Previews: 18 Oct 2018

There are just three by-elections on 18th October 2018. One is for a safe Labour ward in inner London, but the other two are very interesting. We have a close contest for Oxfordshire county council between Labour and the Green Party, which in the week that fracking resumed in the UK could result in a rare Green gain. But we start this week with a new venture. Passports at the ready, as we cross what may become a future customs border…

Carrick Castle

Mid and East Antrim council, Northern Ireland; caused by the death of independent councillor Jim Brown at the age of 68. Brown was a veteran of local government, having been first elected in 1981 to the former Carrickfergus council; he was an Ulster Unionist Party figure until the mid-1990s and had been elected as an independent since then. Brown was appointed MBE in the 2014 New Year Honours for services to local government.

This has been a long time coming. The Andrew’s Previews series is now in its ninth year, and in that time the number of by-elections previewed is somewhere in four figures. There aren’t many local government districts that have escaped the attention of this column over the years. But in that time there has been hardly a word about one entire province of what remains for now the United Kingdom. It’s time to put that right. Welcome to Northern Ireland.

You might reasonably ask why it’s taken so long to make the leap across the Irish Sea. It’s a good question. I’d like to think that the answer isn’t “cowardice”; but then again, when I was a growing lad Northern Ireland wasn’t just another place. It seemed like there was scarcely a day when the news bulletins didn’t have bad news: a shooting here, a bomb there, an atrocity somewhere else. It was the time of Troubles, of a galaxy of abbreviations representing paramilitaries and terrorists, of Gerry Adams’ and Martin McGuinness’ words being spoken by an actor, of Manchester city centre being blown up; and it left an impression in my young mind that this was a dangerous place best kept away from. Unfair, I know; and I’m hoping to visit the province next year for the first time.

This isn’t the place to go into a full-blown history of the Troubles: a book would struggle to do that subject justice, and it would be difficult to write such a book without offending somebody. But at the same time, it’s important to know something about their genesis in order to understand Northern Ireland’s local government as it works today.

British rule in Ireland has been going on for a long time, and Carrickfergus was at the centre of it. The Fergus of the name was Fergus Mór, a semi-legendary king who ruled in the fifth century over the kingdom of Dál Riata, which roughly corresponded to what is now called Argyll in Scotland but at its height extended across the sea to present-day County Antrim. The town was founded in the 1170s as the first town in County Antrim by John de Courcy, an Anglo-Norman knight who essentially carried out a private invasion of Ulster and constructed Carrickfergus Castle – which still stands today and is one of the best-preserved mediaeval structures in the province. From its promontory into the sea the castle dominated Carrickfergus Bay – as Belfast Lough was then known – and for the entire mediaeval period Carrickfergus was the main administrative centre for the northern end of the island. That made the town an important military prize: in 1597 the English Crown lost the Battle of Carrickfergus to the forces of the Clan MacDonnell during the Nine Years War, the castle was besieged by William of Orange’s forces in 1689 – the Prince of Orange himself entered Ireland through Carrickfergus the following year – and the town saw action in the Seven Years War (during which it was briefly occupied by the French) and the American War of Independence. Carrickfergus sold its customs rights in 1637, and subsequently was rather left behind by the growth of Belfast at the head of the bay during the Industrial Revolution.

Ireland was incorporated into the United Kingdom in 1801, and two attempts at Home Rule for the island during the late nineteenth century came to nothing. A third opportunity for Home Rule presented itself in 1910, as the rejection of Lloyd George’s 1909 budget by the Tory-dominated House of Lords provoked a constitutional crisis and two general elections in that year. Both of those elections resulted in hung parliaments in London with Irish MPs holding the balance of power. So far, so familiar. A third Home Rule Bill was the result, and despite the prospect that it might provoke a civil war it got through Parliament: but by the time the Home Rule Bill received Royal Assent in September 1914 the First World War had broken out, and implementation was postponed until after the war on the grounds that it would all be over by Christmas. It wasn’t.

By the time the war was over, four long years later, the Easter Rising had happened and republicanism was the order of the day. In the 1918 general election Sinn Féin – which had won nothing in 1910 – virtually swept the board in Ireland outside the Protestant-majority areas of Ulster. However, most of their seats in that election were uncontested, and Sinn Féin polled just less than 50% of the vote across the constituencies which saw a contest. The British government hoped to illustrate that Sinn Féin support across the island was not as monolithic as the seat count suggested, and they did this by introducing proportional representation – using the Single Transferable Vote – for the 1920 Irish local government elections, the first since the war. It’s questionable whether this move had the effect desired, but it did entrench proportional representation as the electoral system in what became the Republic of Ireland.

