By-election result proves East Devon is not as 'true blue' as people thought

Richard Foord, Liberal Democrat candidate in Tiverton and Honiton

Richard Foord was elected as the new MP for Tiverton and Honiton - Credit: LDRS

A personal view from East Devon Council leader Paul Arnott.

East Devon District Council leader, Councilor Paul Arnott. Picture: Paul Arnott

East Devon District Council leader, Councilor Paul Arnott. Picture: Paul Arnott - Credit: Archant

This has been amongst the most unexpected two months in my life.

On the morning of Friday 29th April I was in a genial meeting with my MP, Neil Parish, working together for the benefit of East Devon. He did not seem to have a care in the world. By the next morning, he had resigned as an MP, triggering a by-election, which took place last Thursday.

A 24,000 Tory majority was then overturned to a 6,000 one for the LibDems, and for the first time in my life I find myself living in a place where my parliamentary vote counts. I have been inundated with local people saying the same.

Needless to say, in the age of populist politicians like Trump and Johnson, much analysis has been focussed on “Boris”. And to an extent it is true that good natural Conservatives voted in their thousands to rid the country of the international ignominy of having him as our PM.

And yet, and yet. To me the evidence has long been present that East Devon is not “put a blue rosette on a pig and it will get elected territory”. In 2019, at district level, the electorate voted for 41 non-Tories with only 19 Tory councillors, who thus lost power after 45 years.

The Democratic Alliance, non-Tory, administration I am grateful to lead is going strong into its third year, dealing with a decade of Tory neglect around car parks and public toilets, and revitalising initiatives from Cranbrook to Axminster, Exmouth to Seaton, Sidmouth to Feniton, against strong headwinds and impotent sniping from the Conservative rump.

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Almost as soon as the by-election was called, as I have written previously in these pages, I had a decision to make.

At a local level, my independent colleagues in the East Devon Alliance (EDA) have taken a leading role, working with LIbDem, Green and other Independents to make sure that the 41/19 result of 2019 is honoured at EDDC. Yet the EDA constitution deliberately precludes us from standing candidates for Parliament.

This left me in a quandary. I believed that the LibDems have emerged from an uncomfortable period from 2010 into a young and vibrant new movement for change. And the campaigners I have met during the by-election proved that; their energy was amazing. My kids, who loathed the LibDems a decade ago, now think of them as the centre-ground future they want.

Put simply, I just didn’t want to conceal from people who had kindly voted for me locally what I would be doing in the national by-election. That is why I became a member of the LibDems at a national level and having met Richard Foord – now our MP – gave him public backing.

Richard’s campaign was astonishing – open, approachable and passionate. I have heard criticism of the sheer volume of leaflets, but then so often in the past I have heard people say, “you’re the first to bother to put one through the door”. I don’t think anyone can not now know who he is or what, in well-targeted localised leaflets, the LibDems know are the issues confronting us in East Devon.

The Conservative campaign, by contrast, was somewhere between dismal and shameful. On the shameful side of the ledger was the orange, scaremongering, anti-LibDem leaflet they put out where you needed a microscope to see in molecule-sized font that it had been published by the Tories.

On the dismal side was the way they hid the candidate. I really don’t like playing the person rather than the ball in politics, and hope that perhaps Helen Hurford was just told what to do and what not to do. But to flee the count without a concession speech, where all normal courtesies demand

thanking the returning officer and the police, was a shocker, reflecting I believe a heartless party where even the usual standards no longer apply.