Battered Lib Dems try for comeback in Bath election

Orange placards have sprouted up across one of Britain’s most picturesque corners like wildflowers at the onset of spring, testament to the work the Liberal Democrats are putting into reclaiming their former heartland.

The centrist party is contesting the full slate of 59 seats in the Bath and North East Somerset council for local elections on Thursday. It has enlisted a plethora of newcomers as candidates and is dispatching them out on the stump deep into outlying rural areas traditionally held by the Conservatives.

For a badly battered party trying to mount a comeback at a time when its brand of moderation has fallen out of favour, victory in traditional strongholds in the west country is indispensable.

“We are putting a lot of effort in, we have a lot of people working on it because we are determined to take control of the council again,” said Richard Samuel, one of 17 serving Lib Dem councillors on the Bath authority. “It is one of our highest targets nationally,” he said.

Richard Samuel: ‘We are determined to take control of the council again’ © Barry Cawston/FT

The party’s success, or otherwise, in re-establishing itself as a viable, pro-European alternative in British politics has implications far beyond the west of England at a time Labour has swung hard to the left and the Conservatives are dominated by Eurosceptics.

The Lib Dems are hoping to capitalise on frustration with the government and its handling of Brexit to mount their comeback. The local polls offer a unique opportunity. Unlike the contest for the European Parliament later in the month, the party will not be battling for votes with the newly founded Change UK, which is not running candidates for local government.

Robert Hayward, a Conservative peer and political analyst, predicted at the weekend that the Lib Dems would be the big winners in Thursday’s vote, potentially scooping up more than 500 seats across England while the Tories could lose more than 800.

Lib Dem activists and candidates are painfully aware of how far they must go to recover lost ground. But they appear confident they are making headway in and around Bath, the ground zero of their efforts.

Stuart Burroughs: ‘I think they [the Lib Dems] have a reasonable chance here this year, given the chaos at Westminster’ © Barry Cawston/FT

“Bath [and North East Somerset council] always oscillates between the Liberal Democrats and the Tories. I think they have a reasonable chance here this year, given the chaos at Westminster,” says Stuart Burroughs, the director of a museum dedicated to working life in Bath.

The area covered by the local authority has a split personality, part urban, part rural. The city itself has long been a Lib Dem stronghold. Most of the surrounding countryside traditionally votes Conservative. At present, the Tories hold 35 seats overall, more than twice the Lib Dems’ total.

Conservative council leader Tim Warren: ‘[The Lib Dems] have knocked on every door and spent a lot of money’ © Barry Cawston/FT

But Tim Warren, the serving Conservative council leader, said that even in rural wards like his own, which includes the arch-Eurosceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg among its residents, his main opponents were putting up a strong fight.

“They have knocked on every door and spent a lot of money,” he said.

They have also put up more placards. Laughing, Mr Warren said his own efforts to compete for space on the verges had been sabotaged. “Each time I go out to hammer the posts in, someone takes them away.”

He remained sanguine, however, that the Conservatives would retain control of the council, despite the intention of some normally loyal supporters to “give the party a bloody nose”.

The council had done a tough job in difficult times, he argued. Recent cuts to central government funding mean that 80 per cent of revenues now go to adult and child social care — the provision of which is a statutory requirement. There is little left for other services.

Mr Warren has led efforts to lobby Westminster to give local authorities greater means to sustain themselves. “It is not about Brexit,” he said. “We have been trying really hard to get across that it is about who can look at financing the council and who can deliver services.”

A tea shop in Bath’s historic centre © Barry Cawston/FT

But his Lib Dem opponents argue that they have an advantage on local issues — long one of the party’s areas of expertise.

Mr Burroughs, the museum director, likens Bath to a film set. With its honey-hued Georgian crescents and sweeping vistas across the Avon valley, it “looks good from the front”, he said. Behind the façade however, social and environmental pressures have built up.

Ringed by rolling Somerset hills, divided by the river Avon, and with a trunk road ploughing through its centre, the city is constrained by geography as well as its shrinking budget.

Lib Dem activists have won support in outlying villages by opposing a park-and-ride scheme that might have reduced congestion but would have eaten up meadowland. They have also campaigned successfully to restore a greater police presence in the city after the main station was shut and sold in 2015.

Their fight to take seats in Bath and the wider region is uphill nonetheless.

Nor will it be enough in and of itself to revive the party’s wider fortunes. These were close to their zenith in 2010 when the Lib Dems won 57 seats in parliament and joined David Cameron’s Conservative-led government. The party is still suffering from a lingering backlash as a result of perceived complicity in Tory policies such as the trebling of university tuition fees, which it had pledged to oppose.

Former soldier Andrew Ingall-Tombs in Radstock, a struggling town 10 miles south of Bath © Barry Cawston/FT

“The coalition — that was a death knell for them. As soon as you join someone else you’ve had it,” said Andrew Ingall-Tombs, an ex-soldier and policeman in Radstock, a struggling town 10 miles south of Bath.

Wera Hobhouse, the Lib Dem MP for the city, acknowledged that the party was straining to be heard.

“There is still a greyish cloud hanging over our brand, maybe not locally but nationally,” she said, adding that the party’s best chance was to re-establish itself at the grass roots. “It takes long hard work. But we are very gritty,” she said.


Leave a Reply