Events intervened. By the end of 1922 Ireland had been partitioned into a Free State and “Northern Ireland”, being the six north-eastern counties of the island and a polity with a Protestant majority and sizeable Catholic minority. The Protestants and Unionists quickly moved to consolidate their power: proportional representation was immediately abolished for Northern Irish local government and First Past the Post was introduced for the Northern Ireland Parliament in 1929.

Not only that, but every trick in the book was employed to perpetuate that Unionist advantage, and local government was at the heart of it. It’s no accident that many of the complaints of the civil rights marchers of the late 1960s related to local government in some way. Even the franchise was manipulated: in Northern Irish local elections only property owners or tenants and their spouses were ordinarily eligible to vote, so adult children living with their parents, lodgers, sub-tenants and servants were excluded from the local electoral register. The province’s stark political divide between Protestant and Catholic thus meant that if a local authority gave a council house to a Protestant family, it was pretty much guaranteeing two Unionist votes in the relevant ward. Anti-Catholic discrimination in other fields, such as employment (in 1971 the unemployment rate for Catholics was more than double that for Protestants), thus fed into political control. And gerrymandering was rife: the most notorious example was that of Londonderry county borough, whose population had a large Catholic majority that was safely packed into a few supersafe wards, producing a council permanently controlled by the Unionist minority.

It took the introduction of direct rule for these abuses to be countered. By the late 1960s the Victorian system of local government in the province – counties, county boroughs, urban and rural districts – was just as fragmented and unfit for purpose in Northern Ireland as it was in the rest of the UK. The Northern Ireland Parliament, before events intervened, had been working on a local government reform to sweep away the old map and introduce twenty-six new unitary councils, and single-member wards had been drawn up for the first elections on the new lines. One of those councils was based on Carrickfergus. The Heath government, having imposed direct rule, acceded to the demands of the civil rights protesters that proportional representation be reintroduced; needing a quick way of doing it, they simply grouped together the single-member wards to form District Electoral Areas. Several decades and boundary reviews later, proportional representation and this boundary-drawing process are still with us: the modern Carrick Castle District Electoral Area is a grouping of the single-member wards of Boneybefore, Castle, Kilroot, Love Lane and Victoria, and returns five members to Mid and East Antrim council. This council was created by a further local government reform in 2014 which reduced the number of councils in Northern Ireland to eleven, and as well as Carrickfergus the district includes Larne and Ballymena.

In the meantime Carrickfergus became a commuter town for Belfast, eleven miles away down the Lough. As well as the castle, the Kilroot coal-fired power station dominates the view from the sea here: this is Northern Ireland’s largest power plant and produces a third of the province’s electricity. The town also had some industry in the postwar period, with textiles, chemicals and cigarette factories.

Proportional representation is all well and good, but it does give you a problem when it comes to casual vacancies. Among the small minority of places which have implemented the Single Transferable Vote, there is no consensus on what to do when a vacancy arises. The Irish Dáil and Scottish local government hold single-member by-elections; Malta and some Australian implementations go back to the original ballot papers and see who would have been elected if the former councillor’s votes are redistributed. Irish and Northern Irish local government, together with the Northern Ireland Assembly, do neither of these: instead they operate a system where the party of the departed councillor are asked to nominate a replacement to serve in their stead. This is handled in the province by the centralised Electoral Office of Northern Ireland, and you can see news of replacements on their website as they happen. Over in the Republic, a young man called Leo Varadkar got his leg-up into public office in this way some years ago. Independent councillors, who don’t have a party machinery to do this kind of thing, instead get to file an ordered list of substitutes who, in the event of a vacancy, are contacted in turn to see if they are (a) eligible and (b) still interested in being a councillor. Independent councillor Jim Brown had lodged a list of three substitutes, none of whom passed these tests after Brown died earlier this year; and so we are having a by-election, the first local by-election in Northern Ireland since 2010.

