IF it happened in Richmond Park, could it happen here? Needless to say, the Liberal Democrats, clinging onto one councillor in Camden, will hope Sarah Olney’s spectacular by-election triumph over Zac Goldsmith last week is the beginning of a comeback.
On the face of it, Goldsmith’s support for Brexit appeared more relevant to his defeat than anything else. So it’s areas like ours, with a high concentration of upset Remain voters and a not-too-distant history of side-swappping, particularly when inner doubts are touched by international issues rather than local ones, where the party would hope to now recover ground. Europe, it has been said many times over the last few days, has opened the door for them again.
So, while Labour members could not help but be struck by the embarrassing manner of defeat for Goldsmith, a foe from earlier in the year who still looks like he’s trying to win a knife fight with a lance, the party’s rearguard sprung into action on Friday morning sharing reminders, where people would listen, that the Lib Dems were still baddies for making a deal with the Tories. It’s six years ago now, and the fact Nick Clegg pops up everywhere, including at Olney’s campaign events, suggests the Lib Dems think having the clearest position on Brexit will trump re-heated pictures of his rose garden back-slaps.
Whether the Lib Dems can mobilise in Camden like they have in the past is nevertheless uncertain. They have taken such a battering at recent local and citywide elections that they’ve been chasing their losses for a while and the path back will be long and winding. Lots of the old team, which stormed the Town Hall barricades ten years ago, have moved away from Camden, some no longer live in the UK. The likes of former council leader Keith Moffitt have indicated, meanwhile, they will play more backstage roles as new faces are trusted with the baton; they will have to win without local fame and name recognition. And then there’s the likelihood that if the Lib Dems are to pile in on one north London constituency in a bid to gain back what they had, central office strategists are more likely to go for Hornsey and Wood Green than either parliamentary constituency in Camden. In terms of targets, local activist Zack Polanski tweeted this summer, ironically during his quest to get selected in Richmond Park, that he had been told our seats were not targets.
That was then, maybe now is different, because despite the hurdles ahead, the result in Richmond Park has generated a little bit of jumpiness from some (stress the word, ‘some,’ and not ‘all’ here) Labour and Tory members locally about the dangers of candidates who will stand here on a ticket of stopping Brexit at all costs. If the House of Commons is to vote on Article 50, Labour MP Tulip Siddiq, already potentially spammed by boundary changes, could find herself in an awkward spot. She’d have to choose whether to follow the party line of carrying out the apparently crystal clear view of the public – the way you read the will of the people stuff sometimes, you’d have thought Leave won with 80 percent in June – and vote in favour of leaving the EU on negotiated terms. That’s a hard call against an opponent with the freedom of knowing a parliamentary majority is out of the question and able to be a missionary telling everybody that they would vote no to Brexit, whatever.
It’s potentially a long time until Tulip faces the public vote, but it’s not so long until Camden votes over who should be elected as councillors. Even more immediate is the candidate selection for those 2018 local polls. And that’s when we turn to the Conservatives, as they begin to draw up a list of potential candidates this winter. The potential is there for two new faces in Swiss Cottage for example, where Andrew Marshall is stepping down amid his great disillusionment with the referendum result. Given the manner in which the former group leader is going, do the Tories dare install Brexit-supporting candidates in his place? Here is a ward which Labour hope to challenge and maybe gain new seats; after seeing the notes from Richmond Park it would surely relish a run-off against any Conservative candidates who voted to leave.