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Lewis Hastie - Labour prevail but not comfortably...

December 3, 2017 7:15 PM
By Lewis Hastie
Lewis Hastie

Lewis Hastie

On a cold November night, I went to Leicester City Hall to oversee the count of the Eyres Monsell by-election. The young Tory candidate sat quietly in one corner, whilst a much larger group including the Labour candidate, various activists and existing councillors all arrived together. Among the Liberal Democrats, the party chair Alan Fox and our one and only city councillor Nigel Porter were present along with myself. Our impressive candidate, Tony Faithfull-Wright, arrived proudly adorning a rosette.

Eyres Monsell is a council estate in the south of Leicester. It is a promising area but, like many council estates on the outskirts of British towns and cities, it has to some extent been left behind - gentrification that has benefited inner city areas of Leicester has not reached it, and the constituents have been represented by Labour both locally and nationally for many years. It is hardly fertile ground for the Conservatives - many residents will have been affected by heartless benefit cuts and cuts to vital services. UKIP, their founding purpose extinguished, did not even field a candidate. This gave the Liberal Democrats a window of opportunity to campaign as a better alternative to Labour, and with the commitment of our local members, we offered some presence in the area which the Tories (as the third alternative) could not match.

Tony and his campaign team did a sterling job. They were organised, positive and relentless. Canvassing and leafleting combined helped us to raise our profile in the area and listen to voters' concerns. We identified that, aside from general concerns such as schools and poor quality public transport, there was an ongoing consultation about building houses on the green space in the middle of the estate - something we would have opposed given the opportunity.

Pointing out this ticking time bomb provoked some strong feelings, and we found that this was a local issue which enabled us to connect directly with people in the ward, whilst also demonstrating there were question marks over the Labour-controlled council. It seemed a very reasonable thing to raise - it's a local issue, and something councillors can affect if they choose to. We spoke about this with voters.

Labour were rattled. Jon Ashworth, MP for Leicester South, joined the campaign and tweeted about "disgraceful Lib Dem scaremongering" and Councillor Adam Clarke (Aylestone) followed suit. "DELIGHTED no one trusts them still", he confidently pronounced.

I wouldn't be so sure, Mr Clarke. When the results came in, it was clear that despite Labour's victory, we had significantly improved on our vote share. Despite the very low turnout, a swing of 23% in our favour put us in second place and not too far behind. The absence of a UKIP candidate was hardly likely to explain this - given the Liberal Democrats' unique position nationally in opposing Brexit, it is far likelier that the UKIP vote went to Labour, supplementing many existing Labour votes which came our way. The low turnout at the by-election may be partly due to the time of year, the bitter cold and the run up to Christmas, but there are swathes of absent voters whom we could be reaching. Just 5% of those people voting Lib Dem would have ensured Tony's victory.

This by-election proves that we are not anonymous in Leicester, and despite Labour bravado on social media, some traditional Labour voters who are disillusioned either locally or nationally are now looking to us as a viable alternative. Tony and his team did a fantastic job, and as Tony himself said, some recent training has helped galvanise many of our local members.

We must now use this as a stimulant to focus on winning more seats. Tim Farron challenged us to "pick a ward, and win it". This is certainly within our grasp. What we need to do is offer Leicester something that they aren't getting now. Schools in the area are failing, the city is full of traffic with poor public transport, and somewhat hostile to cyclists, whilst money is being spent on vanity projects in the city centre at the expense of local services.

Perhaps Labour have got too comfortable but 50 out of 52 seats on the council does not make them untouchable. They didn't like our challenge and at the count, one of their councillors whom I now know to be Virginia Cleaver, made her feelings known to Nigel Porter about our campaign. We "lied", she claimed, more than loud enough for me to hear. As far as I know, has been no apology and at a recent council meeting, further unflattering remarks were made about Tony.

Whilst point scoring is not uncommon in local politics, these accusations from Labour are frequently used to smear us - their election leaflets frequently refer to the Liberal Democrats as a party who will "say anything to get elected" (as stated in John Ashworth's campaign leaflet in June 2017), playing on the tuition fees pledge we could not honour (though Labour also arguably misled student voters in the last election). These jibes however only lower the tone of the debate and we need to get the focus back to issues if we are to engage more voters. Nigel, our sole councillor, is doing his best to promote our cause but we could have a much greater impact by getting a few fellow Lib Dems elected. Labour don't have an unblemished record in Leicester and it is high time someone held them to account.

Eyres Monsell has proved that a fairly large percentage of Labour voters are becoming disillusioned and we, as a centre-left party can attract both Labour voters along with those who are not voting. We are the alternative, and we can matter here.