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3 February 2024

The woman hunting Ed Davey

Angered by the Post Office scandal, Yvonne Tracey wants to bring down the Lib Dem leader.

By Hannah Barnes

Every day for the past few weeks, Yvonne Tracey has been walking the streets of New Malden in south-west London. It’s a place she knows well, having lived in just two houses, one street apart, her entire life. An independent councillor for Kingston Council and a former deputy postmistress, she wants to oust the Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey from the seat he has held since 1997 (minus a blip between 2015 and 2017 when he lost it to the Tories). She is visiting two or three streets each day, drumming up support.

When I joined her in the wind and drizzle, it was day ten. James Giles – an independent councillor and leader of the opposition on Kingston Council, on which the Lib Dems make up 43 of the 48 members – is coordinating the campaign. Wearing a custom-made purple rain jacket with “Kingston Independent Residents’ Group” on the back, Giles is well-organised and efficient. He also happens to be Tracey’s grandson.

At 68 years old, a grandmother of five and a great grandmother of one, Tracey isn’t the most likely candidate for parliament. But she, like so many others who watched ITV’s four-part drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office, was enraged by the scandal of hundreds of innocent sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses being wrongly prosecuted and losing their livelihoods. She thinks those in power should take responsibility for their failings, and she wants to topple Davey – one of 20 politicians of all parties to have ministerial responsibility for the Post Office since the Horizon IT system was introduced in 1999. She worked in the New Malden branch for 24 years, but had no direct issues with Horizon. “I’m just a little person who just feels angered at what’s been going on,” she told me. And the anger is genuine; Tracey’s voice cracked as she spoke.

Tracey’s campaign has tapped into the widespread shock of the public. On the day she announced she would take on Davey, polling showed his personal approval rating had been hurt by the Post Office scandal, falling from -4 to -13. Tracey showed me hand-written letters of support from Scotland and Cornwall; and email offers to travel hundreds of miles to help with canvassing in person. People are putting their money where their mouths are too, with her campaign totting up £10,000 in donations in those first ten days. If she can maintain a fundraising rate of £1,000 per day, who knows what could happen.

Only three doors down I was baffled by the campaign tactics. Tracey and Giles were gathering signatures for a petition calling for the former sub-postmaster Alan Bates to be given a knighthood. “Did you see Mr Bates vs The Post Office? Wasn’t it sad?” Tracey asked those answering their doorbells. “Isn’t he amazing? We need more honest people like him, little people.” Almost everyone was willing to sign. When I pointed out that Tracey wasn’t telling them she was standing for election, she exclaimed: “I suppose I should, shouldn’t I?”

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Apart from that initial oversight, Tracey is a natural (despite her repeated protestations that “I’m not a politician”): chatty on the doorstep – perhaps too chatty – likeable, and bursting with nervous energy. She’s quick to criticise Davey at every opportunity. And in the quiet cul-de-sacs of KT3, there was no shortage of support for her. “I saw you on The One Show!” shouted Patricia, who assured Tracey she’ll have her vote come the general election. So did Ann, whom Tracey, in her role as a councillor, helped get a rebate from Thames Water.

Local issues matter here, as they do everywhere, but Tracey has chosen to run on a single subject: “justice for sub-postmasters”. I pointed out that the ITV drama has already spurred the government into action; is awareness raising still necessary? Yes, Tracey said, “because I’m frightened that it’ll go away… and I don’t want people to forget”. This is admirable, but I’m struck by how many times Yvonne not only says that she is not a politician, but that she doesn’t want to be one. “It is not about winning. If I don’t get one vote, it doesn’t matter,” she said, “as long as I keep this in the public eye.” Her mission is to “shame” Ed Davey into standing down. And then what? “I stand down. I wouldn’t make a good politician because I’m too honest.”

Where would that leave the residents of Kingston and Surbiton constituency, of whom I happen to be one? “Hopefully they get somebody really nice to stand up and say, ‘I’ll work for you’ and that would be great, wouldn’t it?”

As it stands, there is little chance of Davey stepping aside. In the 2019 general election, he secured a healthy majority of more than 10,000, gaining 51 per cent of the vote. Tracey has never voted for him. She has supported both Conservative and Labour candidates in the past.

But Davey has lost from such a height before: having won in 2010 with a 50 per cent share of the vote, he lost the seat to the Conservatives in 2015. It’s also not unheard of for large majorities to be overturned by an independent: think of the former BBC journalist Martin Bell’s historic victory in Tatton in 1997, when he stood as the anti-sleaze candidate against the Conservatives’ Neil Hamilton. That campaign was marked by bitterness and foul play. Kingston and Surbiton might be heading for a similarly dirty fight.

