The picture-postcard villages in the Blackdown Hills are not normally the scene of political upheaval, but this corner of south-west England could be the scene of an unlikely political revival for the Liberal Democrats.
The countryside electorate here on the Somerset-Devon border are historically staunchly Conservative, but just before Christmas the Lib Dem Ross Henley took 71% of the vote with a swing of more than 40% from the Tories in a Taunton Deane borough council byelection with a respectable local turnout.
“To be honest I thought we would run the Tories close, I never ever dreamt we would get this vote,” Henley laughed, sitting in the tiny village shop cafe. “But now morale is really high. People helped in this byelection from all over the country.”
Lib Dem strategists are pinning their hopes for rebuilding after the dire results in 2015 on a resurgence in the south-west, their former heartland, where the party lost all 10 of its seats in the last election. Since then, the party has been quietly notching up its best council byelection results in 20 years, with a net gain of 28 seats compared with net losses for Labour of four seats, Ukip of three and the Conservatives of 33 seats.
On paper, this part of the country does not look like a happy hunting ground for the fervently pro-remain party, because of the high number of leave voters in the south-west. Yet more than half of those byelections gains were in the West Country, most recently in Taunton and Teignbridge in early December, with the seats all seeing swings upwards of 20%.
Henley, who is also the county councillor, said he thought local leave voters had still backed him because of a personal relationship, but that his party was consistently winning over Tory remainers. “People did actually want to talk about Brexit on the doorstep,” he said.
“It seems to be redefining British politics in the same way the Scottish referendum did, it completely shook up the way people voted. Parties that have a muddled view on the big issues of the day generally tend to struggle. And we know where we stand.”
Paul Hodgkinson, the leader of the Lib Dems on Gloucestershire county council, said the party was already showing it could take seats even in some of the darkest blue areas of the country. The local party won the Stow-on-the-Wold council byelection in September with a swing of 21%, taking around 65% of the vote from the seat that houses typically Tory Cotswold villages.
“Local council byelections have seen our vote surge. Stow-on-the-Wold was Conservative since time immemorial but we took it with a massive swing,” Hodgkinson said. “On the ground, soft Conservative voters are not happy.”
There are 17 key Tory seats where the majority of voters backed remain and Lib Dems are already in second place, such as Lewes, Bath, Cheltenham, Cheadle, Oxford West and Abingdon, according to research by the thinktank UK in a Changing Europe.
Gavin Grant, the 61-year-old chair of western counties Liberal Democrats, has spent time since the referendum studying key areas for the 2017 local elections. “Everyone says the south-west was very strongly anti-EU, but it wasn’t,” he insisted. “It’s simply not true. We have analysed the box counts, not just the regions. Outside of London, this was one of the strongest regions for remain in England.”
The area has some places which look more promising for the Lib Dems than others. The Cotswolds as a whole narrowly went for remain in the referendum, though the local Conservative MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown campaigned for Brexit. Cheltenham, which was held by the Lib Dems until 2015, recorded a strong remain vote. But the other end of the county was far stronger for leave, in such places as Tewkesbury.
Prof Glen O’Hara, an expert on political history and polling at Oxford Brookes University, said a Lib Dem revival had limitations, especially in Conservative seats with Theresa May’s party polling so high. Even after high-profile success in the Richmond Park byelection, national polling for the Lib Dems has on the whole been stubbornly below double figures, apart from one or two polls that had them at between 12% and 14%.
According to Fabian Society analysis this week, Labour has lost as many votes to the Liberal Democrats as it has to the two rightwing, pro-Brexit parties combined. However, the projections also suggest that even if the Lib Dems were to massively exceed expectations to match Labour’s support, with each party taking 20% of the vote, the Lib Dems would only win 26 seats compared with Labour’s 143.
“Lib Dem recovery was always going to be spotty and uncertain,” O’Hara said. “Going after remain as hard as they can is a good strategy. There are lots of remainers everywhere – even in Copeland [the Cumbrian seat recently vacated by Labour’s Jamie Reed], which was according to the best figures, 60% leave. That’s a lot more votes than you’ve got already when you’re on 10% in the national polls.”
Even in places where leave was strongest, such as Yeovil and rural south Somerset, Grant says the party believes there are enough angry remain voters to take back parliamentary seats. “Our research shows around half of the remain vote see this issue as the single most important issue,” he said.
