Cllr Pauline Jorgensen is the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Earley and Woodley and the Leader of the Conservative Group on Wokingham Borough Council
Until recently, the Liberal Democrats had very little to be cheerful about. Repeatedly punished at the ballot box, their own Leader lost her seat, and they slipped to the fourth largest national party behind the SNP. It was a far cry from the short-lived Cleggmania of 2010.
Their current Leader, Sir Ed Davey, played a key role in the Coalition Government that saw the Liberal Democrats repeatedly disappoint their supporters by joining with the Conservatives, and let down the students who voted for them by reneging on their promise to scrap tuition fees. Davey lost his seat before being re-elected in 2017, rebranded apparently without a whiff of Coalition about him.
Now they are jubilant, gaining control of a number of Councils in traditionally Conservative areas like Berkshire and winning parliamentary by-elections such as Tiverton and Honiton.
Effusive in their self-congratulations, anyone reading their election literature could be forgiven for thinking they are on course to win the next general election. We all remember how that turned out for Jo Swinson.
Sadly, we know that they are the same old Liberal Democrats – promising much and delivering little, ignoring residents’ needs while pursuing pet projects and ideological obsessions.
In Wokingham Borough, the Liberal Democrats have been in minority control of the Council since 2022, propped up by a handful of crucial Labour councillors in an informal coalition. Together their record in power is one of repeatedly ignoring residents, attempting to limit debate, and failing to deliver on their election promises.
Residents are being forced to pay more in return for fewer services. Wokingham’s Liberal Democrats, thanks to the votes of their Labour friends, have doubled car parking charges, and extended charging hours in the evenings and weekends despite considerable local opposition. At the same time, they’re cutting frontline resident’s services, such as public litter bins and grass cutting, but have increased back-office spending. They claimed the Council’s finances were in a poor state under the previous Conservative administration, contrary to officers’ statements and independent analysis, but it’s their terrible management that has led to their choices.
They have ignored the results of public consultations on household waste where only 24 per cent supported the change, and on moving to all-out elections. Petitions from residents have been disregarded and undermined, with one described as “spurious” by a Liberal Democrat Executive Member.
They have attempted to suppress debate and limit meaningful scrutiny, with the Executive Member for Finance having said they wanted to “control debate”.
In Opposition, they campaigned vehemently against our plans to regenerate Wokingham town centre, but in power are now happy to collect the awards our regeneration project has won.
Before being in power, the Liberal Democrats over-committed, promising to stop development where they thought they could win seats. Now, unable to make a decision on where to build, instead of making progress with the new draft local plan and five-year land supply as the previous Conservative administration was on track to deliver, they’ve sat on the fence. They’ve delayed action and left us exposed to development by appeal. An application for five houses on a greenfield site in a semi-rural part of the Borough, previously defended by Conservative administrations, was recommended for approval by officers. Officers said that without a five-year land supply it is increasingly difficult for the Council to defend appeals from developers.
All this is straight out of the Liberal Democrat playbook, from Westminster down to parish councils. In Tunbridge Wells and Winchester, Liberal Democrats have hiked parking in the face of local opposition. In South Oxfordshire, the Liberal Democrats took power with the Greens, promising to overturn the Conservatives’ Local Plan – only to have to face reality and plan for new housing anyway. In Uttlesford, a Liberal Democrat councillor openly described local residents as the “great unwashed”. And their national party leader sets a shining example, now totally opposed to fracking despite having described criticisms of it in 2012 as “nonsense”, adding, “I love shale gas”.
As Conservatives, we know the Liberal Democrats are the party of opportunism. But we can’t take for granted that local people know this too. We can’t expect residents to be constantly hyper-aware of what’s going on in their council and how the Liberal Democrats depend on this to pursue their agenda.
The lesson for all Conservatives in areas where the Liberal Democrats have seized control of councils in the last couple of years is that we need work harder to expose them for what they are. We need to be relentless in shining light on the actions of Liberal Democrat administrations when they are trying to hide in the shadows. And when local people are ignored, when promises are broken, and when Liberal Democrat incompetence leaves residents paying more for poorer services, we need to make sure that this message is getting out loud and clear: our communities can’t afford the Liberal Democrats and Labour.