Seeing The Light at the End of Divisive Party-Political Tunnel: What the Richmond and North Kingston by-election win means for young Feminists

By Katie Staal

Richmond and North Kingston, London

Richmond and North Kingston; a leafy, affluent area of South West London, comfortably tucked away from the hustle and bustle of more centre-south areas like Clapham Junction, Vauxhall, Waterloo and Southbank. Kingston and the surrounding areas in particular is home to many schools and families, public sector city workers (and indeed, in the case of Sarah Olney, accountants) who have retreated slightly from the sprawl of central London.

It’s also where you can find stunning heritage site Richmond Park, heralded for it’s healthy deer population and the video of that guy shouting ‘FENTON’ at his dog. Altogether, this is an area which perhaps seems unlikely to engage in a dramatic politics of collective alliance. Yet on December 1st 2016, a move was made which many national newspapers have described as ‘a shockwave’ challenge aimed at the UK’s Tory government.

For a little context, this area has been traditionally a moderate Liberal Democrat stronghold. But in 2010 the tables turned, as newly-elected conservative MP Zac Goldsmith rocked-up; pretty-Eton-boy incarnate. Zac is the product of his own legacy: the millionaire son of James Goldsmith, a French member of the European Parliament until 1997. Despite being an MEP, Zac’s dad founded a ‘referendum’ party which campaigned for Brexit throughout the 1990s.

Visiting the House of Commons one day with a few school friends in 2012, I spotted the shock of golden hair and my MP strolling past us in the lobby. Frankly, the idea of approaching him to talk about my local area made me feel a bit sick.

The Mayoral Election 2016

As a young person growing up in Kingston, I’ve often felt disassociated with local politics for this very reason. Zac Goldsmith didn’t speak to me, he didn’t represent me (a white, liberal-minded, state-school girl) despite his efforts to emphasise environmental policy and play up our local love of leafy green spaces like Richmond park.

He was our MP, and yet I made a habit of shooting daggers at the lovely big houses near the park gates when they were plastered with posters of Zac Goldsmith’s shiny blonde head. This intensified leading up to the London mayoral election in early 2016. I sank at the thought of Zac becoming the Mayor of London as his campaign began. Yet another privileged white man, akin to Boris Johnson, at the driver’s seat of our capital city. During this time, to me, Zac represented an altogether less silly candidate than Boris, which in turn made him a more serious conservative threat. Of course now Boris is the UK’s foreign minister (why, WHY?)

Sadiq Khan, MP for nearby South London constituency Tooting, won the mayoral election race in May 2016 against smarmy Zac. Voting for Sadiq was the first time as a twenty-two-year-old feminist in early 2016 that I truly felt excited to vote. When the announcement came that Sadiq had won, I felt a physical twist of relief in my stomach. Zac’s shady and underhand race-motivated election tactics had been defeated by the people of London, the popular vote. Goldsmith’s own sister Jemima criticised him publicly on twitter:

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Source: Twitter.com Tweets from Jemima Goldsmith criticising her brother’s divisive campaigning.

May 2015 – November 2016

But then May 2015 came. The Tories gained majority in Parliament. June 2016:  Brexit happened. David Cameron resigned. Theresa May took his place. A flood of sexist journalism followed from the media. Confusion ensued for feminists. We were once again represented by a woman, a strong and powerful party politician. However, it was for the wrong party, the ‘nasty’ party, and not ‘nasty’ in the way that women reclaimed for their own empowerment in the case of Hillary Clinton.

Theresa May has not been elected to her position, she is not accountable to the people, but yet again my stomach churned as I saw the influx of news articles focusing on her nail colour, skirt length, husband and hair. Why exactly it has only been UK Conservative women who have managed to claw their way through a traditionally sexist parliament to the top seats of our government however, is a subject for another day.

The 2016 Financial Statement from the Tories came in a few days ago at the end of November. The big stand-out for me was May’s new money pot for Grammar schools, which to me is a recipe for a more elitist and divisive society.

Furthermore, if you scroll to the very bottom of the document, past the graphs showing our ‘economic growth’, you’ll find a table of caps on Welfare which will harm the very poorest people in our society. Cuts and restrictions are coming to Disability Living Allowance or DLA, a tax that has been provided to members of my family who I love. Tax free childcare, which will have a negative impact on women most of all.

These are only a couple of examples from the many listed as ‘in scope’ for the Tory government to knock or destroy, and in its wake shred up everything that intersectional feminists, and of course that bloody includes men, hold close to their hearts.

You can read the Autumn statement on the DirectGov website here.

Now, December 2016

However, the first sign that Richmond and Kingston, my home, was changing political climate to something altogether more feminist-friendly came a short few months after the Brexit decision. This occurred mere weeks after the disastrous election of Donald Trump to the US presidency and days after the Autumn financial statement was released by the Conservative Government.

