Fringe Box



Canvassing with the Lib Dems in a Woking Tory Stronghold

Published on: 29 Apr, 2022
Updated on: 3 May, 2022

There are local elections next month. Relax, they are not in Guildford Borough, that election will be held next year.

But there will be elections for one-third of the 30-seat council in our neighbouring Borough of Woking and local democracy reporter Julie Armstrong has been observing the campaigning there. Local Guildford politicians will doubtless be watching carefully seeing what lessons there are to learn…

Canvassing in Heathlands: Saunders Lane resident Susan Punch and Cllr Will Forster. Photo Julie Armstrong

It’s a risky business door knocking, you never know what’s waiting for you. Especially when you’re a Liberal Democrat asking for votes in what is traditionally a Conservative stronghold.

You could get it shut in your face, or worse – you could be greeted enthusiastically by a man in something too close to budgie smugglers for comfort.

Will Forster and Guy Cosnahan were confronted by both in Woking’s Heathlands ward this week.

A stone’s throw from Mayford Village Hall polling station, four-bed detached houses with double garages are comfortably spread out across a tranquil close.

Beyond still designated green belt fields is Hook Heath Road, where you’d be lucky to buy for less than a million pounds.

It’s unsurprising the centrist party didn’t knock on doors here last year. The ward is home to Woking’s Conservative MP Jonathan Lord and Woking Borough Council’s deputy leader Simon Ashall, who in the event of a Cosnahan victory would be unseated. Mr Ashall also works in Guildford MP Angela Richardson’s office at Westminster.

Before him, Tory John Kingsbury spent 19 years as ward councillor. Even Will Forster, Lib Dems’ group leader on the county council, admits the fact they’re trying here “might be foolhardy”.

Yet the more of these immaculately kept lawns we pass on their evening canvassing, the more the extraordinary becomes less unexpected.

“I’m on your team”, “Sorry did you say Lib Dems? So long as you’re not Conservative”, “A lot of my friends are staunch Tories and I try not to bring that into the discussion, but after a few glasses of wine my husband tells me under the table, be quiet.”

By the time the pair get round the close, three out of five have said they’re leaning towards Liberal Democrat. It’s a marked difference to a gulf of 31.7 per cent between Cosnahan and Conservative leader Ayesha Azad in 2019.

Guy Cosnahan (left), Liberal Democrat candidate for Heathlands ward and Will Forster the Lib Dem borough councillor for Hoe Valley and leader of the Lib Dem group at SCC

But last year, something changed. The margin narrowed to 8.3 per cent, despite knocking on zero doors says Cosnahan. Little wonder that this evening is the eighth time the Lib Dems have hit the Heathlands pavements this year.

The moderate party is now targeting more affluent areas. Keller Williams UK estate agents found after last year’s local elections that those under Lib Dem control had the highest average house prices. Forster says you have to reach beyond your core base if you want to grow.

It’s not always a ringing endorsement for the yellows though, often more of a blue bashing.

“It’s a question of what vote will work in this area if you do not want to vote Conservative. I would never vote Conservative in a million years,” says one woman, and from a man down the road: “It started off just not wanting to vote for the others.”

Another says: “Giving the Conservatives a bloody nose is my incentive, rather than a preference for yourselves.”

Forster says national scandals have made the Conservatives “grumpy”.

Closer to home, where Conservatives have been the largest party on Woking council for over a decade, the authority has built up the third-largest debt in the country while serving just 100,000 residents. Only councils in major cities Birmingham and Leeds, home to millions, owe more of taxpayers’ money.

The first sign we see of this “grumpiness” is a man who says he always votes Tory but this year he’s going to abstain. Another is upfront about a protest vote because “what I see as financial incompetence by the council has got to stop”.

For one resident who says he used to support Tony Blair, it’s about trust. “The Conservatives, things come out about them and they’re doing things they shouldn’t be doing, they seem to be saying one thing and doing something else.”

But there is support out there for the Boris Johnson, or sympathy at least. “Whatever he’s done he’s had such a rough time what with Brexit and Covid and now Ukraine, I think we should give him a chance,” the resident said.

Saunders Lane resident David Aldous with his dog Millie. Credit Julie Armstrong

This is more apparent as we turn into Saunders Lane, where the driveways become longer and preferences for each of the ward’s main contenders seem to level out.

“To be fair to Boris I think he’s been in a tricky situation anybody in that situation is going to struggle. I think he’s done the best that he could do, with what he’s had to deal with, with Brexit and also Covid, himself in the hospital and babies. It’s very hard, these things happen, you can’t oversee everything and we’ve all been negligible doing something naughty that we shouldn’t have done in Covid times.”

For others, national issues such as “partygate” seem to have passed them by. Why are you voting Conservative? “I just always have.” Or this one: “My parents do. I like Boris. I don’t think about it too much.”

Most however do want to engage one way or the other, except for one homeowner who says: “Just, frankly I don’t give a s***”.

Forster takes it in his stride and is just happy not to be locked in a cupboard – as happened to someone he knows while out canvassing, by an elderly resident with dementia.

“She was led through a door into what she thought was a room and then had the door closed behind her,” he says. “This is why is why we don’t encourage our canvassers to go inside people’s homes.”

Another house, another ding-dong. “I’m indisposed,” comes the call through the door.

After the budgie smugglers, Forster must be thankful this one remains closed. He explains who’s there, to the reply: “I do remember your face.”

Time and time again, he gets this. “I know who you are. You’re the only one we see”… “I’ve met you” … “Well seeing as it’s only you and the Greens that have bothered to come round, you’ll be getting my vote.”

We’ll have to wait until next Friday to see if this recognition is replicated and/or rewarded across the rest of this enormous ward and beyond.

The Woking local election 2022 candidates for Heathlands are:

Simon Ashall, Conservative Party

Guy Cosnahan, Liberal Democrats

Jennifer Mason, Green Party

Judith Squire, Heritage Party

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