Don Foster has been the MP for Bath for longer than most of the current students have been alive and he leaves the seat in a very similar position to how he found it. An elder statesman of a party in decline in the run up to one of the closest elections in decades, the chance for a young go-getter to take a seat that had long been the stronghold of another.
In 1992 Don Foster was the challenger, running against the Chairman of the Conservative Party Chris Patten. Bath had been blue since 1924, but Foster managed to narrowly take it from Patten, who was criticised for spending more time campaigning as Conservative Party Chairman rather than a local candidate. Foster in comparison was, and still is, a big personality with excellent communication skills and local credentials, and who over the years has grown his original slim majority to one of 11,883 (25.2%) in 2010, his largest to date.
As his majority has grown, so has his position within the Liberal Democrat Party. He currently holds the position of Comptroller of the Household and Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, with the latter position perhaps being fitting due to his history of towing the official line. Some of the older students will no doubt remember the controversy surrounding his decision in 2010 to support the government’s decision to raise tuition fees to nine thousand pounds per year. Mr. Foster refused to say what he would do prior to the vote when meeting with students from the University of Bath and from Bath Spa, with even Mr. Foster himself admitting “the vast majority are urging me to vote against it”. Just a few hours after the bill was passed and it became apparent that he had voted in favour, a stone was thrown the window of his constituency offices.
At the time of the vote Mr. Foster conceded that it was far from ideal, but that if he hadn’t voted for and the coalition had collapsed, then he would have lost his “ability to influence government policy and get Lib Dem policies into practice”. This is a well-rehearsed line, certainly one that Steve Bradley has taken up, and Mr. Foster can point to numerous successes to justify his last five years on the inside. He was promoted to the Parliamentary Under-secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in 2012, proposed a Safe Standing Bill to Parliament in 2010 as the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Sport, and was previously the spokesperson for Education, drawing on his degree in Education from Bath.
Outside of politics, Mr. Foster supports numerous charities, including local ones such as Ted’s Big Day Out and Julian House, as well as National charities like WaterAid, with whom he travelled to Ethiopia to work with. He is also known for his love of music, particularly the ukulele. The Uke Can’t Be Serious band played at his farewell event last month and Mr. Foster himself joined them for a few songs. He also had to fend off rumours of a bid for a Christmas Number One after his office released a spoof email about his ukulele band releasing a Christmas single.
Mr. Foster leaves office as Bath’s longest serving MP, and with a majority of 25% you’d think Steve Bradley would be a sure thing to keep Bath Liberal. However, along with his ‘it’s better to be inside the tent pissing out’ reasoning, Mr. Foster predicted if he hadn’t voted for tuition fee rises and the coalition failed, there would have been “a major slump in Lib Dem support”. This has happened regardless, and Bath is not the safe seat it once was. Ben Howlett is now the young challenger spending a lot of money to try and take a seat that has long been a given. If Mr. Foster was running again you would imagine his personality and local stature would be enough to get through the damage the coalition has dealt the Liberal Democrats, but without Mr. Foster’s history it’s a more open seat. Steve Bradley is a capable candidate who is still the bookies favourites, but it’s possible that despite holding Bath for twenty three years, it’s the Liberal Democrats last five in office that could prove crucial.