It is too early to say whether the Liberal Democrats will recapture Eastbourne from the Conservatives at the general election, but not too soon to realise they have a serious chance of doing so.
For in several hours of conversation in this seaside town yesterday, it was impossible to avoid noticing that their candidate, Stephen Lloyd, who lost by only 733 votes to the Conservative, Caroline Ansell, in 2015, enjoys exceptional levels of recognition and approval.
Lloyd was first adopted as the Liberal Democrat candidate in Eastbourne in 2002, lost to the sitting Conservative MP, Nigel Waterson, by 1,124 votes in 2005, and defeated him by 3,435 votes in 2010. Five years later, the national Lib Dem vote collapsed by 15.2 percentage points to a mere 7.9 per cent, which was a deep enough slump to unseat Lloyd.
In the intervening two years, Eastbourne has not forgotten him. As a woman in her forties in the Dew Drop Inn put it: “I do love Stephen, he’s such a lovely guy, he really, really cares. He hasn’t taken me out for a drink though, has he.”
Oddly enough, this woman, who runs two businesses, does not actually expect the Lib Dem candidate to win: “I think Stephen Lloyd’s extremely popular. The amount of people who say if he was blue I’d vote for him all day long!
“He was an extremely good MP. You couldn’t ask for a better MP. But I think because of national politics Caroline Ansell will win again. I think Caroline has actually done a good job. I think she’s come into her own and proved herself a good MP.
“I like Jeremy Corbyn, but I’m not terribly party political. There’s things I like and dislike about each party. I really like Jeremy Corbyn. Unfortunately these days people want a television presenter, someone who looks smart.”
Down the road, in the Eagle pub (one should enjoy the sight of the tower of St Saviour’s Church, a Gothic revival masterpiece by G.E.Street, as one walks between the two), a Labour-supporting social entrepreneur said: “I will be voting tactically for Stephen Lloyd in the general election, so hopefully ridding us of this dreadful government that have no interest of any sort in harmonious relations with anyone but just seem to be hellbent on taking us into conflict with just about everybody.”
This speaker, who was 45, predicted that the result in Eastbourne will be “extremely close”, and went on: “I don’t think any of the parties are fit for purpose to be honest. I would like to think the Labour Party had reworked itself by now.
“I’ve never heard a bad word said about Stephen Lloyd. I’ve never met Caroline Ansell, but my wife has, and was disappointed. I think her overarching impression was of someone who’s a bit of an opportunist.”
Eastbourne does, however, contain a strong contingent of convinced Conservatives. A 50-year-old painter and decorator explained why he is a Conservative: “Basically, you just remember 35 to 40 years ago, the Conservatives allowed people to buy their own council houses, which impressed me no end.
“That’s the biggest redistribution of wealth in the West ever.” His parents, who are in their eighties, still live in the house they bought.
The painter and decorator said of Lloyd: “I believe he’s a very nice man but not necessarily what you need in an MP. He was elected to represent us in London, not to go to every fair and fete.”
A man aged 57 who had recently retired with his wife from London to Eastbourne said: “We will be voting Conservative. I’ve been a Labour voter all my life. My father was a Labour man all his life.
“I’ve become more and more disillusioned with the Labour Party and Corbyn is the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“I think Cameron was very inventive, very modernising, and did with the Tory Party what Blair did with the Labour Party.
“I think Theresa May’s doing a fantastic job and that’s why I couldn’t continue to vote Labour.”
His wife said: “We were shocked when we came here and found we were voting Tory. We have to change with the mood of the times, I suppose.”
A number of young voters said with deep sincerity that they could not bring themselves to vote for anyone. “No, because it’s a lie,” a 22-year-old health care assistant said when asked if there was anyone she could support. “I don’t lie in any other area of my life. Why should I lie? To me it feels dishonest and as if I’m just playing a game.”
When it was put to her that she was an idealist, she replied: “I don’t think I’m an idealist. But if I don’t trust someone I won’t support them. I’ll only support someone I feel passionate about. To feel at the age of 22 you can’t trust a single person in government is almost unidealist. There’s a lot of petitions I’ve signed.”
Another young woman said she would be voting Green: “I’ll never back down. I’ll always be Green. But if Green suddenly vanished from the face of the earth, I’d stick by Stephen Lloyd.”
In the Il Gusto café in Grove Road, the proprietor, Brian Blaney, said: “I think what will happen in Eastbourne is Stephen Lloyd will win the seat easily. You could see him walking along this road to the town hall and ten minutes later he’d only got as far as the corner because everyone was talking to him.”
But across the road in Camilla’s Bookshop, which has a wonderful stock of second-hand books, the proprietor, Stuart Broad, who described himself as “Blaney’s sparring partner”, said he was delighted the election has been called: “I hope the Conservatives get in with a big majority so they can properly execute the detachment from Europe.”
In the EU Referendum in Eastbourne, 30,700 people voted Leave (including Ansell) and 22,845 voted Remain (including Lloyd), so if that is the determining issue in the election, Ansell can expect to hold the seat.
But yesterday many more people mentioned, with approbation, Lloyd, than referred to the EU. So if the Lib Dems at national level can recover some of their lost support from 2010, they have a good chance of recovering Eastbourne, which is second only to Cambridge on their list of target seats.