Previews: 20 Dec 2018

Before we start this week, there is a regrettable entry for Correction Corner. Christopher Millington, who contested the Toddbrook by-election in Harlow last week, was representing the Liberal Democrats and not, as I wrote, the Green Party. My apologies to all involved.

There are three by-elections on 20th December 2018, all Liberal Democrat defences:


Charnwood council, Leicestershire; caused by the death of John Sutherington who was the only Liberal Democrat member of the council.

Well, last week was exciting, wasn’t it? Yes, the big vote on Wednesday was a crushing win for the Ashfield Independents who polled 87% of the vote in Sutton-in-Ashfield, further proof that the voters of that corner of Nottinghamshire have confidence in the strong and stable leadership of Jason Zadrozny. Watch that man for the future, his star is in the ascendancy. Yes, last week was very difficult to write about because the pace of events on the national scene is just so fast these days. Not even satire can keep up: my Previews last week went through several last-minute redrafts and still ended up very dated. With Parliament yet to break up for the Christmas recess at the time of writing, there is still time for Things to Happen before you read this.

One of the other by-elections last week was in the council estates of Middlesbrough, a place which has been left behind by the death of its major industries and which – not coincidentally – came out in favour of leaving the EU those thirty long months ago. This is not a new phenomenon: technological change has been leaving places and people behind for a very long time, going back all the way to the Industrial Revolution and before. And for almost as long, people have been railing against technological change. Back in 1779, there was allegedly an incident in which a semi-legendary man called Edward Ludlam smashed up a couple of newfangled stocking frames in a spasm of rage; some decades later, his name – shortened to Ned Ludd – became appropriated for the Luddite protest movement against mechanisation and the industrial abuses which stemmed from it.

Ned Ludd (or Edward Ludlum) was from Anstey, a settlement on the edge of Charnwood Forest a few miles north of Leicester. Anstey is one of those awkward places to classify in that it’s too large to comfortably be a village but too small to be a town, and that was also the case back in the nineteenth century when, despite Ludd’s efforts, there was a thriving textile industry here with multiple hosiery factories. By the twentieth century there were other industries in Anstey – boots and shoes, wallpaper, tanning – and there is still a factory here making packaging together with the book publishers Ulverscroft, which specialises in large-print books for those with poor eyesight. Anstey’s industry has, however, declined; and with its proximity to Leicester housebuilding has been the order of the day more recently. One street of new-build houses just off the main road to Leicester has been called, without a hint of irony, Ned Ludd Close.

Another road in Anstey was recently named after another local man. John Sutherington had represented the village on Charnwood council since 1999, from that year to 2003 as part of the former Bradgate ward, and was clearly well thought-of as a local councillor. He was born in Anstey in 1949 and lived here for the whole of his life, being a talented sportsman and musician in addition to his work and democratic duties. Unfortunately his last five years were blighted by aplastic anaemia, a bone marrow condition; and by becoming the victim of a telephone banking scam which cost him £20,000.

Sutherington had a clear personal vote, holding his seat easily in the 2007 election when his Lib Dem running-mate lost to the Conservatives. At his final re-election in 2015 that must have made all the difference because he held his seat by just sixteen votes over the second Conservative candidate. The lead Tory candidate that year had 34%, Sutherington as a single Lib Dem polled 26%, with UKIP and Labour on 16% each. The Conservatives normally have a better time at county council level: Anstey is part of the Bradgate division which is safe for the Tories.

John Sutherington was the last Liberal Democrat member of Charnwood council, and one suspects that with his passing there was nobody left to take up the Lib Dem torch in the area. In any event there is no defending Lib Dem candidate, so this by-election will form an early Christmas present with a gain for either the Conservative or Labour Parties. In the blue corner is Paul Baines, who is one of the few local election candidates notable enough to merit his own Wikipedia entry: Baines is a Professor of Political Marketing at the University of Leicester and has written several books on the subject, so now he has the chance to put his theory into practice. In the red corner is Glyn McAllister, vice-chairman of Anstey parish council and regular Labour candidate for the ward. With UKIP not returning, this is a straight fight. And there may be a rematch for the loser in short order, because the winner of this by-election will need to seek re-election in May 2019.

