“Come to Axbridge, it’s one community on from Cheddar,” Tessa tells us.
And in the constituency of Wells it is Tessa, it’s not Tessa Munt – it’s barely even Tessa the Liberal Democrat. Her posters, which are spread thickly across this corner of Somerset, urge constituents to ‘Vote Tessa.’ The words ‘Liberal Democrats’ don’t feature anywhere, although their bird is present.
“Well, I write annual reports, and my reports have never had anything about liberal democracy on it – never,” she tells us, “because I’m everybody’s MP. I have never ever worn a rosette – I won’t do it, it’s a complete barrier to communicating with people.
“The other thing is it makes you look as though you’ve got a lump of custard on your collar, doesn’t it? I do wear a little green bird, almost all the time,” she says, gesturing at her lapel. “I’m a green Lib Dem and I have been for years and years and years.”
She also explains why she missed out her surname from her election posters: “Lots of people have said, ‘It’s brilliant you’ve only got your first name.’ But I always think I’m lucky: I’ve got a relatively unusual first name, it’s short, and when you put it backwards, it says Asset.
“My god, look at that,” she says, pointing to one of her leaflets. “How groovy is that?
We came across Tessa in the main square of Axbridge, coordinating a leafleting session in the town. As we chatted to her on a bench, passers-by would often come up and offer their encouragements. “Good luck, Tessa” became something of a refrain.
MP for the constituency of Wells since 2010, which is made up of the cathedral city as well as the surrounding towns and countryside, Tessa was the first non-Conservative to win the seat since 1923, when Arthur Hobhouse, a Liberal, took it – and retained it for one year. Many put her victory in 2010 down to the expenses claims of the former Conservative MP, David Heathcoat-Amory, which included 550 sacks of horse manure for his garden. He paid for them eventually, but there was still ill-will felt towards him.
“I read with amazement the comments from our Wells MP, David Heathcoat-Amory, in last week’s paper,” runs a contemporary letter in the Wells Journal. “No hint of an apology for claiming gardening expenses for his Pilton property. In the real world our gardens are not justifiable expenses for our work.”
Did the politics of Wells really change in 2010? Or was it just a reaction to the expenses scandal that won it?
“I think the politics has changed here,” says Tessa. “I’m absolutely clear that the work my team and I have done have changed the bar for anybody who follows me, whether it’s me that follows me, or somebody else. I can promise you they’ll never get away with treating this seat with the level of disdain with which it was treated before… You just can’t rock up and expect everybody to throw themselves at your feet in the last three weeks before a general election.”
Wells, however, can hardly have been an easy place to represent. Unlike a chunk of inner-city, say, there are a huge number of different communities in this single constituency. Tessa lists as the main ten places: Shepton Mallet, Wells, Glastonbury, Street, Cheddar, Axbridge, Wedmore, Chilcompton, Burnham, and Highbridge.
“The largest one of those is Street, which is known for its retail outlets, its Clarks Village. Wells is famous for its cathedral. Shepton Mallet is cider. Burnham and Highbridge have lots of leisure and tourism… Cheddar has got its gorge and the Mendip hills. Glastonbury is unique, of course. Chilcompton is up on the old Mendip coalfields.
“There are different interests in each of those places, but it doesn’t really make any difference [to the job]: people still need to be listened to, and they all have something to say.
“They all face the difficulties of living in a rural area without many services. Although the postcodes may show up as being fabulously wealthy in some places, it’s just not the case – a postcode can hide so many problems, so it’s a matter of going door to door.”
Tessa is presumably hoping that people will choose her to represent Wells again on the basis of who she is and what she has done, rather than because of the national mood – which isn’t looking so pretty for the Lib Dems.
“I don’t pay an awful lot of attention to the polls, but I’m sure we’re being trashed by the polls all the time. I don’t suppose our percentage is very high – it always goes up a little bit before an election. But it doesn’t really make a lot of difference because people will vote for their local MP.
“We’ll see, but this seat may well judge me as an individual rather than my party because I’ve been the MP for everybody here.”
Indeed, what was possibly Tessa’s most high-profile work in Parliament had a decidedly local, non-partisan, and hardly ideological flavour. Last summer, Church of England commissioners decided to move the bishop of Wells out of the Bishop’s palace, which had been the bishop’s residence since the thirteenth century, and “plonk him somewhere in a house in Croscombe, which is four miles away from Wells,” says Tessa. “Mad, absolutely mad.”
“I went hell for leather at the church commissioners, spoke about it in Parliament, delivered a petition, had a public meeting, the second church estates commissioner came down to Wells – he got flayed alive by the locals.
“Next thing was, I discovered the Synod of the Church of England was meeting in Church House, just around the corner from Parliament. I thought great I’m going to serve a petition on them. And they said ‘Oh no, we don’t take petitions.’ And I said, ‘Well I’m coming.’ And I took ITV with me.
“There were questions raised in Synod by representatives from this diocese, and eventually the Archbishops’ Council, which had been formed in 1993 or something, met for the first time ever to discuss this matter. I went and gave evidence on behalf of the diocese saying this was such a stupid idea.
“And a month and a half later I got a phone call pulled in off the M3 and somebody said, ‘We’ve won, we’re keeping the bishop in his palace.’”
Other locally-oriented campaigns have included reducing the proposed tax on caravans. “I took 17 business owner from Brean, which is out on the coast, up to the Treasury to meet David Gauke, who’s the minister in charge of VAT, and they explained to him, with a bit of help from me and from the British Homes and Holiday Parks Association, why it was a fantastically stupid ideas to introduce VAT at 20% on caravans.
“It was great because they ended up with 5%, which they were happy about because it’s a hell of a lot better than 20%. David Gauke got his 5% instead of nothing, so he was happy. Everyone was happy.”
Earlier in our conversation, Tessa put her enthusiasm for being an MP down to “a very strong sense of service and duty” – which she illustrated by shaking her entire body ferociously. “That’s going to sound weird on your tape but that’s through the middle of me and it’s bursting to get out.”
This, in turn, came from her grandfather, who would tell her as a child and teenager, ‘You can change the world, Child, and don’t let them ever tell you you can’t.’
“He used to say,” Tessa adds, “’You’ve had a very good education’ – I had an ordinary education, but he was a politician in East Africa, so the comparison is quite marked – ‘Your duty is to make sure you use it for the benefits of those who haven’t.’
“I suppose having a grandfather who told you that you could do anything – I never questioned that. I just thought I could. When a grown-up tells you you can do stuff, you can do it.”