Previews: 02 Feb 2018

Two by-elections on 1st February 2018:

Falmouth Smithick

Cornwall council; caused by the death of Labour councillor Candy Atherton at the age of 62. Originally a journalist who also worked with the probation service, Atherton was first elected in 1986 to Islington council in London, and served as Mayor of Islington in 1989-90. She stood for Parliament in 1992 in the safe Conservative seat of Chesham and Amersham, and also sought election to Wiltshire county council in 1993. In the 1997 general election Atherton defeated Sebastian Coe to become MP for Falmouth and Camborne, in the process becoming the first Labour parliamentary candidate to be selected from an all-women shortlist.

In Parliament Atherton campaigned for EU Objective One status for Cornwall, in favour of the minimum wage, for the opening of a university in Cornwall, and for the victims of the Ministry of Defence nerve gas station at Nancekuke in her constituency. She lost her parliamentary seat to the Liberal Democrats in 2005, but in 2013 resumed her local government career by being elected to Cornwall council. She leaves behind her husband, Broderick Ross.

Shortly before her parliamentary defeat, Atherton partially got her wish for the creation of a new university in Cornwall: the Falmouth College of Arts received degree-awarding powers in March 2005, and in 2012 was granted university status (as Falmouth University). In its short life the University has gained a good reputation for its arts degrees. The university’s Falmouth campus lies just outside the boundary of this ward, which is the central of the five wards covering Falmouth town.

Falmouth has always been a maritime centre. It started off life in 1540 with the building of Pendennis Castle to defend the Carrick Roads – the estuary of the River Fal, which has strong tidal currents. The town itself was founded in the early seventeenth century by Sir John Killigrew and quickly became one of the UK’s most important ports. As England’s most south-westerly harbour, Falmouth was excellently placed for communications with the Empire: the Falmouth Packet Service, carrying mail to and from the colonies, was instituted in 1689, and the harbour was where the news of the victory at Trafalgar, the voyage of the Beagle, and the round-the-world yachters Robin Knox-Johnston and Ellen MacArthur all reached Britain.

Falmouth is still Cornwall’s busiest port, with cargo and cruise ships keeping the waterfront busy, but tourism is now the main game in town. A large proportion of Smithick ward’s residents are in the hotel and hospitality industry, and the ward makes several top 100 lists from the last census: for full-time students, those educated to A-level and those of no religion.

Smithick ward has existed since 2009 when the modern Cornwall council was created, although it had a different name in 2009 – Falmouth Arwenack. (The present Falmouth Arwenack ward was called Falmouth Gyllyngvase in 2009.) In that 2009 election Arwenack elected independent councillor Steve Eva with just 24% of the vote in a very fragmented race: Labour, who finished fifth out of five candidates, were just 10.4 percentage points behind Eva. In the 2013 election Eva sought re-election in Falmouth Boslowick ward, clearing the way for Candy Atherton to take Labour from fifth to first, although still on a low vote share (33%). Atherton was re-elected more comfortably last year: she had 40%, to 24% for the Conservatives and 19% for the Lib Dems.

Defending for Labour is Jayne Kirkham, who fought Truro and Falmouth in last year’s general election: a Unison figure, she is a teaching assistant and former solicitor. The Conservatives may be regretting their selection of 21-year-old Richard Cunningham, who apologised during the campaign for bad-taste Nazi-themed Facebook posts he made a few years ago – this sort of thing is starting to become something of an occupational hazard for millennial candidates in particular. Cunningham works at the docks for a flooring company and does shifts in local bars, and before his campaign got derailed had had an innovative idea to reduce the pressure on Falmouth’s housing: travel subsidies to allow some of Falmouth University’s students to commute from Truro. Possibly seeking more conventional solutions to the housing problem is the Lib Dem candidate John Spargo, a businessman and Falmouth town councillor who is vice-chairman of the town’s planning committee. Spargo fought this ward in the 2017 Cornwall council election as did Green candidate Tom Scott, who completes the ballot paper.

Parliamentary constituency: Truro and Falmouth
ONS Travel to Work Area: Falmouth
Postcode district: TR11

Richard Cunningham (C)
Jayne Kirkham (Lab)
Tom Scott (Grn)
John Spargo (LD)

May 2017 result Lab 480 C 291 LD 225 Grn 195
May 2013 result Lab 316 Ind 156 LD 154 C 130 Ind 115 Ind 74
June 2009 result (Falmouth Arwenack) Ind 272 LD 259 C 241 Mebyon Kernow 192 Lab 156


Sunderland council, Tyne and Wear; caused by the death of Labour councillor Paul Watson at the age of 63. Watson was first elected in 1997 and since 2008 had been leader of Sunderland council. Away from politics Watson had another claim to fame: he was the uncle of the DJ and BBC music presenter Lauren Laverne.

