There is no question that Thursday was a terrible day for the Liberal Democrats nationally. It was heart-breaking for me to see so many of my parliamentary colleagues lose their seats. When we entered coalition in 2010, we knew it held dangers, but there was no easy option with the cards we had been dealt. In the end, we took in my view the right decision for the country, but one for which as a party we have paid a terrible price.
Here in the Lewes Constituency, we actually turned in one of the best results in the country with, I think, the 7th highest percentage vote. And the margin of loss, both here and in Eastbourne, was small – just over 1000 in our case – so we must now rebuild with the entirely realistic aim of regaining the seat in 2020.
In the election, we dealt effectively with the Tory vote, which barely moved from the 2010 result. Sadly, we saw a significant shift of voters to Labour and Green, particularly in Lewes itself, which handed the seat to the Tories. Those on the left who wanted to punish us for the coalition have done that, but they have punished themselves even more in the process – helping to elect a Tory MP and put in place a Tory majority government.
I always knew this seat was marginal. It was after all Conservative between 1874 and 1997 and now the Prague Spring is over. It was always clear that there was a possibility that this seat would be lost. I remember reflecting on that myself making my last speech in the House of Commons, ironically on endangered species. It was preposterous for Labour to run a “we can win here” campaign, when they had never won the seat and in the end came 4th. They did not even win a single town council seat. But they doubled their vote to just under 10% and that, with the increased Green vote, was enough to allow the Tories in.
As for the Greens, I cannot object to the concept that people should be encouraged to “vote for what they believe in”, as they were urged to do, except that the consequences of that action – a Tory MP – were not spelt out to them.
I am immensely grateful to all my team for all the hours of sticking, stuffing, delivering and door knocking over the last several months – we fought a very strong campaign, relying on volunteers and public donations rather than the big money of the Conservatives, and it was one of which we can all be proud. We have also re-elected 11 Liberal Democrats to Lewes District Council – a good result given the swing nationally and one which is a testament to the strength of our local team.
The Conservatives have already announced a raft of illiberal and unjust policies which we stopped them delivering in government. Now they have a free rein to implement their manifesto in full – to savagely cut the welfare budget by £12 billion, to introduce an invasive Snoopers Charter, and to cause major disruption to our economy by holding an in/out referendum on our membership of the European Union. More than ever Britain needs a liberal voice, and I am delighted that in the 48 hours since the election, more than that in the days since the election, more than 8000 new members have joined the party. Perhaps you know someone who thinks the time is right to get involved.
For my part, however, I intend to return to being a private individual and to start the next phase of my life. I have no regrets at all, and if someone had told me in 1987 that the deal was that I would be a Councillor for 16 years, council leader for 6, an MP for 18 years, and a Minister for four and a half years, I would have said that that was a pretty good deal.
I have enjoyed myself as the Member of Parliament for the Lewes Constituency and I hope I have done my best for the constituents in this area
Lastly, can I thank the hundreds of local people who have contacted me since the election with supportive comments. It has been very touching. Thank you all.