The Liberal Democrats are to target pro-EU Labour supporters and “soft Tories” who backed remain, in a final canvassing blitz ahead of Thursday’s Richmond byelection, amid growing confidence in their camp that they are within striking distance of winning the seat.
Party documents obtained by the Observer, laying out their strategy for the final days, suggest undecided Labour voters will be key, and failure to persuade enough of them to vote tactically may prevent the Lib Dems pulling off one of the biggest byelection upsets of recent years.
Internal polling by the Lib Dems suggests they have closed the gap on former Tory MP Zac Goldsmith, a hardline Brexiter who quit to stand as an independent over the government’s decision to expand Heathrow airport, from about 20% at the start of the campaign, to under 4% with five days to go.
The Lib Dem strategy papers say undecided Labour voters have to switch if Goldsmith is to be ousted. “Canvass returns show that about a third of the remaining Labour support is open to us – winning this will be key,” the documents say. “There are still too many Lib Dem/Labour waverers … and these Labour voters could hand victory to Zac Goldsmith if we cannot persuade them to vote tactically.”
Support for Labour, which decided to run a candidate, Christian Wolmar, despite pressure from senior figures in the party to give the Lib Dems a free run, has fallen from the mid teens at the start of campaign to just 9% now according to the Lib Dems.
These people and pro-EU “soft Tories” are concerned about Brexit and are therefore prime targets. “Unprompted, they raise Brexit as the deciding issue for them and they are positively engaging with our campaign on this issue,” the documents state. “How they break and whether or not the Labour vote drops another 2-3% will decide the result.”
The contest has been increasingly dominated by issues around Brexit. While Goldsmith has a strong local following, having fought a long if ultimately unsuccessful campaign to stop Heathrow expansion, he is at odds with the majority of his constituents over the EU. Seventy percent of people in the constituency voted for remain.
The Lib Dems’ own internal polling now puts Goldsmith on 46.7%, the Lib Dems on 43.3% and Labour on 9.5%.
Even if the Lib Dem candidate, Sarah Olney, was to come a good second to Goldsmith, it would give a significant boost to the party, which suffered a devastating general election result last year after five years in coalition with the Tories. Their total number of MPs fell from 56 to just eight.
Tim Farron, the leader of the Lib Dems, has highlighted the risk that Brexit and the loss of EU workers would represent to the local health service, claiming that about 250 doctors and over 1,000 nurses in the area were from other countries inside the EU, and might have to return home. At Kingston hospital over a third of nurses and almost one in five doctors are EU migrants, he said.