England rising”. In that sense, there remains a good argument for those of us who voted remain to stand back, and let this frazzled example of government-by-plebiscite run its course, while bearing in mind the immortal words of the US writer and satirist HL Mencken: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

And yet, and yet. Whatever your view, it is unquestionably the case that at this rate, the snowballing Brexit disaster will create a groundswell of public anxiety and outrage, and a big opportunity for a party willing to channel them. At the national level at least, this seems unlikely to be Labour, for three reasons: the number of “core” Labour voters who supported leave, the anti-EU inclinations of its leadership, and the general cluelessness that suggests it tends to view glaring political opportunities as some kind of bourgeois trick. In which case, there is one obvious candidate: the Liberal Democrats.

For sure, they have a hell of a lot to surmount: the deep damage to their reputation done by the coalition years, a leader who has yet to break into the public consciousness, and an almost total lack of powerbases, even in their traditional redoubts. But with memories of their grim partnership with the Tories fading, an intersecting alliance of voters could yet be theirs: those variously worried about hard Brexit, drawn to the Lib Dems’ insistence on a second referendum, and in many cases opposed to leaving the EU per se – people who, if the government sticks to its current hard line and/or the EU refuses to play ball, may well become one big anti-Brexit bloc.

There was a flavour of this at this at last week’s Witney byelection, whose pretty miraculous result – a 19% swing from the Tories to a party we all thought was dead – has been rather overlooked, along with Tim Farron’s trumpeting of the result: a clear rejection, he said, “of the Conservative Brexit government’s plan to take Britain out of the single market”.

What happened there highlighted a tension, hardly unique to that corner of the country, that was arguably always going to explode. The Conservative party faced thousands of Tory-inclined voters who supported remain (in West Oxfordshire, the pro-EU side won by 54% to 46%). After weeks of telling them that whatever their anxieties, it was now likely to be hard Brexit all the way, surprise, surprise: a lot of them didn’t like it.

Something similar is likely to happen in the looming Richmond Park byelection– which Zac Goldsmith wants to be about a third Heathrow runway, but thanks to the absence of an official Tory candidate and an already-energised Lib Dem campaign, may well turn out to be a contest much more focused on Europe, and Goldsmith’s leap away from thousands of his constituents. They live in a borough that voted 70% for remain – in which context, he will be hobbled not just by his support for the leave side, but the downright racist mayoral campaign that gave a sharp flavour of the nastiness that would erupt both before and after the referendum.

I’m old-fashioned: I would rather political divisions were based on such trifles as inequality, and the limits of the market. But these are hardly normal times. As also evidenced by a steady stream of council byelection results, a proper Lib Dem revival may only be a matter of time. Whatever the contortions of the Labour leadership, I wonder about the Labour leaders of our big cities, and the first minister of Wales, and at what point they may break from their hopeless party line, and begin to pointedly question something that will so deeply damage the places where they hold power.

All the time, it gets louder: the early stirring of a messy realignment, and the birth pangs of 48/52 politics, whose consequences – on both sides of the divide – could be just as seismic as Brexit itself.

Your Voice article by John Harris for the Guardian.

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Lib Dems pull off shock victory in Richmond Park by-election as Zac is thrown out

James Giles

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A ‘shockwave to Downing Street’ has, last night, been pulled off by the Liberal Democrats, with Sarah Olney defeating Zac Goldsmith in the Richmond Park by-election.

Lib Dem challenger Ms Olney overturned Mr Goldsmith’s 23,015 majority to win by 1,872 votes. The result saw Ms Olney poll 20,510 votes to Mr Goldsmith’s 18,638, on a turnout of 41,367, or 53.6 per cent. The 21.74 per cent swing to the Lib Dems from Mr Goldsmith topped the 19.3 per cent swing the Lib Dems achieved from the Tories in the Witney by-election.

A Green Party spokesperson said: “The Green Party’s decision to stand down and the huge drop in the Labour Party vote show that people will vote tactically. It proves that there is a huge appetite and a need for proportional representation so that people can express a real preference at elections. In Sarah Olney, we now have an MP who will push for the electoral reform that we so urgently need. We look forward to working with the Liberal Democrats, Women’s Equality Party and the Labour Party in a Progressive Alliance for the 2018 local elections and the next General Election.”

 

Ms Olney said the shock victory was a rejection of the “Ukip vision” of Britain, and the politics of “anger and division”.

In her victory speech, she said: “The people of Richmond Park and North Kingston have sent a shockwave through this Conservative Brexit government, and our message is clear: we do not want a hard Brexit. We do not want to be pulled out of the single market, and we will not let intolerance, division and fear win.”

In a brief acknowledgement of the result, a clearly downcast Mr Goldsmith said: “This by-election that we have just had was not a political calculation, it was a promise that I made and it was a promise that I kept.”

Labour’s Christian Wolmar lost his deposit as he trailed a distant third with 1,515 votes, losing 8% of the Labour vote compared to 2015.

A Conservative Party spokesman said the result would make no difference to Brexit plans, stating: “This result doesn’t change anything. The Government remains committed to leaving the European Union and triggering Article 50 by the end of March next year. Commiserations to Zac Goldsmith on his defeat. We are sorry that he is no longer in the House of Commons.”

Lib Dem leader Tim Farron said: “The message is clear: The Liberal Democrats are back and we are carrying the torch for all of those who want a real opposition to this Conservative Brexit government.

“This was a remarkable, come-from-nowhere upset that will terrify the Conservatives. A year and a half ago, their man won by nearly 40% and had a majority of more than 20,000. In one fell swoop we have wiped that out completely.

“If this was a general election, this swing would mean the Conservatives would lose dozens of seats to the Liberal Democrats – and their majority with it.

Mr Wolmar said voters had disliked Mr Goldsmith’s “ghastly, disgusting” bid to be London Mayor in which Labour accused him of running a racist campaign against Sadiq Khan.

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