Third party endorsements – boon or bust?

It is one of the best known and most-used tactics in the political game: the third-party endorsement. Having a popular and / or heavyweight politician campaigning alongside you, a famous celebrity performing at your fundraiser or, let’s say, an environmental group praising your green credentials, can lend considerable weight to those seeking office. The mentality is pretty straightforward and is the same one harnessed by major brands every time they sign up a sports star: I like them and they like you, so I must also like you. But does this model ever get flipped? Do we ever go: I don’t like them and they like you, so I don’t like you?

This is exactly what might have happened two weeks ago, following the triggering of a by-election in South West London. In the wake of the Government’s support for a third runway at Heathrow, former Conservative mayoral candidate and Richmond Park MP Zac Goldsmith resigned, generating a by-election that he will contest as an ‘Independent’. He was then endorsed by Ukip.

Nigel Farage’s brand of populist bravado might be a boon in certain areas of the UK, but could his endorsement prove to be more of a bust in Richmond? Well let’s have a little look.

Although the exact Referendum vote of the Constituency is unknown – as it sits in both the boroughs of Richmond upon Thames (69% Remain) and Kingston upon Thames (62% Remain) –  research from the University of East Anglia estimates that 72.3% of Richmond Park voted Remain – making it one of the highest Remain votes in the whole of the UK. Zac, as is widely known, is a Eurosceptic and campaigned for Brexit. In fact, it was this Euroscepticism that led Farage to recognise Zac “as a principled man, who was fully committed to helping get Britain out of the European Union”; the reason why Ukip “will not be fielding a candidate” against him.

Clearly Zac’s views on the EU are at odds with his electorate, but will that make a difference? In 2015, Zac increased his majority to a very healthy 23,000 votes. However, the political and personal environment was markedly different. Firstly, Brexit was not a major talking point. Secondly, Zac was still seen as the loveable rogue (and had not embarked on his disastrous mayoral campaign). Thirdly, the Lib Dems – his nearest challenger – had been painted as fickle traitors by the Conservatives.

The Lib Dems have already said they are going to make the election a “Brexit referendum”, so that’s point one covered, even before you add in the extra spice of the recent High Court ruling.

Point two: Zac Goldsmith used to be (quasi-)revered as a man of principle; an MP that didn’t tow the party line; an MP that fought for what he believed in. When he was easily selected as the Tory candidate for Mayor, this image was supposedly going to be the making of him; in fact, his selection may have been the breaking of him. Running a campaign so clearly strategised at CCHQ destroyed Goldsmith’s credibility as a pragmatic maverick. Even his sister Jemima Khan lamented the fact that “Zac’s campaign did not reflect who I know him to be – an eco-friendly, independent-minded politician with integrity”.

Point three: the Lib Dems are riding a wave at present, re-branding themselves as the party of the 48% (Remain voters) and receiving a huge 19% swing from the Conservatives in the recent Witney by-election. A similar result in Goldsmith’s constituency – which used to be held by the Lib Dems until 2010 – would see a very tight contest played out.

This is why Ukip’s support is so intriguing. In a leafy, liberal-leaning South West London constituency, where Ukip came fifth in 2015 with just 4.2% of the vote, why does Nigel Farage think his support will be of any help? It’s hardly likely to make people forget Zac’s dog-whistle mayoral campaign. It’s hardly likely to make Zac look progressive.

At least he isn’t tainted by Theresa May’s brand of conservatism though? Well, not so much. The Conservatives, like Ukip, are not putting forward a candidate. When was the last time that the Governing Party didn’t contest a by-election?[1]

In addition, Zac continues to have the backing of the local Conservative party in Richmond. When was the last time the Governing Party supported another party in an election? Then there’s the small matter of Zac himself not ruling out a return to the Conservatives at some point in the future. I mean, it’s practically farcical. So, just to recap, he’s an Independent with the support of the Conservatives and Ukip.

It makes you wonder: is Zac happy to have this support? Especially with Ukip, would he prefer not to have it? Do you have choice who supports you? Theresa May’s speech at Conservative Party Conference this year received the backing of Marine Le Pen – the leader of the far-right Front National in France – who was impressed by Theresa’s rhetoric about “citizens of nowhere”. The Front National has been very successful at stirring up social and racial tensions, throwing in a pinch of immigration concerns and bundling it all up in a cloud of nationalism for years. Maybe Marine was just congratulating Theresa for discovering the recipe.

