Warwick Road, where Solihull Liberal Democrat headquarters are located, seemed to stretch endlessly from Birmingham. It did not help that the numbers of the houses on the road appeared to repeat, which left the sat-nav, and hence me, very confused. Arriving at a first location, which turned out to be a pub, not the constituency headquarters of the Lib Dems – and what’s more, still in Birmingham – we drove on further down Warwick Road and eventually arrived for the Lib Dem Action day, this time actually in Solihull.
Looking back at a map, the road does not appear to be quite that long, but driving from the centre of the UK’s second largest city to the south-east of the West Midland conurbation encapsulates Solihull’s motto: “urbs in rure”; the ‘town in the country’ which feels distinct from the city with which it shares a border, but not divorced from it: there is no clear break of residences in-between the two settlements.
Affluent and desirable – Solihull has come out on top of surveys of the best place to live in the UK – the constituency is often considered as one that the Conservatives should win comfortably and never lose. But since 2005, the MP has been Lorely Burt, a Liberal Democrat. With such a demographic, it is unsurprising that she has won with slender majorities, first winning 279 votes more than Conservative John Taylor – who had represented the seat since 1983 and then in 2010, winning with just 175 seats more than her Tory opponent.
Both victories have earned Burt respect of being a strong local campaigner, but in 2015, which is expected to be an “annus horribilis” for the junior coalition partner, Solihull is often touted as one of the seats that will readily change from yellow to blue. It is the task of the activists assembled at the Solihull Action Day to ensure that that they defy expectations once again.
Speaking to Burt about the challenges her campaign faces, I asked her what she thought the most important issues were for voters in Solihull. Normally this question sparks candidates to elaborate in great detail about a specific hyper-local concern: a road-crossing, or perhaps a library closure which the campaign has been focusing on. Burt’s response, however, listed four national issues: “health, education, the economy, and immigration.” It is the local dimension of those national issues which activists out on the door step that day were focusing on: in particular the number of mental health patient beds available at Solihull Hospital.
The team I was shadowing was led by Ade Adeyamo, the Liberal Democrat candidate for the neighbouring constituency, Meriden. Meriden is currently represented by Conservative Caroline Spellman, who won 51.7% vote in 2010. Not only does that commanding share of the vote explain why Adeyamo was focusing his efforts on Burt’s re-election, but also typifies the results of many affluent areas outside of cities, and why Solihull is such an exception.
Voters the activists spoke to were receptive of the petition, and mostly positive about Burt, many recalling her name without prompt from the campaign team. But has the reaction Burt receives out on the doorstep altered from when her party was considered an opposition party when she was elected in 2005, to a party of government now.
“A lot’s happened since 2005. However, I am very gratified by the reception that we are getting on the doorstep. I think a lot of people took some time to get used to the fact that the Liberal Democrats were a party of government and not a protest vote anymore. But having said that, although one or two people are not happy about it, most people have been very supportive and understand the situation that we’ve been in.”
Burt remarked how supporters were keen for the Lib Dems “to be more prominent” but she criticised the media for distorting coverage of the Liberal Democrats. “The problem is that we can only be as prominent as the press is prepared to report. We know, that the press write the story that they’d like to be the truth. Having spent the first three years vilifying our leader, they now have found someone else to latch onto in the form of Mr Farage, and so we are not getting much coverage at the moment.”
But what can the Lib Dems do to change that trend?
“We can’t tell the press what to write. We can do as much as we can in terms of campaigning, and we put our press releases, like we always do. I think that there is an establishment in this country and they like the idea of being in charge of the country and they don’t like the idea that somebody else is challenging. The Liberal Democrats are not part of the establishment, we are still a radical party and therefore I don’t think that we are ever going to get positive coverage.
“I think that Nick Clegg has been denigrated and vilified by the press, because they like writing the Punch and Judy story. But what’s happening now is that they won’t be able to write that Punch and Judy story without Labour-Tory, Tory-Labour, there are more parties now in the mix and so they’re going to have to decide what their response is going to have to be.”
But the trend to a multi-party mix may be one that ultimately damages Burt’s hopes of re-election. The opposition party in Solihull Council is no longer the Lib Dems, but the Greens, and the party is fielding a candidate in the seat in 2015. It seems that Burt, as well as the media, will need to respond to growing number of parties at the election.
“There were 175 votes between myself and the Tory candidate last time.” recounts Burt, adding, “To say anything other than the fight is between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats would be palpably untrue.”
However, for all the enthusiasm shown by the activists, many voters on the doorstep were unimpressed with politics. One man the team spoke to that morning stated he had no interest in politics and would not vote. As someone whose political career will depend on only a couple of hundred votes, I concluded by asking Burt what she says to people considering abstaining.
“I think you can only point towards the problems they see. Ask them: ‘What are the problems in society now?’, ‘What do you perceive as unfair?’. And then say ‘So without politics then, how are you going to address these problems?’
“Because once people find an issue – and we find this a lot here in Solihull – people will find an issue which they are not happy about and they will fight, and they will become community activists, and very often because they understand that you have to be in a position of power to make change then they will very often join one of the political parties.”