Within less than a fortnight of Tracey announcing she would stand in Kingston and Surbiton, legal letters had been issued. Tracey has demanded that what she says is a defamatory tweet by Liberal Democrat London Assembly member Hina Bokhari be removed. In it, Bokhari claimed leaflets issued by Tracey during an earlier campaign had been investigated by the police “as hate crime”. “I’ve never so much as had a parking ticket,” Tracey told me.

The leaflet in question was printed and circulated in October 2022, when Tracey ran against (and defeated) the Lib Dem candidate in a by-election for a seat on Kingston Council. Tracey’s rival in the by-election was Mahmood Rafiq, the national spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a minority branch of Islam, in the UK. Tracey’s grandson, Giles, was the ward’s other councillor, and managed the campaign. Having approached Rafiq directly, asking if he would distance himself from some of the controversial views of the wider Ahmadiyya group and receiving no response, Giles put out a leaflet highlighting some of these views. It claimed the Ahmadiyya community had tried to “hush up rape allegations” and argued that “eating pork makes you gay” and that “Aids is God’s punishment for being gay”. The leaflet was signed: “Promoted by J Giles on behalf of Y Tracey.” Tracey confirmed to me she had not objected to it at the time: “I felt there were questions that needed to be answered.”

The leaflet caused a stir, with the local Liberal Democrats and Labour Party issuing a formal joint statement to condemn it. Members of the Green and Conservative parties criticised it, too. Tracey was never questioned by the police about the leaflet. Official documents seen by the New Statesman confirm that there was, however, a police investigation, but no charges were brought.

“I’m Kingston’s only openly gay counsellor,” Giles told me from Tracey’s kitchen during a break from canvassing. He said the Ahmadiyya community’s views made him feel “sick and unsafe”. He remains unapologetic: “The leaflet does not and did not claim anything that has not been widely reported elsewhere and, even then, there was no distancing of the views [by Rafiq].” A legal letter was sent to the Lib Dems after they claimed the leaflet was “Islamophobic”. They also published condemnation from the chair of the Kingston Racial Equality Council. Giles said the party then stopped making that claim. “It’s now resurfaced, with an even more malicious tone.”

When the Lib Dem press team referred journalists to Bokhari’s tweet in response to enquiries about Tracey’s decision to stand against their party leader, the once-local feud became national, trickling out far beyond constituency borders. Giles and Tracey have once again instigated legal action. When we spoke, Tracey said the Lib Dems were bullies, comparing her treatment to that of the sub-postmasters. “We’re in this situation now because the ordinary person was lied about and bullied,” she said. “And now I say I’m going to stand against Ed Davey, and me as a little person – I’ve been lied about and bullied.”

The truth is more complicated than that. However accurate or not the leaflet may have been, it was clearly controversial, and for Tracey to allow her name to be attached to it shows naivety.

While it seems unlikely that Yvonne Tracey can beat Ed Davey, it is not impossible. The Lib Dem national machine seems rattled. I’ve been told that other national news outlets have pulled interviews with Tracey after being told of the leaflet. The right-wing press is firmly behind her too, the Daily Mail leading its letters page with: “Back Yvonne to get shot of Dodger Davey”. (It is in the Tory press’s interests to attempt to discredit Davey and his party as the Tories seek to save their Blue Wall seats from a Lib Dem advance.) And there are whispers about Davey’s leadership. The Post Office scandal continues to fill column inches and play on the minds of the public, and the Lib Dems have changed leader as regularly as the fractious Tory party over the past decade.

Four days after my morning campaigning with Tracey, the Liberal Democrats flyered Kingston and Surbiton residents asking for their help with Davey’s campaign – for an election that has not yet been announced. “It’s Ed Davey or the Conservatives,” it said. “No one else can win.” On 1 February, Sir Ed finally issued an apology for his actions when postal minister. “I’m sorry I did not see through the Post Office’s lies,” he said, “and that it took me five months to meet Alan Bates, the man who has done so much to uncover it.” It seems unlikely this will be enough to force Yvonne Tracey to back down. And, if the first fortnight is anything to go by, there could be a long, ugly campaign ahead.

[See also: Brexit is not as secure as it appears]

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This article appears in the 07 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Who runs Labour?