Previews: 24 Oct 2019

There are eight local by-elections on 24th October 2019, with the Conservatives defending four seats, Labour defending three and one free-for-all:

Abbey North

Daventry council, Northamptonshire; caused by the resignation of Labour councillor Aiden Ramsey who had served since 2018.

Things have probably Happened this week, and after all the excitement it’s time to look at some real votes from real people. For those who are new to Andrew’s Previews, let me explain the premise.

Every week there are local by-elections in a few corners of the country to fill vacancies in our local government. Are these by-election results representative of what’s going at the national scene, as the opinion polls attempt to measure? The answer to that is almost certainly no: there’s no such thing as an average ward or area of the country. And even if there were, local factors would come into play: the usual question of “how effective/useless is your government” is augmented and in some cases trumped by “how effective/useless is your local council”, or even “how effective/useless is your party’s candidate”. The job of the Previews is to set the scene: to describe the ward in terms of how it differs from the national picture, to attempt to outline the local and/or candidate issues where I am aware of them, and to leave readers to make up their own mind about what will happen next.

To illustrate this, I’ve dug into the archives and come up with the following list of previous by-elections:

  1. 3 August 2017: St Margarets and St Nicholas ward, King’s Lynn and West Norfolk council
  2. 16 November 2017: St Margaret’s ward, Waveney council
  3. 14 December 2017: Newchapel ward, Newcastle-under-Lyme council
  4. 18 January 2018: Hulton ward, Bolton council
  5. 12 July 2018: Pakefield ward, Waveney council
  6. 27 September 2018: Clifton North ward, Nottingham council

What links the six entries above is that these are the wards which saw Conservative gains from the Labour Party during this Parliament. There are several things which immediately stand out about this list: it’s quite short (I fitted it into a tweet last week) and hadn’t been added to for over a year. Moreover avid readers of the Previews (or of the Previews books, which you can order now from Amazon and will make an excellent Christmas present for the psephologist in your family) could have found local factors, explanations and/or excuses for what might appear to be against-the-trend performances. Consider: in (1) the previous Labour councillor had been kicked out under the six-month non-attendance rule, which is never a good look. (2) and (5) are wards in Lowestoft, a town which is clearly shifting culturally towards the Conservatives at a rapid pace: the local Waveney constituency was the only seat which voted Leave in June 2016 where the Labour vote fell in June 2017. (3) came hot on the heels of an official report which slammed Newcastle-under-Lyme’s election team for running the 2017 general election so incompetently that we cannot have confidence that Paul Farrelly was correctly elected as the town’s MP; the Labour council leader resigned, the Returning Officer was suspended, and in order to deliver the poll the council had to hire in Stoke-on-Trent’s election team at the last possible moment. (4) was affected by a major planning issue and was the first sign of the collapse of the scandal-ridden and deeply unpopular Bolton Labour administration, which went on to lose more than a dozen more seats and control of the council by May 2019. In (6) candidate selection appears to have been a major factor: put simply, the Tories picked a candidate who was a good fit for the area, and Labour didn’t.

Last week a new entry was added to that list: in the Westcourt ward of Gravesend, Kent. Moreover, the Westcourt by-election result wasn’t close, represented a big swing from Labour to Conservative since May this year and there were no obvious local factors that came to my attention. This fits into what has been a noticeable trend over the last few weeks: the Conservatives have suddenly started putting in good performances in local by-elections, while the Labour vote is more often than not falling. This suggests that whatever malaise has affected the Tory local election vote for most of the year may be starting to lift.

Will this continue? Well, on paper the most obvious place for a Tory gain this week is in Daventry. This is an old market town which was on the coaching route from London to Holyhead, and still has a number of coaching inns run by what Shakespeare, in Henry VI Part I, called “red-nosed innkeepers of Daintree”. However, the Industrial Revolution basically passed the place by. Despite this, Daventry has grown strongly since the Second World War thanks to Birmingham overspill with industries to match: for example, Cummins have a large factory in the town making big diesel engines to power ships, railway trains and generators. Daventry’s location close to the centre of England also means that distribution is a major part of the economy, and Abbey North ward – the northern of Daventry’s four wards – includes most of the distributors’ warehouses. The effect of this is that Abbey North has the unusual combination of a working-class demographic profile and high employment levels.

