MP for Stratford - to be or not to be a Lib Dem? (2024)

The last time a Liberal MP was elected in Stratford-on-Avon, their party won a landslide in a general election.

The year was 1906 - and the Liberals defeated an unpopular Conservative Party in a campaign focused on the cost of living.

Sometimes history can repeat itself, and the successor party to the Liberals is hoping it does so again in 2024 - at least in William Shakespeare's home town.

Victory here on 4 July would be a mid-summer night's dream for the Liberal Democrats.

It would be a huge upset on election night, in what has been a safe Conservative seat for decades.

The former chancellor Nadhim Zahawi had held the seat since 2010, and claimed more than 60% of the vote in 2019, but decided to stand down ahead of the general election.

And his departure has diverted attention away from his record and towards other issues.

One of them is the conduct of water companies and the practice of discharging sewage into rivers.

It's caused a stink nationally, and at a popular bathing spot along the River Avon, some locals have a sinking feeling about the quality of the water.

MP for Stratford - to be or not to be a Lib Dem? (1)

Kayaker Mark Dyer told me he had a red rash on his hand after paddling in the river last month.

"It’s never happened before and I’ve been paddling for 30-odd years in this river," he said. "It’s worrying."

Environmental campaigners from the Safe Avon have been testing the water in the river and logging the results since July.

The group has taken hundreds of samples from the Avon, and found almost 100% of their readings indicated high levels of pollution.

Severn Trent is the water company in this area.

It was responsible for more than 60,000 sewage spills last year - a one-third increase from almost 45,000 in 2022.

The increase mirrors the national picture, with sewage spills in England up 54% last year.

It was the worst year for such discharges since monitoring began in England.

We approached all candidates standing in the constituency next month to find out what they would do to tackle sewage pollution - many felt their parties' plans could funnel more voters in their direction.

Sewage is a trademark issue for the Lib Dems, who have pledged to abolish and replace the water industry regulator Ofwat, and ban water CEO bonuses.

Their candidate Manuela Perteghella said the Lib Dems had the "most ambitious manifesto to clean up our waterways".

She said the watersports stunts staged by her party’s leader, Sir Ed Davey, sent the message that people "have had enough of sewage dumping and river pollution".

Can she beat the Conservatives here?

"We’ve knocked on tens of thousands of doors and Conservative voters feel disillusioned and disappointed with their party and are switching to us," she said.

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Only a few weeks ago, the Conservative candidate Chris Clarkson was the MP for a seat more than 100 miles away in Greater Manchester.

But having won the seat with a majority of just 663 in 2019, he’s retreated to safer Conservative territory after being selected for Stratford-on-Avon last week.

Is he a chicken?

"Absolutely not - I’m certainly not lean," he says.

Had his former seat not been subject to boundary changes, he said he would have expected to be contesting that constituency next month, rather than Stratford.

Time is short to connect with voters - so what’s his offer?

He said education, housing and the cost of living were his priorities, and on sewage discharges, he stands by his record of supporting unlimited fines for water companies.

MP for Stratford - to be or not to be a Lib Dem? (3)

Labour’s plan includes putting water companies in special measures until they make progress on cleaning up our rivers.

Its candidate Seyi Agboola said he would make sure water bosses were held accountable.

"Our rivers and waters are what makes Britain a fantastic place," Mr Agboola said.

Reform UK has gone much further, promising "a new model that brings 50% of each utility into public ownership".

The party’s candidate James Crocker said the issue of natural monopolies needed rethinking.

"The likes of Severn Trent need to be dealt with at the top level," he said.

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Bigger fines were also suggested by the candidate for NONPOL, Neil O’Neil, who said the owners of water firms had "deep pockets".

"I would push very hard for these fines," he said.

He added that he would promote a plan to redistribute money raised from fining water firms to constituencies.

In a statement, Severn Trent said it was investing £450m in engineering works to reduce sewage spills by 20% a year.

A spokesperson said: "We’re making progress in playing our part to reduce our impact on the River Avon.

"This includes investing millions of pounds improving our network across Rugby, Leamington and Coventry to reduce spills from overflows."

Water companies say they need more money to invest in improvements to our sewage system.

But with water bills set to rise to pay for these upgrades, some voters might be jumping at the chance to pick a politician with a plan to plug the pollution.

MP for Stratford - to be or not to be a Lib Dem? (5)

MP for Stratford - to be or not to be a Lib Dem? (6)

MP for Stratford - to be or not to be a Lib Dem? (2024)

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