Brexit Day is not the only unwelcome thing next week for Tom Brake, Ruth Dombey and their fellow Liberal Democrats, reports BELLE MONT
A retired lecturer who for years faithfully delivered leaflets for local Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake could be the joker in the pack next Thursday, when residents in Sutton’s Wallington North ward go to the polls in a council by-election.
Gervais Sawyer’s independent nature saw Sutton’s shambolic LibDems, when still in a state of shock after losing a dozen seats in the council elections last year, take the Draconian step of writing a letter to him to advise that he had been kicked out of the party – even though Sawyer was not actually a Liberal Democrat party member.
Now, Sawyer is standing as a residents’ independent candidate in the Wallington North by-election, which has been called following the resignation of LibDem councillor Joyce Melican.
And he thinks that March 28 could be independent’s day in Wallington.
Two separate independent candidates stood in last week’s Norbury and Pollards Hill ward by-election in Croydon and between them got 10 per cent of all votes cast. It was a long way short of what was required to win in a staunchly Labour area, but as the Tory vote share collapsed and support for the LibDems and UKIP vanished, it saw one of the independent candidates place third.
And neither of the Norbury independents had the backing and campaign experience of the Sutton independents, who last year had three councillors elected in nearby Beddington North, to be constant thorns in the side of LibDem council leader Ruth Dombey.
With the major political parties in disarray nationally and locally over a range of issues, and not just Brexit, independent candidates without existing links to the Conservatives, Labour and the scandal-ravaged LibDems appear to have enhanced appeal to ordinary Council Tax-payers.
Dombey may have thought she’d played a blinder when choosing Thursday March 28 – the day before “Brexit Day” – for the Wallington North by-election, in order to get her EU-supporting residents to turn out to vote for her chosen candidate, Barry Lewis.
The LibDems, usually assiduous leafleteers even outside campaign periods, have been oddly subdued in Wallington North for the past fortnight.
The LibDem cause in Wallington, part of Brakes’ Carshalton and Wallington constituency, has suffered a double-whammy with the news in the past week that “St David” Steel, their former party leader, has been suspended from the Liberal Democrat party after he admitted that he was aware as far back as 1979 that his then MP colleague, Cyril Smith, was a self-confessed paedophile, but that he opted not to bother reporting this serious criminal matter for more than 35 years.
Indeed, since Steel’s evidence under oath to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse brought about his summary suspension by the LibDems, questions are being asked why the party did not take such action against Steel any sooner, since the former party leader had made a similar admission on a BBC radio programme five years ago.
There is, of course, no suggestion that Wallington North LibDem candidate Lewis has been involved in any similar criminal activity, though as one Sutton councillor said this week, “Dombey’s probably regretting now having decided that the only good thing that they can find to say about Bazzer in his election leaflets is that he has been a scout leader.”
The LibDems are not the only ones struggling to win over public support at this time.
Sutton Conservatives, whose candidate is Carshalton resident Charlotte Leonard, appear to be as riven by Brexit as their colleagues at Westminster.
Realistically, if any party was likely to wrench Wallington North out of the seemingly permanent grasp of the LibDems, then it ought to have been the Tories. But they, too, have been running a subdued campaign for the acting and running enthusiast Leonard, who works in corporate fund-raising for an international charity.
Sutton political observers have noted that most of the Tory publicity for Leonard features her in photos alongside Elliot Colburn, the recently selected Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate for Carshalton and Wallington. “I’ve read that Leonard likes AmDram,” said one source. “Is she auditioning for a re-make of The Bodyguard?”
Others feel that Coburn’s omnipresence might detract from Leonard’s campaign. “It’s clear they’re just using this as the first opportunity to raise Coburn’s profile in the constituency. But it does little to help what should be the main objective, of winning another council seat.”
The relentless stream of bad news about the Conservative Party’s national leadership, and events in the House of Commons, may have made finding canvassers willing to go in public out wearing blue rosettes more difficult than usual. “As you can imagine, they are ‘challenging’ times for us at present,” said one Tory member brave enough to pop their head outside their front door.
Leonard stood for election in Wallington North last May, finishing fourth behind the three LibDems elected as councillors, some 600 votes shy of overhauling Melican. There is unlikely to be a strong turn-out for next Thursday’s by-election (three out of four voters stayed at home for last week’s Norbury and Pollards Hill by-election), which might be a factor in her favour.
Labour’s campaigning in Wallington North has not been without its glitches, either. Such as the Saturday morning that they set up a stall outside Greggs … but in Wallington South ward. “It must have been the smell of the vegan sausage rolls that drew them there,” it was suggested.
By all other measures, Sheila Berry appears a very credible Labour candidate. A GMB trades union regional officer, Berry does actually live in Wallington North, having been a councillor in Epsom for many years, where she served as that town’s mayor in 2011. In her time on Epsom council Berry worked with Sutton Labour on a cross-borough campaign to save services at both St Helier and Epsom hospitals.
She even has the badge of honour of having stood against Chris “Failing” Grayling in 2015’s parliamentary elections. But she is facing a similarly onerous task if she is to get elected to Sutton Council next week, needing to triple the Labour vote compared with what they polled in the ward in 2018.
Independent Sawyer, it is suggested, has been well received on the doorsteps around Wallington North. His dissatisfaction with Sutton’s LibDems has played out very well.
“For some years I delivered leaflets for Tom Brake MP and put up stake boards at election time,” Sawyer told Inside Sutton. “My support for the LibDems evaporated with issues such as university tuition fees, a string of unimpressive leaders, Tom Brake and the selling of The Grange, to say nothing of evictions from the Richmond Green bungalows and the Beddington Lane incinerator.”
In an intriguing tweak, one plank of Sawyer’s campaign is to distribute leaflets demonstrating how he will be paid less, from residents’ Council Tax, than the Liberal Democrat councillors for the ward, or Lewis, were he to be elected.
Sawyer stops short, though, of being really radical and pledging to donate 50 per cent or more of the £11,000 basic councillor’s allowance into a ward budget.
“I had never thought of myself as a political person, but in recent years I have seen how the current administration has run roughshod over any opposition,” he said.
“Right now I see that we are sleepwalking into developments that will expand noise and pollution in Wallington and neighbouring wards. But, it is clear to me that the voters are very aware of these proposals and want their voices heard.
“I see the current party system as a serious abuse of power. At present, Liberal Democrat councillors seem to be afraid to ask any questions of the council administration, for fear of losing their very generous expenses – at least 10 per cent of which goes straight into their party’s coffers.
“On the doorstep people are really responding to the fact that I am addressing specific issues that are affecting their daily lives. I am really heartened by the support I have had.”
And Sawyer is sounding increasingly optimistic. “Almost any Liberal Democrat leaflet I have seen in the last 20 years always states that the election is ‘a two-horse race’.
“In my opinion, in Wallington North, it’s between me and them.”
Also on the ballot papers in next Thursday’s by-election are John Bannon (UKIP), Ashley Dickenson (Christian People’s Alliance) and Verity Thomson (Green Party).
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