Abbey North also has rather unusual voting patterns. The current boundaries were introduced in 2012 and returned one Conservative and two Labour councillors. Since then every election in Abbey North has resulted in a change of party. In May 2014 UKIP gained one of the Labour seats; in 2015 the Conservatives gained the other Labour seat; the 2016 and 2018 polls both saw Labour gains, one from the Tories and the other from UKIP.

The 2016 winner here was Ken Ritchie, a psephologist who was Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Daventry in 1997 and served from that year until 2010 as chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society. The 2018 winner was Aiden Ramsey, who was elected at the relatively young age of 27. Ramsey has resigned from the council as he is relocating to Wales, where his partner is studying. In his resignation statement he encouraged younger people to get involved with their local authority, saying:

“Don’t let it be intimidating. I’ve spoken to a lot of young people and the idea I get from them is that because there’s this image of councillors and district councils, and this expectation of knowledge, background and experience, then younger people feel like it’s not a world that they can step into.

When I got elected I wouldn’t say that I had answers to 100 per cent of the questions I was asked. But as long as you have that passion, then it’s something I would urge people to push ahead with, as they will learn along the way.”

The May 2018 result gave 40% to Labour, 27% to the Conservatives and 21% to the Liberal Democrats, who suddenly came from nowhere to take third place. This was to date the last election to Daventry council, which is within that disaster area of local government called Northamptonshire. 2018 was the year that Northamptonshire county council ran out of money not once but twice, and that insolvency means that local government reorganisation is in the works. Daventry council is collateral damage from that, and will probably be abolished in the near future. In anticipation of this the 2019 council elections here were officially postponed to 2020, but no legal instrument has yet been published relating to the proposed reorganisation – so the default is that in May 2020 two of Abbey North ward’s three seats will be up for re-election. On the county council most of the ward is within the Daventry West division, which was a Tory gain from UKIP in 2017 but with Labour just 30 votes behind; the northern half of the division, including the industrial estates, are in the Braunston and Crick division which is safe Tory.

Defending for Labour is Emily Carter. The Tories have taken Ramsey’s advice to heart by selecting Lauryn Harrington-Carter, who is not yet 21 but has already appeared in this column before. She was the Conservative candidate for the Brixworth by-election to Daventry council in July, embarrassingly losing the seat to the Liberal Democrats who came from nowhere to win. Harrington-Carter will have the advantage this time of being in her home ward. The Liberal Democrats have selected Alan Knape, a Daventry town councillor and financial controller who completes a ballot paper of three candidates.

Parliamentary constituency: Daventry
Northamptonshire county council division: Braunston and Crick (north part), Daventry West (south part)
ONS Travel to Work Area: Northampton
Postcode district: NN11

Emily Carter (Lab)
Lauryn Harrington-Carter (C)
Alan Knape (LD)

May 2018 result Lab 599 C 407 LD 312 Ind 112 UKIP 73
May 2016 result Lab 510 C 484 UKIP 300 LD 64
May 2015 result C 1299 Lab 871 UKIP 757
May 2014 result UKIP 495 C 482 Lab 349
May 2012 result C 397/336/335 Lab 379/358/308 UKIP 245 LD 86


West Lindsey council, Lincolnshire; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Stuart Kinch who had served since 2003.

For our other East Midlands by-election and first Conservative defence of the week we travel north from the Northamptonshire hills to flatter terrain. The Torksey ward covers seven parishes on the east bank of the River Trent, roughly equidistant from Lincoln and Gainsborough. The ward extends to Gate Burton in the north and Newton on Trent – where the A57 crosses the river at a toll bridge – in the south.

Torksey is its central parish and is a location with a long history. There are Roman remains in the area, and the Great Heathen Army of Viking invaders spent the winter of 872-3 here. More recently the village was the location of a manor house built during the first Elizabethan era by Sir Robert Jermyn, which became known as Torksey Castle; however, the Jermyn family found themselves on the losing side in the Civil War, and Torksey Castle was essentially destroyed. Its remains stick out of the River Trent’s banks rather incongruously. Also sticking out of the river here is a viaduct, thrown over the Trent in the 1840s by the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway; this bridge was of an innovative design which is now recognised as one of the first box girder bridges. The railway through Torksey is long gone, but the viaduct has taken on a new life as a pedestrian and cycle bridge.