Zac Goldsmith, following in the footsteps of fellow Etonian David Cameron, had also resigned. The reasons for this were cited as being that ‘he had pledged to the people of Richmond to prevent the expansion of Heathrow Airport.’ Kingston and Richmond being positioned slap-bang in the middle of the LHR flight path of course was, and continues to be, an issue of great importance to Richmond and Kingston constituents.

However, May’s Tory government quickly steamrollered Zac’s plans to remain an elected representative, as the Heathrow expansion was given the go-ahead in October. This triggered Zac’s resignation and the by-election that took place on December 1st was born.

Goldsmith was caught between a rock and a hard place: the racist overtones of his disastrous mayoral campaign had distanced him from the Tories, as the once-popular Eton boy of the inner circle had lost his mandate. He had certainly also lost respect, not only from the people of Richmond and North Kingston, but even of those within his own conservative party. Therefore, Goldsmith made the decision to run as an independent candidate: a poor attempt to see if the hangover from his previous popularity would see him through another election.

Particularly outspoken during Zac’s mayoral campaign was Mohammed Amin, a senior Tory party figure, read more about his Tory Forum here

Enter Sarah Olney, an female accountant from Surrey. Sarah Olney with a BA in English Literature like me. Sarah Olney who, like me, was horrified by the events of last year’s election and this year’s Brexit. Sarah Olney, a Liberal Democrat. A Liberal Democrat reminiscent of the liberal stronghold that was for so long entrenched by the people of Richmond and North Kingston.

The Liberal Democrat national coalition with the Tory party in 2010 was, as we know, a disaster. Nick Clegg failed to effectively balance out the right-wing policies of David Cameron. Poor Clegg as deputy Prime Minister was squashed under the foot of Cameron’s Tory vigour. However, Clegg has recently been popping up again on Channel 4 News. In fact, drips of news have come in recently of his position as chair of a cross-party conference which included representatives from Labour and the Conservatives to discuss people who still believe that Brexit was, in practice, a very bad idea.

Read more about the ‘Open Britain’ conference here.

But what spoke to me as the by-election campaign was in full swing, wasn’t the Liberal Dem party itself, but Sarah as a candidate and everything she stands for. Another woman with a husband like Theresa May, but this time on the left-leaning side of liberal. Despite her lack of experience, reading news about Olney and seeing Liberal Democrat boards scattered around houses on my commute to work made my pulse beat faster.

The by-election in Kingston on the December 1st 2016 was one of those rare occasions that all parties, except for the Liberal Democrats and Mr Goldsmith, decided to take a step back. For better or for worse, The Green Party and Women’s Equality Party had endorsed Sarah Olney, and there was minimal campaigning for chosen Labour candidate. UKIP, who had previously campaigned and won votes in the 2015 general election (ugh), endorsed Goldsmith. Again, a concerning trend for another day is the fact that UKIP are even in the political position to be endorsing an independent candidate.

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Source: Twitter.com Sarah Olney tweeting the Women’s Equality Party, in thanks of their support.

I woke up early, voted, went to work. Waited. On the morning of Friday 2nd I was woken up by a WhatsApp from a girlfriend.

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Source: Author’s own

This highlights how meaningful this result is for young people and young women, whether they identify as feminists or not. If we share the stories of Sarah Olney’s win, we could finally tap into what the government has politely neglected for so long:

  • The voices of people passionate about the environment and the planet, as we live our lives trying to protect the resources that our predecessors have depleted.
  • The voices of those who strive to be represented by politicians who are recognisable, and who will actually represent us, and who are inherently empathetic and inclusive of minority voices.
  • Those who are still fighting to challenge perceptions towards the Brexit vote, and who want to work together across party lines to negotiate and communicate.
  • Those who are sick to the stomach of being force-fed the politics of fear displayed in some commercial media.

The UK, and indeed the so called ‘progressive’ Western World, has recently been seen as trapped in a dark and increasingly right-wing political tunnel, which in turn emotionally has a knock-on effect on voter apathy. But if we bring our perspectives together, we too can elect those who represent as Sarah so eloquently delivered in her acceptance speech:

‘The Britain we love, [that we will] stand up for. The open, tolerant, united Britain we believe in’

You can watch Sarah’s who acceptance speech on YouTube here.

Results table from the 2016 Richmond and North Kingston By-Election
Sarah Olney (LD) 20,510 (49.68%, +30.41%)
Zac Goldsmith (Ind) 18,638 (45.15%)
Christian Wolmar (Lab) 1,515 (3.67%, -8.68%)
Howling Laud Hope (Loony) 184 (0.45%)
Fiona Syms (Ind) 173 (0.42%)
Dominic Stockford (CPA) 164 (0.40%)
Maharaja Jammu and Kashmir (Love) 67 (0.16%)
David Powell (ND) 32 (0.08%)

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