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Medway politics: local democracy reporter Robert Boddy meets Lib Dems John Castle and Alan Wells

The current Medway Council is made up of 33 Labour councillors, 22 Conservative and four independents, but that’s not the whole story of the political scene.

Local democracy reporter Robert Boddy caught uop with two leading Liberal Democrats about their mission to get back inside Gun Wharf.

Medway Lib Dems
Medway Lib Dems

In the first elections for the Medway unitary authority in 1997, the Towns’ Liberal Democrats were the second largest party, controlling 21 seats.

However, their influence gradually dwindled until, in 2015, the group lost their three remaining seats and no longer had any representation on the council.

At the latest elections in May, the Lib Dems across the whole of Medway, only earned 9.1% of the vote.

I went to Costa Coffee in Rochester High Street to meet John Castle, chairman of the group, and Alan Wells, the group’s spokesman, to find out how they keep the group going despite electoral disappointments and their game plan for getting back into Gun Wharf.

I asked them about what the group can really accomplish if they’re not represented on the council and they told me the reason people engage with politics is to get problems sorted, so although they aren’t holding seats they’re still committed to creating change.

Medway Lib Dems Alan Wells and John Castle
Medway Lib Dems Alan Wells and John Castle

They cite examples such as their success in getting defibrillators installed in public spaces and combatting fly-tipping and pollution as areas where they have lobbied, campaigned, and made a difference.

Alan tells me: “Heading down Berwick Way, towards Medway City Estate, there was a huge pile of fly-tipped things.”

“It was fly-tipping on an industrial scale,” John adds.

“It had been there for quite a while even after our campaign highlighted it,” Alan continues, “and the council could’ve done something about it sooner but they left it. It got cleared but I think it cost half a million to clear it; if they’d cleared it a lot sooner it’d have cost a lot lot less.”

Because they don’t have the same profile as the larger parties in Medway, they have to think more creatively about how to raise awareness of their work, they tell me.

Alan says: “We had a very good campaign on potholes at the last set of elections. Stuart Bourne, our candidate for Rainham North, all he did was get a rubber duck, Libby the Duck, and took pictures of it in all the potholes. It was different from what the other parties were doing.”

Alan Wells with the offending fly-tipping
Alan Wells with the offending fly-tipping

John adds: “It’s a fun way of engaging people in a topic that was really annoying residents, and because of it the problem got highlighted.”

Despite not possessing any seats, the Medway Lib Dems’ presence was still felt at the latest full council meeting as six of the 15 public questions were submitted by activists or candidates.

These included questions on water pollution, the council’s carbon footprint, a safer route to access the Chatham Asda on foot, and the backlog in applications for allotments.

They say the Lib Dems keep active and their work is noticed by residents, so I ask why that hasn’t translated into councillors.

John says: “We’re starting the main foundations of fighting back. In the last set of local elections we pushed through and came second in our two target seats.

“In those two, Fort Horsted and St Mary’s Island, we are the principal opposition to the Conservatives and people have noticed.”

Medway Lib Dems with party leader Ed Davey
Medway Lib Dems with party leader Ed Davey

Alan adds: “We’re a real alternative to the other groups to vote for, a viable alternative in those two wards to the way the Tories are running things.”

Although they are the local representatives of a national party, they tell me they have a great deal of autonomy to decide what issues they should be focusing on, rather than being dictated to from central office.

John says: “We get some support, training materials and things like that, but to a large extent we’re left to pick our target wards, select our own candidates.”

It requires a great deal of organisation, deciding proposals, coordinating campaigns, rallying activists. I ask them how they don’t get disheartened when all that effort goes unrewarded at election time.

They tell me they’re not too bothered, and think long-term they’ll gain seats - it just takes a bit of time. Meanwhile, the improvements to their local area is enough.

Alan mentions a campaign to get street lights turned back on, which residents had raised as a point of concern.

Medway Council's Gun Wharf offices in Chatham
Medway Council's Gun Wharf offices in Chatham

“It was a public footpath and it’s up to UK Power Networks to put on these lights. I managed to highlight it and get them switched on. It’s things like that which spur you on.

“I’ve been with the local party for about five years, there’s not one minute I feel has been wasted.”

John adds: “When we run strong campaigns, they can be successful and trigger change without us being on the council. That’s a motivation. We know that we can make a difference.”

But they do have ambition to get back into Gun Wharf, with candidates standing in every single ward across the Towns.

In 2015, their share of the vote across Medway was only 3.6%. It has grown in every set of elections since, with a 4% growth in May, bringing it to just over 9%.

It may not seem like a tidal wave of Lib Dem votes is coming, but Alan and John are confident they can change their political fortunes.

The Lib Dems hope to do better at the next election
The Lib Dems hope to do better at the next election

John says: “We are the principal opposition in our two target wards, we now need to push on. We will be having a lot more conversations with voters, demonstrate we can sort things out, get things done.

“Putting literature, leaflets and flyers, through people’s doors will only get you so far, but the thing that really makes a difference is conversations with people, picking up issues, and getting things done, and we’re doing more and more of that.”

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