It was one of the only upsets in an otherwise predictable set of results during last month’s council elections – Peter Lidstone winning in St John’s for the Lib Dems.
As the Conservatives swept all before them – eking out an even larger majority than before – Peter Lidstone proved that with enough determination and door-knocking it is possible to fight back.
The Liberal Democrat candidate managed to unseat Tory councillor David Scott, with a vote share of 43 per cent to the incumbent’s 29.
But what many residents of St John’s found most surprising when Mr Lidstone went door to door, handing out leaflets and making himself known, was his age.
At just 32, he is an anomaly in a town hall where the average councillor is around two decades older.
So what made him want to stand as a councillor when a large proportion of those in his peer group probably do not even vote at a local election, let alone seek a place on the council?
“I have always enjoyed a good debate and spend a lot of time thinking about why things are as they are.
“But it was not until early 2015 that I became active in politics after I had attended a conference run by Christian Aid about why Christians should get involved.
“The message was, ‘yes politics is messy but unless you get involved in it you can never change it for the better.’”
Although he has been elected to represent the Liberal Democrats, St John’s Councillor Peter Hidstone that he has voted ‘for most parties’ in the past, but decided the Liberal Democrats represented him best.
“I try not to be too tribal about it as I think the sort of tribalism seen in Parliament when people watch Prime Minister’s Questions is really off-putting.
“But the Liberal Democrats are a good progressive party and I feel Labour have lost their way a bit.”
Of course, it could be argued that if you want to exercise any meaningful power in the council to change things for the better, you would be better off standing as a Conservative.
However, Cllr Lidstone is adamant that is not the answer: “I wanted to stand for what I believed in and not get parachuted into a safe ward.
“But it is hard being in opposition and trying to get your voice heard in the council.
“I am on two advisory committees, meaning I am already two steps away from where the real decisions are taken and even then I am definitely in a minority.”
Despite this, he believes he gets on well enough with his Conservative counterparts on a personal level and recognises they are doing what they think is best.
“Obviously we all want what is best for the town, but have different ideas on how to achieve it.
“In my opinion, the main problem with the Town Hall being so dominated by Conservatives is that they don’t consult people in their wards as much as they should as they are always safe at election time.
“This decision making becomes opaque, and while I do not doubt they make choices they genuinely believe are for the good of the town, the people they represent may think differently.”
Cllr Lidstone’s community engagement came across during the local election campaign, with the Times receiving numerous letters from residents of St John’s saying they found his enthusiasm
‘refreshing’ – while lamenting the lack of contact from other parties.
“It was exhausting”, he said, adding he was campaigning right after finishing work at the Tunbridge Wells-based charity Build Africa – where he is still employed – until late in the evening.
Holding down a job and taking on his new responsibilities as a councillor does mean he has less time to relax and see friends he admits, but he adds: “What surprised me is how sociable being a councillor is – in effect, I have just replaced one social scene with another.”
HIS FIVE KEY POLICIES
- Improve current recycling service, include glass in doorstep collections
- 20mph limit for residential roads (excluding main trunk roads)
- Sort out condition of the roads – long-term repairs not short-term filling of potholes, which only last a few months
- Safer cycling and walking – protect cyclists from traffic where possible. Good use of
‘shared spaces’ in the town centre
- Work with new owners for action on the cinema site
ST JOHN’S – RESULTS
Peter Lidstone – Liberal Democrat: 43%
David Scott – Conservative: 29%
Timothy Rich – Labour: 14%
Christine Marshall – UKIP: 7%
Phyllis Leslie – Green Party: 6%
Composition of the council – number of councillors: Total 48
Liberal Democrats: 3