Golden Georgian boulevards ooze like dribbles of honey through the town centre. Roman statues of robed figures placidly stand sentinel along the viewing walkways above the baths. Gentle ripples of sandy Bath stone houses line the surrounding hills, overlooking majestic crescent terraces unique to this top tourist spot.
But then there are the politicians. Follow them around Bath for the day and the soft idyll of Britain’s best-known spa town is shattered. War has returned to the Somerset city for the first time since Baedecker tourist guides led the Luftwaffe to bombing it during the Second World War.
The MP for Bath since 1992, Lib Dem Chief Whip Don Foster, is finally hanging up his distinctive fedora and standing down. This leaves an intriguing power vacuum in the constituency that was so unexpectedly seized from the Tories’ clutches when Foster spectacularly won it from then Conservative party chairman Chris Patten.
Could the seat fall back into Tory hands now that the often-heralded “incumbency factor” is no longer there to help the nationally struggling Lib Dems? And does Labour’s teenage candidate stand a chance?
It may superficially be all luscious limestone and tourist groups contemplating the cleansing qualities of a strigil at the Roman Baths, but there are significant pockets of deprivation here overshadowed by the city’s affluent reputation.
When I visited Foster for a previous article on a rainy Friday last spring, he admitted that the perception of the place is a real problem politically. “Behind the façade of the Georgian houses, they’ve been divided and sub-divided and you have single-parent families living there,” he told me.
Persuading people to see beyond the façade can be difficult, and Foster admitted that Bath’s reputation as a pretty, wealthy little World Heritage Site “can be an obstacle when lobbying government” for more input into the area.
It’s something Ollie Middleton, the teenager selected at the age of 18 to fight the seat for Labour, has picked up on. When I ask if he sees his hometown suffering from its image, he replies:
“I think it does massively. People come to Bath to visit the Roman Baths, they’ll walk round the city centre, they’ll think, ‘oh well, it’s clearly such an affluent city, everyone here’s obviously got a load of money’.
“And actually, no, that’s very far removed from the reality. That does not go for everyone. One in five kids in Bath live in poverty, and massive inequality exists in this city. You go to some areas, and the areas that maybe tourists wouldn’t necessarily visit, and you compare them to other areas, it’s really very obvious, that sheer level of inequality.”
Although Middleton expresses these concerns, he tells me – as all the candidates here do – that his priority for Bath is sorting out its transport system: “We have terrible transport in Bath. It’s inefficient, it’s ineffective, and it costs a ridiculous amount. And every single person I talk to, young, old, middle-aged, will say the same thing.”
Ben Howlett, the Tory candidate who used to be head of the party’s youth wing, Conservative Future, is more upbeat about Bath’s reputation as a tourist town. Over tea and cake in the Society Café – a tiny indie coffee shop at odds with the municipal magnificence of the Guildhall opposite – he says, “The tourist economy is very important – so perceptions are important.”
Yet he does point out the growing inequality in Bath, homelessness being a “huge” problem, and the town being hit financially by “the talent of Bath not wishing to stay in Bath”.
Two chariot race?
In spite of rising inequality, Bath is a relatively well-off constituency. Unemployment is only at 3 per cent, tourism makes a huge contribution to the local economy, which is also boosted by the two universities – the University of Bath and Bath Spa. There is increasing potential from a big talent pool and high amount of capital in the high-tech and engineering sectors.
Although there many are in low-paid retail and service jobs, the town has generally been in a comfortable position, which may explain its status as a steadfastly safe Lib Dem seat. Foster’s majority in 2010 was 11,883 and even the Conservative candidate admits his party, “wouldn’t have a hope in hell here if it weren’t for Don Foster standing down”.
But with the loss of Foster, whose black fedora and double-breasted coat – coupled with his first name – make him appear like a friendly liberal mafioso presiding over the town, the Tories are in with a chance. The Lib Dem candidate, Steve Reed, who was a student at Bath University when he voted for Foster in ’92, admits it is, “a two-horse race, between the Lib Dems and Tories”.
Foster himself has always feared the Tory threat to his vote: “I worried every time when I was standing; my concern was the Tories. Anybody who thinks this seat is safe doesn’t deserve to be elected. You have to earn it. So of course I worry. But I know the only way of securing the seat is by my successor working incredibly hard for local people. There’s not a difference because it’s not me.”
Labour only received 7 per cent of the vote in 2010, and in spite of Middleton and his campaign team enthusing about the southwest’s “radical tradition”, it’s highly unlikely Labour will take the seat.
One well-spoken man in his late twenties I speak to in the town centre tells me, “Labour aren’t taking it seriously – it [fielding such a young candidate] gives the impression of them not taking it seriously. It’s better to have someone who’s seen the big, wide world.”
He adds that Foster is, “the nicest guy”.
A blue rinsing?
Yet the results here this time round could look significantly different. Tactical voting has always been a problem for Labour in Bath, with voters opting for the Lib Dems to keep the Tories out.
Howlett describes Bath as “a strange city when it comes to voting intentions”, and sees “party political boundaries breaking down”. Referring to the coalition, he adds, “In Bath, people used to vote tactically to keep the Tories out – now that didn’t work for those people, so they’re thinking of voting Labour or Green.”
Middleton acknowledges that tactical voting has been a big hurdle for Labour in Bath, but also suggests this could be changing. He sees the huge number of students here (23 per cent of the population) as potentially being “decisive in the outcome” in favour of Labour – if they register to vote.
His campaign manager, a middle-aged local resident who appears parental alongside the youthful Middleton, insists that Bath is the “most radical place to live in” and that it’s “not run by the blue rinse brigade”.
And the Tory candidate reflects this. Howlett, who has helped out with eco-Tory Zac Goldsmith MP’s campaigns over the years, seems on the modernising, greener wing of the party. “Now we’re in a situation where we’re in government, and able to make quite a lot of reforms, the image of the Conservative party I think was a bit of a folly, I think it’s just really bad at its communications. It’s doing so many amazing things that they almost take it for granted that everybody knows about it. We are awful, as a party, at PR . . .
“I think we need to sell ourselves in a much more attractive way. On the economy, we’ve sold ourselves amazingly – if we could do the same on the NHS in particular, actually not talking about one party spending more than the other party, or just becoming a political football.”
Capacity problems and local hospital takeover plans at the regional hospital, the Royal United Hospital, being an increasing concern is another example of how national political scraps are playing out on the streets of Bath. The tepidarium is hotting up.