My surprising local angle on Britain’s 2015 General Election. At the last election, in 2010, I was in Brighton, and my comment on the battle between Caroline Lucas’ Greens and Labour was much-read. This time I’m in East Devon, where local campaigns against property development and hospital closures, and for local democracy, are having an impact which I analyse in this piece which has just appeared on openDemocracy.
It is the unlikeliest place to look for evidence of Europe’s new political turbulence. Forecasters agree that in South West England, the main issue in the May 7 General Election is between the two Coalition parties. Will the Liberal Democrats manage to cling on to their seats or will David Cameron’s Tories take them, offsetting Labour gains elsewhere in England and Wales – which combined with the SNP’s capture of Labour seats in Scotland will allow Cameron to remain in Downing Street?
Certainly, the insurgent soft-racist party, UKIP, will advance a little here, but it is nowhere near to capturing seats as it may elsewhere. Likewise the ‘Green surge’ may conceivably work in regional capital Bristol, but there is no sign that rural constituencies will see strong Green advances. With the Lib Dems the fall guys of the UK’s first coalition since the Second World War, sitting Tory MPs must be feeling complacent about their own returns to Westminster, even if the national outcome remains on a knife-edge.
This will undoubtedly have been the case in the East Devon constituency, where the academic site electionforecast.co.uk projects national trends to give the Conservatives 40 per cent, Labour 16, the LibDems and UKIP 15 each and the Greens 7. However the site willingly acknowledges that local constituency-level knowledge is not included in its model, and Lord Ashcroft’s programme of constituency polling has also not reached here.
It is therefore understandable that national media have so far overlooked a very English local insurgency which has produced a serious independent candidate,Claire Wright, who aims to oust Tory foreign office minister, Hugo Swire.
Independent MPs are rarely elected in UK general elections, but the rare exceptions are often in safe Tory seats where (as here) both Labour and the Lib Dems are weak. In recent times, Martin Bell (a BBC reporter) toppled ‘sleazy’ Tory Neil Hamilton (now a leading UKIP figure) in Tatton in 1997, although when Bell stood down in 2001, the seat reverted to the Tories’ George Osborne. Consultant Richard Taylor captured Wyre Forest in 2001 on the back of a strong campaign to save Kidderminster’s hospital, holding it until 2010.
Could East Devon be 2015’s case? Wright is not a celebrity capitalising on a national scandal, as Bell was, nor does she have a single decision like Kidderminster’s hospital closure to rally opposition to local Tory dominance (although local hospital closures are important issues, and Wright is part of a campaign against cuts in the Ottery St. Mary hospital). It might therefore be thought that her chances are slim. Yet she is building on very broad opposition to the ruling Tories on East Devon District Council (EDDC), widely perceived as a one-party state where developers rule – if not a hotbed of corruption (Tory Graham Brown was forced to resign in 2013 in a ‘councillors for hire’ scandal).
Wright has a broad local base. A youthful district and County councillor, she came to prominence in a mass movement which brought 4,000 people onto the streets of the district capital and seaside resort of Sidmouth (population 14,000) in 2012, in protest against a development on open green space proposed by the EDDC. Already there was a scent of wider anger with a one-party regime on the council (the Tories have ruled for 35 of the last 39 Years). ‘Without the ventilation of change, the council has, some feel, begun to smell’, wrote the editor of Country Life at the time.
Unlike most such protests which quickly fade, Save Our Sidmouth spawned a movement, the East Devon Alliance (EDA), which is now challenging for power on the council. EDA is aiming to contest at least 45 of the 58 council seats and end Tory rule. The election takes place on the same day as the general election and the Lib Dems have no chance of gaining control, while Labour and the Greens will be lucky to gain any seats at all.
Syriza or Podemos, EDA is not. Yet this local movement of mainly middle-aged, middle-class southern English is one of many local resistances to the Tory-led Coalition’s National Planning Policy Framework, widely seen as a property developers’ charter, who are nationally united in the Community Voice on Planning (COVOP).
Like the London tenants fighting the sale of their estates to developers, EDA contests the increasing bias of the British state towards property developers, local and international. The difference between EDA and other anti-developer resistance is that EDA, including several sitting independent councillors, is now challenging for district power. With implicit backing from the local press, EDA threatens a major upset in this quiet backwater.
Without EDA’s challenge to the local council, Wright’s independent campaign might seem quixotic. Yet simultaneous local and national elections, with synergies between the campaigns, give her a chance. Bookies now have herahead of the Lib Dems and Labour, and a respectable second place is clearly possible. Wright’s challenge is to persuade Lib Dem, Labour and Green voters who will vote EDA in the local elections to also support her – while at the same time trying to eat away at the Tory vote.
In what has been called Britain’s most unpredictable election – as I write, electionforecast projects a mere one-seat Labour plurality over the Tories (283-282 in a parliament where 326 seats are needed for a majority) – clearly every seat counts. Experts expect wide variations between constituency outcomes, and East Devon is another to watch. They would also do well to take on board the significance of the local elections: in East Devon on May 8, the most likely change is an end to decades of Tory council rule.