Torksey ward has been represented on West Lindsey council by Stuart Kinch since 2003. Nobody opposed Kinch in 2015, which was the first election on the ward’s current boundaries; in May this year the Lib Dems put up a candidate, who lost 59-41. Kinch has resigned not long into his fifth term of office to focus on his business interests, which are increasingly causing conflicts with his public role; his resignation statement also had some harsh words for the current state of our politics, which he described as “visceral”. He had retired in 2017 as the local county councillor, and his Tory successor Richard Butroid enjoys a large majority in the Gainsborough Rural South division.

Kinch’s resignation could disturb the delicate balance of West Lindsey council. The May 2019 election left the Tories with a majority of 2, holding 19 seats against 12 Lib Dems and five independents; however, a defection has since wiped that majority out, and if the Conservatives lose this by-election they will be in a minority on the council. That could be bad news for the council’s Tory leader Giles McNeill, a diehard Andrew’s Previews fan…

…who has helped this column out on a few occasions in the past.

Torksey’s voters will have a larger choice of parties this time around than they had in May. Defending for the Conservatives is Jayne Ellis, who lives just outside the ward in Saxilby. The Lib Dems have reselected their candidate from May Noel Mullally, who lives in Newton-on-Trent. Also standing are Nick Pearson in a rare local government outing for the Brexit Party (and that’s the only time you’ll see the B-word mentioned here this week, isn’t that refreshing?), and Labour candidate Perry Smith.

Parliamentary constituency: Gainsborough
Lincolnshire county council division: Gainsborough Rural South
ONS Travel to Work Area: Lincoln
Postcode districts: DN21, LN1

Jayne Ellis (C)
Noel Mullally (LD)
Nick Perason (Brexit Party)
Perry Smith (Lab)

May 2019 result C 472 LD 334
May 2015 result C unopposed

Coupe Green and Gregson Lane

South Ribble council, Lancashire; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Sarah Whittaker who had served only since May.

For our token Northern by-election we come to the Preston commuter belt. Coupe Green (or Coup Green) and Gregson Lane are two villages to the east of Bamber Bridge, along the A675 Preston-Bolton road, although it’s hard to tell this from the address because the Royal Mail counts the whole area as part of Hoghton – a village over the border in Chorley district. In 2011 the ward made the top 40 in England and Wales for Christianity; high scores for this statistic are often seen in Lancashire where, for cultural reasons, lapsed Christians are much more likely to list their old religion on the census form than lapsed Christians elsewhere in the country. Coupe Green and Gregson Lane’s residents also have very high takeup of apprenticeship qualifications, while owner-occupation is high. Boundary changes for the 2015 election added part of Walton Summit to the ward, although this won’t have much effect on its demographics.

Now, you may have rather unkindly thought from time to time that your elected representatives are idle toads. In the case of Coupe Green and Gregson Lane, that actually happened. Let me explain. In 1997 Tom Sharratt, a former Guardian journalist who at the time represented the area at district and county level in the Labour interest, was deselected. He didn’t take this well, and his response was to start distributing newsletters in the ward with the ironic name of The Idle Toad. Sharratt was subsequently re-elected in 1999 under the Idle Toad banner, and a curiously-named political party was born. At their height the Idle Toads held three seats on South Ribble council and one seat on Lancashire county council, and they successfully defended Coupe Green and Gregson Lane at a by-election in October 2004.

That by-election winner was Jim Marsh, who subsequently left the party, joined the Conservatives and was re-elected under their banner in 2007. In a bizarre episode, Sharratt subsequently described Marsh as a “defecator” in the newsletter, prompting a complaint from Marsh and a censure from South Ribble council’s standards committee; however, that censure was overturned on appeal after Sharratt countered that he had misspelled the word “defector”. Only a former Grauniad journalist could make that sort of argument with a straight face.

