The party faithful feel conned by coalition

It was a big fight by the Liberal Democrat Stephen Lloyd to wrest Eastbourne from the Tories. Now, voters are furious
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Indy Politics

It's been a lively week at the Liberal Democrat headquarters in the serene south-coast town of Eastbourne. New MP Stephen Lloyd is still full of smiles as he jovially passes around a bowl of sweets. This should, after all, be celebration time in the pokey office on Seaside Road. Yet something is not right. After all their efforts, many of the town's Lib Dem voters feel they have been conned, sold down the river in the deal that saw their leader around David Cameron's cabinet table last week.

For two decades, this Sussex seaside town has been ruled by its former MP, Tory Nigel Waterson, whom Lloyd ousted by 3,435 votes. "I was exhausted, and I am still a bit tired, but very excited," Lloyd insists.

The enthusiasm is not so keenly felt outside these four walls, where an acrimonious yellow-blue poster war reached a confused finale. Volunteers manning the phones at Seaside Road admit that it's not just been congratulation messages that have been coming in since the general election.

"That first day we had a lot of calls," said Beryl Teso, a Lib Dem activist for more than two decades who was part of Mr Lloyd's campaign team. "People were really upset. We stopped recording the calls as there were so many. They were saying: "'We hate you because you've sided with the Tories.'" She said she had got used to the idea as the negotiations had gone on, and that the final agreement was for the good of the country.

It's a particularly hard sell in areas such as this where canvassers gave up hours of their time, intent on hindering David Cameron's path to Downing Street rather than facilitating it.

Other Lib Dem MPs have also found themselves fire-fighting. Lynne Featherstone in Hornsey & Wood Green blogged that she had "lots of emails against coalition with the Tories". Lorely Burt in Solihull similarly said yesterday that two-thirds of 800 emails she has received have been disparaging about the national deal. And although the party says there have been few deserters, activists with clout in local campaigns have made a show of their departures. Alex Kear, chairman of the Lib Dem branch in Worcester, is among the disillusioned who have walked away.

In Eastbourne, people who voted for the Lib Dems for the first time are annoyed. "I wouldn't describe myself as a natural Lib Dem voter," said Mike, a youth worker who plumped for Mr Lloyd after accepting Labour had no chance in what had been a Tory heartland. "I'm very disappointed – it's not what I was hoping for when I voted Lib Dem. I certainly won't be voting for them again and I would say to them: 'You've made a big mistake.' I feel I've been naive – it was stupid to think they wouldn't go into a coalition."

Mark Waterman, deputy manager of a Mind charity shop in the town centre, had also previously voted Labour, but this time around went yellow to get rid of the Tories. "I'm a bit annoyed about it really," the 40-year-old said. "It's good from the point of view that it brings the Lib Dems in, but if they're in coalition with the Tories it lessens the impact of them winning here – it doesn't give them the gravitas of being independent."

Colin Buttle, 56, a former teacher, said he was "appalled at the outcome". Both he and his wife Kathryn say they are natural Labour voters, but threw their weight behind Mr Lloyd to block the Tories. "I can't understand how the Conservatives can suddenly, on a whim, say they're going to do proportional representation and electoral reform. It was this huge gap and now they're best buddies."