It’s a strange experience in the Liberal Democrats when news of a by-election that’s only remotely winnable emerges: no one at HQ needs to say anything, but the whole party automatically seems to jump to action stations. And the by-election in Tiverton and Honiton was not just a chance for the Lib Dems to win a hat-trick of super-safe Conservative seats, but also another opportunity to do what we Lib Dems love: campaign. In my own ten days’ campaigning in East Devon, I was joined by an army of activists from across the UK – and beyond.
This time we had activists arriving back from Senegal and Thailand – although a huge share of the work was done by local campaigners who live in East Devon. Indeed, the excitement of the by-election swelled our ranks, with some residents joining the party, delivering leaflets and canvassing their neighbours for the first time. My favourite story is of a Honiton resident who was so appalled when he received an anti-Lib Dem leaflet from the Conservatives that he brought it to our HQ and exchanged it for a huge Lib Dem poster and a bundle of leaflets.
This by-election’s activist army is actually led by a soldier – our candidate, Richard Foord, is a former major who served for ten years. He is the perfect candidate for Tiverton and Honiton; as one observer quipped, it’s as if he was “manufactured in a lab to appeal to Tory voters”.
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More importantly, he is incredibly hard-working and disciplined. He takes ten-minute naps in the car to give him energy for the next media bid, hustings or door-knocking session. He carries with him daily rations to optimise his calorie intake. This has become increasingly important as together we must enjoy wonderful Devon ice cream – not strictly part of my diet but, I’m told, an essential part of campaigning in the county. Lib Dem campaigns are partly fuelled on takeaway pizzas and partly on foods more associated with metropolitan Blue Wall seats – with Honiton cafés running short on avocado and halloumi.
In June 2021, when Sarah Green triumphed over the Conservatives in Chesham and Amersham, it was clear that the Tories had not just taken the party’s popularity for granted but also the loyalty of its voters. In Buckinghamshire and North Shropshire the Conservatives failed to put together a decent campaign, as they seemed to think a win was inevitable. As soon as campaigning began in East Devon it was obvious the Tories were going to work harder. For the first few weeks you could barely walk through the constituency without bumping into a cabinet minister. However, it quickly became clear that the Conservatives were not going to put in as much effort as us.
On the last weekend of the campaign an intrepid Lib Dem campaigner had one more door on her list. To find it she sent herself on an adventure walking up a steep hill. When she finally got to the door, the resident, who had never had a political campaigner make the effort to find his house, promised to vote for Foord because our activist had gone to such trouble.
Since the Tories’ humiliating defeat, No 10 has tried to dismiss our victory by pushing the narrative that we only won because Labour supporters lent us their votes. It’s true that many former Labour voters did support Foord. But even the most loyal Tory knows we won primarily because former Tory voters backed Foord.
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While it is true that those who didn’t like Boris Johnson in 2019 dislike him even more now, many who voted for him back then are equally furious. One voter said she’d barely been able to visit her family for two years during lockdown, and that she now fears being “locked down” again because she cannot afford the petrol to fill her car. She voted Liberal Democrat for the first time.
My final trip down to East Devon before the result was on polling day itself. I was nervous about the trip, and whether our activists would get there in sufficient numbers. There were rail strikes, it was Glastonbury’s biggest day for festival-goers arriving on site, and the summer solstice had taken place only a few days earlier at Stonehenge; all this meant we were even worrying about the impact the druids might have on the by-election. Fortunately there was no druid, Glasto or strike effect, as we had a huge turnout of activists.
But then there was my positive anxiety: if we win this time, what stunt will my team come up with? The Blue Wall and orange mallet from Chesham and Amersham would be difficult to top – and the much-canvassed idea of a tractor and a Blue Wall wouldn’t have been appropriate for reasons we don’t need to go into. I needn’t have worried. On the morning of the result, Richard Foord MP and I unveiled a specially made, free-standing blue door with the message from Devon: “Show Boris the Door”. I’m told it was made by a local carpenter – and it was the perfect symbol.
And if Conservative backbenchers do not get rid of this Prime Minister soon, I worry about the next visual metaphors we will need.
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This article appears in the 29 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, American Darkness