Why I didn’t go down to Eastleigh

sushilaresultAs well as being one of the day editors on Lib Dem Voice, Mary Reid is chair of Kingston Liberal Democrats. The local party covers the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames, which includes the whole of the Kingston & Surbiton constituency, plus a third of the Richmond Park constituency.

Actually I would have loved to have joined in the fun at Eastleigh. It is an easy journey down the M3 from where I live. But while all the national focus was on the south coast, here in Kingston we had our own needle match to fight.

The death just before Christmas of a very popular Lib Dem councillor, Frances Molesey, triggered a local by-election in Berrylands ward. Lib Dems control the council in Kingston and loss of this seat would not have changed that.  But the by-election was very significant for two reasons.

First, in the past Berrylands had always been seen as a Conservative stronghold, and the Leader of the Conservative Group held one of the three ‘safe’ seats in the ward. Then some boundary changes added a large estate of mainly social housing, where we had already been active, to the comfortable surburban semis that made up most of the ward. (This is an area that actually has a thriving croquet club). We tested the waters and decided it was worth putting in some effort for the all-in, all-out local elections in 2006. When we gained all three council seats it was to the evident surprise and understandable anger of the incumbents.

The Conservatives fought back in 2010, and, in that rather strange election with abnormally high turnouts, they took back one of the three seats, with close results all round. This time, they wanted to reclaim another one.

Second, Berrylands ward is central to the Kingston and Surbiton constituency, held by Ed Davey. Central physically, because his office actually sits within the ward, and also central politically because it encapsulates the fight between the Conservatives, who had always held the parliamentary seat before 1997, and the upstart Liberal Democrats.

Four weeks ago London Region organised a regional action day in the ward, and we were delighted when 66 people turned up to kickstart the campaign. Our candidate was Sushila Abraham, a local solicitor who was firmly grounded in the local community and often recognised on the doorstep.

Then Eastleigh was called, and much of our support from outside Kingston was redirected there. The local party was given dispensation by HQ to work in Berrylands, instead of Eastleigh, but we were back on our own resources. This was the sixth by-election we had fought in 18 months so we could have been forgiven if we had found it difficult to rouse the troops yet again.

However a few months ago Ed Davey and Kingston Liberal Democrats had jointly appointed our first paid campaigns organiser, Roisin Miller, and she took on the task with enthusiasm and meticulous organising skill. She re-energised the local activists around the campaign, and snatched whatever outside help we could get.

Yesterday Roisin roped in 23 people to do the Good Morning drop, and a total of 76 people helped during the day – many thanks to all of them. This included the odd MP who had business during the day in Westminster, and other London folk who couldn’t get down to Eastleigh. Roisin really is someone to watch.

During yesterday I alternated phone banking in Berrylands with Eastleigh, reminding myself carefully of where I was before each call. Last night we arrived at the count in the Guildhall unsure whether Sushila had won, but, to our great delight, the result was :

Sushila Abraham (LD) – 948
Conservative – 761
Labour – 455
UKIP -175
Green – 112

Only then could we turn our attention to the news emerging from Eastleigh … what a night!

The photo shows, from left, Cllr Derek Osbourne, Leader of the Council, Cllr Sushila Abraham and Cllr Bob Steed, the fellow councillor in Berrylands.

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames where she is still very active with the local party.

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