Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney and former party leader Nick Clegg canvass ahead of the Richmond Park and north Kingston byelection. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images
Whatever the outcome of the Richmond Park byelection today, the result will offer a glimpse of the shape of politics to come. That’s the easy bit. This corner of southwest London is such an odd constituency that it may be hard to say quite what the result means. But even before the polling booths close, it is safe to say that the campaign itself has been a sign of how far politics has departed from what, as recently as last year, was deemed to be normal.
There is nothing typical about this byelection. Start with the candidates. There is Eurosceptic Zac Goldsmith, who after six years as Richmond’s Conservative MP, resigned, as he had promised, when the government approved the expansion of Heathrow. He is running as an independent in an election he wants understood as a referendum on the third runway. He could be said to represent insurgency and direct democracy. But he has the tacit, and sometimes discreetly active, support of his old party, as well as the backing of Ukip, which will portray a victory for Goldsmith as a reinforcement of Brexit.
There is Sarah Olney, the candidate for the Liberal Democrats – the party that held the seat from 1997 to 2010. She is campaigning against triggering article 50, the tentative pioneer of some kind of progressive alliance (better names welcomed), who has the support of Bob Geldof and the leadership of the Green party, although not all of the local Greens, some of whom back the Labour candidate. She can also count on some local Labour members, although not those supporting Christian Wolmar, who is Labour’s official man. He was selected after the party’s central command refused to have any truck with the former coalition partners of the Tory party. There is also the normal run of candidates from the exotic fringe.
Even for a byelection these are unusual circumstances. They don’t even fit the now-familiar truth that Britain, like many other western liberal democracies, has become a deeply divided society in both economic and cultural terms. Richmond Park is one of the few constituencies where that couldn’t be less the case: it is unusually homogeneous, and its residents are more than averagely young, prosperous, in work, and healthy. Its unemployment rate and the number of children in poverty are both half the UK average, while house prices are a stonking three times above it.
In fact, the constituency stands out only for having a larger than average number of non-white and non-UK-born voters. It ticks all the boxes to be strongly pro-remain, and so it was, by an estimated 72% to 28%.
Goldsmith built his political career on claiming to be the servant of his constituents. As a new backbencher five years ago he campaigned assiduously for a recall bill – allowing constituents to force a byelection – that was rather stronger than the feeble one MPs finally approved. The Goldsmith version would have put control of the process firmly in the hands of the voters rather than the party machine at Westminster.
It is perfectly possible for him to be both the wealthy, solipsistic dilettante his critics see, and at the same time the representative of a different kind of politics – one which, if it were repeated widely, would destroy Westminster as we know it by subverting the discipline of the party whips that allows the government to get its business through parliament.
Olney, on the other hand, stands for a souped-up version of “business as usual”. She says that if she is elected, she will take it as a mandate to oppose article 50. And ardently though I long to see that, at the same time it seems to me that such a course might be nearly as perilous as the Goldsmith route.
The uncomfortable truth is that the more that is known about why people voted Brexit, the harder it becomes to frame an argument in favour of remaining that will win people back. The question then becomes: how, and around what, can a case be constructed that goes beyond support for the EU, and becomes the basis for a defence of the liberal democratic values it represents?
Remaining is deeply unpopular. It is even more unpopular now than it was on 23 June. YouGov’s latest poll, like its one a month earlier, found that two-thirds of voters, including half of those who voted remain, thought the government had to go ahead with Brexit. That is one indicator. Another can be found in analysis done soon after the June vote. It mapped the Brexit result on parliamentary constituencies (the referendum was counted on local authority boundaries) and concluded that in a general election, leave would win nearly twice as many seats as remain. Even allowing for the referendum being as different from a general election as elephants are from giraffes, there is no reason to suppose that anything has changed.
If new analysis that YouGov presented in Cambridge a couple of weeks ago is correct, the characteristics of people who backed Brexit closely match the characteristics of a group of voters that the polling organisation calls “authoritarian populists”. They are people who could broadly be described as out of step with the cultural assumptions – such as a respect for human rights, immigration, feminism and diversity – that are the bread-and-butter of liberal democracy.
The significance of cultural preferences, as well as economic ones that are now widely recognised, makes the fightback for the EU much more complex. It is not, or not just, about tackling inequality or corporate greed. It is about shifting the way we all see the world. And that means that those of us who are convinced that Britain is better off in the EU have to find something, soon, that is much more persuasive than “don’t do it”.