Zöe Franklin: What does Richmond Park mean for Guildford?

December 8, 2016 7:31 PM
By Zöe Franklin

The result of last Thursday's Richmond Park by-election, which saw the incumbent Zac Goldsmith outsted by Liberal Democrat Sarah Olney, was an incredible result for the Party. It was also a clear message to the Conservative government.

Voters are not fools - Goldsmith may have resigned from the Conservative government and stood as an independent but residents could see that he was far from it. Credit to Goldsmith for resigning because the government had approved a third runway at Heathrow - he kept his 2015 election promise to voters. However, the fact that the Conservatives did not stand a candidate to oppose him and many well-known Conservative supporters and MPs were spotted not-so-secretly campaigning made it clear that voting for him would have been a vote for another Conservative voice in everything but name.

There was of course also Goldsmith's campaign for Mayor of London. His approach damaged his reputation and feedback from Lib Dem canvassers showed that, particularly Labour voters, were unhappy with the way he behaved and chose to vote for us in order to oust him.

In our view these issues combined with Goldsmith's vocal pro-Brexit stance that made Richmond Park voters decide to take their support from him and his Conservative colleagues in such large numbers. Time and again on the doors Lib Dem canvassers were told by residents that they would not support Goldsmith because his pro-Brexit views had let them down; the government are taking the country on a path they did not want and a path that left them fearful of the damage it would do to us as a nation and personally. In contrast they talked about they knew that Sarah Olney and the Lib Dems have opposed the additional runway at Heathrow for years and how they felt that Sarah represented them, their view of Brexit and a positive future for Britain.

So how could this translate to Guildford's situation?

There is of course not the added power of the anti Heathrow expansion or reaction against a previous personal campaign. However, the key issue - Brexit - is still at play. Guildford voted to remain at the EU referendum - 56% of nearly 77% of voters which is a very high turnout for any vote. Anne Milton eventually, in the last days of the referendum, indicated that she was voting to remain. Since the referendum she has remained virtually silent on the approach her government is taking despite many resident lobbying her on issues ranging from EU nationals right to remain, remaining in the single market and freedom of movement. Residents want and expect her to represent their voice at a national level yet she voted against a clear statement being given on EU nationals right and made excuses when one of her own councillors started a petition which would have named thousands of her residents traitors.

At the next general election those who voted remain on 23rd June, or who voted leave but want to retain aspects of our membership such as membership of the single market, they may react strongly against Anne Milton's 'fence sitting' and her unwillingness to give them their voice in parliament. There will also be the risk of leavers abandoning her too for not representing their views.

In contrast the Liberal Democrat stance on Brexit is clear - we respect the result of the referendum as Britains democratic choice to depart the EU. However, we did not vote on the destination - our 'hard' or 'soft' Brexit. We have said that we will push hard to ensure that Britain gets the best possible deal - including retaining membership of the single market - and when the final deal is on the table giving Britain the change to vote again on our destination. Whether a GE takes place next year or in 2020 remainers and leavers will know what our message is and what a vote for the Lib Dems is supporting.

Richmond Park also showed that throwing money at an election does not necessarily win elections. You need a strong message (which we have) and a passionate energetic campaign. Liberal Demcrat volunteers were out in force on the streets knocking on doors, spreading our message and delivering leaflets. We also had a strong campaign on social media and regular press coverage. Residents saw that we meant business and got involved themselves which spread our message further and ultimately gained us more votes. Since June we had a surge in membership that would help us to reproduce, albeit on a slightly smaller scale, this type of passionate, visible and personal campaigning.

Finally, we should not forget the cross-party support - the progressive alliance - that emerged in Richmond Park. Only time will tell if a similar formalised alliance will emerge here in Guildford but what is clear is that the times of voting unwaveringly on party lines have gone. Voters with progressive views have shown that they are willing to lend their vote to a party that shares their views on key issues in order to oust an MP who they believe does not represent them.

In the era of Brexit Theresa May and her Conservative MPs, including Anne Milton, will be held to account on their success or failure in building a positive deal for Britain outside the EU, the financial health of our nation and the impact of both of these on the lives of the British people. The next general election will be fought on this and, as Richmond Park and Witney have shown, with these issues at play there are no such things as safe seats.

You can find our more about the Liberal Democrat plan for Britain in Europe here.