Donald Trump was endorsed by a former Grand Wizard of the KKK, David Duke, who said that he and Trump have the ‘same message’. The Leader of the KKK for Godsake. I’m pretty certain they only come second to the Nazis in terms of the most reviled groups in the world.

Yet, what can you do if you receive an unwelcome or embarrassing endorsement? Nothing, right? Wrong, an endorsement is a reflection of one’s policies and character. You don’t receive an endorsement unless the endorser likes what you are doing / saying / proposing. If you are dismayed by an endorsement you need to take a long hard look in the mirror.

Zac hasn’t said anything about the UKIP support thus far, but hopefully the typically liberal, progressive, open-minded Richmond electorate will. If you’re endorsed by Ukip, it means you share the same values as Ukip. Ditto May. Ditto Trump.

[1] Besides not contesting the recent Batley and Spen by-election, after the tragic death of Labour MP Jo Cox.

London devolution does not mean London revolution

I’m a firm believer in local governance. In an age where issues either need to be dealt with on a supranational scale – global terrorism or climate change springs to mind – or at a city-wide, county-wide level – transport services and rubbish collection to name just two – local government clearly has a key role to play. In fact, national governments – the stalwarts of the system – have gradually become the black sheep of the governance family; the ones that we could really do without.

National defence aside (and some could argue that bodies like NATO and the UN already have this one covered), there seems to be less and less need for a national body; and more importantly, less and less want of one. MPs are tarnished, smeared with a particular brand of distrust, characterised by their distance. Ordinary citizens feel they are more likely to serve their own interests than that of the community. Their designated mouthpiece is not speaking up for them.

This democratic deficit – this feeling of being unrepresented – should not be underestimated; Brexit is testament to that. Councils, for all their valuable work, are not visible entities. In fact, they work best when they silently pull the strings. For someone in Boston or Wigan, their most visible representative is their MP – over 100 miles away in the far flung realm of Westminster. Both of these places voted for Brexit with over 60% of the population – despite their MPs being in favour of Remain. It’s no surprise that some of the biggest Remain votes were found in London and Scotland – places with their own powers and politicians.

Invariably those at the helm of local government hail from the area – or at the very least live there. They know the issues; they experience them first-hand. There isn’t this sense of detachment that comes with an MP. A local politician – be it a Mayor or a councillor – is much more accountable, visible and accessible; the key ingredients for trust in politics.

Local politicians’ sole purpose is to make decisions that benefit the community. Their mission is plain to see. Why do you think Sadiq Khan is one of the most popular and trusted politicians in the UK? The man with the biggest personal mandate in British history epitomises this local governance criterion; a Londoner, living and working in London, looking out for London. I’m sure he cares what happens in Wigan, but that’s not his remit, not why he was elected by over one million people.

It should come as no great shock therefore that Sadiq is calling for more wide-ranging devolution to the Capital in the wake of the Brexit vote; a vote Londoners didn’t want. Sadiq, naturally, wants London to have more of a say over its affairs; to be more in control of its future. If London wants to continue to be ‘Europe’s Financial Centre’ then it needs to be able to shape its economic landscape. We’ll see what the reconstituted London Finance Commission recommends, but hopefully the Government will take heed; a Government that is apparently intent on giving power back to localities.

Yet, there is an uneasiness about all this; a feeling that somehow any powers given to London are going to be watered-down, feeble. Phillip Hammond – whose name is synonymous with platitudinous announcements – will likely tell London that it can have complete control over council tax, but by complete control he means the power to raise them by no more that 0.25% per year. The same complete control will be bestowed over stamp duty and business rates.

Maybe I’m being overly cynical, but I get the feeling that central government doesn’t want to give London the powers it needs. Firstly, it would mean that central government’s role would be diminished even further – elected politicians don’t like to give up power. Secondly, as London needs stronger powers than other places, it would look like central government was again ‘favouring’ the capital – propping up London’s pedestal.

But, giving London more powers isn’t about the capital breaking away from the rest of the country –it won’t lead to an urban revolution, it won’t signal the creation of a city-state – it will just allow those tasked with overseeing London’s trajectory given the tools to make a proper job of it.