The political situation in Exeter is somewhat of a mirror image for that of the wider country. Nationally, the Conservatives have been the dominant political force for all of recent memory. In Exeter, the opposite is true.
Exeter City Council has been Labour-dominated since 2012, and Labour’s Ben Bradshaw has been the local MP since the 1997 electoral landslide. However, after 25 years, Ben is stepping down at the next general election, and after kindly agreeing to meet with me, I spoke with Tessa Tucker, the Conservative hoping to take his place, about her background, local issues and national politics.
A relative newcomer to politics, Tessa’s background is in strategic comms. She has worked for some major utilities, defence and automotive companies that she says has given her a real interest in “how we can use technology and innovation to tackle some of the big issues facing the planet, climate change being the obvious one.”
Surprisingly, Tessa told me that most of her family would actually describe themselves as socialists and joked that she’s “probably completely let them down” in terms of her own political philosophy.
She was born in Weston Super-Mare, but has lived locally for nearly 20 years. Given their dominance over this period, I asked Tessa how she felt Labour had governed Exeter over her time here.
Despite being on the opposite side of the political spectrum, Tessa began by praising Ben for his service, calling him a “really effective local MP” and a “good ambassador for the city.”
However, she does feel that, as they have effectively been “in charge of the city for 25 years, completely unchecked,” the Labour party in Exeter has, over recent years, become “complacent.” As examples, she points to the £10 million in losses and debt racked up by the council subsidiary Exeter City Living, the complete lack of disabled access at Exeter St Thomas and Polsloe Bridge train stations (for which she is appealing Network Rail) and the £50 million spent on constructing the Sidwell Point leisure centre and bus station, which she feels would have been better spread over several community projects to help the more vulnerable.
Tessa also believes that the Labour Party selecting Steve Race as their candidate, who is a councillor in London and has been since 2018, is “perhaps a sign that they feel they can take the city for granted.”
Tessa also believes that the Labour Party selecting Steve Race as their candidate, who is a councillor in London and has been since 2018, is “perhaps a sign that they feel they can take the city for granted.”Tessa Tucker
Our conversation then moved on to how climate change can be tackled in Exeter. Earlier this year, the council implemented a Low Traffic Neighbourhood scheme in areas of the city, with the intention of reducing traffic and pollution. The LTN has caused a furious backlash among affected residents (which you can read about here).
Tessa is against the scheme, which she says just means that “people are driving twice as far to reach their destination”, leading to increased, rather than decreased emissions. She describes the scheme as a “piecemeal change” that isn’t being pursued as “part of any wider strategy”, but rather on “an ideological basis by the Labour councillors that dominate the highways and traffic committee.”
She feels that a much more effective way to deal with local emissions is to invest and expand Exeter’s public transport networks. “I’m pro-cycling, pro-pedestrian. This [opposing the LTN] isn’t because I am anti-green. Quite the contrary.”
On law and order, I asked about how we could deal with Exeter’s crime rates, which are 32% higher than the Devon average. Tessa feels that there is more to be done to tackle localised anti-social behaviour – in particular graffiti and littering, but praised the work of Alison Hernandez (Devon’s Police and Crime Commissioner), who was “working really, really hard” to tackle the issue.
Our conversation moved on to more national issues. When asked for her assessment of Rishi Sunak, Tessa replied that the Prime Minister “has been an effective leader for the party. He has already got inflation under control and I think that is heading in the right direction. The economy in particular is something that’s of real concern to people, and I think he’s shown real leadership in terms of stabilising our situation.”
On Keir Starmer however, she said that “overwhelmingly, I, like many people, don’t know what he stands for. It seems to change from one minute to the next.” Tessa feels that the “uncertainty” around Starmer’s philosophy and policies is “concerning”, and will be a real issue for the Labour Party going into the general election. She says that if Starmer were to become PM, “no one quite knows what they are going to get.”
I then challenged Tessa on the rise of anti-immigration rhetoric within certain areas of her party, especially related to former Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s remarks about “invasions” and “hurricanes” of migrants heading for the UK.
“It’s not really up to me to comment on individual views within the Conservative Party. We’re a broad church and everyone is entitled to their own personal opinion.”
Tessa did emphasise that “it’s not the kind of language that I would use, and I think that we need to handle the issue of immigration very sensitively.”
