Stephen_Williams_MP

Stephen Williams, MP for Bristol West 2005 – 2015, and current Lib Dem candidate. Source: Wikimedia.

“On nobody’s basis is Bristol West a marginal seat,” Liberal Democrat Stephen Williams, who has spent last ten years representing the constituency in Parliament, tells us over lunch on our roadtrip. “We won by eleven and a half thousand votes last time.”

However, Williams, who is standing again for election, will concede that the seat is historically marginal. After a long line of Conservative MPs, Labour took the seat in 1997, held it for two elections, before Williams won it for the Liberal Democrats. He has now held it for two elections.

“I came to Bristol as a student in 1985,” continues Williams, “so my first general election campaign here was in 1987, when I was a student on the Liberal Candidates General Election committee.

“I’ve seen every general election campaign here since I was a teenager. It’s gone from ultra-safe Tory, which is what it was in 1983 and 87, to a seat we were seriously having a go at in 92 and 97.”

Despite having beaten Labour to second place since 1983, in 1997 it was Labour who broke the Conservative’s long hold on Bristol West. “I’ve bitter memories of that: it was purely because the Observer, the Guardian, and the Mirror put tactical voting tables on the last weekend before the election saying if you want to defeat the Tory, this is how to vote here.

“And even though we were second in the 92, 87, and 83 elections, they recommended voting Labour, and Labour squeezed past us from third place to win.”

The next election campaign in 2001, by which time Williams was the Parliamentary candidate, also attracted plenty of press attention. “That was the most ferocious election I’ve ever been involved in because all of the three parties were throwing everything at it. I think at one point, Blair, Charles Kennedy, and William Hague were all in Bristol West on the same day. All of the media came here.”

Williams’ work paid off, though: he beat the Conservatives into second place by thirty-nine votes. Coming second “was then ruthlessly used by us to win in 2005,” says Williams. In a national mood of disillusionment with the Labour Party, Williams charged ahead to first place. In 2010 he increased his majority from 5,128 to to 11,366.

As in 1997 and 2001, Bristol West has received a more than average share of media coverage. The Guardian produced a lengthy written profile of the seat, as well as a video. The Spectator paid a visit, too, as did the Independent. Oh, and don’t forget the New Statesman. The papers aren’t all that interested in Williams, though – they’re far keener to hear about the Green Party’s candidate, Darren Hall, to whom, to be fair, we also spoke to first.

Williams is just a little frustrated by all this. “Obviously it’s because as well as Brighton Pavilion, the Greens are going after this seat, as well as Norwich South, Cambridge, and Solihull.

“Because they’re getting more scrutiny now nationally and their national poll rating is a bit better than it normally is, the media are all going round different seats, and if the media are going to report something about the Green Party, they can’t just do Brighton Pavilion, so they all come here.

“It’s slightly tedious to be perfectly honest – because that is the result last time,” he says, slapping the leaflet in front of us.

Stephen Williams' campaign leaflet

Stephen Williams’ campaign leaflet

“I’ve said it to some journalists, ‘Could you tell me how many other seats you’re going to that you’re describing as a marginal when the majority of the party you’re writing about is more than 11,00 – it doesn’t really stack up.’ But they want their story, all the lobby journalists in London.”

In a similar way to 1997, perhaps, is Williams worried that the way the media has focused attention on his seat will influence the result?

He reserves particular criticism for the Guardian – the paper that at the time of the last election threw its support behind his party. “It has a distorting effect. In fact, the Guardian have been here, and they’re coming next week, and I’m bit suspicious about what their agenda is. They’re almost doing the [other parties’] work, either for the Labour Party or the Green Party.

“Quite clearly Labour are the main challengers, they’re making a reasonable effort this time around, and if the Green Party siphon off too many votes from me, then the seat is handed to Labour on a plate – that might be what the Guardian wants.

“But no one in the right mind thinks this [the Green vote] is going to go from there to there,” he says, again slapping the leaflet in front of us to make his point.

