Tomorrow, voters in the rural constituency of North Shropshire will head to the polls to elect their new MP following the resignation of Conservative MP Owen Paterson.
Last weekend, as a Liberal Democrat councillor, I travelled from London to North Shropshire with my friend and colleague Roderick Lynch, a member of the Liberal Democrats’ Federal Audit and Scrutiny Board. As a 12 year old, Roderick attended Burnt Norton Secondary School at Cheswardine Hall in Market Drayton, North Shropshire; his previous school is now a nursing home. As we drove, he reflected on the number of shops shut and the neglected roads.
Driving through this beautiful county, rich in farmland, reminded me of the urgent need to protect our green landscapes and the utmost importance of investing in connectivity for communities living in rural parts of the country.
We met our party’s leader, Ed Davey, at Liberal Democrat North Shropshire headquarters and, encouraged by his enthusiasm and determination, we set out to campaign for Helen Morgan, our Lib Dem candidate. This is usually a safe Tory seat. The Conservatives have taken residents for granted for years. But as Davey said: “From local health services crumbling to farmers being left behind, it is clear that North Shropshire needs an MP that lives locally and will fight for local services.”
Candidates should care about standing up for local communities. It was Helen’s tweet a few days ago that had a profound effect on me and I knew she would resonate with the people of North Shropshire. “Last Christmas, I handed presents over to my family on their driveway,” she wrote on Twitter. “I haven’t seen them in a building since the pandemic started. It is deeply upsetting to think that people in Downing Street were laughing about holding a party while so many people in [North Shropshire] were suffering.”
A resident I spoke with who voted for the Tories in the last election brought up the Downing Street Christmas party scandal. Throughout the pandemic, during televised Covid briefings and announcements, Boris Johnson and his team of medical experts had constantly stressed the importance of adhering to social distancing rules. The phrase, “stay home, protect the NHS, save lives” was the motto for the public campaign that urged people to act as though they had the virus.
Clearly, many of those in power ignored their own advice during the second national lockdown, while expecting the rest of the country to make sacrifices and forego seeing family and friends.
We delivered leaflets, met people who stopped us in the drizzle, encouraging us to keep going and also interacted with angry and upset people worried about collapsing ambulance services. Stations have closed around this area in Oswestry and Craven Arms, hospitals are struggling, and emergency wait times are higher than expected.
A car blasted a horn and the driver shouted at us to keep going because the farmers needed us to fight their corner. Farmers are being let down in a predominantly rural area, with many being worried about British farmers being undercut by the government’s trade deals. Liberal Democrats back British farmers because we believe they deserve a fair deal. Helen is a true local champion, standing up for North Shropshire farmers by devising a plan that includes protecting Britain’s proud farm standards.
When we took a break in a pub to get warm and dry and eat wholesome chunky chips with a hot cup of tea, we met other Liberal Democrat campaigners enjoying a brief reprieve from the rain. I met Liberal Democrat councillor Dominic Sokalski from Three Rivers and many political campaigners with whom we exchanged notes.
“[There was] strong name recognition for Helen,” said Dom. “No one could name the Tory candidate. Lifelong Conservative voters saying they agreed with everything Helen Morgan is saying, particularly over the need for a local MP. Almost every Labour and Green supporter we spoke to was tactically voting Lib Dem. Overall, [a] similar – if not better – vibe than Chesham.”
Liberal Democrats are the clear challengers to the Conservatives here. We are second to the Conservatives locally, we are the largest opposition party on Shropshire Council, and only the Lib Dems have been able to beat the Conservatives in their traditional safe seats.
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In an effort to win over voters in North Shropshire, Boris Johnson paid a visit to Oswestry at the beginning of December, where he made the gaffe of incorrectly addressing Dr Shastri-Hurst as Dr Shastri-Hughes. If you cannot get the basics right, what hope is there of handling the complex issues that the country currently faces?
The Lib Dems are now canvassing in Shropshire using leaflets with pictures of Shaun Bailey’s Christmas party, showing 24 people huddled together in a room at the Tories’ Westminster HQ last December when London was in tier 2. Shaun Bailey was the Conservative’s mayoral candidate for London, but has just resigned.
Robert Ford, professor of politics at Manchester University, said if the Lib Dems were to take the seat, “it would show not only that the slate had been wiped clean from the coalition but also that the political damage of being ultra-Remain had also gone. It would be really, really good news for them and really, really bad news for the Tories.”
Rabina Khan is a Liberal Democrat councillor and author of ‘My Hair is Pink Under This Veil’
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