TIM WALKER sees the Lib Dems put up a spirited fight in a Labour stronghold
The Lib Dems may be starting a long way behind in Lewisham East – 4.4% of the vote against Labour’s 67% in last year’s general election – but the party is taking the race extremely seriously. Sir Vince Cable’s frequent visits to the constituency – and some goading from his local candidate Lucy Salek – certainly appears to be a factor in Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to grace it with his presence today, albeit in a way that is going to be very carefully orchestrated.
There is a definite buzz in the Lib Dem campaign headquarters and there is even talk of Salek – an impressive local figure with experience of conflict resolution for humanitarian organisations in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East and a published author – as the ‘Seabiscuit candidate”. The analogy is interesting: it’s a nod to the Thoroughbred racehorse that beat the favourites in a series of key fixtures in the States and became a symbol of hope during the Great Depression.
Yesterday the place was teeming with young, fresh-faced party activists – this is for most of them their first campaign – and there was even a spot of showbiz glamour in the shape of Frances Barber, who was putting in a few hours writing and sealing envelopes for the party ahead of going on stage in the West End in An Ideal Husband (alongside the well-known Brextremist Edward Fox). The actress was a life-long Labour Party supporter before announcing on Twitter, just before the local elections, that she was transferring her allegiances to the Lib Dems out of sheer despair at her old party’s position on Brexit.
For all the excitement, Sir Vince is keeping his feet, at least for now, very much on the ground. ‘A win for us is theoretically possible, of course, but the figures speak for themselves, and, if we just made up a substantial amount of ground on the favourite – as I believe we will – then I believe we will be putting out a very useful message to Mr Cobyn,’ he says. ‘I’m pleased he has finally responded to our various challenges to visit the constituency, but it saddens me we have still to get the chance to have any hustings. We really do want to engage with our opponents here and have a real debate. This is, however, an odd by-election: Lucy Salek has been out campaigning every day and she has not crossed the path of our Labour opponent once. I also wonder if Mr Corbyn, when he visits, will be willing to engage properly with voters.
‘You would think with such an enormous majority and such a statistical likelihood of victory, Labour would be confident, but in fact their policy here appears to be to keep their heads down and hope they can somehow instal their candidate as unobtrusively as possible. On the most important issue of the day – which is, of course, Brexit – they know that they are vulnerable here as this is a constituency that voted heavily for Remain.
“I think Mr Corbyn’s attempt to portray his latest concession to the Tories on Brexit – a fudged and vaguely-worded document that effectively lets the Government off the hook by merely seeking ‘full access’ to the EU ‘internal market’ – as some kind of policy shift shows he’s nervous about this by-election.’
Although not a local resident, Frances Barber is something of a symbol of Sir Vince’s target voter in Lewisham East: Labour through and through until the local elections, she says she is ‘lending’ the Lib Dems her vote to give Corbyn that clear message that she’s feeling ignored by the party she’s supported all her life.
‘I’ve been on a long journey with Labour and I suppose I began to give up when it became clear at our last conference they were not prepared to have a proper debate on Brexit,’ she says. ‘There is a lot of bullying going on – and I have felt especially horrified by the anti-Semitic nature of a lot of it – but it is their support for the Tories on Brexit that was ultimately the deciding factor for me. Anyone can see this is turning out to be an utter disaster for our country.
“We are crying out for an opposition right now and Labour is in the business instead of collaborating. I haven’t been afraid of saying all of this on Twitter, but ultimately I think it’s important not just to rage about this online, but to actually do something, and that’s why I’m here. I want to be able to say to people when I am older that I did what I could to stop this as I care about the young and the opportunities they will have in life.’
Another familiar face in this room that was starting to feel like it was on Stella Street was Michael Crick of Channel 4 News, who had turned out with his camera crew. He explained to the Lib Dem leader that he couldn’t, alas, film him because Corbyn hadn’t that day shown up and political balance dictated he couldn’t film one party leader without filming the others. Undeterred, Sir Vince headed out with his candidate to engage with voters in the best way possible – knocking on doors. “Voters appreciate it when they get the chance to talk to their local candidates and the leaders of their parties,” he says. “What has been lacking in our politics in recent years – I think to a large extent because of Brexit and the special interest groups that are driving it – is that basic respect and courtesy being accorded to voters.”
Miss Barber, heading off back to the West End at the end of the day, said: “You have to admire Vince just for turning out and for taking part in the democratic process. Do you think someone with my views would be allowed anywhere near Corbyn? That’s the difference and it breaks my heart to say that because Corbyn leads a party that I really did love and believed in all my life.”