Fighting the 2019 General Election as a Green Liberal Democrat
By Cllr Louise Harris in GLD Challenge magazine 2019-20
I've been a council candidate many times and a London Assembly candidate too, mainly with success so it was a totally different experience last December to stand as a parliamentary candidate in a seat I wasn't expected to win but still wanted to do my best for the party and talk about the things that matters most to me, Green issues in particular.
I stood in the South Gloucestershire seat of Filton and Bradley Stoke, known as FABS, next door to the target and formerly held seat of Thornbury and Yate or TAY where most of my effort was to go. My South Glos council seat is in TAY so I already had some profile as the Lib Dem Lead on Communities which includes sustainability and climate change. All three South Glos seats are Tory held as is the council although we have had control in the past.
My job was to fly the flag in FABS, increase our vote share from last time (6.6%), do some capacity building for the council elections in 2023 and support the one councillor we elected in the constituency in May 2019. We had previously held 12 seats in the constituency but lost them in 2011 and 2015 so rebuilding is part of our plan to take control of the council next time.
The seat was a Labour target, but they didn't do as well as they'd hoped in 2019, the candidate was a Bristol City councillor and although Bristol has some common areas with FABS, the city is of a very different character to the small towns and rural areas of FABS. I also had the advantage of having grown up in the constituency and both my parents had worked at one of the areas' main employers, Rolls Royce. Admittedly this was all in the 1970s, but useful at the hustings for local chit chat. The original Green candidate had stood down to help Labour but unfortunately hadn't discussed this with the Green Party who swiftly replaced him with a new candidate. She clearly had priorities elsewhere as she didn't attend any of the hustings, sending a series of deputies. I received many tweets, some polite, some less so, suggesting I also stood down to help Labour. I never understand why Labour think they can persuade Lib Dems to their way of thinking by attacking us rather then being nice.
The first hustings was organised by Extinction Rebellion who held them in all of the seats in and around Bristol. ( I had the advantage of being passed notes by a Bristol candidate who had already done his) I expected a largely hostile audience and got one. The Tory MP didn't even dare to turn up. Nearly everyone present were Labour or Green activists with probably only two or three genuine local residents.
However, I am pleased to say that I was able to pleasantly surprise the audience with my Green Liberal Democrat answers to their questions. The Labour candidate had been Cabinet member for Transport in Bristol so despite having Labour's Green New Deal to quote from, some of her answers were not what the audience wanted to hear. The proposed expansion of Bristol airport she fudged completely. I had several questions designed to trap me about the coalition days but as during those years I was Cabinet member for Environment and Sustainability at Eastleigh Borough Council with DECC Secretary Chris Huhne as my MP, followed by my good friend Ed Davey, and I worked closely with both of them, that didn't work. I even raised a laugh by telling them how Ed and I once had a (mainly friendly) argument about nuclear power in the party conference bar when we were both slightly the worse for wear!
The main employers in the constituency are Roll Royce, British Aerospace and the MOD. So when I was asked questions about defence I was able to say that although I was a Forces Brat, my Dad had worked on Concorde as had many of my friends' Dads when I was at school, I had strong views on what defence should be about. I was also very willing to state that although I recognised it wasn't party policy I had always been anti-nuclear as were many Liberal Democrats and anyway, a lot of defence experts now agree nuclear weapons aren't much use in today's war scenarios and totally useless against the biggest threat of international terrorism and cybercrime.
The Labour candidate again fudged beautifully talking about working class jobs and the unions whilst expressing her concern about the arms race being re-ignited. So once again my answers pleased the XR audience rather more than hers did.
As you would expect the Green candidates' stand-in gave them textbook answers but in a rather woolly academic way that clearly lost some people along the way and would have done so even more if had had not been well versed in the arguments.
I'm sure I didn't change one person's vote (one of the 'real' residents did tell me after he had already voted for me by post) but I definitely changed some people's opinions of the Liberal Democrats so I saw that as a positive thing.
One reason I kept giving for not standing down, was that although the Labour candidate was pro Remain, her party's view was very mixed with the Leader being unwilling to even state his opinion.
Climate Change is very much an international issue that needs international solutions (I'm sure you've spotted the link between deniers and Brexiteers).
I made this point at other hustings I attended where the Tory MP who is most definitely pro Brexit tried to claim how committed his party and leader were to working on this issue. This was fine by me as I was able to establish clear orange water between us on both issues.
Another distinct advantage I had in hustings and answering the local press questionnaires is that although I've held elected office for 20 years, sat on various party committees and been inside the Westminster Bubble, I remain at heart and in practice a grassroots community campaigner. So I always relate policy to real life situations, things I have campaigned for in the three areas I've been elected (London, Hampshire and South Glos), mainly successfully, and community campaigns I have been involved with like planting trees on the nature reserve in my ward with its Friends Of group.
Green politics and the Climate Emergency are sometimes seen as a bit too difficult, too big, too technical to deal with and Green campaigners are seen either as too fluffy and impractical or in Extinction Rebellion's case as positively dangerous.
I hope that in a small way I was able to use my position as a candidate in a non-target seat to show that as a Green Liberal Democrat I could offer policies and practical solutions to deal with the climate emergency and that even if people weren't going to vote for me, they at least heard what I had to say.
And the result? The Tory vote went down 1.1%, the Labour vote went down 3.3%, the Green vote went up 0.6% and the Lib Dem vote went up 3.3%. So although the Tory MP held his seat, I reckon I was the real winner!
Cllr Louise Harris
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