Zac Goldsmith, surely one of 2016’s most tragicomic political figures, ended his parliamentary career last night with yet another humiliating defeat, this time completely unnecessary. Long gone are the days when Goldsmith was fawned over as a beacon of youthful, compassionate Conservatism, merrily courting liberals and environmentalists; this attractive, eco-friendly, modernising Tory is now, rightly, excoriated by the liberal left for his mayoral campaign. Even the Tories are unlikely to miss a man who reduced their paper-thin majority even further. His decline and fall has been swift; he will be remembered as a nasty and incompetent loser. Good riddance.
As satisfying as Goldsmith’s defeat is, it doesn’t especially change things. Lib Dem survival on the margins, picking low-hanging electoral fruit here and there, was to be anticipated. Elsewhere, there are a plethora of Tory seats, with slim majorities, ruthlessly attained by the Conservatives last year at the nadir of Lib Dem fortunes; such seats can be regained now that the Lib Dems have renewed their pre-2010 role as a party of protest. Alas, any Lib Dem gains, through by-elections, are rendered irrelevant by the impact of potential boundary changes, and more pertinently by what will almost certainly be big Tory gains elsewhere. A hard Brexit still looks inevitable. But let’s allow the Lib Dems to savour their first victory in a long time.
What Richmond Park does raise is a much bigger and more important issue than anything to do with the Liberal Democrats: the future of the Labour Party. Richmond Park was a vote on Brexit, and Labour lost their deposit for the first time in a by-election since 2008. Richmond might not be ideal Labour territory, but even the dismal 2015 election saw them gain nearly five times the number of votes in Richmond than they received this time round. Brexit undoubtedly remains the big dividing line and primary political issue in British politics, and what the parties say on it matters. So where do they all stand? The Tories appeal to Leavers; UKIP calls for an extreme Brexit; the Lib Dems oppose it through talk of a second referendum, appealing to disaffected Remainers. Labour…well, what should Labour’s line be?
The likes of Owen Smith, David Lammy, and the defeated Richmond candidate Christian Wolmar adopt the Lib Dem view and oppose departure altogether; a broader cross-section, entailing everyone from John McDonnell to Chuka Umunna, support leaving but quibble over specifics. Their broad stance seems to amount to criticising the government’s “shambolic Brexit” for being unclear about its aims and for failing to stick to the Leave campaign’s promises, which is all well and good, but hardly offers a clear alternative pitch for voters.
Several weeks ago, Corbyn declared that he would oppose the triggering of Article 50 if the government failed to meet his demands, but this was rapidly abandoned. Worse still, although most Labour MPs want “soft Brexit” and to remain a member of the single market, Corbyn chose to criticise aspects of membership and signalled a desire to simply maintain “access” to the single market. Corbyn’s suggestion is an interesting one, considering it is identical to the nebulous Tory line, and that no one opposes some sort of access to the single market. Clearly, Labour is in a bit of a pickle.
There’s no doubt that Labour has it harder than any other party when it comes to determining an effective and cogent line on Brexit. Whereas a majority of Tory voters opted to leave, most Labour voters opted to remain – yet simultaneously, seven in ten Labour constituencies voted to leave.
Opposing Brexit would open the way for UKIP and Tory gains. However, supporting Brexit leaves Labour vulnerable to challenges from the left; frustratingly, a recent YouGov poll has suggested that a pro-Brexit Labour stance was the least popular compared to a pro-soft Brexit or a pro-second referendum position. Thus, opposing Brexit might allow Labour to pile up votes in urban areas, whilst being decimated elsewhere. This is not a strategy worth considering, and the fact that Corbyn himself is patently unwilling to go against the result is the final nail in its coffin. If a second referendum is off the cards, then what do we call for? Soft Brexit seems to be the only obvious option, but this would entail supporting continued freedom of movement, thereby creating the UKIP campaign strategy for them. This would please few people.
This leaves us either with the task of supporting hard Brexit and therefore having nothing to say about the issue, or finding a new position beyond the banal labels of ‘soft’ and ‘hard.’ The whole situation reeks badly of Labour’s Scotland problem – a country whose politics are defined and divided by another referendum. In a chillingly similar fashion to the setup here, all sides of the debate are monopolised by other parties: those who want independence vote SNP, and those who want to stay are increasingly moving towards the strongly and unambiguously pro-Union Tories, who beat Labour into third place in the Scottish locals earlier in May. The Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale has sought to win over both by remarking that she might consider voting independence in the future, and asserting, post-Brexit, that there should be a second independence referendum if the Scottish people want it. Little wonder Scottish Labour is dying.
If Labour is to talk about Brexit – and it must – it cannot oppose leaving, but it has to find a way to differentiate itself from the government. Perhaps we could insist on remaining in the single market but ending freedom of movement; this might be impossible for the government to negotiate, but making impossible but popular demands is part of the luxury of opposition. Yet, like the other options, this is a compromise which cannot totally please either side. Labour’s problem here harks back to the old Hampstead-Hull divide: the party straddles a broad church of liberal, pro-immigration voters in urban areas and more UKIP-inclined, anti-immigration voters in its old heartlands. If we choose one side, we’re likely to lose votes from the other. It seems that, as usual, there is no easy solution for Labour’s difficulties. Inevitably, we will remain unclear on the Brexit issue, and thus, our enemies – Lib Dems who prey on Remainers, UKIP and Tories preying on anti-immigration Leavers – will prosper at our expense.