The Liberal Democrats’ stunning victory in the Richmond Park by-election confirms the transformative impact of the EU referendum on British politics. Sarah Olney overturned a 23,000-Conservative majority, defeating Zac Goldsmith, who had resigned his seat and stood as an independent. The result has exhilarated opponents of “hard Brexit,” but perhaps its greater effect is on the party system.
The major lesson of Richmond Park, which declared in the early hours of this morning, is that the Liberal Democrats are back from the brink. The party’s past success was built on presenting an anti-Conservative alternative in affluent areas where Labour was weak. The strategy combined tactical votes from left-leaning voters and protest votes from moderate Conservative supporters, and delivered major gains in 1997. However, the Lib Dems’ decision to join the Conservatives in a coalition in 2010 severely undermined their anti-Conservative image and led to a collapse in support in the 2015 general election. With just eight seats in parliament and lacking visibility in the media, the Lib Dems could easily have entered a death spiral.
Brexit may well end up saving the party by giving it a purpose and voters an incentive to vote for it. Theresa May’s eager pursuit of Brexit, combined with Labour’s weakness under Jeremy Corbyn, has created an opportunity for the Lib Dems to re-emerge. They are reclaiming the mantle of anti-Conservatism and reassembling the coalition of centrist Tory protest voters and Labour (and Green) tactical voters. The signs were there in the Witney by-election in October but Richmond Park has confirmed it. It was a classic Liberal Democrat campaign, seizing the opportunity of a high-profile vote in a prosperous area, which they flooded with activists.
But while the party will understandably herald its gain, caution is needed in drawing the lessons of the vote. Richmond Park is perfect Lib Dem territory—the party held the seat from 1997-2010—and as a London seat, it is in the only region of England that opted for “Remain” in June. Indeed, Richmond overwhelmingly voted 69-31 to “Remain.” The Lib Dems’ strength was previously concentrated in the South West of England,…