This general election can’t come soon enough for Liberal Democrats in my neck of the woods. I live on the cusp of two constituencies which turned from yellow to blue in 2015, and we now have a chance to win back seats the party should never have lost.
The parallels between Eastbourne and Lewes are striking – both had popular Liberal Democrat MPs with healthy majorities overturned by the Conservatives two years ago. This was no Tory surge though – their party’s votes barely moved and actually fell slightly in Eastbourne – winning by just 733 votes there and by 1,083 in Lewes. The Liberal Democrats clearly bore the brunt of coalition-bashing as voters defected to Labour, Greens or stayed at home. These are the people the party needs to win back this time round.
Despite the political similarities, Eastbourne and Lewes are very different. Eastbourne is the seaside town shaking off its ‘God’s waiting room’ image with an economic boom and rapidly growing young population, while market town Lewes is famed for breweries, antique shops and boisterous Bonfire celebrations. Both have flourishing tourism and commuter populations, but the EU referendum highlighted a key difference – Eastbourne voted decisively to leave while Lewes plumped overwhelmingly to remain.
Veteran campaigner Stephen Lloyd is standing again in Eastbourne after a petition by constituents dismayed by his defeat. He first stood for parliament in 2001 and won Eastbourne in 2010, defeating Conservative Nigel Waterson. Very popular locally, Lloyd established over 3000 apprenticeships and pushed hard on the redevelopment of the town centre. He has continued working for Eastbourne despite losing his seat, and it often feels as if the town has two MPs.
On Brexit, Lloyd promised to respect the referendum. Reflecting his history of breaking ranks with the party hierarchy (he voted against tuition fee increases during the Coalition), Lloyd refuses to support a second referendum, a key pledge of leader Tim Farron. However, Kelly-Marie Blundell, one of the new generation who replaced retiring Norman Baker as candidate for Lewes, has a very different stance. She is unashamedly pro-EU and backs a second referendum, secure in the knowledge that Lewes backed Remain very strongly.
But beyond Brexit, on the doorstep and on social media alike, local people have more important concerns. Health and social care, the number one issue in a BBC poll at the last election, is top of the list. The Government’s decision to move maternity services from Eastbourne to Hastings was deeply unpopular, while Lewes has very limited hospital services. Adult social care is also under immense pressure from a Conservative-led East Sussex County Council that aims to save £56 million over the next three years.
Transport has become a pressing issue in both constituencies recently with Southern Fail consistently failing to deliver anything approaching an adequate train service in the face of strikes. It has reached crisis point in the past year and there is huge anger from thousands of commuters at a Government that steadfastly and inexplicably supports the rail operator, paying ticket refunds out of taxpayers’ money.
On all these issues incumbent Conservative MPs Caroline Ansell and Maria Caulfield are vulnerable. They claim to understand people’s concerns but cannot escape the fact that their party is pushing through cuts to everything from disability payments to widow’s benefits, and from schools to hospitals, while supporting big business over local people when voting for fracking on our Downs.
Neither MP can dispel the feeling that they are out of touch. Ansell recently asserted in the face of mass complaints from headteachers that Eastbourne would suffer no school cuts as a result of the Government’s new funding formula, in direct contradiction to estimates from the National Audit Office. Ansell is from the richest area of Eastbourne, Meads, and has invited derision by mispronouncing the name of one of her constituency’s least privileged areas, Langney, in a recent vlog post. Caulfield is gaining a reputation for being similarly out of touch – she doesn’t even live in her Lewes constituency.
Buoyed by a surge in membership towards 100,000, Liberal Democrats are highly motivated here. Much depends on the floating voters who drifted away to left-wing parties last time, and on the fear and anger felt by Remainers. Much also depends on fundraising, as the Lib Dems rely mainly on smaller contributions from local supporters. This is vital in challenging the far better funded incumbents. Two years ago, the Conservative machine spent more than every other party combined, buying front page advertorials in Johnston Press newspapers and plastering constituencies with billboards of Ed Miliband in Nicola Sturgeon’s pocket. We are confident it won’t work this time.
Eastbourne MP Caroline Ansell rather patronisingly referred to the Liberal Democrats last week as one of the “minor political parties”. That’s motivation enough to show everyone what we’re made of. Bring it on.
Ben Westwood is a journalist, author and lecturer in politics and media at University of Brighton.
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