On Saturday, 12 days before the election, Eastbourne’s three-mile promenade is busy. Elderly holidaymakers eat fish and chips, children dig for crabs, rollerbladers weave through strollers and a few brave souls are taking a dip.
It is a picture of seaside tradition, recognisable from any point in the last 70 years, give or take a bathing station or two. The words ‘genteel’ and ‘elderly’ are often used to describe Eastbourne, a town of 100,000 residents on the south coast between Brighton and Hastings. And a walk along the seafront does little to nullify Eastbourne’s reputation as ‘Costa Geriatrica’.
On anecdotal evidence at least, the majority of people enjoying the spring sun are pensioners. It is seemingly the England of church fêtes and blue rinses. It is Tory. And with the exception of Liberal Hubert Beaumont in 1906 (when the Liberals routed the Conservatives nationally), and Lib Dem David Bellotti – who was elected in the 1990 by-election (and lost his seat in 1992) after Conservative Ian Gow was killed by a Provisional IRA car bomb – it has always been a Conservative constituency. In recent years, the borough council has flitted between Conservative and, currently, Lib Dem.
If the number of posters is anything to go by, a different political landscape belies the serene seafront. Although Nigel Waterson won his fourth term in 2005 with a majority of 1,124 against Lib Dem Stephen Lloyd, it is the words ‘Stephen Lloyd to Win’ on bright orange placards that dominate the streets. They undoubtedly outnumber Conservative posters, especially in the middle class areas of Hampden Park and Old Town. The notable exception is the resolutely Conservative area of Meads, at the foot of the newly founded South Downs National Park.
Ladbrokes currently have the Lib Dems on 8/11 and the Conservatives on evens. The odds on the remaining candidates, Labour, BNP, UKIP and three independents, are 100/1. However, Stephen Lloyd only became a slim favourite after first leaders’ debate – the week earlier it was the other way around.
With the national resurgence of the Lib Dems, Eastbourne has become even more important to win – it is sixth on the list of Lib Dem target seats with only a 0.8 per cent swing required.
As the sunbathers relaxed on Saturday afternoon, Stephen Lloyd shook hands in the bandstand and Nigel Waterson cheered on Eastbourne Borough football club, the foot soldiers put up more placards. But as is often pointed out during political campaigns, gardens don’t have votes, people do. This seat is a local reflection of a national race that is proving too close for anyone to honestly predict.
Coming soon will be interviews with Nigel Waterson and Stephen Lloyd, about how they are fighting to win this seat.