When I got up yesterday and saw the result in Richmond Park I whooped and played Ode to Joy. I had been pessimistic. Out canvasing for Sarah Olney I had spent some time talking with one remain voter who thought Brexit would be a disaster but hated Olney making the by election about Brexit - “the referendum was so divisive”. Having had “traitor!” shouted at me while campaigning for remain, only days after the murder of Jo Cox, I sort of sympathized. But if many remain voters felt like that then Zac Goldsmith was safe. But hope trumped over fatalism in Richmond Park and Britain staying in the EU is back on the agenda.
Richmond Park was a Liberal Democrat victory but it wasn’t just a Liberal Democrat victory. Pro-Europe activists from across London came to help some helping the LibDems directly some working with Vote for Europe. The Greens stood down in Olney’s favor and even though the Labour Party put up a candidate many members disagreed to the extent that their candidate got less votes than members.
I’m not naive. I can see that any expression of gratitude for all that help doesn’t suit a party determined to claim momentum. It also makes sense for a party that hopes not just to win in areas that voted remain but to regain lost seats in Brexit voting areas are going quickly pivot calling the Richmond Park vote as not a vote for Europe but against “hard Brexit”. However lets call this out for what it is - dog whistle politics even if not as nasty a variety as that of Zac. Clegg and Farron are saying to remain voters ‘we are with you’ but to Brexit voters they are saying they are in favor of an improved Brexit. Clegg on Channel Four even talked about “sensible”. Okay, I hit replay and listening carefully I did hear “more sensible.” Sure, playing Russian Roulette is more sensible than blowing your brains out with a fully loaded revolver but there is nothing sensible about Brexit. A “soft” Brexit will be an unstable half way house in which Britain will still be adopting EU regulations but (where as now these are voted by British MEPs) we will have not say. The Brexiters were dishonest in claiming the regulations that are an essential part of a single market are undemocratic but under soft Brexit that will be true. A soft Brexit would only be acceptable as stop gap to give us time to persuade the British people that we need to again become a full member of the EU.
This does not apply to Sarah Olney who has committed herself to voting against Article 50 under all circumstances. Interesting the former MP for neighboring Kingston and Surbiton, Ed Davey who used to be rather bland has, since he left the Westminster bubble, found a harder edge expressing bitter opposition to Brexit. And it was still the right decision for pro-Europeans to back the Lib-Dems.
They are using pro-European Activists but we are using them. Richmond Park blows away the fatalism the feeling that there is no way of stepping back from the chaos that May’s Brexiters are leading us into. We need that victory.
The point is that relying on political parties alone will not stop Brexit. We need to be active in the pro-Europe organizations and win the argument as to why the EU maters. Then, when the political parties see the voters have moved, they will fall into line.