Chesham and Amersham doesn’t have much in common, as a constituency, with Hartlepool. Where Hartlepool is industrial, northern, and showing the signs of cuts and decline in its public services and on its high street, Chesham and Amersham is leafy, affluent, and southern, a seat where the rolling hills of the Buckinghamshire countryside meet the benefits of two thriving, idyllic towns connected to London by tube. Chesham and Amersham voted to Remain in 2016. Hartlepool voted heavily to leave.
They are both Conservative seats, for now: Chesham and Amersham safely so since 1974, when the constituency was created, and Hartlepool since 6 May this year, when it became the Conservatives’ latest acquisition in the “Red Wall” in a high-profile by-election victory. But the Conservatives are straining to hold both in a by-election in Chesham and Amersham today, where the Liberal Democrats are hoping to snatch an unexpected victory in this safe Conservative seat, in what they have christened the “Blue Wall”. “They’re leaving their flank open and we’re coming in and having a big good go,” says Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat leader, on his fourteenth trip to the constituency since the by-election was called.
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Voters here feel “ignored” and “taken for granted”, says Sarah Green, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in much of the same language being deployed by the Conservatives against Labour in Hartlepool last month. “One man described it as ‘it’s just not cricket’ on the doorstep,” she says. “The way they [the Conservatives] are behaving, it’s just not cricket. It’s an accumulation of feeling ignored by Buckinghamshire council, which is run by the Tories, feeling ignored by the national government over HS2. And then you can factor in Brexit,” which is “bubbling under the surface”. It is the story of the sharp re-alignment of British politics in the wake of Brexit. Traditional Conservative voters feel that “their party’s left them”, Green says.
These voters are “a crucial market” for the Liberal Democrats, Davey freely admits, and vital if his relatively-new leadership of this embattled party is to succeed. “We can’t make progress at the next election unless we persuade some of those soft Conservatives, who I think wanted to vote for us last time, because they were very hacked off on things like Remain, but they were worried about [Jeremy] Corbyn. If we get a good swing here, it suggests that, on the back of the local election results, there’s a trend there in which, if we carry it through to the next election, we could beat a lot of Tory MPs.”
There is certainly evidence of voters making the shift Davey is hoping for. “I’m wavering this time, because I wasn’t happy with the whole Brexit thing,” a life-long Conservative voter tells Davey and Green when I join them door-knocking. Extraordinarily in this leafy, Conservative-voting neighbourhood in Amersham, his neighbours say similar: that they are undecided Conservatives, or have already voted Liberal Democrat. “I’ve already voted for you”, a lady with a Tesla charging outside her house smilingly tells Green. She, like the majority of residents in this constituency, is angry about HS2, which cuts through the constituency. “I didn’t think it would happen, really.” She finds it sad driving through the areas where building works have begun, she says. This is her first time not voting Conservative.
HS2 is one of two local issues defining the campaign, along with Conservative planning reforms. All of the main Conservative challengers oppose both (and the Conservative candidate has voiced his opposition to HS2), boiling it down to the same principle: the Chilterns have “been ripped up by HS2”, as Green puts it, and locals don’t want to see further development “that people can’t have a say on. They really don’t want to see the Chilterns dug up again.”
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Max (pictured), another local resident, is joining his neighbours in voting Liberal Democrat this time, but for different reasons. “I’m fed up with Boris and Hancock, really” he says. “It’s time for a change.”
Change is exactly what the Conservatives have been promising in “Red Wall” constituencies, where voters, just like voters in Chesham and Amersham, feel taken for granted after decades of electing the same party to local councils and to Westminster. That worked in Hartlepool, where the Conservatives were the “change” candidates against Labour incumbents. But it’s a much harder pitch in an area where the Conservatives aren’t just the incumbents nationally, but at a local level. One member of the Conservative campaign told the New Statesman that the campaign has been “a challenge, when we’ve been in government for 11 years”, something Boris Johnson’s government rarely acknowledges. They “aren’t taking any votes for granted”, the source added.
The Prime Minister visited the constituency recently, arguing that Peter Fleet, the Conservative candidate, is the natural successor to the seat’s well-respected late MP Cheryl Gillan, whose death triggered the by-election. “I think what people want is somebody who can carry on the great work of Cheryl Gillan,” Johnson said, “and make sure that we turn the Chilterns into a national park and all the other wonderful things we’re going to do for the area.” The Conservative party did not respond to our request for an interview with their candidate.
The Conservative vote is demonstrably soft here, but it is “a mountain to climb” to overturn a 16,223 majority (55.4 per cent of the vote share), Ed Davey admits, when the national picture is that the Conservatives are continuing to perform well in opinion polls. “It would genuinely be quite a shock if we won,” he says, trying to manage expectations. Elsewhere, the party leaks its internal polling indicating that the election is on a knife-edge, with the Tories only four points ahead.
But there is a further, unspoken challenge for the Liberal Democrats, not just here but across the “Blue Wall”: the gradual ascendancy of the Green party. Like the Liberal Democrats, the Greens performed well in the local elections across London and the south east, and have managed to resonate with voters in Chesham and Amersham with “a very clear stop HS2 message”, says Green candidate Carolyne Culver.
“The people in this constituency are not going to benefit from HS2,” she says. “There’s not going to be a stop here. So they are suffering all the downsides of this project, and none of the upsides. On the doorstep, the message resonates instantly. I don’t have to persuade anybody.” She has raised concerns ranging from the loss of the ancient woodland and landgrabs without compensation, to fears of water contamination and the vast expenditure of the project. “This is very much a campaign about environmental and social justice,” she emphasises.
The Greens hope to gain 10 per cent of the vote, which would be double their previous vote share in the seat. The private anxiety in the Liberal Democrat camp is that they are doing a better job at taking votes from the Conservatives than from the Greens in Chesham and Amersham.
Culver emphasises that she is taking votes off the Conservatives too. “This is the arrogance of the Lib Dems is that they think if you take everybody else out of the race, everybody is going to automatically vote for them. And that’s not the case,” Culver’s campaign manager, Steve Masters, adds.
There is certainly no love lost between the two campaigns, with the Greens keen to emphasise that when the hybrid bill for stage one of HS2 went through, the Liberal Democrats in parliament voted for it. “If Sarah Green claims that if she had been there, at that time, she would have voted against it, she would have been the only person in her party who voted against it. Do we believe that?” asks Culver. “It is a classic Liberal Democrat tactic to tell people what they want to hear. But we can go to bed at night and sleep soundly knowing that we have the courage of our convictions, and that is something the Liberal Democrats do not have.”
“The Green Party is on the ascendancy and the Lib Dems know that,” Masters adds. Culver notes: “We will overtake them. And we are beginning to do so in some polls,” as the Greens’ battle to replace the Liberal Democrats as the third party begins.
“Well to be honest they don’t come up a lot on the doorstep,” Ed Davey smiles sweetly when asked about the party trying to cause him problems both in Chesham and Amersham and across the south of England. “If you’re looking for a party who can beat the Conservatives, who’ve got a track record of beating the Conservatives, who are very strong on the environment, you go to the Liberal Democrats. Sure, [the Greens] have got their PR, fine. But they’ve never, ever, ever taken a seat from the Conservatives. Ever. The blue wall is going to be beaten by the-” he pauses. “Orange folk.”
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