The Lib Dems could win a seat from 4th

The Lib Dems could win a seat from 4th

In the UK we don’t have truly national elections, each general election comprises 650 simultaneous local contests. In theory.

In practice the vast majority of voters in the vast majority of seats cast their ballot on the basis of the party, or party leader, they prefer. Most don’t care, and many don’t even know, about their local candidates.

That is true in almost every seat. But one of the rare exceptions might throw a stunning curveball on election night.

Independent Minds

In 2015 the people of East Devon began behaving very unusually. They began abandoning all of the main parties and backing an independent candidate with no particular fame or notoriety.

Claire Wright, first elected as an independent county councillor in 2013, ran for the seat and won 24% of the vote at the first time of asking. Then she improved, winning 35% in 2017. Then 40% in 2019.

I will confess I haven’t a clue how she did this, and if any readers live in the area and do know I would be fascinated to learn. This profile of her from the 2019 campaign suggests she simply built up a local following as a councillor and knocked on a lot of doors. Usually the national focus of election campaigns and first past the post mean those people get nowhere, but Claire Wright got very close to winning a previously safe seat.

Were she running again I have no doubt she would be a big favourite to win, but having reached the cusp she stepped back. I can’t blame her, running for election three times in four years – with no party machine to support you – must be incredibly gruelling. But it begs a huge question: Where will her 40% of the vote go?

The Ex Factor

I’m betting it goes to the Lib Dems. Prior to Wright’s rise, they were the long-time challengers for the seat coming (a fairly distant) second every election since the seat was established in 1997. When Wright first ran in 2015, winning 24% of the vote, the Lib Dems went down by 24% suggesting a pretty strong direct transfer. There’s every reason that might simply reverse itself now (of course, the Lib Dems might have lost lots of votes in 2015 for other reasons too).

Wright’s voter base is a good fit for the Lib Dems, given her policy positions in 2019. Wright has also endorsed the Lib Dems in the seat (and the neighbouring seat which they hold after the Tiverton and Honiton by-election).

There is one complication: East Devon isn’t voting at all this year. The seat has been abolished.

To be more precise, it has been split. About 25% of the seat will now vote in Honiton and Sidmouth (the new Tiverton and Honiton which they won in 2022) while 75% of the seat forms the new Exmouth and Exeter East with (as the name implies) parts of Exeter added in.

This sets the tactical voter a bit of a conundrum. If you are one of the 75%, can you be sure how the Exeter voters affect who is the main challenger? And if you are one of the 25%, do you realise the bulk of the seat was, more than a decade ago, somewhere the Lib Dems always came in second? Do you care?

It is messier than the opposition parties would like, but I suspect the Lib Dems have the manpower and incentive to get the message across, unless they decide resources are better invested elsewhere. It’s also possible Claire Wright will actively assist them somewhat, which given her almost supernatural record of campaigning might be worth more than local campaigning generally is.

Bookie Blunders

There is another group of people who risk getting mixed up by the situation: The Bookies. A new seat, with a new name, where the nominal result had the Lib Dems in a distant 4th last time. Easy to underestimate them.

And that’s exactly what Bet365 seem to have done. Instead of treating the Lib Dems as the main challengers, or even a possible challenger, they are priced as an also-ran. That is a huge mistake. If, and it is a decently large If, the Lib Dems can inherit Claire Wright’s position as the main challenger then there are ample votes for them to get across the line. Even with the messy situation they should be no more than moderate underdogs.

I’d make the party 4/1 at most to win the seat. Bet365 opened at 40/1 and still have them at 8/1 (as of Thursday lunchtime). That’s much closer, but I think there’s some value still to take.

Pip Moss

Pip Moss posts on Political Betting as Quincel. He has bets on the Lib Dems to win Exmouth and Exeter East at average odds of just over 20/1. You can follow him on Twitter at @PipsFunFacts and BlueSky at @Quincel.Bsky.Social

He will NOT be writing an article every day until the election. Just to set expectations…

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