Parliamentary constituency: Charnwood
Leicestershire county council division: Bradgate
ONS Travel to Work Area: Leicester
Postcode district: LE7

Paul Baines (C)
Glyn McAllister (Lab)

May 2015 result C 1552/1163 LD 1179 UKIP 739 Lab 717/443 Grn 417
May 2011 resut LD 1087 C 989/631 Lab 518/335 BNP 215
May 2007 result C 934/737 LD 883/644 BNP 422
May 2003 result LD 962/659 C 571/372 Lab 130

Kent Estuary

Cumbria county council; and

Arnside and Milnthorpe

South Lakeland council, Cumbria; both caused by the death of Liberal Democrat councillor Ian Stewart at the age of 65. The deputy leader of Cumbria county council, Stewart was first elected to county hall in 2001 and had served on South Lakeland council since winning a by-election in May 2002, originally sitting for Arnside and Beetham ward.

We finish for the year in the beautiful hills and valleys of Cumbria: not in the Lake District, but on the banks of Morecambe Bay. Here, on the Kent Estuary, can be found the Westmorland village of Arnside hugging the hillside next to the water. Arnside was a port in days gone by, with boats negotiating the treacherous waters of the Bay to get here; but in 1857 the railway came, with a long viaduct being built from Arnside over the estuary towards Grange-over-Sands and on to Ulverston and Barrow. The railway is still here, but the port has gone: the viaduct caused the estuary to silt up. The village lies on the side of Arnside Knott, a 522-foot hill which is recognised as England’s lowest Marilyn – that is, a summit with at least 150 metres descent on all sides.

The railway runs south from Arnside towards the junction at Carnforth over the border in Lancashire, from where Arnside gets its post. However, the main lines of communication in the area run further to the east away from Kentdale, with the West Coast Main Line and M6 motorway passing through the hills east of Beetham and Milnthorpe. These are villages on the A6 road between Carnforth and Kendal which still take most of their custom from tourism and passing trade on the road, although there are some rather surprising other industries. Such as this, which was first made in 1983 in Milnthorpe:

Despite the advertising, Um Bongo is still not available in the Congo, although this may change with the forthcoming free trade agreements we are promised post-Brexit. Watch this space.

Also made in Milnthorpe was a man whose signature appears on the Lib Dem nomination papers for these by-elections. Timothy James Farron was born in 1970 in Preston and from his earliest days went pretty much straight into politics, serving on the NUS executive and becoming the first Liberal to be elected president of the Newcastle University students’ union. While still a student he contested the 1992 general election as Liberal Democrat candidate for North West Durham, finishing third behind the re-elected Labour MP and a young woman from the Tories called Theresa May. (Whatever happened to her?) After spells on Lancashire county council and South Ribble district council, Farron moved to Milnthorpe and got his big break by being selected for the Lib Dem target seat of Westmorland and Lonsdale in 2001; he failed to win that year but made some encouraging progress. In the following years the Lib Dems took control of South Lakeland council by convincing the Labour vote in Kendal to defect to them en masse, and Farron rode that Liberal wave into Parliament in 2005.

Tim Farron became leader of the Liberal Democrats following the near-wipeout of 2015, and fat lot of good it did him. With local election results pointing towards a slow Conservative recovery in Westmorland and Lonsdale, the Tories put some effort into a decapitation strategy in the 2017 general election; Farron held his seat, but only by 777 votes on an adverse swing of over 8%. Following the loss of Southport, Leeds North West and Sheffield Hallam that year, Farron is the only Liberal Democrat MP in the north of England. He resigned the party leadership shortly after the election, a decision which should give him more time to concentrate on his constituency. And he’ll need to do so: if the proposed boundary changes go through then Appleby-in-Westmorland and a large rural swathe full of Tory voters will be transferred into his seat, potentially wiping out that majority.

The Westmorland Lib Dems may already be seeing the fruits of those labours in Farron’s home ward, which swung towards the party this year. These boundaries were first used in 2001 as the Kent Estuary division of Cumbria county council, and were left unchanged by a further redistribution in 2013. Ian Stewart had been the county councillor for Kent Estuary throughout that time: at his last re-election in 2017 he had a 53-37 lead over the Conservatives, a swing of around eight points against the Lib Dems since 2013.

During this time South Lakeland district had rather unusual electoral arrangements, in that most of its wards were single-member but it used the thirds electoral cycle. All good things must come to an end, and a rewarding earlier this year replaced that with a more conventional cycle of thirds elections with wards of three councillors each. That meant that the former two-seat ward of Arnside and Beetham was merged with the single-member Milnthorpe ward to create a new three-seat ward which has exactly the same boundaries as the Kent Estuary county division – but just to confuse matters has a different name, “Arnside and Milnthorpe”. In the May 2018 elections Arnside and Milnthorpe elected the Lib Dem slate with a 52-32 lead over the Conservatives; Ian Stewart beat the alphabet to top the poll, suggesting that he had developed a personal vote.

