Friday, March 03, 2017

The Richmond Park by-election - and some local Liberal history

Seth Thévoz has written a study under the title The Richmond Park By-Election in Perspective: Lessons from Liberal, Social Democrat and Liberal Democrat By-Election Gains for the Social Liberal Forum.

Like everything he writes, it is worth reading. The first lesson he draws is that:
Liberal Democrats should be realistic in aiming to make more by-election gains this parliament - but not ... imagine that a streak of four or five such victories is likely, given the diminishing number of by-elections triggered. One more, maybe two, would be quite enough to show that the party is winning elections again.
That is surely true. I am less convinced by his argument that we should consider ad hoc arrangements with other parties in parliamentary by-elections.

In part this is because I believe Jeremy Corbyn is politically toxic and an alliance with him might well do more harm than good for the Lib Dems.

More fundamentally, it is because, as I have argued before, the idea that a party can deliver its voters en bloc to a different party is a bit of an activist's fantasy.

And as I also argued then:
When voters have made up their mind to throw out the Tories, they are quite capable of organising themselves to do it. 
Think of 1997, when the operation was carried out with ruthless efficiency. Sometimes that was to the detriment of us Liberal Democrats. 
In several of our target seats (St Albans, Hastings and Rye, Bristol West) ... Labour came from third place to beat the Tories.
Seth also goes into the history of modern Liberalism in Richmond upon Thames. As I was active there in 1983 and 1984 that part is of particular interest to me.

He is right to say we were convinced we were going to gain the seat at the 1983 general election, only to lose by 74 votes.

Given how close that result was, it is fair to suggest that a more dynamic candidate that Alan Watson, and in particular one with stronger roots in community campaigning, might well have won.

Seth also underestimates how home-grown the Liberal success in Richmond was. He writes:
In the aftermath of the December 1972 Sutton and Cheam by-election, Liberals in Kingston and Richmond were visited by Trevor Jones, who had served as campaign manager in the Sutton by-election, and offered a masterclass on how to win council seats, with these techniques being put to good use.
I never heard any mention of this visit from Jones while I was in Richmond, so I wonder how important it was. My memory of those days was that just saying you were from Richmond when you turned up to help at a by-election somewhere else gave you remarkable kudos.

And if you read the Wikipedia entry for Stanley Rundle, the pioneer of modern Liberalism in the borough, you will see how early he stated publishing Kew Comments (a forerunner of the ubiquitous Focus):
Rundle targeted the Kew ward on Richmond Council from 1963, distributing the monthly Kew Comment bulletin. When a by-election occurred in 1966, he won the Liberal's first seat on the council. 
However, he was narrowly beaten in the Richmond upon Thames London Borough Council election, 1968, after a local residents' association put up rival candidates. Another by-election arose later that year, and Rundle won, becoming the only opposition councillor on the Conservative-dominated body. 
The Conservatives would meet in private to agree council business before holding a formal meeting with Rundle also present. In protest at this, Rundle organised his own pre-council meeting with local residents; over 400 turned up, attracting press attention.
Note how radical Rundle was. Everyone who mentioned him to me did so in terms of enormous admiration. I suspect his contribution to the Liberal revival deserves to be much better known.

Rundle died in 1978 and I believe he had been ill for a while before that.

It was expected that his protege John Waller would fight Richmond in 1979, but Alan Watson (then something of a television personality) wowed the selection meeting and won the nomination instead.

John Waller crossed the river and fought Twickenham instead. In those days the Liberals were firmly in third place there. I can recall one young Liberal activist confiding to me in the pub that, crazy as it sounded, he thought one of the wards in the centre of town might be winnable.
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But because of the foundations John Waller laid, Twickenham was gained by the Liberal Democrats in 1997 on the same night we gained Richmond.

1 comment:

Seth Thévoz said...

Thanks for the kind comments, Jonathan - and as ever, you make some fair points.

Re. pacts, your point about Corbyn's terminal unpopularity - and how he is almost bound to drag down any pact partners - is well taken. And it's one of the reasons I haven't explicitly called here for any agreement with the Labour Party for the foreseeable future (in its current state, it's probably best to dodge that bullet!), and why I've talked more about the Greens - something that's super-topical with Manchester Gorton being one of just 4 UK seats where the Greens came second, and where we're currently starting from fifth place.

I've also been careful to not come out in favour of a full-blown "Progressive Alliance", for reasons I suspect you have more first-hand experience of that me: the SDP-Liberal Alliance was a case in point as to how, when you start getting the maps out and carving up fiefdoms across the UK, things seldom work out that way. And as you say, parties can rarely "game the system" to decisively deliver their voters to another party. That said, we have certainly been the beneficiaries of other parties either standing down, not bothering to run a proper campaign, or else just simply messing up - and so I think there's something to be said for the process working both ways! And as we're talking about by-elections rather than general elections, it's in no way binding of the general election campaign after that, but can be used as a "dog whistle" to liberal-inclined voters that we're willing to work with like-minded parties - and so their voters should be prepared to do so too, in giving/lending us their vote. This is, of course, a major problem if it involves something as electorally toxic as the Corbyn Labour Party, but I do think the Greens are another matter.

For me, the big question in Gorton is whether we think the Greens have the campaigning ability to take the seat off Labour. They aren't exactly renowned for their ground game, and so there remain serious doubts about whether or not they would botch an opportunity if given Lib Dem support. But I certainly wouldn't dismiss the possibility out of hand.