Monday, 5 December 2016

Why The Sleaford and North Hykeham By-Election Matters for the Conservatives...

So after a few days of basking in the glow of the phenomenal result for the Liberal Democrats in Richmond Park on Thursday when Accountant and proud Remain voter Sarah Olney overturned eco activist "Tory turned Independent Tory" millionaire Zac Goldsmith's majority of 23,015 and defiantly vowed to vote against invoking Article 50 in a parliamentary vote, all eyes now turn to the constituency which borders my own (Lincoln) - that of Sleaford and North Hykeham. There's a lot of enthusiastic Lib Dem supporters who are now convinced that they can overturn a similar Conservative majority of 24,115 in an area which voted to Leave the EU at 62.3% (with a high turnout figure of 78.4% in June). It's pie in the sky thinking to believe that Conservative Leave voters have suddenly had a change of heart RE Brexit based on the defeat of one Brexiteer in an area that voted overwhelmingly to Remain. Turnout at this by-election may be even higher than that in Richmond because of the shock nature of that result. Turnout at last year's General Election in Sleaford and North Hykeham was 70.2% and it may increase to figures akin to the EU Referendum percentage if Brexiteers feel they need to protect their mandate. More moderate Leave and moderate Remain voters will want to choose a candidate that will be best placed to help resolve local issues. Yet if candidates in the Sleaford and NH by-election focus predominately on Brexit and immigration issues and doesn't focus on addressing issues that are talked about daily on the doorstep (transportation, law and order, loss of 24 hour A&E service at Grantham Hospital, low wages and improving economic growth figures) they may not reach a potential voting group who matter most...first time Parliamentary voters who voted Remain the EU Referendum.

Lib Dem Threat:

At first glance it appears that the Conservative base have a lot to fear in this by-election. Firstly, they have a late surge to contend with from buoyant Lib Dems who may have a chance to gain votes from Conservative and Labour Remain voters who can't contemplate the thought of voting Labour under Jeremy Corbyn.  Ross Pepper, the Lib Dem candidate is a councillor from my nearest village, Skellingthorpe and just happens to be a member of the LGBTQIA community. I'd have to confess at this current time that I'd be torn between voting Labour and voting Lib Dem should a General Election be called, primarily based on my feelings RE Brexit. Ross seems very personable and his view on Brexit is that we need a 2nd referendum based on the deal that we get from the EU negotiated by May's Government. I think that the idea of a 2nd Referendum is sound but may not get traction with moderate voters who are "sick to death with referenda" and do not want a repeat of the hate discourse thrown around during the campaign.

The Lib Dem vote in Sleaford and North Hykeham in last year's election was only 5.7%, down 12.5% from 2010 when they actually placed 2nd ahead of Labour and UKIP. If the Lib Dems are hoping for a resounding victory on Thursday, they may also need to convince moderate Leave voters to place their trust in Ross that he will fight against "hard Brexit" proposed by far-right Conservatives. Trust is a little tarnished after the inaction of the Lib Dems in the Coalition Government to oppose austerity cuts and unwanted top-down reorganisation of NHS services in Lincolnshire as well as the abject failure of Clegg, Farron et al to see the need for transportation upgrades for rural roads between Sleaford and North Hykeham. The Lib Dems are still held responsible for the disastrous rise in tuition fees to £9,000, a key campaign promise broken by Clegg.

UKIP Threat:

Secondly the Conservatives have an irksome challenge from UKIP, whose candidate, Victoria Ayling, wants to force the Government to trigger Article 50 right now or "even better, immediately repeal the European Communities Act (1972)." Ayling's campaign calls for a "real Brexit", pretty much regardless of any initial economic consequences for the area. Yes, her words do have traction, especially in Sleaford and the surrounding villages. Working class voters are encouraged by Ayling's tough stance on seasonal agricultural workers and her promise of trying to increase the number of "bobbies on the beat" which will be funded by money saved from the UK's EU budget. Farmers and business owners who voted to Leave in June may be more sympathetic to Ayling and UKIP because they believe the sooner we are out of Europe's Single Market, the quicker we can build trading relationships with countries such as China and India and have a chance to convince Farage worshipper Donnie Drumpf to construct a super-mega dope tailored trade deal with the UK based pretty much on his word being law. Personally speaking, whilst I accept there is real frustration over the length of time it's taking to formulate some kind of Brexit plan to ensure that protocol is respected, at least the UK isn't rushing into the Brexit process like a Trumpian bull in a pro-Taiwanese independence Fine Bone China store. Ayling doesn't exactly have the best track record when it comes to displaying the tact required to represent Lincolnshire on the national stage. Yes she taps into the frustration of voters who want to send a message to the Government by "holding their feet to the fire" by "reversing" the Lib Dem win in Richmond and yes she taps into mixed feelings over immigration into Lincolnshire from the EU, especially from Eastern Europe but I doubt most voters share some of her more bizarre views. Ayling's intolerance and lack of compassion was exposed for all to see in the EU Referendum debate held in Lincoln on the 13th June 2016 by The Lincolnite when she cheered and then defended a man's claim that EU migrants brought diseases with them into the UK which would "spread like wildfire" in areas such as Boston and Skegness. Such hysteria over imagined health epidemics is absurd and unfounded and Ayling feeding the flames of such hyperbole was as unwelcome as a lump of coal on a mild Christmas morning.

