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Lib Dems "are back" in westcountry

Friday, 21 July 2023 07:46

By Daniel Mumby, local democracy reporter

"And the winner is...." (image courtesy: Daniel Mumby/LDRS)

They overthrow Tories in Somerset by-election

The Liberal Democrats “are back in the West Country” after storming to victory in the Somerton and Frome by-election.

Voters went to the polls across the constituency on Thursday (July 20) to choose their new MP following the resignation of David Warburton, who won the seat back in 2015.

The Lib Dems were confident of victory throughout the evening, claiming that they had won before verification of the ballots had even been concluded.

But this optimism was ultimately not misplaced as their candidate Sarah Dyke overturned a majority in excess of 19,000, leaving her Conservative counterpart Faye Purbrick in a distant second place.

Ballot boxes began to steadily arrive at the Royal Bath and West Showground in Evercreech soon after the polls had closed at 10pm.

Less than two hours later, with the ballots still being verified, the Lib Dems claimed that they were going to win, stating: “We’ve not just won, we’ve romped home in Somerton and Frome. The Conservative vote is in free-fall.”

Conservative unitary councillor David Fothergill – who oversaw his party’s defeat at the local elections in Somerset just over a year earlier – admitted it had been “a difficult campaign”, citing both the national picture and the allegations surrounding Mr. Warburton.

He said: “He [Mr Warburton] went missing in action for 18 months, and that has created a wave of ill-feeling, so people now see an opportunity to have their voice heard.”

Turnout in the by-election was 44.23 per cent – lower than the turnout in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, and far below the 75.6 per cent turnout at the last general election in 2019.

As the counting moved forward, the pile of votes for Sarah Dyke grew steadily and substantially, and by the time the announcement of the  result, her victory seemed all but certain.

Six of the eight candidates took to the stage just before 2:50am – with Lorna Clarke of the Christian People’s Alliance and UKIP candidate Peter Richardson having left the premises before the result was confirmed.

The full result of the by-election is as follows:

Lorna Corke (Christian Peoples Alliance): 256
Martin Dimery (Green): 3,944
Sarah Dyke (Liberal Democrat): 21,187
Bruce Evans (Reform UK): 1,303
Neil Guild (Labour): 1,009
Rosie Mitchell (Independent): 635
Faye Purbrick (Conservative): 10,179
Peter Richardson (UK Independence Party): 275

The result gives Sarah Dyke a majority of 11,008 – higher than the majority enjoyed by Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey (who made numerous visits to the constituency during the campaign), and not far off the 12,000-plus majority of Bath MP Wera Hobhouse.

The party achieved a 28 per cent swing in the constituency, winning their fourth by-election since 2019 and their second in the south west, following a victory of a similar scale in Tiverton and Honiton back in June 2022.

In her victory speech, Ms Dyke thanked her family, friends and Somerset Council colleagues, stating: “It’s your love and support that’s made this possible, and it’s made me put everything into this campaign – this is your victory as much as it is mine.”

Ms Dyke is one of two Lib Dem councillors for the Blackmore Vale division, which comprises numerous small villages near the Somerset-Dorset border at the southern edge of the constituency.

Having previously served as a district councillor, she won her seat on the new unitary authority in May 2022, defeating the Conservatives’ strategist for defeating the Lib Dems in rural constituencies, Hayward Burt.

In a speech where she was often close to tears, Ms Dyke thanked the constituents for showing faith in her – including Tory and Green voters who “lent her” their votes.

She said: “Thank you for welcoming me into your homes, your town and parish halls, and your businesses – from Frome to Henstridge, and from Somerton to Wincanton.

“Thank you for talking to me about your lives and your communties, for sharing your worries and hopes for the future. I promise to be an MP standing up for you in Westminster.

“Tonight has been a stunning and historic victory for the Liberal Democrats – and it shows. once and for all, the Liberal Democrats are back in the West Country!”

Ms Dyke – who lives in Cucklington, near Wincanton – said she would “take this woeful government on”, describing Rishi Sunak’s administration as a “circus of chaos”.

She added: “I am truly honoured by the faith of the people of Somerton and Frome. It is humbling to be elected to represent the place where my family has lived for generations and farmed for over 200 years.

“This is a wonderful part of the world – but like so many places across the country, we have been left down and taken for granted for far too long by a tired and out-of-touch Conservative government.

“While families struggle to put food on the table, or pay their mortgage, or simply see their GP, this government is too busy being a circus of chaos. The people of Somerton and Frome have said it loud and clear tonight: enough is enough.

“To the mother in Milborne Port who told me how she couldn’t get a dentist appointment for her children: I hear you, and I will fight for you.

“To the man who told me how his elderly mother sat on the floor for 13 hours waiting for an ambulance to arrive: I hear you, and I will fight for you.

“To the amazing farmers of Somerset, the custodians of our countryside – you are my family, and I hear you, and I will fight for you.

“To all of you, seeing your energy bills, mortgage payments and food shop go up and up, with no end in sight, I hear you, and I will fight for you.”

Mr Davey is expected to visit Frome later on Friday morning (July 21) to congratulate Ms Dyke.

Bill Revans, the Lib Dem leader of Somerset Council, said the result would ensure a louder voice for the county’s issues within parliament and Whitehall.

He said: “This result means we have a voice in Westminster with the same political alignment as the council, which gives us a more effective voice for Somerset.

“I’m confident that will help us get our message across about the issues we have.”

Ms Dyke will most likely be formally sworn in as the MP on September 4, when parliament returns from the summer recess.

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