MP predicts Liberal Democrats ‘resurgence’ but party members remaining coy ahead of KCC elections
PUBLISHED: 14:56 11 April 2017 | UPDATED: 15:03 11 April 2017
The group’s leader, Trudy Dean, tells us what we can expect from the yellow party on May 4
The “collapse” of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has opened the door for the Liberal Democrats to claim crucial seats in Kent, according to the group’s leader on the county council.
While insisting that, fundamentally, residents will vote on the quality of local candidates, and what they can offer their communities in next month’s elections, Lib Dem councillor Trudy Dean says the national perception of the two parties will play a significant part in how the electorate vote when they take to the polls on May 4.
Opinion polls this week predicted Labour could lose about 125 councillors in elections held across England, Scotland and Wales, with the party’s stock seemingly at its lowest in living memory under the stewardship of Mr Corbyn.
Lib Dem party leader Tim Farron told us last year he anticipated an opportunity to steal traditional Labour supporters, with his party currently the only one sitting firmly in the centre ground, so recently beloved by the floating voter.
And with Labour suffering tangible blows in by-elections at both local and parliamentary elections across the country, there is a strong feeling now is the time for the Lib Dems to step up and provide opposition to the all-conquering Conservatives, who boast all 17 MPs and control of all but one of the local authorities in Kent.
Yet the rebuild job has been huge on a national scale after being obliterated at the polls at the 2015 general election.
Mr Farron’s predecessor, Nick Clegg became an overnight sensation with the younger generation in 2010, who appeared won over by his promise not to increase tuition fees at universities.
However, a swift U-turn and a rise in fees to £9,000-a-year followed, condemning hundreds of thousands of students to a lifetime of debt.
And with it, a damaged reputation for many after getting “in bed with the Tories”, which proved almost fatal for the party’s hopes five years later.
Dropping from 57 seats to just eight was an emphatic indictment of how the public responded to Mr Clegg’s lies, and the Lib Dems were pretty much at rock bottom.
However, post-referendum, Mr Farron says the party’s membership is at an all-time high, having swallowed up a number of voters who, unsuccessfully, voted to remain in the EU last June.
It has quietly picked up seats in local elections nationwide and sprung a surprise by stealing the Richmond Park parliamentary seat from one-time London mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith.
Succeeding in a county as traditionally blue as Kent is quite the challenge, but Cllr Dean told Kent News public perception was beginning to turn in the party’s favour.
“I think there is an opportunity for us,” she said.
“We’ve been getting a very friendly reception on doorsteps in the last few weeks, much better than for a considerable number of years.
“A lot of people had problems with us and our part in the coalition but now they are much more receptive.
“But more importantly, we are getting clear indications that the Labour vote is collapsing, and in our strong areas, Ukip is not particularly strong.
“I think the events of the last few months will have an effect on Ukip votes.
“I always look at by-election results and clearly, with the exception of traditional stronghold areas, their vote is falling and has been for some time.
“I expect that to be the same in Kent because very few of their candidates are people who have been councillors before.
“You have to ask why so many of them appear to be heading for the hills.”
A string of farcical controversies including the defection of Mark Reckless last week means Ukip - which has done so well in the county in recent years - is at risk of losing its grasp on voters.
Certainly, Ukip founding father-turned Tory MP Craig Mackinlay feels the party doesn’t have much of a purpose following the Brexit vote, and told us last week he wouldn’t be surprised by an “absolute wipeout” of its seats on the council.
Thanet District Council leader, Chris Wells, however, laughed off that claim.
But if anyone is to provide the Conservatives with any kind of challenge next month, it’s going to be those in yellow, at least according to South Thanet MP, Mr Mackinlay, who admitted “there might be a slight resurgence of the Lib Dems”.
There are currently only seven Lib Dem councillors on KCC, putting them behind both Ukip with 14 and Labour with 12.
Performance in these county council elections is often a good barometer of how a party will fare nationally, and thus a strong showing is fundamental for the Lib Dems with many urging prime minister Theresa May to call a general election and strengthen her mandate.
Though Cllr Dean, who will be defending her seat in Malling Central on May 4, believes we will have to wait until 2020 for another such vote.
“I would be surprised if she was to call a general election because if she was going to, I think she would have by now, particularly when triggering Article 50,” she said.
“I don’t really think there is a public appetite for one either, but regardless, it’s important to perform in these local elections.
“If the Labour Party does badly I think there’ll be another leadership election.
“The national picture is one of a number of factors voters take into account.
“Local people have always voted on the quality of the local candidate and what they are pursuing locally, but it’s associated with what is happening on a national basis as well.”
In its campaigning to ensure those candidates are of as high quality as possible, the party this week released its manifesto, in which it pledges more protection for the Kent countryside, cutting congestion on the roads and improving street safety, including the introduction of more 20mph limits in residential areas.
It also pledges to increase the number of children getting grammar school places from poorer families - perhaps a slight shift from national policy, with Mr Farron telling us last year the selective system was flawed.
“If you want our young people to do the best they can, you make sure all our schools do well and telling them they are second best at 10 or 11 is not the way you do it,” he said.
The party appears to be stopping short of wanting the entire system scrapped, a policy included in the manifesto for the Greens, which was also released last week.
Other policies in the Lib Dems’ manifesto include allowing councils to borrow to support the building of low-cost homes for sale or rent, as well as being “a local champion” for the NHS and care services.
Given the shocks that have been delivered in politics over the last 12 months ago, Cllr Dean said she isn’t willing to suggest what could happen when the results are out on the morning of May 5, nor would she disclose the areas her party were particularly targeting.
Maidstone is likely to be one of those, however, having drummed up strong levels of support in the county town in recent years.
She said: “I don’t ever make predictions, but even if I did, the polls have got everything wrong recently, so who am I to try and predict what will happen?
“People are feeling very uncertain and worried about the future and, in those circumstances, the way people vote can be less predictable.
“I suppose that benefits the Liberal Democrats in that our candidates, more than any other party, will campaign on local issues, because we are a grass roots party.
“Our fundamental values are about giving control of their communities, listening to them and responding to their wishes.
“Everywhere you look people are unhappy with what’s happening at a national level in terms of the NHS, social care, the state of our roads, so we believe we are in a good position.”