Previews: 28 Nov 2019

“All the right votes, but not necessarily in the right order”

With two weeks to go to the general election, there are three local council by-elections on 28 November 2019:


Wallingford

Oxfordshire county council; caused by the resignation of independent councillor Lynda Atkins.

Compared to last week’s interesting geographical spread, our three local by-elections this week are all superficially similar, being in small-to-medium sized towns in southern England. We’ve already had the last local by-elections from Scotland and the major urban areas of England before the December 2019 general election, so there is no more evidence to come on that score as to prospects for the Labour party. For those looking for straws in the wind, the fascinating by-election in Wallingford, Oxfordshire may well serve only to confuse matters even further.

Wallingford was an important crossing-point of the Thames in ancient times as the lowest point at which the river could be forded, and a town grew up here within the Kingdom of Wessex to exploit that. The Norman Conquest of 1066 effectively ended in Wallingford as Stigand, archbishop of Canterbury, surrendered to William, duke of Normandy; while the 1153 Treaty of Wallingford put an end to the Anarchy. In case you thought the last Parliament was anarchic, the Anarchy I’m referring to here was much worse, being essentially an eighteen-year civil war over the disputed succession to King Henry I. Wallingford Castle was a stronghold of Henry I’s daughter, the Empress Matilda, and the Treaty of Wallingford settled the succession in favour of her son Henry.

In recognition of that Henry II, as he became, gave Wallingford borough status via a Royal Charter in 1155. The town and its castle remained in royal favour until the twin catastrophes of the Black Death in 1349 and the opening of Abingdon Bridge in 1416, which robbed Wallingford of much of its passing trade. Much of the castle’s stone was transported down the river to improve Windsor, and much of what remained was destroyed after the castle’s garrison backed the wrong side in a later civil war, that of the 1640s.

This being Oxfordshire you can’t really escape the influence of the University in that city up the river; Oxford University and indeed Oxford Brookes University both have their boat clubs in Wallingford, taking advantage of a long unobstructed stretch of the Thames here. Major employers in the town include Fugro, a Dutch multinational in the energy and infrastructure sector; and Rowse Honey, the UK’s largest honey supplier.

Wallingford’s royal charter gave it the right to elect two Members of Parliament back in the day, and famous MPs for Wallingford in the Elizabethan era included Thomas Digges, an astronomer who translated Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the universe into English; and Sir John Fortescue of Salden, who served the first Elizabeth as Chancellor of the Exchequer. But by the eighteenth century the town was a notorious rotten borough. The franchise was restricted to male inhabitants paying the local tax of scot and lot, and at any one time there weren’t more than about 300 electors; the inevitable consequence of this was that bribery was rife, with the going rate for a vote quoted as 40 guineas in the 1816 election. The Third Reform Act abolished the Wallingford constituency and the town found itself in the Abingdon division of Berkshire; the successor to that seat, the Wantage division of Oxfordshire, has been represented since 2005 by Ed Vaizey of the Conservative party. Vaizey was one of the 21 Tory MPs who lost the whip in September 2019 for voting against a no-deal Brexit; while he did subsequently get the Conservative whip back, Vaizey is not seeking re-election in two weeks’ time.

From September to October this year Ed Vaizey was an independent, like Wallingford’s county councillor Lynda Atkins. Atkins had served since March 2008 when she won a by-election in what had previously been a Liberal Democrat seat, the Lib Dems having stood down in her favour. She polled 66% of the vote in that by-election and was subsequently re-elected three times with large majorities on each occasion. The most recent Oxfordshire county council election was in May 2017, at which Atkins won with 39% of the vote against split opposition: 24% for the Conservatives and 13% each for the Lib Dems and Labour. The Tories had hopes of winning a overall majority on the hung Oxfordshire county council in 2017 but in the event remained static on 31 seats, one short of a majority; they have formed an administration with the support of some of the county’s independent councillors, but not Atkins.

If the May 2017 performance was disappointing for the Oxfordshire Conservatives, much worse was to come two years later. Wallingford is part of the South Oxfordshire local government district, which in the 2015 election returned 33 Conservative councillors out of a possible 36. In June 2018 the Lib Dems pulled off a big swing to gain Benson and Crowmarsh ward, over the river from Wallingford, at a by-election. I remarked at the time (Andrew’s Previews 2018, page 194) that there was no Green candidate for that by-election, and from what happened next it appears that this was part of a plan. The Liberal Democrats and the Green Party formed an electoral pact for the May 2019 South Oxfordshire election, and it was extremely effective: the Tories collapsed to just 9 seats and the Lib Dems (13) and Greens (6) found themselves with a majority together. Those two parties shared the two seats in Wallingford town proper. The rural parts of this county division were also subject to the Tory collapse: Brightwell-cum-Sotwell is in the Cholsey ward which split Tory/Lib Dem, while the village-based ward of Sandford and the Wittenhams returned an astonishing 73-27 win for the Green Party in a straight fight with the Conservatives. The Greens had never previously stood in that ward.

So this by-election looks completely unpredictable. There is one independent candidate standing to succeed Lynda Atkins: she is Elaine Hornsby, who was elected as a Conservative district councillor for Wallingford in 2015 but was suspended from the party in January this year over a planning row. Hornsby sought re-election in May as an independent candidate for Wallingford ward, finishing as runner-up. The official Conservative candidate is Adrian Lloyd, a former Wallingford town councillor. Labour have reselected their candidate from 2017, George Kneeshaw. The Lib Dems have not done so and it would appear that their pact with the Green Party is still in effect; given that and the district council results here in May, it would be foolish to count out the Green candidate Pete Sudbury despite the fact that his party finished last in May 2017 with 11% of the vote. A retired senior doctor and Greenpeace activist, Sudbury completes the ballot paper.