He believes the party now also has a good chance of winning Wiltshire county council in 2017, which would mean taking more than 20 Conservative seats. “It’s a tall order but we are motivated and people are out doing the work in a way I have not seen for years.”
Lib Dem membership, now roughly 80,000, has gone up by about 26,000 since the referendum, with approximately 3,000 of those in the south-west. Ryan Hemmings, a 26-year-old conveyancer is one of the party’s new members in Yeovil. “I’d have called myself a bit of a Tory boy before, probably until the referendum and the aftermath,” he said.
“It was the Tory conference that really put me off – the economy was the most important thing to me. And instead they used it as a platform to talk about companies listing foreigners.”
One of the most high-profile defectors from the Conservatives has been councillor Amanda Broom, who previously worked for Conservative MP Marcus Fysh, but quit her job and her party to join the Lib Dems in April last year.
“I thought it would be the job of my dreams,” she said. “But within two months I started to realise there was a very big difference between myself and the Conservatives and feel very uncomfortable. [Former party leader] Paddy Ashdown warned me to pull on my tin hat and said that I would get a lot of criticism. But I had over 200 letters and emails saying they understood.”
Her next target is a Ukip-held seat in the county council elections where the Lib Dems had previously come third. “Yes, we can win,” she said. “Half the time it is about the people who can get things done, and that’s definitely something I’ll be playing on.”
The party has also held a parliamentary candidate selection blitz since the referendum – fearing a snap general election – so many candidates for 2020 seats have already been selected to try to win back those lost in 2015.
Many of them are a new generation of activists, rather than experienced parliamentarians returning. Taunton Deane’s Lib Dem candidate, Gideon Amos, said he had been active in the party in his 20s, but then decided to get fully involved again as he saw the 2015 defeat approaching. “2016 has been a very disturbing year for anyone who is a liberal,” he said. “We are changing our strategy to talk to people who are down on our canvassing records as having always voted Tory. They want to talk to us.”
Amos, who will need a swing of 14% to take the seat back, said even leave voters were angered by the lack of information about the plan for Brexit. “People say to me all the time that it’s all a mess. When I ask them what they think about politics, everyone mentions Brexit even though I don’t bring it up. So when you say our position is that the deal should be available to look at, to vote on, it’s not [unpopular].”
Daisy Benson, the party’s candidate in Ashdown’s former seat in Yeovil, said the party was right to throw everything it could at even the smallest byelections. “I care about social justice and inequality but I also think that if you don’t win elections, you can’t do much about it,” she said. “When I was lead councillor for housing in Reading, I could actually change things.”
Behind the counter in North Perott farm shop, deep in south Somerset, where Benson is hoping to unseat the Conservative MP Fysh, the shop’s owner, Jonathan Hoskyns, said Conservative campaigners “carpeted the place” during the 2015 campaign with warnings about a Labour-SNP coalition government.
“David Laws [the then Lib Dem MP] was in government and we didn’t see much of him until I think his party realised it was too late,” he said. “They are more prepared now. Paddy Ashdown was a Marmite character but well respected. But this area has been Conservative before 2015, it does switch hands.
In Taunton town centre, where the referendum vote was about 59% leave, some locals appeared unready to commit to backing the party again. Retired engineer Jim Cawston, 75, said he had voted to leave but had previously voted Lib Dem and would not rule out doing so again.
“I saw the money we sent [to the EU] and the council here’s bankrupt,” he said. “But to be honest with you, no one seems to know what they are doing now.”
However, Georgina, a 22-year-old student visiting her native Somerset for the Christmas break, said she believed the referendum had politicised a lot of younger voters. “Yeah I do feel angry [about Brexit],” she said. “I do have a lot of friends who have said they would just definitely vote for a remain party, whoever it was.”
Benson said she believed that whatever people now thought of the party, the referendum had given it a clear reason to continue to exist. “People would slam the door in your face in 2011 and say: ‘You lied, you broke your promises,’” she said.
“Now, if you are concerned about Brexit, it’s very clear you can talk to us. All the time we used to get: ‘We don’t know what you stand for.’ I don’t think we’re going to get that anymore.”
This article was written by Jessica Elgot Political reporter, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 3rd January 2017 14.21 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010