Christian Wolmar, the Labour candidate in the by-election, reflects on what brought down Zac Goldsmith, revived Lib Dem fortunes and lost him his depositby Christian Wolmar / December 2, 2016 / Leave a comment
My campaign did not get off to the best of starts. An eagle-eyed reporter—well, a Google-literate one—on the Telegraph spotted that I had written an article for The Oldie magazine on how toilet roll was an outdated and unhygienic practice when Japanese-style spray toilets were far superior.
So my first headline after being selected as Labour candidate for Richmond Park concerned my plan to ban toilet paper. In retrospect that was no bad thing. Of course I had no such plans, and had to fend off jokes about visitors to my house bringing their own, but at least it was coverage. And that was better than my fate for most of this campaign, which was to be ignored by the media.
The campaign was made even more difficult by the absence of good local papers. The Richmond & Twickenham Times is a shadow of its former self. One issue during the campaign had just a dozen news stories and barely anything about the election, apart from the fact that Sarah Olney, the Lib Dem candidate who went on to win, handed in a petition to No 10. Hold the front page!
The Evening Standard consistently ignored me, even when, during the well-attended hustings, I launched a fierce attack on Zac Goldsmith which attracted considerable support in the room. The subsequent news report lead on how he had torn his trousers in a minor car accident which resulted in him turning up late.
Anyway, his soft speaking and smooth looks are now, thankfully, history, thanks to his misreading of the political mood. He stressed throughout that this was a referendum on Heathrow but that clearly became a nonsense once all three main candidates had come out in opposition to the airport’s expansion. What did come up time and again, unprompted on the doorstep, was Brexit. Even some who had voted “Leave” expressed doubts.
I too came out strongly against Brexit and said I would not sign Article 50 if elected. This got me into trouble with the Labour hierarchy but several other MPs have also said this, and, unlike in the days of Blair, there is little emphasis on “message discipline.” Seumas Milne had a word and asked me to keep the line. But frankly I had pretty much free rein. Indeed, in a constituency that had voted 70 per cent “Remain,” it wasn’t particularly surprising that I was chosen to contest the seat, given my outspoken support for the EU in my speech at the selection meeting.
It is impossible to maintain tight discipline over the EU when the situation is so fluid and there are such divergent views. The realpolitik too is tough. Were Labour to block Article 50, it would trigger an election which we would lose heavily. But if we let it through too easily we will be blamed for the inevitable debacle. Rocks and hard places are an insufficient metaphor. I believe we should keep our options open and that Labour leadership should not say that we are definitely leaving.
Goldsmith also lost voters for his dirty campaign for London Mayor. That was raised unprompted at the doorstep by several people who had previously voted for him. The most moving moment of the whole campaign came when a Muslim woman at the hustings challenged him. She said that she and her daughter had been verbally abused in the street a couple of days after Goldsmith had made remarks about Sadiq Khan’s “extremist links” and asked if he would now withdraw them. Instead of doing so, he tried to justify them. When I observed that he had said Sadiq “legitimised” terrorism, he still refused to admit he had done anything wrong.
His defeat and departure from politics is, therefore, to be welcomed. He was always the playboy politician, whose wealthy background has helped him along the campaign trail in the past, and the Lib Dems have finally got their revenge. Heathrow barely figured in the campaign.
The Lib Dem victory was a mixture of history and effort. They had previously held this seat until 2010 and only their national collapse last year enabled Goldsmith to get a 23,000 majority. They have a base and despite my team’s effort there was much tactical voting. I lost count of those who said they liked Labour and were inclined to support us, but wanted Zac out or to send a message about Brexit. The Lib Dem vote, though, is soft, only 19 per cent in 2015, so Olney may have difficulty holding the seat unless she develops a distinct voice. I warned her about this in my remarks at the count.
The slipperiness of the Lib Dems did surprise me and would seem impressive for fans of The Thick of It. They “leaked” their canvass returns to the Observer, which uncritically published them. The Lib Dems then produced a newspaper look-alike revealing that media reports showed them “just behind in the polls.” Clever stuff—and it worked. My support waned at the end, as testified by the election day knock up which found many previous Labour promises deciding to opt for the Lib Dems to get rid of Zac.
They won through sheer force of effort with some 30 pieces of literature through individual letterboxes and literally hundreds of campaigners on the streets even though their candidate was inexperienced—she was taken off air live by a LibDem PR man in an interview on Talk Radio today because she was floundering over questions about the referendum.
Indeed, she had changed her tune during the election. Originally she said Brexit had to be accepted in a blog that was later deleted. Then, clearly under pressure from her party, she said that she would only support Article 50 if a second referendum were promised. Interestingly, post-election, the Lib Dem line appears reined back, with suggestions that the party will just oppose “a hard Brexit.” It seems it may well be some time before the voters of Richmond Park and North Kingston find out exactly who—and what—they have voted for.