WHATS HAPPENING TO THE LEWES LIB-DEMS?
The resignation of a respected local councillor from the Lib-Dems has cast a spotlight on the collapse of the party in Lewes District.
Experienced Lewes District and Newhaven Town council member Steve Saunders has published a detailed post on several Facebook forums explaining why he has left the party.
Ten years ago the Liberal Democrats ran Lewes district council, had the MP and were more prominent on town councils in the district than they are now. What has happened?
FALLOUT FROM THE COALITION
The district council area covers Peacehaven, Newhaven, Seaford, Lewes, Ringmer and rural areas to the north of Lewes. Seaford elects ten councillors and it is usually the case that if you can win Seaford, which swings between Lib-Dems and Conservatives, you control the council.
In 2007 the Lib-Dems took seven out of ten of the seats in Seaford, fielding ten candidates and winning the council, but in 2011 only two of these candidates stood again. Lewes Eye has been told that many of the others refused to stand in protest against the national coalition with the Conservatives. People tend to vote for candidates that they know rather than people they have never heard of. The Lib-Dem vote fell and they only won 3 seats. They lost control of the council.
In 2015 there was no improvement, with only 3 district council seats won in Seaford, suggesting that their organisation had not improved. The party spends a lot of time and energy in Lewes town combatting Greens and independents, but does not seem to focus so much of its resources on Seaford.
NOT THE CONSERVATIVES?
In their publicity, Lewes Liberal Democrats make a lot of their claims that they are not the Conservatives and that they are the party most likely to get the Conservatives out in this area. Many people have voted for them on this basis.
But this is not necessarily true. A key issue for Lewes District Council in the period 2011-2015 was the proposed sale of 49 sites owned by the council. This plan was supported by both the Conservatives and most of the Liberal Democrats and was shrouded in secrecy.
Lewes Eye has been told that a minority of Lib-Dem council members opposed the scheme and that the opposition to the scheme by councillor Chris Bowers may have resulted in him being deposed as leader of the Lib-Dem group.
Two important sites were a field in East Chiltington, which was proposed to be the site of a large amount of social housing, and the car park at the Buckle in Bishopstone, which was to be sold for a high price for lucrative private development. It is some measure of the absurdity of the scheme that the East Chiltington site had almost no bus service anywhere nearby and no shops.
Officers have confirmed that all council members at the time were given full details about the proposals. They were instructed not to tell anybody. This muted the opposition. Sarah Osborne, district council member for East Chiltington and now leader of the Lib-Dem group on the council seems to have kept her constituents in the dark about the proposals, which she appears to have supported.
The scheme was finally abandoned because, the council said, it had discovered that the height of anything built on the Buckle car park would be limited by planning laws, so the profit for the developer and therefore the sale price, would be limited.
Since Lewes Council is the planning authority for this area you might feel that this was just an excuse.
SILENCE AS LEWES COUNCIL CRUMBLES
The Lib Dems have also been silent about the destruction of services which has resulted from the administrative merger with Eastbourne Council, although this complaint can be levelled at other councilors too.
CAUSE FOR COMPLAINT?
In his resignation post Steve Saunders complains that the way the Lib Dems nationally have dealt with two issues. One involves the current Lib-Dem parliamentary candidate Kelly-Marie Blundell and the other involves a former councillor from Ringmer who has allegedly bullied people and has got onto the candidate list. This appears to be Chris Bowers.
Kelly-Marie Blundell was selected to stand for Parliament by the party after Norman Baker’s defeat and retirement and remains their Parliamentary candidate for the Lewes constituency. The party’s selection procedure says that the local party selects candidates from a panel of nationally approved candidates, although formally the national party is in charge.
Her result at the recent snap election was disappointing. Conservative Maria Caulfield increased her majority. The Conservative did this even though the Green Party candidate withdrew and the Labour Party, whose rules require them to stand in every seat, did almost nothing to support their candidate. Some Labour members publicly encouraged people to vote tactically. Despite this 6,000 people could not bring themselves to vote Lib-Dem and voted Labour anyway.
