Green Party activist, Clifford Fleming, writes a guest post for the Social Liberal Forum
Almost exactly one week ago today Sarah Olney became the MP for Richmond Park, ousting the Brexit-backing Tory (turned Independent) Zac Goldsmith. The story that dominated the headlines: ‘voters had rejected a hard Brexit; Liberal Democrats were back in business’. But what really happened in this by-election and why did Olney win?
On Friday 4th November the Green Party made a decision not to stand against Olney. Following decisions from UKIP and the Conservatives to back Goldsmith, the ‘regressive alliance’, the local Green Parties (Richmond and Kingston) chose not to stand a candidate. Caroline Lucas even came to visit and support Olney, causing division amongst Greens. In the 2015 General Election the Green Party candidate Andrée Frieze came in 4th place, polling 6% with 3,548 votes. Sarah Olney won Richmond Park with 1,872 votes.
As a Green Party activist for the last 5 years, Co-Chairing the Young Greens and sitting on the National Executive in the past, I have had mixed emotions about this by-election. The overwhelmingly positive emotion was relief: Zac Goldsmith had gone, no longer an MP and a career in tatters. He had run a racist campaign for London Mayor, publishing an infamous article in the Evening Standard featuring a picture of the 7/7 London terrorist bombings alongside a story criticising Sadiq Khan. Goldsmith was toxic and his defeat could be rejoiced. But something didn’t sit right.
Taking a look at how many Labour activists also went and voted for Olney, it was clear the Green Party standing aside had had an effect; this seemed a dry-run of how a progressive alliance could work in practice. Voters were willing to tactically vote on a large scale to remove a right-wing, Brexit MP. I doubt Olney would have won without Labour and Green voters backing her. The Green Party’s decision to stand aside had been vindicated, or had it? The Liberal Democrats lukewarm response to the Greens stepping aside has caused angst among Green members. There seemed to be no joined-up approach in Richmond, no true alliance (for example, joint selection of a candidate or joint campaigns). The Green Party standing aside in Richmond had helped the Lib Dems take the seat, but what did the Greens get in return? Little thanks, no strategy for alliance and leaving the Party with a question about our own future – are we relevant to voters if we don’t stand?
My mood was also tempered by the fact the Liberal Democrats stir a concoction of negative emotions for me: disappointment, anger, frustration. I work supporting youth services across London, an area that has been decimated by cuts during the coalition years. Funding fell off a cliff in 2011. Youth services have closed (and are still being closed), violence is rising, homelessness is spreading and the rolling back of local government is pulling apart communities. Youth work acts as a key prevention for so many social problems, building confidence and social skills among young people, giving many people a good start to life. Now a number of areas across London are without any youth work support, relying on groups of volunteers to patch-up where services are crumbling. The state of youth work is a direct result of decisions made by the coalition.
It isn’t just youth services. Of course the decision to treble tuition fees is notorious, and I was there on the marches and the protests. We still haven’t fully seen how that will affect Higher Education demand in the next decade, especially now grants have been abolished for students from low-income families. What the policy has done is burden thousands of young people with 3 times the debt they would have had, shifting debt from the Government to individuals. Look around at the public sector, from pay freezes to failing rail services to rapid demand in mental health services – this isn’t a good legacy. It also isn’t good enough to say ‘it wasn’t our fault – blame the Tories’: gay marriage isn’t a Get Out of Jail Free Card.
So what next? Are the Liberal Democrats changing and can the Green Party work with them? I have serious doubts. Competition and markets seem an important part of the Liberal vision, but they have driven up inequality and that inequality is causing serious social issues. Following the 2008 financial crash and the response by the coalition to cut services, many people across Britain have been pushed into poverty and are worried for the future; they feel let down, an NHS at breaking point and little local opportunities for them and their families. Across the world citizens are telling politicians they want change, voting for Brexit and Trump. An ideology focused on markets won’t solve the widening social gaps and angst.
I believe in the Green Party because I want to see a better world where competition is not the defining character of economics and life. I believe that in a complex, globalised society working together on principles of cooperation can make communities stronger. I want to believe the Liberal Democrats can be a part of that vision and that future. To truly form a progressive alliance we need to make sure that everybody involved are all progressives. My question is, are the Liberal Democrats progressive or can they be?