When the Lewisham East By-Election was announced – in light of Labour MP Heidi Alexander quitting to take a job with London Mayor Sadiq Khan – my immediate thoughts were conspiratorial. A mid-term by-election in an ultra safe Labour seat, which overwhelmingly voted Remain, offers the perfect chance to challenge Labour’s pro-Brexit stance and potentially destabilise Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party.
For two years, there has been talk of a new ‘centrist’ party, fundamentally based around reversing Brexit. This constituency and contest (for which the Tories present no threat to Labour), would have been perfect to launch it, and with Blairite prince across the water David Miliband taking a prominent anti-Brexit role, they even had a leader in-waiting. As one of the MPs that tried to bring down Corbyn in 2015, and a staunch Remainer, Alexander might even have been in on such a plot.
Lib Dems certain to benefit from protesting Remainers
As it turns out, I was over-estimating Remainers’ ability to play the political game. Instead, Lewisham voters angry about Brexit and/or wanting to make a protest against Corbyn, will be mostly voting for the traditional mid-term protest party. The Lib Dems are buoyant and projecting around an six-fold increase on their 2017 vote share to claim second place.
Their problem is that even such a dramatic improvement, which seems extremely likely under the circumstances, won’t get them anywhere near victory. This is one of the safest Labour seats in the country – they won 68% of the vote in 2017 and have a clean sweep on the council. Even in the disaster of 2010, when Lib Dems were peaking among such metropolitan voters and eating into Labour’s share, they won with 43%.