Lewes does not look like it is on the cusp of revolution. Craft shops sell knitted socks for £16.95. Apothecaries offer yoga and scented candles. But despite appearances, disquiet bubbles beneath the surface of this affluent East Sussex town.
“It’s volatile down here,” says one longtime resident, too afraid to give his name. “Be careful asking people questions.”
In a constituency that voted 52 per cent to remain, the sitting Conservative MP Maria Caulfield is a staunch Brexiteer. She had her tyres slashed earlier in the year. Meanwhile, hooligans smashed the windows of houses displaying Lib Dem posters. Anti-Semitic graffiti has repeatedly been found with Nazi insignia and invective directed at George Soros.
“The language has been pretty nasty,” says Oli Henman, the Liberal Democrat candidate for Lewes. “One word that keeps being used is ‘traitors’. It’s the kind of language that we’ve heard from the far-right press.”
In 2015 Caulfield overturned a healthy Lib Dem majority to win the seat by 1,000 votes. Two years later, she extended her lead to a seemingly comfortable 5,500. But the demographics are changing. Lewes is rapidly filling up with DFLs – new arrivals “Down from London” who have given up on renting in the capital, and set up their family homes in here in Lewes, which is a little over an hour’s train journey from London. In the week that the Remain alliance was formally announced, Henman – himself an environmental campaigner – is not impressed that the cross-party deal ignored his constituency. He fears that the Greens could find support amongst his new, ecologically-minded constituents.
“It’s disappointing that the Greens are not standing down their candidate. We’ve agreed not to stand against Caroline Lucas in the neighbouring constituency of Brighton Pavilion. So it seemed quite logical to me for them to offer a similar position here.”
Some are happy with the way things have panned out. Jan White, a retiree who reads the Guardian and volunteers in the centre of town, switches her vote between the Greens, the Lib Dems, and even, when she used to live in Wales, Plaid Cymru.
“I think it’s fine there’s no alliance,” she says. “We all ought to have a proper choice.”
Jan advocates proportional representation. But she is precisely the sort of voter that the Remain alliance ought to be pushing in a specific direction. If every Green vote had gone to the Lib Dems in 2015 then the seat would never have gone Tory. Ironically, Lewes council is now run by a ‘co-operative alliance’ of Greens, Lib Dems and independents.
Of course there is a reason why Maria Caulfield increased her share of the vote last time out. Lewes constituency extends way beyond the flat white-dispensing town. There are the shirey villages of Plumpton and Ditchling. And, importantly, there are two other significant populations – the deprived coastal towns of Seaford and Newhaven.
Newhaven, just ten minutes on the train from Lewes, is desperately sad. Betting shops, charity shops and empty pubs line the high street – an unfortunate cliché.
“Twenty to thirty years ago on a Friday afternoon you could not get served,” says Matt Nemeth, a middle-aged locksmith in the centre of town. “There were so many people queuing for a beer. And now look at it.”
Nemeth is angry that he cannot afford to put down a deposit on a house. He thinks it is unfair that his friends who bought their own council houses can now live off the rent.
“Since Thatcher sold it all off, everyone is in it for themselves,” he says. “I voted to leave because I can’t afford a house.”
If Maria Caulfield is to negate the Liberal Democrat surge in Lewes, she will need to convince voters like Matt in Newhaven. But, like so many others, Matt has fallen prey to political disillusionment. He will not vote.
Compared to the disaffection on the coast, back in Lewes itself there is resolution. Tactical voting is the name of the game. The Lib Dems seem to be picking up voters of various political hues.
“The only thing that influences how I vote is my aim to get rid of Maria Caulfield,” says Del Day, a Labour supporter who runs a record shop in the centre of town. He voted to remain in the EU referendum. “My opinion has not changed, if anything it’s hardened.
Henman is the right sort of candidate to appeal to people like Del. He joined the Lib Dems to oppose the Iraq War. He is critical of the decision to enter into coalition in 2010, and rails against the dismal effects of austerity on the constituency (Maria Caulfield declined to be interviewed for this piece and did not allow local Tory councillors to speak either). In fact Henman is so politically malleable that, if he lived in another constituency, where a Labour Remainer was strongest placed to challenge a Conservative incumbent, he would not necessarily vote Lib Dem himself.
“I think it would depend a lot on the actual candidate. But I would consider it in terms of tactical voting.”