Conservative Advantage?:

Ayling and UKIP aside, the Conservatives have a massive fight on their hands to keep onto the seat. Conservative candidate, Dr Caroline Johnson, a consultant paediatrician from Sleaford is certainly well liked by her local Conservative branch - her stance on securing the future of the NHS in Lincolnshire by fighting for the reinstatement of a 24-hour Accident and Emergency service at Grantham Hospital (which many residents in Sleaford depend on) coupled with her overt commitment to honouring May's "Brexit Means Brexit" pledge may play well with voters who want "a safe pair of hands" to look after them in Parliament. Johnson's recent campaigning with Lincoln MP Karl McCartney on the proposed Eastern bypass which has led to an investment of £50m being approved by the Government will have garnered some support from North Hykeham locals who believe that the county's roads need to be improved to make them safe and secure in the 21st century. Lincolnshire County Council also gaining £2.5m from the Government's Pothole fund is also welcome, considering this will help repair 46,800 potholes (according to Lincolnshire County Council's website). That being said, if you listen to Dr Johnson's The Lincolnite  interview, you'd be forgiven in thinking that the Junior Doctors are now 100% happy that Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt's contract has been imposed on them and that there won't be any further industrial action from those who are yet to move onto the contract. Dr Johnson's lack of awareness about the proposal from several key Lincolnshire County Councillors for a Lincolnshire specific Medical Training School did take me aback. That, coupled with little acceptance of failures by HR managers at Grantham Hospital to ensure there was adequate staffing levels to keep the A&E open 24 hours a day and little awareness of concerns over GP surgeries closing across the Sleaford and NH constituency (including in Metheringham) and GPs being overwhelmed with administrative management duties that takes them away from front-line patient care didn't strike much confidence in me that Dr Johnson would fight hard for the NHS. Ms Ayling and Mr Pepper do talk about the need for more training facilities in Lincolnshire and to reduce GP paperwork pressures and this could take vital votes away from Dr Johnson on Thursday.

However, one major advantage that I've seen on social media that Ms Ayling doesn't necessarily have is a party outreach network in villages across the constituency. After all, it's not all about Sleaford this election. Dr Johnson can rely on Conservative councillors such as Osbournby's Kate Cook to talk to constituents direct about how Johnson's policies might improve life for villagers in Osbournby and councillors can filter back concerns and ideas generated directly to Dr Johnson. In Osbournby, it's not just about whether Brexit happens. It's about whether their MP will advocate for more vital public to be restored to the village (such as regular bus services to Sleaford), whether their driveways will be adequately gritted by the County Council so that elderly residents won't fall whilst they embark on  their morning constitutional walk and whether the primary school and nursery will continue to receive the Government funding needed to keep them open for the next 4 years. Villagers want to entrust their vote to an MP who will be prepared to help them when their backs are against the wall thanks to sharp Local Government cuts.

North Hykeham, where my grandparents lived for over 30 years, is overwhelmingly Conservative in political leaning. Residents there are concerned about immigration but also about whether there will be more bobbies on the beat, whether they are going to lose street lighting altogether in the early hours of the morning, whether there will be another road built to ease traffic congestion in the area and whether their MP will help stimulate job growth by promoting local companies nationally, including those who rely on Lincoln tourists to balance their books. In 2014, more than 1.5m people visited Lincoln with £58.8m generated for the local economy and business owners who live in the Sleaford and NH have benefited from this. So a candidate for the constituency has to be willing to promote Sleaford's tourist assets and amenities, including the National Centre for Craft and Design as well as key events, such as the Farmers' Market and the Heckington Show. I've not heard Ms Ayling talk at length about the benefits of tourism but Dr Johnson has talked about the importance of marketing Sleaford and NH to the rest of the UK.

