It’s been a difficult few years in coalition government for the Liberal Democrats. Both nationally and locally they’ve seen their support dwindle with the Green Party catching them from the left and UKIP from the right, leaving them as the fifth party in many constituencies. Bath has long been seen as a Lib Dem stronghold, with the party holding the constituency for twenty-two years. However Don Foster, who first took the seat in 1992, is retiring this year leaving it up for grabs, with Bath being an area that UKIP have seen significant gains. Councillor Nicholas Coombes is in good spirits as he visits campus for a Surgery on the 24th November, but does acknowledge that UKIP are becoming a threat.
“It’s worrying that people are supporting UKIP’s policies. I don’t support UKIP policies and I think that a lot of students also think they’re a particularly narrow minded group of people that have identified genuine problems in society and decided to blame them on immigration, when in fact there are a lot of causes. I think it’s a pity and it is worrying that their message is resonating so well, but it’s a free and fair election so I don’t mind which way people vote; I want them to vote and I want them to vote Liberal Democrat, but I want them to vote Liberal Democrat because they agree with our open and inclusive view of the world”.
In a recent interview bathimpact conducted with UKIP candidate Julian Deverell, he suggested that the Council was very reactive to “local residents who make a lot of noise about ‘student issues’”. When told this, Councillor Coombes suggests that this is hardly a bad thing;
“By reactive does he mean we listen to what the electorate are saying and we do something about it? Do you think that’s what he was going for there? Certainly the public are a very important part of the policy making process and I don’t think that we have favourites if that’s where he’s going. As local Councillors we try to identify the problems that are of concern for our residents, we try to find solutions for those problems which accord with our way of thinking and our political philosophies, and do the best we can for the people that we represent”.
The Bath and North East Somerset Council, upon which Councillor Coombes represents Bathwick, recently courted controversy amongst students by passing a motion proposed by Councillor June Player (Ind, Westmoreland) that raised the question of whether student accommodation landlords should pay council tax or business rates. Labour and Conservative councillors both supported the motion, whilst all Lib Dem councillors voted against it, and, perhaps because he was recently a University of Bath student himself, Councillor Coombes is animated in his support of that decision.
“We did [vote against it]and I’m proud that we did. It was frankly a crazy motion coming from the independents and I have no idea why the Conservatives and Labour supported it. It’s essentially saying that students need to contribute more to the council because they don’t pay council tax, but the thing is students contribute a great deal to the city economy. If you look at the list of student cities, Bath, Bristol, Oxford, Durham, these aren’t poor places, and that’s because the universities create jobs and provide high value employment to the rest of the economy. So there’s no need for students to pay directly because having the university here contributes so much indirectly to the city.”
He was also fairly dismissive of Councillor Player’s accusations that the Lib Dems didn’t read the motion properly and only voted against it to make the issue a scapegoat and distract from the broken promises regarding tuition fees.
“June Player changed the motion a couple of times before the meeting; does she want to charge students, does she want to charge landlords, does she want to charge the companies that run halls of residence? Either way the cost is going to be passed on to the students. It doesn’t matter if she plays around with the wording; the net effect is still the same.”
If the Liberal Democrats are going to retain the constituency and counter UKIP and Tory policies that might appeal to older residents, then mobilising student support over issues such as this will be imperative. With a former University of Bath Student’s Union President as their election candidate in Steve Bradley, the Lib Dems should be well placed to do this, however Councillor Coombes does recognise both the importance and difficulty of the task his party is facing after a challenging few years;
“That’s the key thing. It’s all very well having the student friendly policies if no one actually votes for us. I think the Lib Dems have a very good offer for students; we’ve had the best record on civil liberties, on the environment, on commitment to equality; and also for jobs and opportunities for young people. However if students don’t vote then all of that’s wasted, especially if we don’t get re-elected. So what we need to do is make sure that we’re out there, we’re on campus today doing a surgery today for students to pop in and talk to us; we’ve got to make sure we get our message across, delivering leaflets and in any other way we can”.