Preview: 15 Aug 2019

Angust is a slow time of year for local by-elections and there is just one poll on 15th August 2019, in Shrewsbury. Before we get to that, I’d like to apologise to everyone concerned for what proved to be a very badly-researched article on Irthlingborough in last week’s Previews. Particular apologies are due to the winning Conservative candidate, Lee Wilkes, whose name I got wrong. I take full responsibility for the errors I made.

In an attempt to set the record straight, I will start this week by reissuing last week’s Irthlingborough article with (hopefully) all the mistakes expunged. If you enjoyed it last time, hopefully the repeat will be equally worthwhile.

Irthlingborough Waterloo (8th August 2019)

East Northamptonshire council; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Marika Hillson who had served since 2011.

For [last] week’s other Tory defence we come to the disaster area of modern local government: Northamptonshire. This column has rehearsed the gross mismanagement and insolvency of Northamptonshire county council several times in recent months, and the effect of that insolvency is that local government reorganisation is in the works. Northamptonshire’s 2019 local elections didn’t take place as scheduled: they were postponed until 2020, with the intention that by then the county council and its seven districts would be swept away in favour of a new map with two unitary councils: West Northamptonshire (to include the town of Northampton) and North Northamptonshire (based on Kettering, Corby and the rural east of the county).

However, there has been another twist to report. In May it was announced that the reorganisation had been postponed, and the plan is that it will now be 2021 before the new councils take up their roles. Your columnist missed that announcement at the time, and only started asking questions when the legislation to bring the new councils into existence failed to appear before the summer recess. I am grateful to Wellingborough councillor Adam Henley for bringing me up to speed with the latest scheme for the Northamptonshire reorganisation: Councillor Henley, who is now in the fifth year of his increasingly inaccurately-described four-year term, informs me that the plan now is that there will be shadow elections to the new North Northamptonshire and West Northamptonshire unitary councils in May 2020, while Henley and his fellow Northamptonshire district councillors will have their terms further extended to 2021. So now you know. More news as we get it.

If and when this process eventually reaches a conclusion, Irthlingborough would end up in the North Northamptonshire district despite being close to the southern edge of the county. This is a small town on the River Nene, whose fortunes were made on boots and shoemaking – including an association with a famous name. The story goes back to early 1945 and a German army doctor called Klaus Märtens, who decided to spend a period of leave by going to the Bavarian Alps for some skiing. He injured his ankle, and found that his army boots weren’t helping his injury; so he drew up some changes to his boots, including air-cushioned soles. The Second World War ended a few months later with chaos in Germany, and Märtens ended up with some leather from a cobbler’s shop and rubber from now-disused airfields to put his new boot design into production. It was a success, particularly so with the older German housewife.

In 1959 R Griggs, a Northamptonshire cobblers’ firm, bought the rights to Dr Märtens’ design, added yellow stitching and dropped the umlaut, and the Dr Martens boot was born. Launched in 1960, the DM boot quickly became an icon of British design. It made a lot of money for Griggs, which had several factories in this corner of Northamptonshire including one in Irthlingborough. The company owner Max Griggs put a lot of that money into the local football team Rushden and Diamonds, which entered the Football League in August 2001 and played there for five seasons from its base at Nene Park in Irthlingborough.

But as a wise woman once said “these boots are made for walking and that’s just what they’ll do”. The money dried up; following financial problems, Griggs closed its Irthlingborough factory in 2003 and outsourced production of Dr Martens to the Far East. Rushden and Diamonds FC folded in 2011, and Nene Park (after being used by Kettering Town for a time) was demolished in 2017.

That, however, wasn’t the end of industry in Irthlingborough. The food company Whitworths still has a large factory here, employing over 300 people, and there is other manufacturing in the town. And that creates a town with a high Labour vote within the very strongly Conservative district of East Northamptonshire. Nearly all of the district is within the Corby parliamentary constituency, providing the counterbalance to the strongly Labour town which gives the constituency its name and producing a marginal seat in the Commons.