Which brings us on to Northern Ireland’s wonderful political parties. The province has not moved on politically in the last century in the sense that its elections are still sectarian headcounts rather than based on such decadent notions as policy and ideology; but unlike the 1910s there is no longer a monolithic Unionist Party and a monolithic Nationalist Party on the two sides of the religious divide. In what’s already a long piece I’m not going to spend any time discussing the Nationalist side of the party system, for the simple reason that it’s not relevant in Carrickfergus. In the 2011 census the town reported a religious split of 85% Protestant to just 10% Catholic; the Nationalist parties are not organised in the town and there has never been a nationalist candidate in Carrickfergus’ local elections going back to the 1973 reorganisation (and probably beyond). This by-election hasn’t ended that streak. So let’s talk Unionism.

Top of the poll in Carrick Castle in 2014, as so often happens across the province these days, was the Democratic Unionist Party which won 27% of the vote and two out of five seats. This was of course the party of the Big Man, “Papa Doc”, the Reverend Dr Ian Paisley who juggled leading the party with leading his own Christian denomination and preaching fire and brimstone on everyone. Until he got into government and became a Chuckle Brother. The DUP are now the major Unionist party: their vote base tends towards working-class and hardline Protestants, and some of their views wouldn’t look out of place in the US Republicans with a big NO to gay rights, abortion and all that jazz and a warm reception for creationism and other such stuff you find in the Bible. They’ve had their fair share of scandals in recent years, from the affair between Mrs Robinson and a younger man while Mrs Robinson was married to the First Minister; through Ian Paisley’s son Ian Junior or “Baby Doc” (altogether now: Baby Doc do do do-do do-do Baby Doc do do do-do do-do…) becoming the first MP to have a recall petition opened on him; to the Renewable Heat Incentive affair which brought down the Northern Ireland devolved government early last year. Two inconclusive elections later, and the DUP are propping up Theresa May’s government in Westminster while Stormont remains in limbo; with Arlene Foster having a veto on much of what the Tories want to do at the moment, Mrs May doesn’t have much of an incentive to force the DUP back around the table with the Shinners to get the Northern Ireland government going again.

This is the first poll in Northern Ireland since the 2017 general election, and it will be interesting to see if the success of the DUP in influencing the Westminster government has any effect on the vote shares. Hoping for an increase is the DUP candidate Peter Johnston, a 30-year-old IT entrepreneur who came back to Carrickfergus after founding a software company in Silicon Valley.

Second here in 2014 were the Ulster Unionist Party, the province’s traditional party of government and in increasing disarray as they desperately try to work out how to get top spot back from the DUP. The UUP candidate here John Stewart had 16% of the vote last time out, polling more first preferences than any other candidate; and subsequently he was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly last year. This time the UUP nominee is John McDermott, another local businessman who claims to have been endorsed by Jim Brown as his successor before Brown died.

Brown himself polled 15% of the first preferences in 2014, being the second candidate to be elected: he made quota after the Traditional Unionist Voice candidate was eliminated. The TUV are a fundamentalist DUP splinter group, so goodness knows what they make of the independent candidate in this by-election: Will Sibley is a practitioner of alternative health therapies such as reiki and trance healing.

Coming in fourth last time, also with 15% of the first preferences, were the Alliance Party. The Alliance badge themselves as a cross-community party, with policies not dissimilar to the Liberal Democrats across the water; being “cross-community” in Carrickfergus probably means that Alliance are mopping up whatever Catholic vote exists in the town. 15% would normally get you one out of five seats in a Single Transferable Vote election, but not in Carrick Castle in 2014: the Unionist transfers stayed within the Unionist parties, the Alliance couldn’t get the 2% of transfers they needed to make quota and they were shut out. Their candidate for this by-election is Lauren Gray, a former journalist and Girl Guide leader.

Instead the remaining seat went to, surprisingly enough, UKIP who had 13% of the first preferences. The last Northern Irish local elections being on Euro-election day in 2014 will have helped in that, but UKIP councillor Noel Jordan must have been well thought-of in Carrickfergus to do so well. Jordan was subsequently the UKIP candidate for the East Antrim constituency at the 2015 general election and the 2016 and 2017 Assembly elections: in 2015 he broke 10% and the following year he finished as runner-up. He has since left UKIP, but there is a continuity Eurosceptic candidate in the form of Si Harvey, who has been nominated for the UKIP splinter Democrats and Veterans Party.

