Richmond Park by Election, and the Futility of Campaigning on Resolved Issues

Anyone still listening to the bookmakers, papers or polls might think the Richmond by election is a shoe-in for former Mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith. Unchallenged by the Tories he only has Lib Dem newcomer Sarah Olney and Labour’s Christian Wolmar to defeat. But nothing has the capability to disrupt political certainties like Britain’s shock departure from the EU, and Brexiter Goldsmith is now fighting a war on two fronts.

Take a walk through the leafy streets of the south West London borough and you certainly don’t get the feel that this is an easy seat for independent runner Zac. The streets are littered with Lib Dem placards and teams of campaigners are out on the doorsteps. It’s clear the Lib Dems are putting some weight behind this.

Richmond Park – my newly adopted borough since moving from Lib Dem stronghold of Twickenham – is a constituency that stretches from Barnes in the north to Kingston upon Thames in the south, and includes the whole of East Sheen, Mortlake, Kew, Richmond, Petersham and Ham. Formerly the constituency of Richmond and Barnes it was held by the Liberal Democrats until 2010 thanks to Jenny Tonge until Goldsmith defeated Susan Kramer (now Baroness Kramer) to take the seat.

Richmond Park by Election

Now it’s back up for grabs again following the government’s decision to give Heathrow’s third runway the go-ahead, something Goldsmith has passionately campaigned against for several years along with prominent Conservative politicians such as Boris Johnson and Justine Greening. And it’s clear that the issue of airport capacity in the south east is a focal part of Goldsmith’s campaign this time around.

But here’s the rub. The decision on whether or not to give Heathrow a third runway has already been decided, and whether or not we the residents of Richmond Park constituency like it or not, that is what is going to happen. Even I, who like most people around here live under the flight path into Heathrow, would hope that after a commission that stretched several years and cost the taxpayer millions of pounds we would have a decision that is final and not up for debate.

Great news for the Lib Dems then, who could perhaps take this opportunity to campaign on issues that they can actually influence in the future. Except they have taken the chance to lodge a similar protest campaign against the referendum to leave Europe. Now I dislike our decision to leave the EU as much as I dislike being woken up by the A380 from Hong Kong every morning, but I also respect the democratic result of a referendum that simply cannot be re-run, as much as we Remainers might hope it will.


The Richmond Park by election sets a big precedent for political campaigns of the future. Fresh out of Europe and with the decision to expand Heathrow also fresh in our memories the temptation is to send a message to Westminster that we’re not happy with the way things have panned out. But doing so is a disservice to the electorate. What we really need is positive messages about how our member of parliament plans to adapt to the new normal.

We’re out of the EU and Heathrow is getting a third runway – I want to know how you plan to govern under these conditions, not how you plan to reverse them.

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6 Responses

    1. Richard

      No, the Lib Dems do want to reverse the decision as the question they want on the ballot paper is a binary, Leave the EU on the deal v Stay in.

      Consider this, our government attempting to negotiate a deal on our nations behalf all whilst the EU are aware that we will have another in/out referendum on the deal. And lastly, if you think our country is in a bad place now, well, you haven’t seen anything if the 23 June is not respected. Democracy down the toilet, and you will see the rise is in extreme parties as our whole democratic system will be viewed as little more than a banana republic.

  1. James Gravalax

    I think the difference is that Heathrow expansion is a clear thing (we know what it is, where etc) and we know that Zac Goldsmith has completely failed to stop it. Brexit has not been clarified, no-one knows what it means, and it was sold on lies (e.g. the claim about extra NHS funding). Given that 70% of the constituency voted differently to Zac Goldsmith on Brexit, the outcome of which is unclear, surely he is not their best representative?

  2. Mr Neutron

    Fortunately Lib-Dem Olney has yesterday’s man Clegg canvassing for her so should put the kiss-of-death on her campaign. And I used to vote Liberal!

  3. Alex Macfie

    “Democracy” does not mean you shut down debate after a vote. People get this when it comes to elections — when a party wins an election, it does not mean that the winning party gets an absolute right to do whatever it wants in government and the opposition has to shut up. Indeed the whole reason we have such a thing as an official opposition is that democracy means continuous challenge — if the losing parties had to just shut up for 5 years there would be no challenge to the government, no-one to put forward an alternative viewpoint. I do not understand why people don’t get it when it comes to referendums, but it does explain why dictators are so fond of referendums: you can hold a referendum, make sure it goes your way, and then suppress dissent from the resulting decision by declaring that any dissent is “undemocratic” and “against the will of the people”. The principle of continuous challenge applies whether to a decision made by government, in parliament or in a referendum. So neither Heathrow expansion nor Brexit are done deals, especially as there is a lot of controversy surrounding both decisions.

  4. Alex Macfie

    Also neither Brexit nor Heathrow expansion have been approved by Parliament, so (assuming Parliamentary approval is required for Article 50 to be triggered) neither are truly “resolved” issues. And what if they were? The Poll Tax was a Conservative Party manifesto commitment in the 1987 election, and was approved by Parliament. Thus it was a “resolved issue” at that time. But campaigners forced the government to abolish it, and one thing that undoubtedly contributed to this was goverenment defeats in by-elections (most notably Ribble Valley). So campaigning on a so-called “resolved issue” is not at all futile. The main question is whether the specific campaign will be effective. Zac Goldsmith was not able to convince the Conservative government to reject Heathrow expansion when he was a Conservative MP, so there is no reason to suppose he would be able to as an Independent. His action is basically a vanity resignation.

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