All good things must come to an end. Sharratt lost his seat in 2011 to the Tories’ Warren Bennett, another former Idle Toad, and that was the end of that. With the Idle Toad(s) off the scene this became a safe Conservative ward; in May the Tory slate of Marsh and new candidate Sarah Whittaker beat Labour by the margin of 50-32. The Conservatives have a larger lead in the South Ribble East county council division, and this area is in the Ribble Valley constituency which is safe for Tory eurosceptic and former Deputy Speaker Nigel Evans.

South Ribble council, on the other hand, is rather delicately poised. The Conservatives lost control of the council earlier this year; they are still the largest party with 22 seats plus this vacancy, but Labour (who also have 22 seats) have formed a minority administration with the support of the five Lib Dems. It’s a slight surprise that Labour have no candidate for this by-election; the Tories need to hold this seat to remain as the largest party.

Defending for the Tories is Gareth Watson, who fought Walton-le-Dale West ward in May and lost what had been a Conservative seat to Labour. As stated there is no Labour nominee, but two other candidates have come forward to secure a contested election: they are independent Graham Dixon (who was the Green Party candidate for this ward in 2015) and Lib Dem Stephanie Portersmith.

Parliamentary constituency: Ribble Valley
Lancashire county council division: South Ribble East
ONS Travel to Work Area: Preston
Postcode district: PR5

Graham Dixon (Ind)
Stephanie Portersmith (LD)
Gareth Watson (C)

May 2019 result C 710/679 Lab 455/405 UKIP 257
May 2015 result C 1382/1371 Lab 794 Grn 592

Bagillt West

Flintshire council; caused by the resignation of Labour councillor Mike Reece who had served since 2008.

Our next three by-elections are all in Wales, although for the first we are still firmly in Granadaland. Bagillt is a small town about halfway down the Welsh bank of the Dee estuary, looking over towards the Wirral on the far side. There was a castle here in days by, where the thirteenth-century Prince of Wales Dafydd ap Llewelyn was born; but modern Bagillt is a town of the Industrial Revolution, with a lead smelting works here in the eighteenth century and a number of collieries and ironworks operating in the nineteenth. The Laxey Wheel, a waterwheel which is one of the symbols of the Isle of Man, was built in Bagillt; and in recognition of that Laxey is now twinned with the town. All this industry has gone now, but Flintshire is still a major manufacturing area and Bagillt West is in the top 70 wards or divisions in the UK for the ONE “routine” employment classification.

Welsh local elections tend to have a lot of unopposed returns, and Bagillt West is a case in point. It has been held by Labour throughout this century, but you have to go all the way back to 2008 to find a contested election here: that year Labour beat the Liberal Democrats in a straight fight by 63-37. Across Flintshire Labour made net gains in the May 2017 election, but they are still in a minority with 33 out of 70 seats plus this vacancy; the opposition on Flintshire council is made up of six Tories, six Lib Dems and four independent groups which add up to 24 councillors between them.

The Bagillt West by-election will be the first contested poll here in over a decade. Defending for Labour is Kevin Rush, who stood in the other Bagillt division (East) in May 2017 and lost a Labour seat to an independent candidate by three votes. Challenging is independent candidate David Stanley.

Parliamentary and Assembly constituency: Delyn
ONS Travel to Work Area: Rhyl
Postcode districts: CH6, CH8

Kevin Rush (Lab)
David Stanley (Ind)

May 2017 result Lab unopposed
May 2012 result Lab unopposed
May 2008 result Lab 333 LD 198
June 2004 rssult Lab 290 C 223

Llandrindod North; and
Newtown South

Powys council; caused respectively by the resignations of independent councillor Gary Price, who had been elected as a Conservative; and Conservative councillor Alan Morrison.

Our other two Welsh by-elections today are in Powys, that county which runs almost the length of Wales but is often overlooked in favour of more touristy areas. This is a shame, for Powys has a charm all of its own. It’s an area of many villages, lots of sheep and a handful of not-very-large towns, on which we will concentrate.

