"True Blue" Somerton And Frome Residents Are Losing Faith In Conservatives
Somerton and Frome is a rural constituency in Somerset (PoliticsHome)
Among the Union Jacks flying proudly alongside stone cottages in the rural villages of Somerton and Frome, a scattering of tangerine Liberal Democrat signs has emerged in the once “true blue” constituency.
On 20 July, residents in this idyllic corner of Somerset will vote in a by-election to replace former Conservative MP David Warburton, who resigned last month after being suspended from the party over accusations of drug abuse and sexual harassment. He denies the harassment allegations.
The constituency is a postcard picture of rural England, with historic market towns adorned with bunting and independent shops, pubs, and bakeries. But while the area seems well off at first glance, when PoliticsHome visited on Tuesday this week, residents we met said they felt ignored, betrayed, and concerned about the future of failing local services: and it is not good news for the Conservative government.
Along the main road running straight through the middle of the patch to the town of Somerton, Lib Dem campaigners told PoliticsHome that the west of the constituency had the strongest support for the Conservatives. But in its many agricultural sections, there was a distinct lack of Conservative signs put out by farmers.
“I've always been a staunch Conservative. Those days are gone,” 80-year-old pensioner Bennett, who declined to give his last name, said outside the Co-op supermarket in Somerton. A once-ardent supporter of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, he said he will “probably” vote for the Lib Dems next week as he did not believe the Conservatives “get things done” anymore.
“It’s all a bit lethargic,” he added.
Simon Pearson, a 61-year-old computer games consultant, used to vote Tory but said they had now lost his vote. “What’s the point?” he shouted, throwing his arms up in frustration.
“The Conservative government is putting on a show and talking a good game, but it hasn't done anything,” he complained.
He pointed specifically to frustration over Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s pledge to “stop the boats” and efforts to bring down migration numbers to the UK, including a stalled scheme to deport illegal migrants to Rwanda.
“The stuff about Rwanda is just nonsense, it’s to keep people like me, people who used to vote Conservative, from getting too het up.”
The Conservatives, defending a majority of 19,213 from the 2019 election, have held Somerton and Frome since 2015 when David Warburton won the seat from Liberal Democrat MP David Heath. Despite the large majority, the Conservatives are now on rocky ground: the Lib Dems won Somerset County Council from the Tories in last year’s local elections, and Lib Dem candidate Sarah Dyke seems confident that she can continue this sea change in favour of her party.
Dyke is already a local councillor and is from a farming family who have lived in the area for generations. Her appeal, it seems, largely stems from her knowledge and understanding of the local area, which some residents feel Warburton lacked.
Jane, a pensioner who also chose not to give her last name, said the previous MP “had no bloody clue” about local issues. Parish councillor Sarah Webb, 60, said she had only seen Warburton once when he held a clinic shortly after being elected.
Answering her door to Dyke in the village of Templecombe, Webb said her family had always been “historically true blue” but she had now switched her vote to the Lib Dems. She hesitated, however, when asked by PoliticsHome whether she was voting for the Lib Dems as a party or for Dyke as an individual.
“The political party could be the balance but over and above that, it's the person who understands the area,” she said, adding that she felt the Lib Dems’ morals were “significantly less under question” than those of the other major political parties.
Multiple residents in Templecombe and Somerton said they felt Warburton had not made an effort to get to know the area and the people, with one man mistakenly believing that Dyke was already the MP for the area.
Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, Jamie Stone, joined Dyke on her campaign trail and told PoliticsHome that from his perspective, Warburton had not only been absent as a local MP, but also as a parliamentary representative.
“David Warburton did absolutely nothing in the House of Commons, he really was an invisible member,” Stone said.
Dyke insisted that people in the area had been “let down” by their previous MP. “Not only have they been missing the local constituency MP, but they also haven't had that voice in Westminster,” she said. “There's a different type of politician. I want to represent that, because people deserve better and they haven't had that in this area for far too long.”
Somerton and Frome is a large constituency – that will in fact be split in two by the upcoming boundary changes – encompassing areas which have varied geographical features and demographics that face different problems.
In Templecombe, a new housing development has rattled some neighbours who feel they were not adequately consulted. In Frome, the largest town in the constituency, younger families are moving in to live within commuting distance of Bristol or London, putting pressure on housing in the area. Severe flash flooding hit Bruton earlier this year, raising questions for local politicians on how to best protect the area.
