*Update 9/11/19: The Green Party will no longer be fielding a candidate in Cheltenham for this election; they have agreed to stand aside for the Liberal Democrats as part of a ‘Remain Alliance’ organised by Heidi Allen*
It does not take a political scientist to see that most of the parties in our country have changed a lot over the last few years. Both the Conservative and Labour parties’ current leaderships are the most divisive we’ve seen for some time, while smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats and Green Party have attracted more voters, such as those concerned about the environment. One obvious reason for this shift has been Brexit – an issue that has dominated our political discussion since the 2016 referendum and had a big influence on how people vote.
Cheltenham is a seat that is always closely contested between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats; the former party have had the seat since 2015, when they won it from the latter party. That said, the political climate across the country is a lot less predictable than it was a few years ago, and an early general election is looking more likely by the day. So with all this in mind, we asked: what could Cheltenham’s political situation look like in the next year?
The Conservatives are expected to lose their seat to the Liberal Democrats at the next general election, but Alex Chalk, the current MP, says he’s feeling confident. ‘In my favour is the fact that a lot of people here recognise that Cheltenham is a marginal seat and can affect who’s going to become Prime Minister,’ he told us. He predicts that if Labour were to win the next general election, it would not be ideal for areas like Cheltenham.
‘So much progress has been made, whether it’s the cyber park, whether it’s the air balloon, a whole range of other things – we are not going to be a priority under a Labour government, so that is a real concern,’ he said. ‘There’s a lot of investment that has come into Cheltenham because it has been a priority [under the Conservative government], and I don’t have any confidence that that would continue under a Labour government.’
Of course, the issue of Brexit will have a big influence on how people vote; pro-Brexit voters who support Boris Johnson’s deal will back the Conservatives, while many pro-Remain voters will back the Liberal Democrats, who plan to cancel Brexit by revoking Article 50 if they win a general election. Cheltenham voted to remain by 56% in 2016, but there are sure to be some voters on either side of the debate.
‘The whole spectre of Brexit, we just don’t know how that’s going to influence people,’ Chalk said. ‘A lot of people don’t like the Lib Dem policy of sort of forgetting about democracy, they think that’s bad, but equally some people are unhappy on the other side, so who knows how this all shakes down?’
The Liberal Democrats are predicted to gain Cheltenham at the next general election; in September, the Electoral Calculus put them at 80% chance of winning the seat. Their vote share increased from 34% in 2015 to 42.2% in 2017, narrowing the Conservative majority. Their candidate is Max Wilkinson, who is currently a councillor for Oakley ward.
‘We have traditionally been the party that has campaigned as Cheltenham’s local champions,’ he said. ‘You’ve seen policies like increasing the recycling rate by more than double since we’ve been in charge of the council, and getting a local plan in place so we can put people in the houses that they deserve, and of course we’ve declared a climate emergency. All of these things are very much at the heart of Liberal Democrat values.’
Asked how prepared he is for an election, Wilkinson said he’s feeling confident. ‘Obviously the national polls show that support for Liberal Democrats has increased by about treble in the last few years, which is really positive for us,’ he said. ‘But clearly, Cheltenham is always going to be a very closely-fought seat and the Conservatives will also be thinking that they’re going to do well here too.’
When it comes to Brexit, Wilkinson is keen to stress the clear position that he and his party have taken on the issue. ‘I’ll be standing as the pro-European candidate, up against the Conservative MP who has flip-flopped from being a Eurosceptic to a Remainer to someone who was very sad about it all, and then more recently to working for [former Brexit secretary] Dominic Raab, who’s one of the biggest Eurosceptics and biggest fans of a no-deal Brexit that there is in the country,’ he said. ‘So I’ll have a very clear position, [but] I’m not entirely sure what the position of my opponent will be at that election.’
Despite being Cheltenham’s second largest party in terms of membership, Labour do not have a strong presence in Cheltenham; in the last 30 years, they have never won more than 12% of the vote share at a general election. They will be fielding George Penny, the current secretary for the Cheltenham Labour Party, as their candidate at the next election.
Penny says the party will have to be more proactive in winning support in the town this time. ‘I think the next election is one we’re going to put effort into,’ he said. ‘We’re going to be more engaged in Cheltenham, more active in campaigning.’
Responding to Alex Chalk’s criticism of the Labour party for neglecting areas like Cheltenham, Penny stresses that Labour is a party that tries to serve the whole country. ‘We’d be looking to build a country that works for everyone, which will involve investing in the North East but also supporting initiatives in Cheltenham and keeping them on the agenda so they’re not left behind,’ he said. Part of that would be due to Labour’s focus on the environment – ‘We’d be seeing further green investments, I would expect to see new green business and technology moving into Cheltenham,’ he said.
When it comes to Brexit, Labour’s policy is to renegotiate a new deal with the EU and then put it to a public vote against remaining. Penny says the idea is to offer something for both Leavers and Remainers, where other parties have helped polarise the debate. ‘Our policy is one that is attractive to both sides of the Brexit debate,’ he said. ‘We recognise the 2016 result but also the need for a final say to ensure it’s definitely the route we wish to go down.’
The Green Party is often compared to the Liberal Democrats in terms of policy, but lag far behind them in Cheltenham, finishing a distant fourth in 2017 with just 1.7% of the vote share. Tabi Joy, the candidate for Cheltenham, feels very confident about their chances this time because of residents’ concern for the environment.
‘There’s great uptake on recycling, home solar generation, veganism, cycling – people are eco-aware here,’ she said. ‘71% of people in a recent poll agreed that climate breakdown’s a more urgent issue than Brexit, and there’s high demand in Cheltenham for rapid and good quality Green representation.’
Joy currently works as a customer service agent, and says this would inform how she approached being an MP. ‘Caring empathetically about people’s needs and problems, being immediately accountable for my actions, and just generally making things work better – it’s simple stuff, but it’s absolutely vital for proper public engagement,’ she said. Her priorities would be ‘to create liveable cities that people can thrive in, create a better functioning democracy that leaves no-one behind, and campaigning for better health and quality of life provision rather than vacantly pursuing economic growth for its own sake.’
When it comes to Brexit, the Greens support remaining in the EU, but advocate a second referendum as the best way to achieve that. Joy says that the Lib Dem policy of revoking Article 50 ‘totally disregards the valid economic concerns that led to the Leave vote in the first place’, adding that ‘We can’t remain in the EU at any cost, because there are people who’ve been badly let down by the status quo, and we need to change business as usual to protect them.’ This means they might appeal to less hardcore Remainers, such as those who would be happy with a ‘soft Brexit’.