The Lib Dems will be hoping that that personal vote carries over to Stewart’s successors in these by-elections. Defending the Kent Estuary seat on the county council is Pete McSweeney, who was elected to South Lakeland council from Arnside and Beetham ward in 2016 and re-elected here in 2018; this is a busy time for McSweeney as he was elected in third place in May, meaning that he got only a one-year term and will need to seek re-election to the district council in May 2019. The Conservatives have selected Tom Harvey, a South Lakeland councillor for the neighbouring ward of Burton and Crooklands. A Tory gain could have implications for control of the county council, which is presently run by a Labour-Lib Dem coalition which holds 41 out of 84 seats plus this vacancy; the Conservatives are the largest single group with 36 seats plus another vacancy, and five independent councillors hold the balance of power at the Courts in Carlisle.

On a rare all-female ballot paper for the Arnside and Milnthorpe seat on South Lakeland district council, the Lib Dems have nominated Helen Chaffey who is an Arnside parish councillor and a marketing careers coach at Lancaster University’s management school. The Conservative candidate is Milnthorpe resident Rachel Ashburner who was on the Conservative slate here in May. Completing both ballot papers are Jill Abel for the Green Party and Kate Love for Labour.

Parliamentary constituency: Westmorland and Lonsdale
ONS Travel to Work Area: Kendal
Postcode districts: LA5, LA6, LA7

May 2018 district council result LD 1513/1449/1440 C 930/916/677 Grn 353/123/100 Lab 140
May 2017 county council result LD 1422 C 995 Grn 162 Lab 103
May 2013 county council result LD 1492 C 676 Lab 159
June 2009 county council result LD 2123 C 1032 Lab 61
May 2005 county council result LD 2038 C 1526 Lab 319
May 2001 county council result LD 1965 C 1725

Kent Estuary

Jill Abel (Grn)
Tom Harvey (C)
Kate Love (Lab)
Pete McSweeney (LD)

Arnside and Milnthorpe

Jill Abel (Grn)
Rachel Ashburner (C)
Helen Chaffey (LD)
Kate Love (Lab)

“The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?”

“The same procedure as every year, James.”

So we have come to the end of the psephological year of 2018, one of the most volatile and exhausting years in British politics since, well, 2017. All sorts of Things may have Happened this year, but at least we were spared a general election this time round. Nonetheless there is an awful lot of volatility in politics right now not just in the British bubble in which we live, but around the world. We are cursed to live in Interesting Times, and the curse has clearly not yet been broken. I’m writing this on Monday, and with talk of a confidence motion against Theresa May the Christmas Truce clearly isn’t in force yet. One suspects that this week’s Previews will suffer the same fate as the last: of becoming hopelessly out of date in the period after my submission deadline.

This is the last Andrew’s Previews of the year, and traditionally this column likes to take the opportunity to look back over the old year and forward to the new. This column traditionally signs off by wishing for all readers that their coming year be better than the one just gone. This column doesn’t traditionally come into the Christmas period with dire warnings of a chaotic no-deal dystopia all over the press unless Something Happens to stop it over the next fourteen weeks.

One of the reasons I write nearly-exclusively about local politics is that I’m as sick of Brexit as you are, and local government is one of the areas least touched by the subject. But hysteria like that is only going to get worse as 29th March approaches, and one of these days the electorate are going to sit up and notice it. One of the few predictions that can be made with any certainty about the whole Brexit process is that come exit day an awful lot of people – on both sides of the Remain-Leave divide – are going to be disappointed for a whole host of reasons. I’m reminded of what happened five years ago in the wake of the referendum on Scottish independence; the Scottish National Party may have lost that one, but the number of disappointed people – on both sides of the Yes-No divide – led to a political realignment which has left the Nationalists in the ascendancy and the Scottish Labour Party on the canvas. They are yet to climb off the floor.

During that realignment it was the opinion polls which picked up the earliest signs of the change, but it was the local by-elections which proved that the shift was real. New parties may be here today, gone tomorrow, but what turns a transient opinion poll movement into something tangible? Boots on the ground. Organisation. Getting your message out in the cities, the towns, the suburbs, the estates, the villages, the places where ordinary people live. And it’s the local by-elections which pick those shifts up first. We saw it in Scotland in 2014-15 with the rise of the SNP; we saw it in England earlier in 2014 as UKIP started to gain council seats from seemingly nowhere.