Irthlingborough has two electoral wards. The southern is called John Pyel, commemorating a fourteenth-century Lord Mayor of London who was born here and improved the local parish church. The northern ward, Waterloo, reflects an ancient film of the Battle of Waterloo story which was shot in Irthlingborough in 1913; so many locals were extras in that film that two of the town’s shoe factories had to close until the filming was over. Waterloo ward includes the Nene Park site, a little countryside to the north and some of the lakes in the Nene Valley, which has been extensively quarried for gravel.

In the 2011 elections to East Northamptonshire council these were the only wards which returned Labour councillors, with Labour and the Conservatives winning a seat each in both wards. The Tories then gained the Labour seat in Irthlingborough Waterloo ward in 2015, at which election the shares of the vote were 55% for the Conservative slate and 35% for Labour.

The cancellation of Northamptonshire’s 2019 elections means that there have been no polls for Waterloo ward since the days of Coalition, so we have to look up to county council level for anything more recent. In May 2017 the Conservatives easily held the Irthlingborough county council division with 50% of the vote, Labour falling to 23% and Marika Hillson – whose resignation caused this by-election – standing as an independent and polling 22%.

With this by-election being in a marginal parliamentary seat the result will be closely watched. It’s a straight fight. Defending in the blue corner is Lee Wilkes, who gives an address in the town of Raunds to the north-east: he is deputy mayor of that town. Challenging from the red corner is Irthlingborough town councillor Caroline Cross, who was runner-up here in the 2015 district election and 2017 county election. The recent Lib Dem winning streak in by-elections ends here, as there is no Liberal Democrat candidate.

And, since this was last week, I can give you the result:

New Conservative councillor Lee Wilkes goes down in history as the first Conservative election-winner of the Johnson era.

Parliamentary constituency: Corby
Northamptonshire county council division: Irthlingborough
ONS Travel to Work Area: Kettering and Wellingborough
Postcode district: NN9

Caroline Cross (Lab)
Lee Wilkes (C)

May 2015 result C 1054/1043 Lab 671/662 BNP 179
May 2011 result Lab 594/465 C 542/531 Lab 465
May 2007 result C 637/529 Lab 432/371

Meole (15th August 2019)

Shropshire council; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Nic Laurens. He had served since winning a by-election in December 2015.

Having completed our trip in the time machine to last Thursday, this column now goes back to the future for today’s single local by-election. Our focus is on Shrewsbury, the county town of Shropshire and largest town of the beautiful Welsh Marches. The Meole ward is the first part of Shrewsbury which travellers entering the town from the south along the road from Hereford see; it’s based on Meole Brace, an old village which has been absorbed by the town’s urban sprawl. The main local feature is Meole Brace School, the largest secondary school in Shrewsbury; its former pupils include the Burnley and England goalkeeper Joe Hart, who was head boy in his final year at the school and started his football career with the local side Shrewsbury Town. Meole division turned up in the top 15 wards in England and Wales for part-time working in the 2011 census, although there’s no obvious reason why this should be.

This is a safely Conservative area. Nic Laurens was re-elected in 2017 for a full term with a 55-27 margin of Labour; he had first been elected in a December 2015 by-election with 43% of the vote, against 27% for Labour and 20% for the Liberal Democrats. Laurens was part of the large Conservative majority on Shropshire council.

So the Tories should be confident of holding this by-election. Their defending candidate is Gwendoline Burgess, who runs a café in Shrewsbury town centre. Labour have selected Darrell Morris, an USDAW rep. Completing the ballot paper are Lib Dem Adam Fejfer (who also stood here in 2017) and Emma Bullard for the Greens.

Parliamentary constituency: Shrewsbury and Atcham
ONS Travel to Work Area: Shrewsbury
Postcode districts: SY3, SY5

Emma Bullard (Grn)
Gwendoline Burgess (C)
Adam Fejfer (LD)
Darrell Morris (Lab)

May 2017 result C 710 Lab 352 LD 155 Grn 64
December 2015 by-election C 490 Lab 303 LD 223 UKIP 64 Grn 56
May 2013 result C 689 Lab 473 LD 92
June 2009 result C 1035 LD 416