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Environment

Man Down! Zac Goldsmith Loses to Lib Dems in Shock By-Election Result

Sarah Olney

Perhaps we should stop getting so surprised at the political success of the underdog?

In the aftermath of the government’s divisive decision to expand Heathrow airport in October, Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith resigned in protest and triggered a by-election in his constituency. Richmond Park went to the ballot box and delivered a result few expected.

Sarah Olney, a relatively unknown Liberal Democrat, won the by-election with 20,510 votes, beating Zac Goldsmith’s 18,638 votes. In the 2015 general election, Goldsmith won by a majority of over 23,000. Over half of the constituency turned out to vote, subjecting Goldsmith to a second political defeat this year after a loss to Sadiq Khan in the London mayoral contest. 

You might have thought that the expansion of Heathrow airport would dominate proceedings, but it was Brexit that took centrestage. 70% of Richmond Park voted to remain in the European Union, yet Goldsmith campaigned to leave during the referendum. The Liberal Democrats ran on a firm platform against a ‘hard’ Brexit, and sent in well-known party figures Tim Farron and Nick Clegg to lobby constituents on the consequences of Brexit as an electoral priority. Even Bob Geldof turned up to help.

Speaking after the result, Olney, previously a local accountant, reiterated this message, and pledged to vote against Article 50.

“The people of Richmond Park and North Kingston have sent a shockwave through this Conservative Brexit government, and our message is clear: we do not want a hard Brexit”, she said. "We do not want to be pulled out of the single market, and we will not let intolerance, division and fear win."

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, the Conservative parliamentary majority has marginally shortened. In addition to Goldsmith, Stephen Phillips resigned as a Conservative MP in November after stating he could “no longer live with being labelled a Tory.” But, in worrying news for Labour, they didn’t collect enough votes to even warrant the return of their £500 deposit. The Greens were part of a progressive alliance, including the Women’s Equality party, that backed Olney. Likewise, UKIP did not field a candidate, and instead endorsed Goldsmith, a Eurosceptic. 

Olney vowed to continue to fight the expansion at Heathrow, despite controversy that her husband helped work on delivering Terminal 5. The UK has recently ratified the historic Paris Agreement, but expansion at Heathrow endangers British CO2 targets. Aviation currently represents 6% of the UK’s total CO2 emissions. A third runway will see that figure rise to 24% by 2040. 

Read More: It’s Official! UK Signs Paris Climate Change Agreement

Many will surely focus on how the shock result will influence Brexit negotiations, but the environmental implications of expanding Heathrow will also demand attention in a constituency that is sure to feel any impact most acutely.