23/05/2017 07:01 BST

'No One Is Talking About Brexit' Lib Dems Struggle In Former Stronghold As Key Policy Falls Flat

HuffPost UK spoke to voters and candidates in Colchester

Rod Edwards via Getty Images

“Brexit is barely mentioned on the doorstep.”

Not the words Lib Dem leader Tim Farron wants to hear from one of his candidates in the run up to the election, but Sir Bob Russell is known for speaking as he finds.

The former Colchester MP – famous for his colourful waistcoats – is fighting to regain the seat he lost in 2015.

But he is encountering a problem that many of his colleagues are also facing: the party’s flagship policy of promising a second referendum on Brexit is just not hitting the mark with voters - especially in a town where which 53.6% voted Leave.

Sir Bob is finding that many people – even those who backed Remain in the referendum - believe Brexit is a done deal and just want politicians to get on with it.

That message certainly came across when HuffPost UK visited a street in Colchester with Tory candidate Will Quince.

The trained barrister won the seat off Sir Bob two years ago, overturning the Lib Dem’s 6,982 majority with a 7.2% swing.

Knocking on doors in St Mark Drive – part of a ward which elected Lib Dems to Colchester Council earlier in May – it was clear that Brexit was not the issue motivating people in this election.

We need to move onColchester resident David Dines on Brexit

Of the dozen or so people Quince spoke to while HuffPost UK followed him on the canvassing trail, it was primarily local problems that were raised.

One resident was annoyed about the parents parking their cars in the road during the school run; another was concerned about litter around a new branch of Greggs that had recently opened at the end of the street; while a third was angry about the how oak trees in her front garden hadn’t been cut back by the council.

The majority of those who opened their doors to Quince promised to back him at the ballot box on June 8.

Some were lifelong Conservatives, while others were backing Quince because of their admiration for May.

David Dines, 64, believes the Tory leader can get a good deal on Brexit. Despite backing Remain in last year’s EU vote, Dines is not in favour of a second referendum.

“We need to move on,” he said. 

Another street resident told Quince he was planning on voting Ukip in the General Election. “Do you want the good news or the bad news?” Quince asked with a smile, before telling him that Paul Nuttall’s party were not fielding a candidate in the seat, and were instead encouraging their supporters to back the Tories.

The absence of a Ukip candidate is a big advantage for Quince as he seeks to hold off the challenge of the Lib Dems and Ukip.

In 2015, 5,870 people backed Ukip, and if Quince sweeps up those votes, he will double his 5,575 majority.

“I suppose I’ll be voting for you then!” replied the man before raising concerns over the foreign aid budget.

Colchester Conservatives
Conservative candidate Will Quince.

The 0.7% of the UK’s GDP spent on foreign aid was also raised by the Harry and Pam Trott.

Their house was the first knocked on by Quince after news broke that Theresa May had u-turned on abolishing a cap on social care costs.

To visible relief from the couple, Quince was able to tell them that there would be a limit on what people would be expected to pay – although he was not aware of what that would be.

“Oh that’s great,” said Pam. “That was what was causing me worry, but it’s good she’s listened.”

Read More: Here’s How Theresa May’s U-Turn Played On The Doorstep Seconds After She Announced It.

After they had received reassurances over the Tories’ social care plans, Harry describing the money being sent overseas as “absurd”.

The pair voted Lib Dem in 2010, but switched to the Tories in 2015 as they felt then-leader Nick Clegg was “two-faced”.

The couple – who both voted Leave last year – are sticking with the Tories this year, despite Pam’s family being traditional Labour supporters.

“My dad would turn in his grave if he knew I was voting Conservative,” she said.

There were some non-Tory voters who opened the door to Quince. One man who worked in the police service said he would be backing Labour as “Theresa May did us no favours when she was Home Secretary”.

Another planned to vote Lib Dem as he didn’t want Quince to have too large a majority, while one woman said that, despite not wanting a second referendum, she would be backing the Lib Dems as a “protest vote.” 

PA Archive/PA Images
Sir Bob Russell collecting his knighthood.