A Labour victory is, incidentally, what Lord Ashcroft predicts a week after our interview. His analysis is pretty similar to Williams’: “I found the Greens in second place with a 25% vote share, with more voters attracted from the Lib Dems than from any other party,” Ashcroft writes. “This, combined with the fact nearly three in ten 2010 Lib Dems have switched straight to Labour, would be enough for Labour to take the seat with a swing of 19% if the result were repeated on 7 May.

Williams’ greatest sense of surprise is reserved for the fate of the Conservative Party in Bristol West: “But what could happen is – it would be quite astonishing – the Green Party could come third, and the Conservative Party, which had a succession of grandees and cabinet ministers in this seat, will in the course of five general elections have gone from this being a safe Tory seat to coming fourth.”

The Lib Dem party in Bristol West is evidently very active: Ashcroft’s polling suggested that the 70% of the electorate in Bristol West had received literature from the Lib Dems – hardly a bad showing. Furthermore, says Williams, “People are complaining they’re getting too many leaflets from us

“I’ve been a persistent [leaflet] deliverer myself since 1986 in this seat – we’ve never stopped, even when things were really bad in 1989 and 1990.”

But Williams’ “slight fear factor,” as he puts it, is that, given that the population of Bristol tends to be rather mobile, or “churn”, not enough of his constituents will have heard enough from his team – that the incumbency effect won’t be strong enough among those who have only recently arrived in Bristol.

“The people who have only lived here for a few months probably don’t even know what Parliamentary seat they’re in, let alone who their MP is. And amongst those people, you’re much more likely to get a reflection of what the national opinion polls say.” Which, of course, is hardly pretty for the Lib Dems.

“When you meet people who have been in the constituency or five years,” adds Williams’ researcher, “they like what Stephen’s done locally… We’re fairly confident with long-term residents.”

For the first time in a while, the Lib Dem campaign in Bristol West has not focused on the lack of schools in the city. “The school building programme for various reasons never really kept up with [the increase in population].

“So for years, in the run up to the 2001 election, as well as the 2005 election, my major campaign was that we must build more schools and we have to get more physical investment in the infrastructure of education.

“Usually at this time of year we would get bombarded with letters from parents saying, ‘My child can’t even get into the first three choices that we want.’ But the council has worked quite hard to solve that, so that’s subsided as an issue.”

Now, the primary local issue is “lousy rail services and perceived-as-quite-expensive bus fares.” Hence, partly, Williams’ campaign to get a new railway station opened in Ashley Down.

But “in terms of national issues, because it’s quite an educated constituency, people write about absolutely everything. One moment, we’re talking about animal welfare in Vietnam, then there’ll be a letter about TTIP, then about teaching humanism as well as religion in schools.”

Another challenge that faces the Liberal Democrats in Bristol West, in common with the other parties campaigning here, is that the seat is not just highly educated, but also includes much less affluent parts. “At the west end, you’ve got Clifton, which is [all] sweeping Georgian crescents, squares, and massive houses. In the area around Clifton College, the houses cost around £2 million.

“And then in the east of the constituency, you’ve got Barton Hill, which has fourteen tower blocks. The population there is about 50% Somali population, 50% white working class. Then in the middle you’ve got professional middle classes.”

Changes to the way electoral registration takes place, coupled with the mobility of Bristol’s population, have also meant there are a number of people registered in particular addresses who no longer live there. This makes it quite hard for canvassers: “There are a lot of ghost people on the register as well. That’s the other big quirk factor in this election.

“It’s annoying when you’re out canvassing and you’ve got five names, but they’ve all gone. Because of individual registration we conceded that everyone would be carried forward by a year automatically so there’s quite a lot of phantom voters on the register.

In some ways, however, Williams’ goals and challenges in Bristol West are no different from any Liberal Democrat’s ever have been. “All of us are having to buck a trend, but you always have to buck a trend to win as a Liberal Democrat. I got 38% in 2005 and 48% in 2010, which was obviously massively well above the polling average, too.”

50for15 contacted the Guardian for a response to Stephen Williams’ allegations. We have not heard back from them.

UPDATE (5th May): An interesting discussion took place on Twitter yesterday, in which Philip Nye, a freelance journalist, questioned whether the graph (pictured above) in Stephen Williams’ election leaflet was misleading. The conversation is reproduced below: