Ben Dean-Titterrell explores the Liberal Democrats chances in Colchester for the upcoming election.
It had gone two o’clock in the morning, back in 2015, when Will Quince heard the news that he had been elected Member of Parliament for Colchester, gaining the seat from long time Liberal Democrat MP Sir Bob Russell. Having overturned an almost 7,000 vote majority and gained his own 5,500 vote margin of victory, Quince’s win offered a snapshot of the national picture that saw the Tories surge to a surprise majority and the Lib Dems collapse to single figures in Parliament.
Just over two years later Mr Quince will defend his seat, thanks to the snap election taking place on 8th June. His closest challenger will likely be Sir Bob Russell, who is standing to take back the seat he once held for 18 years. According to recent YouGov data, Labour might well be in with a chance in Colchester. However, the seat has historically been between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.
But what are the chances that he will lose? Will Brexit become an important issue in his re-election efforts? Could a resurgent Lib Dem campaign focusing on Brexit pose a genuine threat to the Conservatives in Colchester?
“Could a resurgent Lib Dem campaign focusing on Brexit pose a genuine threat to the Conservatives in Colchester?”
To answer these questions, we need to delve into how the people of Colchester voted in the EU referendum last June. Specific constituency-wide data on the EU referendum results is hard to come by. However, the Electoral Commission published the results as under districts that cover several constituencies. The Colchester district covers all of the Colchester constituency along with a large part of Harwich and North Essex and a small amount of Witham.
The Colchester results last June are broadly in line with the national vote, with a 53.6% to 46.4% divide in Leave’s favour. A Leave win, but by no means a landslide seeing as the national vote was 51.9% to 48.1%. A vital caveat here is that there were roughly double the number of votes recorded in the EU referendum in the Colchester district than in the 2015 election in the Colchester constituency. We cannot say with certainty that the Colchester constituency voted more or less in line with the national vote, but the available data certainly suggests that to be the likely case.
Now we have established that there was a considerable Remain vote in Quince’s constituency, we must ask whether the Lib Dems can fire up those voters to vote for their party and in turn avert display their disinterest in a so called “Hard Brexit”. Can Sir Bob Russell tap into any remaining anti-Brexit feeling in Colchester and ride that wave of discontent to victory?
Dr Tom Quinn, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Essex, doesn’t think so. Speaking to me just over two weeks out from the election he said, “it’s not necessarily the case that just because 48% of people voted to remain in the EU means that there is a 48% share of the electorate out there that is raging about what is happening and is looking to vote for a party that will overturn it because YouGov’s polls have made clear that this group of angry Remainers is probably about 20 to 22% of the electorate not 48% of voters.
“Probably a majority of those who voted Remain in the referendum have accepted the result and are thinking it’s time to get on with it. Didn’t like it but it’s time to get on with it, that what it seems to be suggesting. So, the Lib Dems are not actually fishing from a pool which is 48% big, they’re fishing from a pool that’s about 22% big, and that’s before you even consider any continuing, lingering resentment about what they did with the coalition government with tuition fees and all the rest of it.”
The Lib Dems face an uphill struggle if they are to win in Colchester, and that is before we consider the possible changes in the Conservative vote. As Theresa May’s Conservatives take the UK towards the EU exit door there is mounting evidence that they are engulfing the UKIP vote at the ballot box. During this year’s local elections UKIP’s vote share collapsed in many areas where the Conservatives then made gains. Looking ahead to the general election, current polling seems to show the Conservatives gaining a similar number of percentage points as UKIP have lost since the Prime Minister called the snap election on 18th April.
“So, can the Lib Dem’s win back Colchester? I’d say it’s possible, but not likely”
Dr Quinn puts this collapse in the UKIP vote partly down to the Conservatives adopting a hard line on Brexit. “Because they were formed initially as anti-EU party and now we’re leaving the EU what’s the point for them continuing to exist? And especially with the Conservatives quite a tough stance on Brexit. So, a lot of those voters who supported UKIP last time, already about 50 or 60 percent of them seem to have switched their support to the Conservatives according to the polls”.
Say for instance the Conservatives in Colchester win half the UKIP vote from the last election, as they seem to be doing on a national scale, the Lib Dem’s would then have to win all of the votes they lost in the last election back just to unseat Will Quince by one or two percentage points. That would be a big ask for any party, let alone one with a stagnant national polling position during an election three years ahead of schedule.
A further issue for the Lib Dems according to Dr Quinn is the lingering resentment about their five years in coalition government with the Conservatives. “The problem for the Liberal Democrats is that they have to try to find a position in what is largely a two-party system and the way they’ve done that over the last 30, 40, 50 years is by, on the whole, trying to compete in more middle-class areas, usually against the Conservatives, where Labour is just out of the picture.
“In order to make a success of a strategy like that it meant they had to present themselves as an alternative to the Conservatives, they had to be an anti-Conservative party, in order to compete against the Conservative in these areas. Not necessarily pro-Labour, but just anti-Conservative.
“And then Nick Clegg sort of changed it around and not only did he alter the strategy he actually went into the government with the Conservatives. That’s a real problem for a party that has presented itself for decades as an anti-Conservative party, winning centre left and left-wing voters, voting tactically quite often, to support it. They think they’re voting for an anti-Conservative party which then goes into government with the Conservatives.”
So, can the Lib Dem’s win back Colchester? I’d say it’s possible, but not likely. It’s a key marginal that the Tories put a lot of effort into winning two years ago, and they’ll place it high on their list of seats to make sure they successfully defend. Dr Quinn agrees, “If I had to predict what would likely happen I would probably say Conservatives are looking probably favourites to win that seat I would say.” In the early hours of the morning of 9th June, expect to see Will Quince hearing for the second time that he has been elected MP for Colchester.