7 June 2017

Can the Lib Dems recapture Cheltenham?

By Jack Evans

Cheltenham looks like it should be a safe Tory seat. But appearances can be deceptive. This Cotswolds constituency may be Tory now, but it was held by the Liberal Democrats between 1992 and 2015.

And with a 56-per-cent Remain vote in the seat, Cheltenham is exactly the sort of seat the Liberal Democrats set their sights on at the start of the campaign. Victory here would mean the party were on course to gain 20 seats across the country.

Famous for the Cheltenham Festival and GCHQ, the picturesque Regency town also hosts literature, music and science festivals. The Times describes the town as an “old favourite” in their Best Places to Live 2017 guide. Largely on account of its schools, The Daily Telegraph has rated Cheltenham as the best place in the UK to raise a family.

The town is surrounded by solidly Tory farming areas. Things are different in the town in part because of its student population and large public sector workforce – GCHQ employs around 6,000 people.

Located where the Midlands meets the South West, Cheltenham has more in common with the latter which was a Lib Dem stronghold until they lost all 15 seats in the region in 2015. In Cheltenham that year, Alex Chalk, the Conservative candidate, benefited from an 11-point swing away from the Lib Dems to defeat incumbent Martin Horwood.

This time the Lib Dems campaign is keeping things locally-focused. Speaking to voters, it becomes clear why. No one has a bad word to say about Horwood, the MP from 2005 to 2015. Nevertheless, voters more concerned with national issues and leadership say they’ll be voting Conservative.

Rita Collier, a disabled pensioner, says she’ll vote Lib Dem: “I like Martin Horwood. He does more for the community, for the council estates. He’s more for us than the Tories.”

Even Mark Atkinson, who describes himself as a “blue-in-the-blood Tory”, acknowledges, “Martin Horwood was a great local MP.”

Mr Horwood claims one of his achievements in Westminster was to successfully press for funding in the 2011 budget for the Swindon to Kemble railway redoubling project. Completed in 2014, it gives Cheltenham better train access to London.

To win back his seat, he is focusing on the NHS; in 2013, the accident and emergency unit at Cheltenham General Hospital was downgraded. At night minor cases are accepted but ambulances are diverted to Gloucester Royal Hospital, 20 minutes away. The Liberal Democrats say that their proposed 1p income tax increase would raise £63 million for NHS Gloucestershire.

Mr Horwood tells me that the NHS is playing on voters’ minds, pointing out that the election “hasn’t all been about Brexit; it’s been just as much about the threat to our local NHS, our downgraded A&E department, and the cuts to local schools.”

Nonetheless, Europe looms large. He says he needs to “win back the people who voted for David Cameron and the coalition last time, many of whom we know have been horrified by Brexit.” His tactics are clear: to campaign on a platform of local and national issues to woo both voters chiefly worried about public services and those for whom Brexit is the key issue.

Even if Cheltenham voters are concerned about cuts and leaving the EU, the Lib Dems will struggle to overturn the Conservative incumbent’s 6,516 majority. I spoke to voters who said although they were disappointed with the Conservatives and Theresa May, they would abstain rather than vote Lib Dem. The tag of national irrelevance is proving hard to shake off for a party with nine MPs and polling in single digits.

Mr Atkinson, a fervent Remainer, said he opposed Theresa May’s Brexit plan and was critical of her campaign: “She could’ve been heading for a vast majority, but several times … she’s got up on the counter, pulled out her pistol and blown her own toes off.” He won’t vote Lib Dem because “they’re non-existent nationally.”

Kyle, a 30-year-old graphic designer, voted Leave and liked David Cameron’s “charisma and some of his policies”, but will abstain this time. He uses an unprintable four-letter-word to describe the Prime Minister. Many other residents echo his apathy.

Ann, a pensioner, is loyal to the Conservatives, despite being disappointed with parts of their manifesto. “I don’t like that they’re taking the fuel-payment away from pensioners … and school dinners away from kids”, she said. Suggesting the repetition of “strong and stable leadership” has had an effect, she adds: “The Tories have got a good leader.”

But her comments also point to how badly the Conservative Party manifesto was received by the party’s core supporters; and how the policy is caricatured, rather than its detail, is what counts. The Conservatives actually plan to means-test the winter fuel allowance and are replacing school dinners with breakfasts. But Cheltenham’s large cohort of wealthy pensioners counts in the Conservatives favour. An NHS Gloucestershire report found that “the proportion of people aged 64+ exceeds the national average.”

Labour’s pledge to maintain the pensions triple-lock won’t change much in Cheltenham. In 2015, they finished third with 7 per cent. As a result, tactical voters who support Labour and want to oust the Tories could help the Lib Dems. Jamie Jones, an aircraft engineer in his mid-twenties, said: “I’m voting Lib Dem to get the Tories out. I like Labour but it’s a wasted vote here.”

Many of the University of Gloucestershire’s 6,500 undergraduates live in Cheltenham; their vote, if they are registered and turn out, could be decisive. They might accept Jeremy Corbyn’s tuition free bribe and vote Labour out of principle. But if they do that, the Tories will benefit at the Lib Dems’ expense.

Despite the challenge they face, the Lib Dems are cautiously optimistic, and with reason. In the May local elections, they topped the polls on 49%, with the Conservatives on 35 per cent. Andy Williams, the local campaign director, said: “We’ve got a chance. It’s neck and neck. The YouGov tracker has it Tory one day and Lib Dem the next. It’ll come down to turnout on the day.”

An unlikely Lib Dem victory here would not necessarily be a vindication of the party’s anti-Brexit stance; rather it might indicate that local issues have trumped national ones, and that Cheltenham has gone its own way.

Jack Evans is Acting Assistant Editor at CapX