Kelly-Marie Blundell is perhaps an unlikely candidate for Lewes even though she lives in Seaford. Norman Baker won the seat after building a reputation on Lewes District Council but Kelly-Marie has never stood as a councillor in the district. Her only election experience as a candidate seems to have been as a Parliamentary candidate in Guildford.
That may be the cause of hostility in the local Lib-Dem hierarchy. A while ago a story emerged that she was behind on her council tax. This story appears to have originated from local Liberal Democrats because Ms Blundell put in a complaint to the Lib-Dem national organisation that this information could only have been obtained by Lib-Dem councillors abusing their position (or getting staff to abuse their position) to get the information. As a result a number of officers of the local party were suspended.
Not ensuring that your council tax is up to date is a very silly thing to do if you are a political candidate, but we have to ask whether or not there is evidence that officers of the local party have been trying to get rid of her. Did the local members select her against the wishes to the local party bosses?
Steve Saunders now complains that, while the national party decided that no action would be taken against local officials, and they were un-suspended, Kelly-Marie Blundell remains the candidate. This is one of his reasons for resigning.
He says: The Liberal Democrats have also continued to support a local Prospective Parliamentary Candidate, who has proven themselves to be unfit to stand for office. The individuals actions are likely to bring the Party into disrepute. When this was drawn to the Party’s attention, the individual chose to accuse those colleagues that tried to help, of acting against the individual and forced them through a protracted process of internal investigation. The process of the investigation enabled the individual to continue as PPC by manipulating the disciplinary systems in place and deflect the attention away from their own indiscretions.
Chris Bowers first stood for the district council for the Lib-Dems in Ringmer in 2007, getting elected. He stood again for them in 2011, topping the poll, but he was not on the ballot paper in 2015 either because he decided not to stand or because he was not selected. He was selected to fight the Wealden Parliamentary constituency for the Lib-Dems by the Wealden party and stood in 2017.
He is a strong supporter of tactical alliances with other progressive parties and has written a book with Caroline Lucas on the subject. Lib-Dems in other constituencies such as Brighton Pavilion have adopted this approach. By contrast, Lewes constituency Lib Dems have mostly set their faces against any co-operation with other parties. Their standard practice has been to demand that other parties stand down in constituencies that the Lib-Dems might win, whilst declining to modify their own policies to take account of the concerns of the other parties, or to stand down in seats that others might win. This has often benefited the Conservatives.
So disgusted is the local Green Party at the way they were treated in the last election that they have resolved to stand aside for the Lib-Dems no more and have already selected their Parliamentary candidate.
Lewes Eye has been told that Chris Bower’s falling out with the Lib-Dems started as a result of his opposition to the sale of the 49 sites and that he was removed as leader of the Lib Dems on the council as a result of this.
Steve Saunders does not identify Chris Bowers. He says The Lib. Dems. have recently approved the prospective candidacy of a former District Councillor from Ringmer. An individual who was found guilty of bullying and harassment of colleagues and despite their continued offensive actions and further complaints, they have managed to manipulate and coerce officers of the Party to secure selection once more.
I cannot in all good conscience, give support to this individual, by agreeing to stand alongside them and open myself and potential colleagues to this person’s proven abhorrent behaviour. The individual’s support among the hierarchy has enabled them to destroy the reputations of many loyal and trusted colleagues, that have given decades of support to the Lewes Liberal Democrats.
However Lewes Eye has not been able to identify any other person who might be fit this description and later Facebook comments strongly imply that Chris Bowers is the person referred to. The Eye understands that Chris Bowers has made a complaint about the methods of selection of candidates. From Steve’s comments it appears that this has resulted in his reinstatement.
The Eye has no information about the correctness or otherwise of the statements Steve makes about bullying or abhorrent behaviour.
All this may, at first sight, appear very boring for readers who do not follow the intricacies of local politics. But such disunity and confusion may well spell the end for the local Lib-Dems. Steve Saunders suggests that many current Lib-Dem council members may not stand for re-election in May.
Given the disunity the chances of the Lib-Dems unseating the Conservatives in Lewes at any local or national election seem very small. That has implications for all of us.
Given that MP Maria Caulfield has now made public that, given her vote again in the EU referendum, she would have voted remain, perhaps their only hope is a UKIP revival taking votes from the Conservatives.