Two by-elections, both caused by the untimely deaths of senior Labour figures, but at opposite ends of England. From Falmouth harbour we move to the south bank of the River Wear in Sunderland.

The name of Pallion brings to mind one of England’s greatest inventors: Sir Joseph Swan, who was born in 1828 at Pallion Hall in what’s now Sunderland. Swan made his fame and fortune by developing and patenting the first incandescent light bulb, and it was through his influence that many of the first electric light installations (Swan’s own home in Gateshead, the Lit and Phil library in Newcastle, Cragside in Northumberland) were in the north-east. Pallion Hall is long-gone, demolished in 1901 to make way for the expansion of Sunderland. The Victorian terraces that replaced it, intended for the town’s shipbuilders and shipyard workers, mostly still survive.

Also long gone is Ford Hall, the birthplace of Henry Havelock. A military figure who served with distinction in British India through the early nineteenth century, Havelock died during the 1857 Siege of Lucknow and is commemorated with a statue in Trafalgar Square in London. There is also a statue of Havelock in Sunderland’s Mowbray Park, while one of the roads running through Pallion ward is named after him. His old Ford Hall estate was developed for housing by Sunderland Corporation in the 1930s, and most of that housing is now being demolished and redeveloped in its turn.

Sunderland’s shipyards are similarly long gone, but the riverfront remains an industrial area. Under construction over the Wear is the Northern Spire Bridge, a cable-stayed design whose towers – 105 metres tall – are described as the tallest structures in north-east England. Once complete, the bridge’s approach roads will plug into the existing network at the Pallion Retail Park and the Pallion Industrial Estate. The retail park contains the sort of out-of-town chain stores you might expect, together with the Sunderland Wall which is claimed to be the UK’s highest indoor climbing wall, while the industrial estate is anchored by Rolls-Royce who have a factory here making helicopter parts (at least until 2019 when construction moves to Washington). Between the two is Pallion Metro station, opened in 2002 on the South Hylton branch of the Tyne and Wear Metro and providing fast and frequent links to Sunderland city centre.

It needs to be pointed out that this is a very deprived area with high unemployment rates. Most of the jobs in the ward are low-paid roles in the industrial estate or at the Sunderland Royal Hospital, which lies just outside the boundary; the 2011 census noted a significant Filipino population in one corner of the ward, a demographic feature which is often seen in the vicinity of hospitals. Most of those Filipinos won’t have the right to vote, of course. The electorate here is strongly Labour-voting, with UKIP having taken over second place from the Conservatives in 2014; at the most recent election in 2016 Labour led the Kippers 51-29.

Both Labour and UKIP have selected firefighters to fight this by-election. Defending for Labour is Gordon Chalk, a Fire Brigades Union rep, while challenging for UKIP is Steven Bewick who combines his fire service duties with running an electrical business. Also standing are Grant Shearer for the Conservatives, Martin Haswell for the Lib Dems and Craig Hardy for the Greens.

Parliamentary constituency: Sunderland Central
ONS Travel to Work Area: Sunderland
Postcode district: SR4

Steven Bewick (UKIP)
Gordon Chalk (Lab)
Craig Hardy (Grn)
Martin Haswell (LD)
Grant Shearer (C)

May 2016 result Lab 1046 UKIP 596 C 261 LD 91 Grn 71
May 2015 result Lab 1804 UKIP 1012 C 554 Grn 153 LD 134
May 2014 result Lab 1047 UKIP 659 C 314 Grn 105 LD 67
May 2012 result Lab 1541 C 365 Grn 304 LD 101
May 2011 result Lab 1688 C 506 Grn 451
May 2010 result Lab 1866 C 739 LD 709 BNP 318
May 2008 result Lab 1055 C 645 BNP 377 LD 305
May 2007 result Lab 1061 C 445 Ind 314 BNP 279 LD 277
May 2006 result Lab 1013 LD 453 BNP 441 C 424
June 2004 result Lab 1350/1333/1148 C 802/754 BNP 647

Andrew Teale

Andrew Teale is the Britain Elects previewer. He edits the Local Elections Archive Project, sometimes tweets at @andrewteale and plays quiz a bit. Read his meticulously-researched previews for the full lowdown on each local by-election, what you need to know and why you might (or might not) want to visit.

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