As the English name of Newtown suggests (the Welsh-language name “y Drenewydd” is a direct translation of the English), this was not an old Welsh settlement, instead being founded in the late 13th century by the Anglo-Norman Roger de Montgomery as part of military manoeuvres against Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. The co-operative pioneer Robert Owen was born here in 1771, at a time when Newtown was booming thanks to the textile industry.

Newtown has significantly changed since the Second World War as, appropriately enough, it was designated a New Town in 1967. That turned it into Powys’ largest urban centre, although its population is comfortably under 12,000. Some of that New Town development can be seen in Newtown South division, which is still majority social rented and whose census return is more reminiscent of something you might see in the Valleys: Newtown South makes the top 100 wards or divisions in England and Wales for semi-routine employment (26%, which is in the top 15) and those of no religion (45%). Through the hillside to the south of the houses threads a new bypass for Newtown, which opened in February after 70 years of planning hell and has eased the town’s notorious traffic problems.

Some miles to the south of Newtown lies Llandrindod Wells. This has a very different history, being originally a Victorian spa town before being designated as the county town of Powys in the 1970s reorganisation. This led to a population boom in Llandrindod, followed by an economic boom as national local government payscales combined with the relatively low cost of housing in mid-Wales to give lots of disposable income. Powys county council is still the major local employer.

Newtown anchors the Montgomeryshire constituency which has been a bright spot for the Conservatives over the last decade. The Tories did particularly well in Montgomeryshire in the 2017 Powys council elections, and one of the divisions they gained was Newtown South where a long-serving independent councillor retired. With that independent off the scene Conservative candidate Alan Morrison gained the seat with a 55-29 majority over Plaid Cymru.

Llandrindod North is going to the polls for the second time in the short-lived Johnson premiership, following the Brecon and Radnorshire parliamentary by-election which the Tories lost to the Lib Dems in August. North division has notionally changed hands at all of the last three Powys elections. In 2008 Conservative candidate Mike Hodges knocked out independent councillor Keith Tampin; Hodges was defeated in 2012 by independent candidate Gary Price, who transferred here from Llandrindod East/Llandrindod West division which he had represented for some years beforehand. Price was re-elected in 2017 with the Conservative nomination, defeating the Green Party candidate 54-26, but subsequently left the party and became independent again.

No independent candidate has come forward to replace Price, so Llandrindod North is a free-for-all. The Tories will want their seat back and have selected Tom Turner, a Builth Wells-based paramedic who was elected in 2012 as councillor for Llandrindod South division at the age of 20. Turner lost his seat there to the Lib Dems in 2017. The Green Party have not returned. Labour have selected local resident Rosie McConnell, and the Lib Dems have nominated Jake Berriman to try and build on their recent parliamentary by-election success.

In Newtown South the defending Tory candidate is Les Skilton, a former Mayor of Newtown and the only candidate to give an address in the division. Plaid Cymru have reselected Richard Edwards who was runner-up here in 2017. Also standing is Kelly Healy for the Liberal Democrats.

Llandrindod North

Parliamentary and Assembly constituency: Brecon and Radnorshire
ONS Travel to Work Area: Llandrindod Wells and Builth Wells
Postcode district: LD1

Jake Berriman (LD)
Rosie McConnell (Lab)
Tom Turner (C)

May 2017 result C 360 Grn 177 Lab 132
May 2012 result Ind 393 C 215 Lab 88 LD 21
May 2008 result C 391 Ind 302
June 2004 result Ind 365 Ind 324

Newtown South

Parliamentary and Assembly constituency: Montgomeryshire
ONS Travel to Work Area: Newtown and Welshpool
Postcode district: SY16

Richard Edwards (PC)
Kelly Healy (LD)
Les Skilton (C)

May 2017 result C 203 PC 109 Ind 58
May 2012 result Ind 177 Lab 85 LD 42 C 27
May 2008 result Ind 332 LD 103 Ind 37
June 2004 result Ind 380 LD 93

Melksham Without South

Wiltshire council; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Roy While.

Our final two by-elections of the week are in south-west England. The curious name of Melksham Without South comes from the 1890s, when Melksham became an Urban District; as part of this the old Melksham parish was divided, with the new urban district covering only the built-up area. Its hinterland became a new parish, called Melksham Without, which surrounds the town. Malksham Without is big enough for two councillors and this division is the southern half of it.

