For over 150 years, the coastal towns and rural villages of East Devon have been Conservative. Although the area has changed over the years to inherit some fragments of the Labour city of Exeter – a red droplet in the county’s sea of blue – it has never seen political upset.
What was once a safe seat has been turning quietly marginal.
A local campaigner called Claire Wright, who’s never been a member of a political party, has been chipping away at the Tory majority for years.
The independent candidate first stood for parliament in 2015, when she came second place – a spot usually reserved for the Liberal Democrats. In 2017, her vote share increased by more than 11 percentage points. She racked up 21,270 votes to the incumbent Tory’s 29,306.
She’s not alone. In May’s local elections this year, independents took control of East Devon District Council from the Tories.
“It’s a sea-change,” she says. “Support for independents is mushrooming here.”
Having represented the seat for 18 years, the Tory MP and former foreign minister Hugo Swire stunned Devon’s political scene in September by announcing he wouldn’t seek re-election.
Fighting her third general election here, Wright thinks she’ll win it this time.
“I want to win now more than I’ve ever wanted to win – probably because it’s more likely now that I can. I could never quite see myself winning but this time I sort of can’t see myself not winning. All I can see is me giving a victory speech, but we’ll have to wait and see,” she grins, while out doorknocking around the picturesque coastal town of Sidmouth. When she visits London, she feels a “frisson” if she walks past the Houses of Parliament.
A lurch to the Wright
Historically a fishing village, Sidmouth is a place of comfortable retirement, muddy wellies drying in sloping driveways, seagulls perching on gateposts. On average, the East Devon constituency is affluent and has a significantly older population, with 28 per cent of its residents aged 65 and above compared to 18 per cent across the UK.
Wright, 44, feels like a fresh face around these parts, particularly when compared to her erstwhile rival Swire (Eton, Sandhurst, multi-billion pound family business, a “Sir”). But she’s developed a profile and name recognition during a decade in local government.
Voters know her from, say, her campaign to protect overnight stays at the maternity unit in the local Honiton hospital, or bringing the first play park to the village of West Hill near Ottery where she’s lived for 13 years, having lived in Devon all her life.
A natural campaigner (“I even used to write letters as a ten-year-old!”), Wright was elected to Ottery Town Council in 2009, East Devon District Council in 2011 when she made headlines ousting its long-standing Tory leader, and Devon County Council in 2013.
Unlike your usual independent candidates, she is neither a single-issue drumbeater nor a naïve no-hoper. She has a comprehensive policy offer, building her manifesto partly from a local survey she ran in January in anticipation of a general election. It’s an anti-austerity, environmental pitch that focuses on restoring local services; rural England has been hit hard by cuts.
Wright’s main policy interests are the NHS, where she worked in media relations for ten years, and protecting the natural world (her love of wildlife started early, when she played outdoors as a child). She once campaigned so furiously to protect some oak trees from a construction project that the wife of one of the developers came around to her house to shout at her.
On the district council, as the youngest member surrounded by an overwhelming majority of Tories, Wright would endure desk-thumping, shouting and “patronising” sexist behaviour – but “most of it bounced off me because I had so much support” from the public who would come to watch. She wrote revealing blogs after council meetings, and circulated them to the local press, garnering attention and angering her opponents.
“People who have lived here for a long time remember all that stuff,” she says.
Indeed, almost everyone whose door she knocks recognises her during a full day of canvassing (“ah, you’re Claire Wright!” is a common response).
Not everyone has decided on their vote, however, though disillusionment with all parties is a common theme.
“This is the first time as a voter I feel embarrassed by Parliament, it’s a shambles – if they were in jobs they’d have been sacked ages ago, it’s a mess,” says a middle-aged school governor and business owner at one house.
“I want something to change. Labour and the Conservatives are lost. It’s so political – it’s not about doing a job, running the country and looking after people. They should’ve been sacked, they’ve got away with murder.”
Although he likes the idea of an outsider, he’s unsure how one would change much as an independent MP. Wright mentions the influence of the only Green MP Caroline Lucas, and her own experience working cross-party on councils.
Unlike the main parties, Wright doesn’t have to spend most of her stump speech defending an unpopular leader, or being pilloried for the behaviour of MPs in Parliament. She gets straight to her point: that she’s the “only option who can win against the Conservatives” – and, every candidate’s dream, a policy discussion.
