Seth Thévoz has written a study under the title The Richmond Park By-Election in Perspective: Lessons from Liberal, Social Democrat and Liberal Democrat By-Election Gains for the Social Liberal Forum.
Like everything he writes, it is worth reading. The first lesson he draws is that:
Liberal Democrats should be realistic in aiming to make more by-election gains this parliament - but not ... imagine that a streak of four or five such victories is likely, given the diminishing number of by-elections triggered. One more, maybe two, would be quite enough to show that the party is winning elections again.That is surely true. I am less convinced by his argument that we should consider ad hoc arrangements with other parties in parliamentary by-elections.
In part this is because I believe Jeremy Corbyn is politically toxic and an alliance with him might well do more harm than good for the Lib Dems.
More fundamentally, it is because, as I have argued before, the idea that a party can deliver its voters en bloc to a different party is a bit of an activist's fantasy.
And as I also argued then:
When voters have made up their mind to throw out the Tories, they are quite capable of organising themselves to do it.
Think of 1997, when the operation was carried out with ruthless efficiency. Sometimes that was to the detriment of us Liberal Democrats.
In several of our target seats (St Albans, Hastings and Rye, Bristol West) ... Labour came from third place to beat the Tories.Seth also goes into the history of modern Liberalism in Richmond upon Thames. As I was active there in 1983 and 1984 that part is of particular interest to me.
He is right to say we were convinced we were going to gain the seat at the 1983 general election, only to lose by 74 votes.
Given how close that result was, it is fair to suggest that a more dynamic candidate that Alan Watson, and in particular one with stronger roots in community campaigning, might well have won.
Seth also underestimates how home-grown the Liberal success in Richmond was. He writes:
In the aftermath of the December 1972 Sutton and Cheam by-election, Liberals in Kingston and Richmond were visited by Trevor Jones, who had served as campaign manager in the Sutton by-election, and offered a masterclass on how to win council seats, with these techniques being put to good use.I never heard any mention of this visit from Jones while I was in Richmond, so I wonder how important it was. My memory of those days was that just saying you were from Richmond when you turned up to help at a by-election somewhere else gave you remarkable kudos.
And if you read the Wikipedia entry for Stanley Rundle, the pioneer of modern Liberalism in the borough, you will see how early he stated publishing Kew Comments (a forerunner of the ubiquitous Focus):
Rundle targeted the Kew ward on Richmond Council from 1963, distributing the monthly Kew Comment bulletin. When a by-election occurred in 1966, he won the Liberal's first seat on the council.
However, he was narrowly beaten in the Richmond upon Thames London Borough Council election, 1968, after a local residents' association put up rival candidates. Another by-election arose later that year, and Rundle won, becoming the only opposition councillor on the Conservative-dominated body.
The Conservatives would meet in private to agree council business before holding a formal meeting with Rundle also present. In protest at this, Rundle organised his own pre-council meeting with local residents; over 400 turned up, attracting press attention.Note how radical Rundle was. Everyone who mentioned him to me did so in terms of enormous admiration. I suspect his contribution to the Liberal revival deserves to be much better known.
Rundle died in 1978 and I believe he had been ill for a while before that.
It was expected that his protege John Waller would fight Richmond in 1979, but Alan Watson (then something of a television personality) wowed the selection meeting and won the nomination instead.
John Waller crossed the river and fought Twickenham instead. In those days the Liberals were firmly in third place there. I can recall one young Liberal activist confiding to me in the pub that, crazy as it sounded, he thought one of the wards in the centre of town might be winnable.
But because of the foundations John Waller laid, Twickenham was gained by the Liberal Democrats in 1997 on the same night we gained Richmond.