RAF Cranwell falls within the constituency and Lincolnshire does have a proud tradition of military service and any candidate has to understand the need to support veterans and active members of the Armed Forces. Lip service will not do. Constituents in the forces want to know whether their next MP will oppose any cuts that are proposed for the base, even if they happen when their own party is in Government. They want to know whether their MP will advocate for better mental health services for veterans in the constituency, whether there will be enough affordable housing in the constituency for veterans to go to, whether there are enough well paid jobs for veterans in local small businesses to help them earn a decent wage and whether their MP will stand with them on Remembrance Sunday and actively promote charities such as the British Legion.

Sleaford and North Hykeham constituents also care very much about the health of Lincolnshire's agricultural sector. The estimated value for the sector that was given in DEFRA's Agriculture in the UK survey of 2006 is £1050 million and 32,000 people are estimated to be directly employed in the sector. Many villagers buy produce from Farmers' Markets such as the one that takes place on the first Saturday of every month in Sleaford whenever it is possible for them to commute to Sleaford to do it. Some even buy direct from the farmers themselves. Any MP for the area must be prepared to meet with farmers on a regular basis to discuss their concerns; the Lincolnshire Forum for Agriculture and Horticulture is one such group. Dr Johnson has the obvious advantage of being married to a local farmer so should have more than a basic awareness of the issues. Another advantage that Dr Johnson has over Ms Ayling is that there is still some leadway in Brexit discussions to protect membership of the Single Market and the National Farmers Union (NFU), which will have members from the constituency, want to maintain tariff free access to it , because75% of exported produce goes to the EU. The NFU say they embrace a future outside the EU but concerns over funding shortfalls  (after the loss of subsidies), possible restrictions over seasonal labour and the need to market Lincolnshire produce abroad have to be addressed by the next MP. Whilst I haven't heard Dr Johnson's specific views on how to overcome these challenges, I'd be relatively confident she has some in the back of her mind.

Conclusion:

The Conservatives need to hold onto Sleaford and North Hykeham. Not only will a victory stop the momentum of the Lib Dems in their tracks, it will also stave off questions about the credibility of May's Brexit plans. You'd think that in a safe Conservative seat that voted to Leave that they would win it comfortably but voters have real concerns about how the Brexit mandate is being delivered or whether May will deliver Brexit at all. Ayling has capitalised on the vacuousness of the "Brexit Means Brexit "mantra, arguing that a win for her and UKIP will force May to "get on with it". Yet Conservatives may yet have their saviour in a local candidate who has a strong support network in villages surrounding Sleaford thanks to many councillors holding safe seats on the District and County Councils. Lib Dems can attack Dr Johnson when it comes to woeful government funding, but there is little evidence of a strong base of support in council representation to galvanise Remain voters to the polls and the fact that they are part of the administration controlling the County Council along with the Conservatives and 3 independents may put off voters, reminding them of Coalition days. It was great seeing activists and members coming to campaign in the area but there needs to be a growth in support over a number of years to bolster numbers back up to 2010 levels. I don't know for sure what will happen on Friday morning when the result is called but the Conservatives need to prepare themselves for a massive reduction in their majority at the very least and another lost seat at worst. Hopefully May, Eric Pickles (Communities and Local Government Secretary) and the rest of her stingy Government will finally realise that a "One Party" nation that works for all needs public services that are properly funded for all...not just the leafy prosperous Home Counties. The Conservatives may have delivered on their 2015 General Election promise to hold the EU Referendum and to advocate for Brexit but that doesn't mean they've been let off the hook for their failure to maintain transport infrastructure (apart from a few grandiose projects aimed at placating the electorate), their failure to properly resource police forces to keep up the number of front-line staff needed to help reassure residents that they are safe or the failure of Jeremy Hunt to put pressure on the management at United Lincolnshire Health Trust to get Grantham Hospital's A&E back open 24/7. Be aware May: Lincolnshire folk are awoke and they'll be watching you like a hawk regardless of the result of this unexpected yet very competitive by-election.