Parliamentary constituency: Wantage
South Oxfordshire council wards: Wallingford, Cholsey (part: Brightwell-cum-Sotwell parish), Sandford and the Wittenhams (part: Little Wittenham and Long Wittenham parishes)

Elaine Hornsby (Ind)
George Kneeshaw (Lab)
Adrian Lloyd (C)
Pete Sudbury (Grn)

May 2017 result Ind 1143 C 699 LD 379 Lab 363 Grn 318
May 2013 result Ind 1103 UKIP 492 C 435 Lab 247 Grn 139 LD 86


Trowbridge Lambrok

Wiltshire council; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Deborah Halik who had served since May 2017. She was also a Trowbridge town councillor, serving as the Mayor of Trowbridge in 2017-18.

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Staying in Wessex, we come to the fifth Wiltshire council by-election in as many months. The first of this series was held in Trowbridge Drynham ward on 4 July, and resulted in a Lib Dem gain from the Conservatives; subsequently the Lib Dems held a seat in Westbury North, while the Tories held the more rural divisions of Ethandune and Melksham Without South. We now return to Wiltshire’s county town of Trowbridge for a by-election in the Lambrok division, which is the western end of the town.

Lambrok division was created in 2009 as part of the formation of the unitary Wiltshire council. While most of it was previously in the Tory-held West Wiltshire ward of Trowbridge North West, it also incorporated territory from the old Trowbridge South West ward which was the political fiefdom of the Osborn family. Helen Osborn won elected as the first councillor for Trowbridge Lambrok in 2009 on the Lib Dem ticket, and increased her majority in 2013 as an independent without Lib Dem opposition. Osborn retired in May 2017 and the Conservatives’ Deborah Halik picked up the seat; she had 46% of the vote against 32% for the Lib Dems and 15% for Labour. Wiltshire’s district councils were abolished in 2009, so there have been no local elections here since.

This by-election will be a straight fight. Defending for the Tories is David Cavill, the present Mayor of Trowbridge; he is an author, publisher and dog show judge. Challenging for the Lib Dems is Jo Trigg; a local school governor.

Parliamentary constituency: South West Wiltshire

David Cavill (C)
Jo Trigg (LD)

May 2017 result C 488 LD 344 Lab 165 Grn 73
May 2013 result Ind 662 C 307
June 2009 result LD 700 C 522


Sheringham North

North Norfolk council; caused by the resignation of Liberal Democrat councillor Brian Hannah.

Behold, the sea. We have come to the north coast of Norfolk for the last of our three local by-elections today, to a town where Vaughan Williams did much of the work on his Sea Symphony. It was the sea that made Sheringham what it is, as the fishing village of Lower Sheringham merged with the railway town of Upper Sheringham during the nineteenth century. This was a fruitful marriage: the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway brought jobs to Sheringham while enabling the town’s fisherman to become prolific suppliers of the London crab and lobster market. There are still a handful of fisherman operating out of the town, but the main product from the sea here is now electricity. Eleven miles offshore is the Sheringham Shoal windfarm, opened in September 2012 by Haakon, crown prince of Norway (most of the development was paid for by Norwegian companies) and Ed Davey, then the energy secretary in the UK coalition government.

Davey was a Liberal Democrat, like outgoing Sheringham North councillor Brian Hannah and outgoing North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb. Sir Norman, as he now is, had been the MP for North Norfolk since 2001 and had developed a large personal vote in his constituency. He sought the Lib Dem leadership after the near-wipeout of 2015, losing to Tim Farron. Lamb suffered a stroke in April 2018, and he is not seeking re-election to Parliament in two weeks’ time, giving the Lib Dems a conundrum as they seek to defend a 48-42 majority over the Conservatives in a constituency which voted Leave in 2016.

Brian Hannah is also retiring on health grounds from a long political career, having served as a Sheringham North ward councillor for 22 years. His ward runs from the cliffs on the seafront up to the railway station, at which a branch line from Norwich and the preserved North Norfolk Railway both terminate. Although this is a town-centre ward, it has an old population. Boundary changes for the May 2019 election cut the ward back slightly and reduced it from two councillors to one: Brian Hannah won it very easily in May, with a 63-25 lead over the Conservatives.

In May 2015 the voters of North Norfolk had re-elected Lamb but returned a Tory majority to his local council, with 33 Conservative seats against 15 Lib Dems. Infighting and by-election losses – mostly infighting – meant that by 2019 that sizeable Conservative majority had completely fallen apart, and the Lib Dems had taken over minority control. The May 2019 election confirmed the Lib Dems in office with a large majority (currently 29 seats plus this vacancy, against just six Conservatives and four independents). The Conservatives do, however, still hold the Sheringham seat on Norfolk county council having gained it from the Lib Dems in May 2017.

So, one to watch. Defending for the Lib Dems is Liz Withington, a Sheringham town councillor. Standing for the Conservatives is Richard Shepherd, a former North Norfolk councillor who lost his seat in Sheringham South ward in May. Labour’s Sue Brisbane completes the ballot paper.

Parliamentary constituency: North Norfolk
Norfolk county council division: Sheringham

Sue Brisbane (Lab)
Richard Shepherd (C)
Liz Withington (LD)

May 2019 result LD 472 C 187 Lab 85

If you liked these previews, there are many more like them in the Andrew’s Previews books, the delightful Christmas present for the discerning by-election enthusiast. The Black Friday sale is now on: until 2359 Saturday, Andrew’s Previews 2018 is available for 25% off the normal price. Order your copy now!