Things have changed here since the nineteenth century. In 1940 the Royal Air Force opened RAF Melksham, a training centre for its electricians which lasted into the 1970s. When the RAF moved out their base was redeveloped for housing and industry and the result was Bowerhill, effectively a small new village a couple of miles south-east of Melksham. The population has continued to grow in the 21st century, with Knorr-Bremse (a German railway engineering firm) and Herman Miller (an American office furniture manufacturer) having set up in Bowerhill in recent years.

Roy While was a veteran of local government who had represented this area since the establishment of the modern Wiltshire council in 2009, and sat on the old Wiltshire county council and West Wiltshire district council for some years before that. Before seeking elected office he had been chief executive of West Wiltshire council. He has resigned on health grounds. While was run close by UKIP in 2013, but at his last re-election his majority had improved to 55-18 over the Lib Dems.

Wiltshire is having a rash of by-elections at the moment: this is the fourth casual vacancy for Wiltshire council since June, and a fifth by-election is in the pipeline. This by-election is a straight fight. Defending for the Conservatives is Nick Holder, who represents Bowerhill on Melksham Without parish council. Challenging for the Lib Dems is Vanessa Fiorelli, a Melksham town councillor.

Parliamentary constituency: Chippenham
ONS Travel to Work Area: Trowbridge
Postcode districts: BA14, SN12

May 2017 result C 709 LD 232 UKIP 178 Ind 163
May 2013 result C 478 UKIP 449 LD 142 Lab 99
June 2009 result C 571 LD 361 UKIP 162 Ind 116 BNP 92 Lab 73

Vanessa Fiorelli (LD)
Nick Holder (C)

Heavitree and Whipton Barton

Devon county council; caused by the resignation of Labour councillor Emma Brennan who had served since 2017.

For our final by-election of the week we are in the east of the city of Exeter. If you’re feeling under the weather then this is the place to go, because the major employer within this county division is the Met Office, which has forecasted the weather from Exeter since 2004 with occasional success. The Met Office HQ can be seen on the right-hand side as you enter Exeter on the A30 from the Honiton and London direction.

Once past that business park you enter Heavitree, an old village which was swallowed up by the city late enough to be an urban district of its own until 1913. This was the site of the last executions in the UK for witchcraft, when the three Bideford Witches went to the gallows in 1682. Notable people from Heavitree include Sir Thomas Bodley, who has a library in Oxford named after him.

Devon county council got new division boundaries in 2017, but the only thing which changed about this division was the name: it was previously called Heavitree and Whipton and Barton, reflecting the two wards of Exeter which it covered. Perhaps one of Bodley’s Oxford commas would have been in order. Whipton and Barton ward no longer exists: a major rewarding of Exeter in 2016 has left this division split between five different wards of the city. Whatever the name, this is a safe Labour area: in May 2017 Labour beat the Conservatives 51-31 here.

Defending for Labour is Greg Sheldon, who represents Heavitree ward on Exeter city council and has sat on that council since 1996. The Conservative candidate is John Harvey, a former Exeter city councillor who worked for 18 years as Exeter City Centre Manager. Also standing are Rowena Squires for the Liberal Democrats, Lizzie Woodman for the Greens and Frankie Rufolo for the For Britain Movement.

Parliamentary constituency: Exeter
Exeter wards: Heavitree (part), Mincinglake and Whipton (part), Pinhoe (part), Priory (part), St Loyes (part)
ONS Travel to Work Area: Exeter
Postcode districts: EX1, EX2, EX4

John Harvey (C)
Frankie Rufolo (For Britain Movement)
Greg Sheldon (Lab)
Rowena Squires (LD)
Lizzie Woodman (Grn)

May 2017 result Lab 2151 C 1317 LD 283 Grn 249 UKIP 192
May 2013 result Lab 1655 C 803 UKIP 605 LD 190 Grn 186
June 2009 result Lab 1214 C 1059 Lib 601 UKIP 464 Grn 348 LD 324 BNP 146
May 2005 result Lab 2419 Lib 1454 LD 1379 C 1201 UKIP 285

Andrew Teale