'We're a major player in Norfolk,' says Lib Dem leader
- Credit: IAN BURT
“We are on the up.” That is the defiant message from Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey as voters prepare to go to the polls across Norfolk and Waveney.
Mr Davey took over the reins of the Lib Dems after a devastating result in the general election which reduced the party to just 11 MPs.
“I think we will make gains,” Mr Davey told this newspaper as he braced himself for his first electoral tussle as leader at the upcoming local elections on May 6.
“The challenge is that the campaign has been very short, it's been a weird campaign, the first part of it was all on the phones and we were unable to speak to people on the doorsteps.
“Now that candidates have got out, they are getting a really good response.”
Mr Davey said the party's focus was on making sure the post-pandemic recovery in the county is “strong, green, and fair” adding that Norfolk County Council needs “more energy and dynamism and leadership".
“I think our argument, that the Conservatives have put up council tax by a huge amount over the four years and cut services, including for the most vulnerable, I think that’s alarming some people,” he said.
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Mr Davey denied that the party had become irrelevant in politics, saying they are still a major player in local government.
“We have around 2,500 councillors controlling about £5-6billion of public spending,” he said.
“Despite some setbacks in Westminster, in local government, people are still voting for us in significant numbers.
"I think we are very relevant and where we're in power we show we can do a really good job.
“We run North Norfolk District Council (NNDC) and my view is we have done a great job by freezing council tax but not cut council services.”
While NNDC did freeze council tax this year, the council has the fourth-highest band D rates at £153.72, behind South Norfolk, Great Yarmouth and Norwich.
This is not the first time the party has had to build itself from the ground-up. In 1992 Paddy Ashdown took the party from 18 MPs to 46.
Mr Davey said he has an advantage over Ashdown as they already have strong local government roots.
“If people are looking for those historical comparisons, I think we are on the up again.
“Paddy spent his first two years building that strength, we're already strong and we're going to take that forward.”
Asked why the local success was not reflected in the national results, Mr Davey said the party gets support from people who would normally vote Conservative or Labour in the general elections, especially in areas where it’s a “two-horse race”.
At the last Norfolk local election in 2017, they received 11pc of the vote, while Labour got 22.8pc and the Conservatives 32.6pc, across the country the party has 2,448 councillors out of 19,698.
In 2019, Norman Lamb, a stalwart of the Liberal Democrats stood down, having been an MP for North Norfolk since 2001 and was replaced by Tory Duncan Baker.
Asked if people in North Norfolk were voting for Mr Lamb the man, as opposed to Mr Lamb the Liberal Democrat, Mr Davey said they needed to take each election in turn.
“We were delighted with winning NNDC, which is a really strong area for us in the constituency that Norman represented so brilliantly, for so long.
"I regard Norman Lamb as a good friend, I think he was a brilliant constituency MP. He showed people what Liberal Democrats can do if given the chance."
Mr Davey had been due to come to Norfolk last weekend but had to self-isolate after his son’s carer tested positive for Covid.
He described the self-isolation experience as being “imprisoned in your own home” but was more concerned about what the experience is like for those with no money coming in, calling for better support.
“It's been a big mistake of the government and I think that failure has been one of the reasons why we've had such shockingly high death rates,” he said.
On recent allegations that Boris Johnson said he would rather see “the bodies piled high” than have a third lockdown - charges the PM strongly denies - Mr Davey described himself as “shocked and appalled”.
“I think everybody, whoever they support, whatever their political beliefs, will be horrified.
“What he should be doing is coming and apologising to people, and particularly apologising to the bereaved families.”