Tessa is involved with the Coalition for Global Prosperity, an organisation concerned with international development, and she feels that an effective way to tackle the issue “at source” is to support development and stabilisation efforts in countries from which asylum seekers are fleeing.
“It’s difficult because we need people to work in social care and seasonal work, but we also need a debate around where the right level is. We can’t just have an open border policy. The policy around stopping the boats is really important, as it is a statement of intent about controlling our borders.”
“The policy around stopping the boats is really important, as it is a statement of intent about controlling our borders.”Tessa Tucker
I asked Tessa directly if she supported the ‘Rwanda plan’, which Rishi Sunak seems determined to push through despite an adverse ruling from the Supreme Court and its incompatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights.
“To my mind, that’s a small part of a much wider plan to get immigration under control. It will remain to be seen what options the Prime Minister goes for.” She thinks that “in the next two weeks we will have a clearer picture of how the Prime Minister intends to proceed in terms of Rwanda, but at the moment, I would be completely speculating on how that would end up.”
The horrendous scenes unfolding in the conflict between Israel and Hamas have been at the forefront of global conversation over the last two months, and I asked Tessa for her reaction to the situation in the Middle East.
“I think it’s devastating for people on all sides. As a mother of three children, I think it’s heartbreaking what is happening, particularly to children, again, on both sides.”
She says that “the humanitarian pauses are really welcome”, and regrets the likelihood that the conflict has ultimately “set back the two-state solution, which both myself and the British government see as the long-term goal.”
“We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that there are people involved in this. It is a very charged debate, and sometimes we forget that it is mothers, and daughters and sons who are experiencing horrors.”
“I hope that Israel going forward respects the laws of war. There cannot be a completely unchecked military response.”
“I hope that Israel going forward respects the laws of war. There cannot be a completely unchecked military response.”Tessa Tucker
She finished by expressing her concern about antisemitism, incidents of which have skyrocketed around the world since the beginning of the conflict.
“My grandfather was a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials. When he died, he left a lot of papers and diaries that were so horrific. I feel very emotional about what happened during that period of history as I have that immediate touchpoint of first hand evidence. We made a commitment to the Jewish community after the Second World War that they would be safe, wherever they settled. I feel really passionately that we need to stand by that and honour that.”
Tessa also expressed her desire to see more women in politics. She feels that if women are underrepresented in the political sphere, crucial women’s issues are less likely to be discussed. She praised the work of Theo Clarke, a female MP who has been leading the conversation around traumatic birth – an experience that Tessa has gone through herself.
Last week, Exeposé’s Online Deputy Editor Ewan Edwards interviewed Steve Race, the Labour candidate for the Exeter seat. He asked Steve, 9 quickfire questions that I also put to Tessa to finish off our discussion. They should make for an interesting and useful comparison between the two candidates.
Can you summarise your political philosophy in three words?
“Service. Helping people.”
What’s the biggest issue facing Exeter and how do you plan to tackle it?
“I think the biggest issue is what’s going to happen to the council budget in the long term, and what that’s going to mean for householders and businesses in the city. And also, how we are going to sort out our transport links, which will also help encourage business in the city centre.
What would be your offer to students specifically?
“Vote for someone who knows the city, who is really passionate about the city, and wants to make sure that the city provides opportunities and improves outcomes in the long term.”
Where is your favourite place in Exeter?
Name a political hero of yours.
“I have a lot of respect for Nancy Pelosi. She didn’t come to office until she was something like 47 – I’m 41 and so she gives me hope that I haven’t left it too late, as she had her family like me and then started on her political journey. She was a master legislator, and I hugely admire her ability to get legislation through in a very challenging time. She showed huge resilience in what she went through with Trump and then her husband being attacked – just a really inspiring female politician.”
Given Sunak brought back David Cameron as Foreign Secretary, which former Cabinet Minister would you like to see brought back?
“I’d have to say Rory Stewart as Foreign Secretary.”
Were you in favour of Brexit?
“I think there is still work to be done to maximise the opportunities of leaving the European Union.”
It’s a Saturday, are you watching Exeter Chiefs or Exeter City?
What would be your advice to students looking to get involved in politics?
“Be resilient. And don’t give up.”