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Opinion: Liberal Democrats’ failure to secure MP in Kent could be all down to Labour, says political editor Paul Francis

The Liberal Democrats have a problem in Kent.

The party has, in successive general elections, failed to make the long-awaited breakthrough and return an MP to parliament.

Paul Francis gives his view on the latest in politics
Paul Francis gives his view on the latest in politics

The problem, however, is not the Conservatives but Labour, and it is proving a sticky issue. Having re-invented themselves as a fighting force - at least in by-elections - support for the party under Ed Davey, pictured below on the campaign trail in Kent, has appeared to be on the up.

It is undeniably the case that it has staged a political comeback after the disastrous general election of 2019, memorable for lots of reasons - not least the claim by then-party leader Jo Swinson that she would be the next Prime Minister.

So why has Kent not been a happy hunting ground for parliamentary hopefuls?

In seats like Tunbridge Wells, Maidstone and Folkestone and Hythe, the party has adopted a slow burn approach, steadily making gains at local elections that ought to have put it on a good footing at general elections.

Tunbridge Wells is just that kind of constituency where social demographic changes have altered the nature of the electorate.

Sir Ed Davey visited the site of the former cinema complex in Tunbridge Wells last week. Picture Simon Finlay
Sir Ed Davey visited the site of the former cinema complex in Tunbridge Wells last week. Picture Simon Finlay

No longer a seat where retired colonels see out their days, it is said that there are now many more younger families who do not have a strong political affiliation but tend towards being - broadly - on the centre ground.

The issue? Both Labour and Liberal Democrats occupy this centre ground and the obvious danger, borne out of experience, is that the vote is split between those two.

In 2019, Labour polled 8,098 votes while the Lib Dems polled 15,474 and even if you add those together it fell short of the Conservative tally of 30,119 by 6,547 votes.

Every election is different, of course, and different factors come into play, but the Lib Dems’ hopes of electoral success at a general election are not quite as high as they might claim.

One polling organisation - Electoral Calculus - places Tunbridge Wells among constituencies considered as having “strong” support for the Lib Dems; of the seats where support is deemed “medium” only Sevenoaks qualifies.

That does not necessarily mean the Lib Dems won’t do well; just not as well as they need to bag a seat somewhere in the county.

Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey
Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey

What is it that engenders a sense of excitement among people looking to support the Lib Dems at the council elections? You may be surprised to learn that it is the pledge to plant a tree for every resident in the borough.

At least that is what the Lib Dem leader of Tunbridge Wells, Ben Chapelard, says - he even went so far to list it as the number one issue that people were excited about.

Some may be unconvinced by this assertion and may wonder exactly how the council’s pledge came about. It seems it could have been a commitment made by the hapless ex-leader Jo Swinson, back in 2019.

Somehow you just can’t see people running into pubs in uncontained glee to impart the news.

And how has the figure been arrived at in the first place? According to the Tunbridge Wells Alliance, that means 120,000 trees being planted across 47 square miles.

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