Sarah Olney (Photo: Getty Images)
Sarah Olney (Photo: Getty Images)

POLITICS

What Sarah Olney’s by-election victory says about British anger

We’ve heard a lot about one type of anti-EU anger in 2016, but we can’t forget about the 48% who voted Remain, says Gaby Hinsliff

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By Gaby Hinsliff on

A year and a half ago, Sarah Olney’s engagement with politics was limited to “shouting at the telly” from her sofa in frustration.

It had never even occurred to the 39-year-old accountant to join a political party until last summer, when, dismayed by last year’s general-election results, she signed up for the Liberal Democrats. And, even in October, when she was selected as their candidate for an unexpected by-election in the thumpingly safe Tory seat of Richmond Park in south-west London, she still didn’t actually expect to win. As she says herself, she wasn't “planning to become an MP”. It's just that, thanks to last Thursday's stunning by-election victory, that's exactly what she now is. It seems an awful lot of Richmond Park voters have spent the six months since the Brexit referendum shouting at the telly, too. 

The trouble with unbelievably meteoric rises is that they leave you with a lot to learn. One of the inexperienced Olney's first interviews was a car-crash affair with Talk Radio, which ended in the flustered MP handing the phone to her press aide – thus neatly illustrating the pitfalls of wanting MPs not to be “professional politicians”, ie people with some actual experience of the job.

But whatever else she achieves at Westminster, Olney has helpfully reminded us that there’s more than one kind of anger and more than one way to want your country back.  

For the last six months, we’ve heard endlessly about the boiling rage of the Leavers, revolting against years of being silenced by the foghorn voices of the establishment. The story of Brexit has become the story of ignored working-class voters in forgotten towns, lashing out at uncontrolled immigration and economic decline – one we’ll probably be hearing again on Thursday, when the Tories face a second by-election in the safe seat of Sleaford and North Hykeham expected to see a strong showing from UKIP.

Olney’s victory is a reminder that many Remainers feel pretty angry now, too. And, just like Leavers were, they’re angry because they’re scared

It's never quite been the whole story, of course, since Leave votes also piled up among comfortably off Home Counties pensioners who haven’t been “left behind” by anything, except possibly the 21st century. And, funnily enough, you don’t hear so much about the 43 per cent of better off professionals who quietly backed Brexit – or the third of working-class voters who didn’t.

But it’s broadly true that the referendum showed us just how dangerous it is to dismiss people’s fears out of hand. Sneering and jeering solves nothing and, even if people’s fears are sometimes misplaced, they’re entitled to an explanation of why and protection from what they fear. But that lesson doesn’t just apply to the defeated old establishment. It applies to our furious new overlords, too.

They might only be letting rip in the privacy of their living rooms, but Olney’s victory is a reminder that many Remainers feel pretty angry now, too. And, just like Leavers were, they’re angry because they’re scared. They don’t like the way their country is changing – sound familiar? – and they’re genuinely afraid that Brexit would be an economic disaster, which is precisely why they voted the way they did. Sneering and jeering solves nothing and, even if their fears turn out to be misplaced, they too are entitled to an explanation of why and protection from what they fear. But how many Brexiters, busy lecturing everyone else on their failure to understand or empathise with the 17 million who voted to leave, aren’t making the slightest effort to understand or empathise with the 16 million who wanted to stay?

What happened in Richmond Park isn’t going to happen everywhere and it isn’t going to stop Brexit, given it’s told us nothing that we didn’t know about a constituency that voted solidly pro-EU in June.

But it’s a reminder that the finger-jabbing fury you now hear on every radio phone-in, in every TV studio audience and all over social media isn’t the only strong emotion out there and that it doesn’t even represent all Leavers. This year of all years should have taught us how dangerous it is to listen only to the foghorn voices. Better, perhaps, to ask exactly what they gain from shouting quieter people down.

@gabyhinsliff

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Sarah Olney (Photo: Getty Images)
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women in politics
Gaby Hinsliff

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