We may see something similar in the aftermath of Brexit, as there will be an awful lot of disappointed people – some of whom may be looking for a new political home. There are credible ways in which both main parties can deliver knockout blows on the other: there are realistic scenarios in which one or both of the main parties implode under the weight of their own contradictions. There might even be opportunities for minor parties if they can play their hand well. Volatile political times may very quickly turn into volatile electoral times. Watch this space.

The first scheduled chance the UK’s electors will have to deliver their verdict on whatever post-Brexit political landscape we get will be (unless a general election turns up beforehand) the local government elections on Thursday 2nd May 2019. This is the largest year of the local electoral cycle, with nearly every district council seat in the Tory shires, together with the whole of local government in Northern Ireland, up for election. Any hint of post-Brexit chaos affecting the ordinary voters of the English or the six counties may not be taken kindly by the core electorate of the Conservative government, not to mention that of the Democratic Unionists who sustain them in office. The electoral dangers should be obvious. The political volatility is such that predicting any more than that at this stage would merely be a hostage to fortune.

And fortune is not something which the UK’s local government has much of at the moment. The well-publicised case of Northamptonshire county council, which in 2018 issued not one but two notices banning all non-essential spending, is merely the tip of the iceberg. There are many more local councils out there struggling to balance the books in the face of reduced central grants, increased responsibilities and eroded spending power. It’s hard to see this changing in the near future.

In the face of such economic pressure the trend has been for further consolidation in what is already some of the most remote local government in Europe. Next April fifteen district or county councils will disappear, with wholesale reorganisation in Dorset, two Somerset councils merging into one and and two new district councils being created in Suffolk to replace four old ones. The insolvency of Northamptonshire county council has forced reorganisation in that county, and the Northants shire district elections in 2019 have already been cancelled. Buckinghamshire’s elections next year look likely to be called off as well. Other counties have debated reorganisation schemes, and the Local Government Boundary Commission is consistently finding that the councils they are reviewing want to propose cuts in councillor numbers while their populations increase – not in the name of increased or improved democracy, but in the name of saving money.

It’s not just councillor allowances that are the point of that trend: elections cost money as well. The Electoral Commission has put a warning out to returning officers to ensure they keep hold of the money required to organise a European Parliament election, in the event that we haven’t left the EU by the middle of May. Even the average local by-election costs a five-figure sum in staff time, polling station hire, ballot paper printing costs, franking for postal votes and so on.

In 2018 Andrew’s Previews covered nearly three hundred local by-elections, which attracted over a thousand candidates (four of whom were elected unopposed) and in which over half a million votes were cast. The only major contest which escaped this column’s attention was the West Tyrone parliamentary by-election in May, but we made up for that by covering Northern Ireland for the first time with the Carrick Castle by-election this autumn.

Half a million votes doesn’t necessarily mean half a million readers, but I am grateful to everyone who takes the time to read the Previews and to those who comment on them and spot the mistakes which sneaked through. Thank you. I try to follow the Reithian principle of “inform and entertain”, and hopefully you have found some entertainment and been better informed about the UK and its political scene: both nationally and locally. As we demonstrate from week to week, there are lots of stories to tell. There will be no shortage of new stories in the year ahead.

Some of you even took the time to buy the books. Andrew’s Previews 2016 and 2017 remain and will remain available from Amazon, and I am considering a third book in the series to cover 2018. If you think this is a good or bad idea, let me know either in the comments or through the medium of Twitter. And remember that if you buy one or more of the Andrew’s Previews books, you will be helping the future of the column because the profits will support the necessary research; and in return for that donation you’ll get a nice book as a thank-you. Thank you.

Thanks are also due to the Britain Elects team, who have been steadfast in support of this column over the last year. If it hadn’t been for your support, this wouldn’t have happened on the same scale. Long may you go from strength to strength. Thank you.

As I said, another turbulent political year is in prospect for the year of Our Lord, 2019, and Britain Elects and this column will cover it in all the usual detail as the weeks and months unfold. In the meantime, Christmas is upon us, and it is time to close down for the year in the words that have become traditional. This column will return in time for the first local by-elections of 2019, to be held in Bexhill-on-Sea on Thursday 10th January; until then, may I wish you a very Merry Christmas, and may your 2019 be an improvement on your 2018.