Bob Geldof’s last significant intervention in the Brexit debate saw him chased down the river by a flotilla commandeered by Nigel Farage. With the battle of the Thames lost, Geldof is hoping for a better result back on dry land, campaigning with the Lib Dems to oust Brexiter Zac Goldsmith in the Richmond Park byelection.
Appearing alongside the Lib Dem candidate, Sarah Olney, by Richmond station in south-west London, Geldof said he did not want to see MPs block the referendum result but said pro-EU arguments still had a place in the debate. “We accept the result of the referendum, but it’s our responsibility and duty to debate it, to persuade people,” he said. “This is a bust. We can’t derail the process, but we are voting in some like [Olney] who will stand in parliament and speak for her constituents who voted overwhelming to stay in Europe.
“That’s the job. I want to argue with the guys who want out and our arguments become easier as the days pass. There’s no use being surly about the battle, we lost it but the war hasn’t begun. Even the government are basically saying that.”
The Boomtown Rats singer said he remembered touring Europe with his band and being stopped at every country’s border for customs inspections. “We can’t go back to that. My generation is done now, and young people voted overwhelmingly to remain. We have to keep making the arguments.”
Geldof was earlier reported to have been involved in efforts by Tony Blair and Richard Branson to set up a new organisation to examine both the EU referendum and the general rise of right-wing populism. He denied having any knowledge of such a group. “I didn’t know about that until I read it, I know Richard, I know Tony, we are all old geezers, but I swear I haven’t talked once to them about it.
“I’ve known Richard since 1977 when he was a hippy and I was a punk. But I haven’t spoken to them about this.” He added that he thought the debate had to be “street fighting” and remainers needed to borrow the long-time tactics of Eurosceptics. “Ukip are brilliant at it, it’s bollocks but well done.”
On his way down the high street, Geldof was confronted by an angry Goldsmith supporter. Alastair Rosenschein, a former airline pilot who said he was deeply concerned about the expansion of Heathrow, said Goldsmith was the only one who could make the arguments in parliament with a deep knowledge of the subject.
“Sarah Olney is a political lightweight,” he said. “I have talked to her about it and all she can say is that she is against it. But you have to garner support in the House of Commons, you have to have a damn good argument and that’s what Zac Goldsmith does.”
However, the Lib Dems are predicting they will narrowly snatch the west London seat from Goldsmith, after a campaigning blitz in which the party claimed activists spoke to more than 30,000 voters.
The party’s internal data, seen by the Guardian, predicts Olney will win 47.2% of the vote on Thursday, edging ahead of the former London mayoral candidate on 45.8%. Labour’s Christian Wolmar will trail on just 6.2%, the party’s modelling claims.
Lib Dem sources said activists knocked on 20,000 doors last weekend alone and estimated they had spoken to 52% of eligible voters during the campaign.
Tthe party’s internal memo also warned of a high number of voters still wavering between the Lib Dems and Labour, and said the focus had to be persuading Labour supporters to vote tactically. The area recorded one of the highest remain votes in the country during the EU referendum, though Goldsmith supported Brexit.
Between stopping for selfies with passersby, Geldof was adamant he was not aligned to any party but urged Labour voters to tactically vote for Olney in the constituency, where Goldsmith triggered the byelection by standing down in protest at the government’s decision to expand Heathrow airport.
“I’m not a supporter of anyone, I’ve voted Labour, I’ve voted Tory and I’ve voted Lib Dem in the local elections,” Geldof said. “I’m not a party man, but I would say to Labour that Brexit is a disaster for the left-behind, food prices up, our debt crashing through the ceiling. I say to Labour the fightback must begin here, convince your constituents that voted leave that this is not good, it’s not good for your poor constituents, and Corbyn must know this. The fightback can begin here.”
To winces from the Lib Dem press officers, Geldof added: “The Lib Dems are tiny, they aren’t a threat to you.”
During the referendum, Geldof acquired a river boat cruiser to rival a Brexit flotilla headed by Farage, in one of the most surreal moments of the campaign. Geldof’s vessel was drenched by Ukip supporters with water hoses and Geldof flicked a V-sign at the then Ukip leader, calling him a “fraud”.
Geldof admitted his support for various political causes had not always had the impact he had hoped for. “I don’t know about being influential,” he said. “I turn people off and I warned Tim Farron this could be a negative here. But for 30 years the vast majority of British people got behind the idea to eliminate poverty, I have done that every day for three decades so maybe there is some trust there.”
Meanwhile, the Muslim community in the constituency is being encouraged to vote for the Lib Dems in protest against Goldsmith’s “divisive” London mayoral campaign.
Kingston mosque trustee Faisal Hanjra praised Olney for taking the time to visit the mosque and engage with Muslims during the byelection campaign, claiming Goldsmith had distanced himself following accusations that his bid for city mayor had relied on “dog-whistle” Islamophobia. Hanjra said Goldsmith had to acknowledge the problems with the language he used during his campaign, when his opponent Sadiq Khan was repeatedly linked with extremism, if he wanted to win back the trust of the Muslim community.
“For some reason Zac seems to think that the language he used in the mayoral campaign was acceptable and it wasn’t Islamophobic despite a lot of Muslims telling him to the contrary. “Whether or not Zac himself thought it was Islamophobic, if the perception is that his campaign was Islamophobic then that’s something he needs to take on board.
“Many people in the community knew him well and he had a very strong working relationship with the mosque, but a lot seemed to change around the time of the mayoral campaign.
“We’re still keen to meet with Zac and work out what went wrong,” Hanjra said, adding: “I would be disappointed if his majority wasn’t impacted on in some way to reflect the divisive nature of the [mayoral] campaign that he ran.” Goldsmith’s campaign team declined to respond to the Guardian’s request for comment.