Liberal win in by-election stuns Brexiteers

The candidates: Goldsmith campaigned for Brexit, while Olney is strongly pro-EU.

The Liberal Democrats have produced a stunning by-election victory to unseat former Tory Zac Goldsmith in Richmond Park, overturning a 23,000 majority in a vote that became a poll on Brexit.

The night of May 7th 2015 was, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said, ‘cruel and punishing’. In the general election the voters threw out 49 of his party’s 57 MPs. The Lib Dems were relegated from a partner in government to the fourth largest party in the House of Commons.

Thirteen months later, it got worse. The UK voted to leave the EU — a hammer blow to Parliament’s most pro-Remain party.

But last night the Lib Dems shocked political pundits. Their candidate, Sarah Olney, became the new MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston. In a by-election she overturned a 23,000-vote majority for Zac Goldsmith, the former Conservative who ran as an independent candidate.

Olney matched Goldsmith’s opposition to Heathrow airport expansion — a crucial local issue. And she outflanked the Brexit-supporting Goldsmith by stressing that she would vote against triggering Britain’s departure from the EU. In June’s referendum, 72% of voters in the constituency backed Remain.

The latest polls put the Lib Dems on 6% or 7% of the vote nationwide: they have not recovered from their 2015 mauling. Their leader, Tim Farron, is also unpopular or unknown among much of the population.

But the party has gained thousands of new members since Brexit, and it secured 30% of the vote in a very safe Conservative seat in another by-election in October.

Both the resurgent Conservative right-wing, which is pushing for a thorough detachment from the EU, and the left-wing Labour leadership have alienated some of the 48% of Britons who voted Remain. ‘Our message about a Britain that is open, tolerant and united struck a chord,’ said Farron.

Some have now called for a progressive alliance, where left-leaning parties work together to win seats in parliament.

There are signs this may be forming among grassroots activists. And in Richmond, the Lib Dems benefited from the Green and the Women’s Equality parties standing aside and a de facto endorsement from campaigning group Compass.

So are we about to witness a liberal surge?

Liberal use

Yes, say some. Westerners have taken the liberal belief in tolerance and progress for granted for a long time. But in the era of Brexit, Donald Trump and hard left activism, liberalism faces an existential threat. This will inspire a backlash, and people from different parties will pull together to defend liberal values.

Unlikely, say others. By-elections have always been a platform for protest votes. The significant trend is towards authoritarians, particularly of the right. And a progressive alliance will not work: classical liberals will clash with social democrats, feminists and environmentalists, while Britain remains a fundamentally conservative country.

You Decide

  1. Are you pleased about last night’s result?
  2. Is Britain about to witness a liberal surge?


  1. Work in groups of four. Choose one person per group to stand as a candidate in a fictional by-election in your local area. Create a campaign leaflet on their behalf.
  2. Conduct some research into an important liberal philosopher of your choice. Prepare a short talk to your class explaining who they were and how they might have responded to Brexit.

Some People Say...

“In 100 years’ time, the world will be more liberal than it is now.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I am not a liberal. Why does this matter?
Whether you support the Lib Dems’ ideas or not, their support in this by-election is a sign of important forces at work in Britain. Many voters who wanted the UK to stay in the EU are now suspicious of the government’s strategy for taking them out. That will put pressure on the people in charge to handle this crucial decision differently. And that will have a big impact on both economic policy — which relates to how well off you are — and social policy, which will set the rights and responsibilities you have.
But I am not British.
There is a strong chance your country may see a similar change soon. For example, if you are American, it will be important to consider how Donald Trump’s opponents respond to his leadership once he becomes president.

Word Watch

An election for an individual constituency, held when a vacancy arises.
Goldsmith resigned from the Conservatives in objection to Heathrow expansion. He then resigned his seat, triggering the by-election.
According to analyst Mike Smithson. Five thousand people in the constituency work in the City of London, where firms trade heavily with Europe.
In September, 46% of people polled told Ipsos MORI that they did not like Farron; just 23% liked him. Many did not know.
Witney and West Oxfordshire, David Cameron’s former seat.
Since the EU referendum several cross-party activist groups have been set up to promote liberal values, such as More United and Common Ground.
This grew out of the Labour party and called on voters to support ‘the progressive candidate best placed to win’. Tony Blair, Labour’s former centrist prime minister, recently met Clegg and Farron.
Classical liberals
Those who believe the government should leave people alone. They tend to favour the free market; green activists or feminists support intervening to address problems.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.