Harvey completes a five-strong ballot paper for this very rare Northern Ireland local by-election. It only remains to say that the Alternative Vote will be in use; and don’t wait up all night for the result, as the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland won’t start counting the votes until Friday morning.

I am grateful to the broadcaster, Round Britain Quiz team member and all-round good guy Paddy Duffy for help with this preview.

Parliamentary constituency: East Antrim
ONS Travel to Work Area: Belfast
Postcode district: BT38

Lauren Gray (All)
Si Harvey (Democrats and Veterans)
Peter Johnston (DUP)
John McDermott (UUP)
Will Sibley (Ind)

May 2014 first preferences DUP 1586 UUP 939 Ind 882 All 846 UKIP 749 TUV 338 PUP 248 Ind 131 Ind 105

Iffley Fields and St Mary’s

Oxfordshire county council; caused by the resignation of Labour councillor Helen Evans, who is moving away from the area. She had served since May 2017.

We return to the more familiar surroundings of Great Britain for a discussion of two very left-wing and urban wards. First and most interesting is the city of Oxford, with a by-election to Oxfordshire county council. The Iffley Fields and St Mary’s county division is based along the Iffley Road, the southern of the three roads into Oxford from the south-east that converge at Magdalen Bridge.

The area around Magdalen Bridge to the west of Iffley Road is “gown” territory. Much of this area is open space next to the River Cherwell, occupied by the University of Oxford’s rugby ground and athletics track. The rugby ground, which was used by Oxford’s rugby league team until earlier this year, has hosted international sides playing the University on numerous occasions; but it’s the athletics track for which the area is world-famous. In 1948 a medical student at Exeter College was elected president of the University’s Athletic Club with a promise to bring the Iffley Road track up to modern standards; six years later he turned up for a meet here on the track he’d had built, and 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds afterwards Roger Bannister’s name was in the history books. The Iffley Road running track was refurbished in 2007; now called the Roger Bannister running track, it awaits its next world record.

At the northern end of the ward can be found Magdalen College School, a private school dating from 1480 and associated with the Oxford college of the same name on the far side of Magdalen Bridge. (Which explains a few things. Last Saturday your columnist was at Magdalen playing quizbowl; as well as the quiz, there was a Matriculation ceremony going on at the same time, and the college cloister was filled with students in full academic dress, proud parents clutching glasses of wine and at least one crocodile of schoolchildren in uniform – presumably from that school. As with so much of what goes on at Oxbridge, all very bizarre.) Magdalen College School educated the Lord Chancellor and Catholic martyr St Thomas More, and other Old Waynfletes include the physician, journalist and Bad Scientist ben goldacre, who really needs to learn to use Capital Letters in his correspondence. Around May goldacre tried to get your columnist involved in an election research project while making it clear that he had no money to pay for it – I think he found it’s a bit more complicated than that. Next to Magdalen College School is the only Oxford University college east of the Cherwell, St Hilda’s; dating from 1893, St Hilda’s became in 2007 the last single-sex Oxford college to admit men and accordingly all of its well-known political alumni are women. They include three members of the House of Lords, the academic Susan Greenfield, the former London Mayoral candidate Susan Kramer and Gillian Shephard, the education and employment secretary in the Major government; and one Member of Parliament currently serving, the Hackney South and Shoreditch MP Meg Hillier.

All this has left its mark on the demographics. The St Mary’s ward of Oxford, which is the northern end of this division and includes St Hilda’s College, was 46% student at the 2011 census, making top 100 lists in the UK for private renting (54% of households), the 18-29 age bracket (56%), those educated to A-level or equivalent but no higher (34%) and those born in the EU-14 (7.6%). Iffley Fields ward, the southern end of the division, is more “town” than “gown” with only 18% full-time students. This sort of profile tends to mean a very volatile electorate because the student population turns over from year to year; and since Oxford’s 2018 Michaelmas term is only in its second week it’s questionable how many of this academic year’s students have made their way onto the electoral register in time for this by-election.

At county level this area is closely fought between Labour and the Green Party and has been for many years. Until 2013 St Mary’s ward was in the East Oxford division and Iffley Fields ward was represented by county councillors for Isis, which in those halcyon days was not a name that has the connotations it does now. East Oxford and Isis both voted Green in 2005 before splitting their two seats between Green and Labour in 2009. The present division was created by a boundary review for the 2013 election and has continued in that vein: the Greens won Iffley Fields and St Mary’s by 77 votes in 2013, but Labour gained it by 199 votes four years later as the Green Party was wiped out of Oxfordshire county council. In percentage terms the Labour lead that year was 47-41. May’s Oxford city council elections saw the Greens hold St Mary’s ward and Labour hold Iffley Fields, both results being marginal: across both wards the Greens led 47-45 in votes. That’s not a direct comparison as this county division doesn’t cover all of Iffley Fields ward; but it does indicate that the Green Party may be within range of a rare by-election gain.