However, across the constituency, a lack of transport infrastructure and a lack of access to healthcare affects all residents, particularly as much of the population are older.
Pete, who is semi-retired and did not give his last name, said the state of the roads, railway and local NHS services are the most important issue to him. “Everything you think of is in a really bad condition, all our current government wants to do is worry about migrants,” he said.
Other residents told stories of where villages had had to come together to provide their own medical care due to long ambulance waiting times and a shortage of GPs. In one village, locals invested in two of their own defibrillators, and an emergency response team has been set up to ensure somebody is always available to transport people by car to hospital.
Conservative candidate Faye Purbrick, also a councillor in the area for the last six years, was keen to emphasise her existing relationships with government ministers as a way to deliver solutions for the wide-ranging issues affecting the area. She told PoliticsHome she has been talking to the education minister about funding for Victorian schools in Somerset, has been in discussion with environment secretary Therese Coffey about taxes on cider, and spoken with the flooding minister about flash flooding protections.
“I've got a track record of delivering for the area, and I'm the only one who can go straight to Parliament and start working with the government and with colleagues who I am already working with from around the area, because we're surrounded by Conservative MPs,” she said.
Purbrick urged previous Conservative voters who are having doubts to “lend me your vote for another 18 months and let me show you what I can do”.
Neil Guild, the Labour candidate, said that he had not spoken to a single person who said they would vote for the Conservatives, but did not say he had spoken to a huge amount of Labour voters either, admitting the by-election had been portrayed as a “two-horse race” between the Conservatives and Lib Dems.
Labour’s priorities for the area would be improving NHS services, he said. “That's a real challenge across Somerset, people are struggling to get GP appointments."
Framing his points around his hope that Labour will win the next general election, Guild said his party would “give more authority and power to local communities”.
“We are absolutely committed to taking power away from Westminster and giving that power away to local communities through some form of regional devolution, the details of which has yet to be confirmed,” he said, adding that he expects plans to involve more control for residents over planning decisions.
Green candidate Martin Dimery, another local councillor alongside Dyke and Purbrick, said that while the Greens “don’t have huge resources to throw at this election”, they were “surprisingly” also getting support in traditionally Conservative areas in the west of the constituency, as well as in larger towns such as Frome.
While candidates are eager to put across positive campaigns, it is difficult to escape a sense of pessimism when speaking to voters in an area where their MP has been under investigation for misconduct for the past year.
Somerton and Frome had the 40th highest proportion of residents turning up to vote out of all 650 constituencies in 2019, with a turnout of 75.6 per cent. However, despite a relatively politically engaged population, there is now an air of disillusionment.
"I don't know what's wrong with the political system in this country, they don't seem to have any morals, principles, ethics," Steve Phillips, 68, said, insisting the UK was at the "lowest point" he had ever seen. Nonetheless he said that despite being a life-long Labour voter, he would be voting Conservative to keep the Lib Dems out.
“The Lib Dems are full of all that woke nonsense, and it's the same as the Labour Party," he said. "With the Tories yes, we're in a mess, but they've done a certain few things. I don’t think it’s all the Tories fault.”
Lynn Glenister, 73, said she would vote for the Greens instead of either the Tories or Lib Dems, calling the coalition years and recent Conservative majority government a "disaster".
“The NHS has gone down the pan, they are not paying people their true worth, financially we're on the brink of disaster, cost of living through the roof, rent through the roof,” she said in exasperation.
The by-election in Somerset and Frome, along with by-elections in Uxbridge and Ruislip and Selby and Ainsty, come at a difficult time for the Conservative government, accompanied by a sense of political apathy setting in as a result of the prolonged cost of living crisis – which not only affects the Tories but all the parties battling for votes.
"I got told off a little bit yesterday because I said I would aspire to be better than [Warburton] and a resident said 'if that's the least you can do, you're not aiming very high'," Labour candidate Guild admitted.
Whichever way they choose to cast their votes, next week's poll does not look good for Rishi Sunak. Even the scant Tory support that PoliticsHome did encounter on Tuesday seemed tepid.
It is clear that Somerton and Frome residents hope their next MP will achieve at least the bare minimum. But their expectations are far from high.
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe