Several key Labour figures called for the party not to field a candidate in the Richmond Park by-election, including Lisa Nandy and Clive Lewis. The logic went like this: Labour have no real hope of winning the seat, and by running a candidate they risk splitting the anti-Goldsmith vote and allowing him to win. The only thing is, the Richmond Park by-election – despite Labour indeed having no hope of winning it – is complex for Labour. In a way, Zac Goldsmith holding onto the seat is the best possible outcome for them (other than Labour somehow miraculously winning the by-election, of course).
If the Lib Dems win on December 1st, they will have done so by successfully presenting themselves as the principle anti-Brexit party in England – and a majority of people in a single constituency will have bought into that during the course of a by-election that will get heavy coverage because of Heathrow. Labour could quickly find itself in a very similar situation in England to the one they ended up facing in Scotland a few years back, wherein they get caught in the soggy centre between two extremes of an existentially important question of the day, this time on Brexit as opposed to Scottish independence. If the Lib Dems are allowed to claim this terrain, it could cause Labour serious problems down the road. If the 2020 general election becomes some sort of referendum on Brexit, Labour could find itself in a very bad place to talk about it effectively. Richmond Park could be a preview of sorts on this front.
As it happens, Labour is fielding a candidate in the by-election. But it probably won’t do them a lot of good. Running on an anti-Heathrow, anti-Brexit ticket means Labour will be running on the exact same terms as the Lib Dems, only with a leader who is not popular in that part of London as excess baggage. Should Labour run on a pro-Heathrow, anti-Brexit ticket? An anti-Heathrow, pro-Brexit platform? The fact that any of these could theoretically be possible is a problem for Labour in terms of defining where the party is in the new post-Leave vote terrain.
It’s only a by-election, and one being held in a seat that Labour has never come second in, never mind won. Yet it has thrown all sorts of uncomfortable questions up for the party. Should it wish for Zac Goldsmith to win, an ex-Tory who ran a nasty campaign against Sadiq earlier this year and who UKIP have endorsed to win, just so the Lib Dems do not? Or should it have stood aside to give Goldsmith the best chance of losing, in a spirit of progressive fellowship? The fact that there are no easy answers to these questions is a problem for Labour.