Defending for Labour is Damian Haywood, who works for Oxford University in NHS clinical research and is the treasurer of a national charity supporting families with disabled children. The Green Party have reselected (Arthur) David Williams, a veteran of local government: he was first elected in 1979 as a Labour member of Rochdale council, and he stood for Parliament three times as a Labour candidate (in Colne Valley in 1983, and Rochdale in 1987 and 1992). Williams came to Oxford in the 1990s, joined the Green Party in 2003, and was a Green member of Oxford city council for Iffley Fields ward from 2006 to 2014; he was elected to Oxfordshire county council for this division in 2013, lost his seat in 2017, and wants it back. Completing the ballot paper are Josie Procter for the Lib Dems and Conservative candidate Paul Sims.

Parliamentary constituency: Oxford East
Oxford city council wards: St Mary’s; Iffley Fields (most)
ONS Travel to Work Area: Oxford
Postcode district: OX4

Damien Haywood (Lab)
Josie Procter (LD)
Paul Sims (C)
Arthur Williams (Grn)

May 2017 result Lab 1525 Grn 1326 LD 222 C 181
May 2013 result Grn 1111 Lab 1034 C 134 LD 90 Ind 49


Hackney council, North London; caused by the resignation on health grounds of Labour councillor Alex Kuye. He had served only since May this year.

For our last by-election today we travel to inner-city London, from Meg Hillier’s alma mater to her constituency. Hackney’s Victoria ward covers South Hackney, along Victoria Park Road and Well Street in the E9 postcode district; it covers the housing immediately to the north-west of Victoria Park but not the park itself, which is in the Borough of Tower Hamlets. Hackney has a reputation as a poor, crowded and multicultural part of London, and Victoria ward is no different from the rest of the borough: it is in the top 100 wards in England and Wales for social housing (52%), black population (24%) and mixed-race population (6.7%). That was on the boundaries which existed at the time of the 2011 census; there were boundary changes here for the 2014 election but Victoria ward was little changed by that review.

In the current political climate that creates a very safe ward for Labour. In the May 2018 London borough elections the Labour slate led here with 67% of the vote, the Greens running second on just 17%. The 2016 Mayor and Assembly elections saw Sadiq Khan leading Zac Goldsmith 68-11 in the ward’s ballot boxes, while in the London Members ballot Labour beat the Greens 60-14. At parliamentary level, Hillier – who in 2000 was elected as the first London Assembly member for this area, which is part of the Assembly’s North East constituency – is similarly untroubled.

Defending for Labour is Penny Wrout, a journalist and Essex University lecturer. The Greens have reselected a candidate from their slate here in May, Wendy Robinson who works in publishing. Also standing are Pippa Morgan for the Liberal Democrats, veteran election candidate Christopher Sills for the Conservatives and Harini Iyengar, who has been nominated by the Women’s Equality Party.

Parliamentary constituency: Hackney South and Shoreditch
London Assembly constituency: North East
ONS Travel to Work Area: London
Postcode districts: E8, E9

Harini Iyengar (Women’s Equality)
Pippa Morgan (LD)
Wendy Robinson (Grn)
Christopher Sills (C)
Penny Wrout (Lab)

May 2018 result Lab 2271/1880/1709 Grn 575/384/302 LD 299/270/160 C 229/212/210
May 2014 result Lab 2096/2059/1921 Grn 640/586/572 C 278/269/151 UKIP 256 LD 186/165/114
May 2016 GLA results (excludes postal voters)
Mayor: Lab 2098 C 338 Grn 310 Women’s Equality 85 LD 82 Respect 54 UKIP 35 Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol 25 Britain First 19 BNP 9 Zylinski 5 One Love 4
London Members: Lab 1873 Grn 446 C 239 Women’s Equality 163 LD 149 UKIP 74 Respect 55 Britain First 26 CPA 22 Animal Welfare 20 House Party 17 BNP 12