The first few minutes of my telephone interview with Sarah Smith, the Liberal Democrat candidate for Dover and Deal, was going well. We had discussed what Sarah thinks makes for a good society (“a strong sound economy, individual freedom, and responsibilities to others”), her political background (she’s always been interested), and her love for Dover and Deal (“it’s incredibly beautiful”). But just as we started to go into more depth, we were interrupted by a practice fire alarm in my building – after a flurried few moments, we managed to reconnect…
So what are the most important issues to the voters in Dover? Sarah’s response was crystal-clear: “Jobs, jobs, jobs. Given the contribution of the town to the UK’s economy, it’s unfair the little amount Dover receives in return.”
Although Dover acts as a gateway into continental Europe, the town beyond the docks has not benefitted from development; Sarah herself admits that the town is “run down”. She argues that the current malaise is as a result of “Conservative and Labour MPs who haven’t fought hard enough” for the area, and asserts that the Liberal Democrats are best placed to forge a middle way between the two parties: “You can’t trust Labour with the economy, and you can’t trust the Conservatives to be fair. The Liberal Democrats will rebuild and strengthen our economy in a way that is fair.”
The symbolic image of the White Cliffs of Dover as a border to the UK means that issues of immigration and EU integration are particularly pertinent to the town. But “staying in the free trade area is critical for the constituency,” according to Sarah. However, she notes that the EU “needs reform” but that reform should be one of cooperative negotiation with the other countries, rather than how she terms David Cameron’s current approach: “handbagging”. And why does she think that his approach will ultimately be unsuccessful? “Because Mrs Merkel’s handbag is bigger than David Cameron’s.”
The current state of the Liberal Democrats in national opinion polls and the fact that the Liberal Democrats polled third in the constituency with 16% of the vote in 2010 certainly isn’t dampening Sarah’s hope about winning next May. Given these figures, I asked Sarah what she thinks can be gained from running a Liberal Democrat in the seat: could tactically voting Labour or Conservative be more productive for Liberal Democrat supporters? Thankfully not taking offence at the implied consequences of my question, Sarah says she doesn’t “blame people for voting tactically” in the first past the post electoral system, but that there is more an imperative for voters not to tactically move away from the Liberal Democrat next May.
“This time around, it will be a much more open election” she says, because “the presence of UKIP is taking votes away from the other two parties which provides an opening for a surprise Liberal Democrat victory”. Second, Sarah wants people to vote Liberal Democrat “to express their belief in the liberal values which have been abandoned by the Conservatives and Labour.”
As a final question, I have always asked candidates if there is anything else about their campaign that we had not covered in the interview. Sarah responds: “Get down to Dover and Deal. Just look at the white cliffs and wow.” I certainly look forward to visiting Dover on 50for15 travels and seeing if the race is as close as Sarah suggests it is.