The antipathy towards a second referendum, and the lack of a Ukip candidate, are two hurdles Sir Bob is aware he needs to overcome if he wants to win back the seat.

But he believes Ukip’s support for Quince – the local branch chairman told supporters to “lend their votes” to the Tory candidate – is a double-edged sword.

Sir Bob said: “I mustn’t start over-reading this but there are decent Tories who are appalled at how they are embracing Ukip voters.

“I haven’t lost anybody to the Tories but some Conservatives have come over to me this time.”

Labour has always struggled in Colchester when it comes to parliamentary elections.

The party only won the seat once, in Clement Attlee’s 1945 landslide, and since 1997 it has come third at every election.

Despite the party’s poor track record, Labour candidate Tim Young is confident he will do well on June 8.

Young is a familiar face in the town, and sits as deputy leader of Colchester Council.

The Tories certainly fear him more than Labour’s previous candidate in the seat, Jordan Newell, whose five years working for MPs in Westminster gave him something of the ‘New Labour special advisor’ vibe. 

Speaking to HuffPost UK on the cusp of Colchester town centre as he filmed a campaigning video, Young said: “If people whose first preference is Labour vote Labour in Colchester then I’ve got a real chance of winning and that’s what’s happening.

“We’ve seen it in council elections with us taking seats from the Lib Dems, we saw in the county election this month and we’re getting a really good response on the doorstep, I’m not fooling you at all.

“We’re going to areas we hadn’t been to in years and picking up loads of support.”

Tim lives in his own fantasy worldSir Bob Russell on his Labour rival

Thanks to Essex University being based on Colchester’s doorstep in the village of Wivenhoe, the town has a large student population. Together with a dedicated radical element in the town, Young believes Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is an asset for him in the election.

“It’s a balance, you get some people who aren’t so happy with him, but in Colchester increasingly you get such a warm welcome on the doorstep from those who see Corbyn as a decent honest principled politician, and that makes a change from some of the politicians who have been around recently. He tells it as it is and I think people like that.”

Young agrees with his Lib Dem and Tory rivals that Brexit is not coming up much on the doorstep.

“The issues that are coming up are the bread and butter issues about the health service, about schools, about the lack of police, about traffic and congestion in Colchester and they want the best person who they think can represent them in Westminster to deal with those.”

He adds: “Health is a really big issue, I would say it’s the number one coming up on the doorstep.”

Twitter Tim4Labour
Tim Young, left, with former Labour candidate Jordan Newell.

Sir Bob is dismissive of Labour’s chances of even coming second on June 8.

“Labour are 11,000 behind and telling everyone it’s the challenger - it’s a complete fabrication.

“Tim lives in his own fantasy world.”

He adds: “We don’t want a Tory MP, and Labour can’t win Colchester, but by putting it about they can win the danger is the Conservatives will take the seat because the vote will be split.”

 In Colchester town centre, HuffPost UK spoke to numerous people – particularly those in their late teens and early 20s – who were not interested in the election or did not know how they would vote.

Creative Performance student Courtney, 21, from Stevenage, said: “I’m in the final weeks of my degree, and in all honesty it’s not what I’ve been thinking about, I’ve just been like: ‘Degree, get the degree’.”

Shannon Carey, an 18-year-old supervisor in a tea room, is unlikely to vote. She said: “I don’t have information on it and I feel like it would be wrong to vote on such little knowledge.”

Her friend and co-worker Matilda Runacres, 20, who is also a student nurse, has yet to make her mind up.

“They have all got their good points and their bad points but I’ve just not decided yet,” she said.

One person who has made a decision is Emily, a recruitment consultant for the Middle East.

The 28-year-old voted Conservative in 2015, but will be backing Labour on June 8.

“I don’t like anything the Conservatives brought in or anything they plan to do really,” she said

Despite her disappointment with the Tories, the biggest influence on her decision to switch is her mother.

“I’ve been speaking to my mum and I just follow what my mum does really. I trust my mum so I follow what she does,” she said.