In Tory England, the Lib Dems can smell revenge in the air – and sewage in the rivers | Gaby Hinsliff

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Laura Reineke has been a mermaid for 7 years now. Or much precisely, she’s a personnel of Henley Mermaids, nan sanction she and a fewer friends from her open-water swimming nine gave to nan WhatsApp group they created for arranging stream dips. Seven years of navigating various unmentionable waterborne substances later, nan mermaids aren’t conscionable swimmers now but afloat fledged clean-water activists, campaigning to item contamination successful Oxfordshire’s waterways alongside nan likes of TV presenter Steve Backshall (who lives adjacent pinch his Olympic rower woman Helen Glover) and lobbying section politicians.

Reineke, who useful for nan conservation kindness Wild Fish, still swims regular pinch nan thief of an app search Thames Water’s regular discharges into nan river: but lately, she says moreover nan supposedly cleanable stretches look murkier. “You can’t spot nan bottommost immoderate more, nan works life is covered successful sewage – it’s grotty. It’s really, really sad.” Though arsenic she points out, it’s overmuch worse for nan fish.

When nan Liberal Democrat leader, Ed Davey, launched his run by falling disconnected a paddleboard into Windermere, he was trying to dramatise an unexpected wedge rumor astatine this election: cleanable water. His statement is targeting a ribbon of ostensibly safe Tory seats stretching westbound on nan Thames, from Maidenhead (where Theresa May is retiring) to Boris Johnson’s aged spot of Henley and Thame (where Rishi Sunak visited a rowing nine this week, only to beryllium photobombed by a boatload of Lib Dem activists launching their nationalist run connected sewage dumping) via commuter loop Didcot and Wantage to David Cameron’s aged Witney seat, now redrawn connected caller boundaries. If a governmental earthquake is really coming successful July, nan tremors should beryllium detectable here.

Water contamination mightiness look a niche rumor to some. But successful nan still mostly prosperous agrarian Tory heartlands, filthy rivers person go a amazingly powerful awesome of nationalist decline; a measurement for nan Lib Dems astatine slightest to unfastened conversations successful nan benignant of “blue wall” seats that Labour will ne'er triumph but which guidelines betwixt Keir Starmer and a landslide.

For nan 15 years I’ve lived successful southbound Oxfordshire, first successful Witney and past successful Didcot and Wantage, nan electoral warfare was invariably happening elsewhere. Parties conflict complete marginal seats, not safe ones wherever thing ever changes. But this clip is different. Boundary changes and caller estates springing up catering to younger families moving retired of London person made things little predictable, arsenic has nan undercurrent of utter exasperation successful mundane conversations.

‘Waitrose woman’ – nan stereotypical able elector nan Lib Dems are targeting crossed nan location counties – has been profoundly unimpressed by shabby behaviour during Partygate, by incompetence and infighting, by rising taxes and bills pinch precious small to show successful return (not slightest from Thames Water, now begging for a authorities bailout). The Tories mislaid power of their past remaining Oxfordshire territory assembly past year, and this week’s shock Survation MRP poll forecast each 4 of these riverside seats turning a scarcely conceivable yellow. Nigel Farage’s return to nan nationalist stage, meanwhile, leaves Rishi Sunak pinch an intolerable choice: if he responds by lurching rightwards, that would beryllium a turnoff successful places for illustration this whose conservatism is of a gentler, remain-voting kind.

Charlie Maynard is opinionated successful an business property connected nan banks of nan River Windrush, a Thames tributary that winds down nan honey-coloured chromatic buildings of Witney’s precocious street, erstwhile I way him down by phone. He’s nan benignant of campaigner – inheritance successful finance, spot connected nan section council, pictures connected his website of nan family labrador – that nan Lib Dems invariably prime for seats for illustration this one, which has been Conservative for much than a century.

“There are truthful galore Tories present who say, ‘I’ve voted Tory for ever and I’m not doing it this time,’” says Maynard, who lists what he hears connected nan doorstep: worries astir nan costs of living, inability to get a dentist, schools and filthy rivers. “Sewage is nan large one. People are conscionable like, ‘How tin this beryllium happening?’ I deliberation it does speak to appalling authorities guidance and regularisation successful nan longer term.” He’s besides mislaid nary clip pointing retired connected doorsteps that nan 22-year-old Labour campaigner resigned a fewer days into nan campaign.

Given nan Conservatives’ Robert Courts had a coagulated 15,177 mostly successful 2019, winning present would still beryllium a immense agelong for nan Lib Dems, moreover pinch caller boundaries. Across Oxfordshire, they request a meltdown successful nan Conservative ballot positive highly businesslike tactical voting successful seats pinch nary established contented of it. Blue wall Tories’ champion way to triumph whitethorn good beryllium consecutive done nan mediate of an angry but confused electorate that is unsure precisely really to get them out.

The progressive thinktank Compass is moving a Win As One run nationally to promote tactical voting by Lib Dem, Green and Labour activists, pinch section grassroots groups moving to dispersed nan connection successful perchance winnable seats from Kent to Cumbria, Surrey and Sussex. (Compass Oxfordshire is moving thoroughfare stalls locally identifying nan Lib Dems arsenic nan champion dream successful Witney, Didcot and Wantage, Henley and Thame, successful Banbury, successful northbound Oxfordshire, they’re backing Labour.)

Yet this support comes pinch strings attached. Compass only backs candidates who support proportional representation, helping mini progressive parties to break through. (PR would arguably beryllium a godsend for Reform too.) “Every 5 years we extremity up successful this business wherever parties say, ‘Lend america your support’, but there’s nary return for nan voters,” says Luke Hurst of Compass, who argues that tactical voting tackles nan denotation but not nan underlying antiauthoritarian problem.

Can a progressive confederation really thief propulsion disconnected thing bonzer successful 2024, a revolt wiping nan Tories retired successful what utilized to beryllium their location turf? The consequence is ever that what looks mathematically imaginable connected a pollster’s spreadsheet doesn’t relationship for quality nature, pinch each its tribal instincts and unexpected allegiances. In Henley, Laura Reineke knows nan Lib Dems are nan tactical choice, but she can’t bring herself to do it: alternatively she’s backing her chap mermaid, Jo Robb, opinionated for nan Greens. The lingering doubts galore still harbour astir some Sunak and Starmer, meanwhile, mean that pinch 4 weeks of nan run still to spell those assured polling forecasts of a landslide consciousness decidedly premature.

But for nan Tories, moreover to beryllium having to walk resources defending seats for illustration this is unusual. Whatever nan results successful Oxfordshire, what’s happening now feels for illustration nan past enactment of nan Brexit drama; nan curtain falling connected a statement torn isolated by David Cameron’s disastrous referendum, past temporarily patched together by Boris Johnson’s unstable victory, now yet unravelling. Even, perhaps, successful nan places wherever some careers began.

  • Gaby Hinsliff is simply a Guardian columnist

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theguardian