On Brexit, she wants a confirmatory vote on Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement, and would campaign to Remain.
Although East Devon as a region voted Leave in the EU referendum, there are plenty of Remain voters in the constituency looking for an outlet. It’s the only place so far on the campaign trail where I hear residents express a positive opinion about the Lib Dems’ policy to revoke Article 50.
The angry school governor voted Leave but “I look back now and think it’s a disgrace that the country was asked to vote on that. I thought I was well-informed – I wasn’t. The public was ill-informed. It’s bollocks.”
Despite the area’s reputation as a conservative retirement resort, older residents respond positively to Wright and express disappointment in the Tories.
“We won’t be voting Conservative!” say an elderly couple who walk past Wright’s car that is crammed with campaign materials.
“How can you trust a person like Boris? He says the first thought that comes into his head,” says the husband, whose wife adds, “he wants to be a buffoon but he’s really a bully boy”.
Not long after, a white van sails past with a driver who honks his horn and pumps a fist out of the window in support. “I promise we didn’t set this up,” a member of Wright’s campaign team smiles.
Another older woman, whose driveway winds up to a spectacular veranda view of the green hills surrounding Sidmouth, is a disillusioned Tory voter who backed Remain.
“I always vote Conservative, I’m sick to death of it all. I’ve lost faith in them,” she says. “Sidmouth is deteriorating, everything is scruffy, it’s depressing.”
Because the council is so absent on her road, she sometimes sweeps it herself. “There are too many cutbacks on everything.”
This part of the country may have a well-to-do reputation, but a quarter of Devon’s children live in poverty and the county council faces a budget black hole of £32m for 2019/20 – stretching services including social care, mental health provision, special educational needs funding, road maintenance and street lighting. Fear for Devon’s community hospitals threatened with closure is prevalent here.
Not independent’s day yet?
In Exmouth, the largest town in East Devon, the Tory candidate Simon Jupp has a very different interpretation of this election.
Born in Plymouth, the local journalist-turned-special adviser to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab says, “people are generally telling me, whether they voted Leave or Remain, they want to get Brexit done – I know that’s the soundbite that you expect from a Conservative Party candidate.”
Local issues also come up, he adds, mentioning community hospitals and opposition to parking charges. His own father’s life was saved in a community hospital two years ago.
Jupp’s longer-term aim is to boost East Devon’s tourism, walking me along an impossibly windy seafront to show me where a hotel, watersports centre, leisure complex and two-storey restaurant are planned. The existing windswept bowling green and retro amusement arcade with its modest crazy golf course could look very much like a carpark come the new developments.
“We’ve seen some of our traditional industries like tourism struggle. I want to see that reinvigorated, serving a new market,” Jupp says, pointing out the vegan cakes on sale in the café we settle in.
“New people can come here and it’s not just about being a bucket and spade area… not just the delicious cream teas we all know and love, but also vegan cakes, decent coffee, so it appeals to everyone.”
Jupp accepts there’s competition – but talks up the other candidates. “I think it’ll be a fair fight, but I don’t think people need to necessarily focus entirely on the independent candidate,” he says. “Also look at the resurgence of the Liberal Democrats in the southwest, and the Labour party as well. It’s not a two-horse race in my view. No seat is safe.”
“There’s a lack of young people here, it’s a retirement town,” says resident Gillian Hancock, 59, who is walking her dog and used to work at the Royal College of Nursing in Exeter. “I can’t see it changing from Conservative, it’s an affluent area, really.”
Brexit is not a priority for her, and she is undecided – choosing between the Green party and Lib Dems. “They all promise so much but don’t always deliver,” she says, noting the “many empty shops” in the town.
Jade Howarth, 35, a ward sister at Exeter hospital, is on a walk with her three-year-old son who is enthusiastically towing a plastic cart along the pavement. She likes the idea of modernising the town as, “it would be a nice thing for the little ones”.
She is also undecided, calling the election “difficult and confusing”, saying she’s “switched off” from it. Having voted Leave, she “felt guilty because I hadn’t really thought about it”, she says. “Now I know the details I think we should have stayed in, I’ve changed my mind. We have to stand up for ourselves but I feel bad – I do think it needs to be changed.”
Outgoing MP Hugo Swire insists the Tories will win over half the vote in East Devon. But softer Tory voters in search of change make its future far from certain. Polling day could yet turn out to be a kind of independence day.