23 June 2022
A Devon by-election.
By Lynda Goetz
As one of those who signed up to the Conservative Party to be able to vote Boris in to ‘Get Brexit Done’, I am now one of those who is totally disillusioned with the brand of Conservatism we are being served up. I am also one of those who gets a vote in the Tiverton and Honiton by-election resulting from the resignation of Neil Parish. So, how should I vote?
Neil Parish, it has to be said, was a very good constituency MP. He was never high-profile nationally and tended on the whole to vote along party lines, but as a farmer and country-dweller himself, he understood the concerns of many in his rural constituency and stood up for those where necessary. As one of the farmers interviewed by the BBC for a special programme on the by-election said, ‘Neil Parish was one of us. He understood the countryside and farming. I voted for him, not really for his party.’ Rather ironically, it appears that it was looking up a brand of tractor (Dominator) when he first came across the porn site which proved to be his downfall. His mistake, as he admitted, was to revisit the site. His resignation at a difficult time for the government and the country was not something the Tory party needed.
Tiverton and Honiton are both towns which are not really known to many people outside Devon. This area is not one much-visited by tourists. Mid-Devon is an area people pass through on their way to North Devon, South Devon or Cornwall. In many ways the forthcoming by-election focuses a spotlight on the region which it has long lacked. The Conservative party has rather taken for granted its increasing majority down here and has perhaps failed to recognise that its support might have depended more on the individual who represented the area than on the party itself. Neil Parish had a majority of over 24,000 and yet there is concern now that the seat could be lost, not to the Labour party, who came second at the last General Election, but to the Lib Dems. Reference to Boris Johnson and the government has been noticeably absent in the literature of the Conservative party candidate, Helen Hurford. Her manifesto focuses almost entirely on local issues, which is not the case with all the other candidates, of which there are seven. Apart from the usual major parties, there are also candidates standing for The Heritage Party, Reform UK, The For Britain Movement, the UK Independence Party and the Green Party (full list of candidates on Devon Live).
It seems bizarre to think that with such a large majority previously, there is now talk of a possible Lib Dem victory on 23rd. How have we reached such a point in only two years? There are probably several issues at work here. Firstly, the disillusion with the lack of conservatism displayed, contrary to expectations, by Boris’s government. How much of this is due to the influence of his current wife (see For Better or Worse in 9th June issue of Shaw sheet) is unclear, but it has certainly alienated many lifelong Tories. Farming is a major industry in Mid-Devon and suggestions by the government about ‘re-wilding’ go down like a lead balloon. Although solar panels have proliferated in the area, there are plenty who would rather see the high-quality agricultural land in the area used for growing crops and increasing the UK’s self-sufficiency in food. Interestingly, this was one of the few areas where Neil Parish was not a supporter of government policy. Other concerns relate to rural connectivity, both in terms of transport (e.g. moves to reinstate a rail link to Cullompton and lack of a bus network) and the problems of lack of broadband and mobile cover; and employment and lack of youth facilities. Friends who work in local food banks have also highlighted the numbers using these, so the cost-of-living increases are likely to play a major part in influencing local opinions and decisions on which way to vote.
One thing does seem to be certain, namely that a lot of people are still undecided where they are going to put their cross when they get into the voting booth. The area covered by the seat is large and goes from Tiverton across to Honiton and down as far as the coastal town of Seaton and the fishing village of Beer. Tiverton and Honiton differ from each other quite considerably, although both were settled in pre-Roman times. The latter was on the Fosse Way from Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum) to Lincoln (Lindum). It was mentioned in the Domesday Book as Honetone and grew into a thriving town known for lace-making in 17thC. Its population today is just below 12,000. Tiverton is a larger centre and also had a Roman fort. Its population today is around 21,000 and it owed its prosperity in 17th C to the wool trade. Today, neither could really be described as prosperous, although Honiton is the town hub for the somewhat wealthier East Devon. Both towns host agricultural shows, Tiverton the Mid-Devon Show and Honiton the Honiton Agricultural Show.
All the candidates appear to be emphasising the need for delivery of proper infrastructure for this rural area. The Tory candidate, Ms Hurford, is emphasising the work she will put in to deliver, for example the Cullompton railway station (long-promised it has to be said). In a debate on radio Devon, however, the Lib Dem candidate Richard Foord countered with the comment that ‘for all his faults, Neil Parish was a good constituency MP; if it didn’t happen whilst we had someone who was prepared to challenge the government, then it is not going to happen if we have someone who is following the government to the letter.’ This may perhaps be twisting his opponent’s words somewhat (what she said was that she would work with the government), but it does seem otherwise a fair point to make. Perhaps we do need to ‘shake things up’ in Mr Foord’s words, because this government does not seem to be getting the message that, on the whole, the public both on the right and on the left are not at all happy with the direction it is taking or the decisions it is making.
So, back to the original question; whom to vote for? Well, having read the manifestos of all the various parties, there is not one I would really want to support, honestly. The Heritage Party manifesto seems to have some good ideas and the idea of ‘social conservatism’ sounds quite benign until you come to the rather American-sounding pro-life section at the end. Even though I do personally have some reservations over abortions, particularly late-term, I am not at all sure that a commitment to ‘end legal abortion in all parts of the UK except in medical emergencies to save the mother’ is something I could go along with. The ‘For Britain’ mini-manifesto sounds pretty alarming, and the party seems to contain a number of rather dubious former BNP members as well as far-right anti-Islamists. At least, unlike the Heritage Party member Jordan Donoghue-Morgan, the For Britain candidate, Frankie Rufolo, does appear to have some local policies on offer, but they are pretty much the same as those proposed by the main parties. So, two down and five to go.
I couldn’t go from voting Conservative to voting Labour, certainly not whilst Drear Keir is head of the party, so that rules out Liz Pole, the Labour candidate. Reform UK and UKIP both seem a bit fixated on the past, whether that past is Brexit or lockdowns (true, the Conservatives haven’t exactly made the most of Brexit, but…). Both these parties are also believers in proportional representation, which, from all the evidence in Europe, appears to lead so often to coalition governments with limited ability to govern. The Lib Dems, I believe, have even mooted seeking the support of UKIP to bring in this change. (Of course, this solution might be no worse than a government with a large majority with limited ability to govern). That just leaves the Green Party, who probably also believe in proportional representation, but in spite of having been a keen environmentalist for many, many years (I was on the Environmental Committee in my university days), the sheer economic impracticality of their manifesto aims and the fact that they still haven’t let go of the idea that we should Remain in Europe, rule them out for me too. Perhaps I should make my displeasure felt by simply not voting? Unlike Australia that is not illegal in this country – so far, at least.