Previews: 12 Dec 2019

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

It’s general election day. Millions of words, fields of pixels and downpours of ink have been expended in the cause of getting your vote. Your cross on the ballot paper will (if you’re lucky) go towards electing a Member of Parliament who should, all being well, serve to 2nd May 2024.

You’ve probably heard about all this already. What you almost certainly haven’t heard about is the undercard: the thirty-four by-elections to our local councils which are being combined with this general election. Combining polls in this way has a lot of benefits: both for the council organising the election, which can administer two votes for the price of one; and for the voter, who only has to turn up at the polling station once. A few councillors who may have been planning to retire in the near future have brought forward their resignations so that their successor can be elected at this opportune moment.

Some of these polls will be worth keeping an eye on. Readers may remember from the last election the case of Canterbury, which was a Labour gain in the general election from seemingly nowhere (some models had picked it up as a possible good Labour result, but this went rather against the collective wisdom). There was also a local by-election in Canterbury on that day in the city-centre Westgate ward; that came through early on election night as a Labour gain from seemingly nowhere, and was a good pointer to the parliamentary result when it came through some hours later.

There are thirty-four by-elections on 12th December 2019, with twenty-one Conservative defences, twelve Labour and one free-for-all. You won’t get the usual Andrew’s Previews treatment, but I will mention them all in what follows. For the same reason there are no factfiles this week, but full candidate lists are available from Who Can I Vote For?, and you can click on each ward name in this column to find past election results from my very own Local Elections Archive Project. Without further ado, let’s plunge in:

North West

We’ll start in the Greater Manchester borough of Bury with the by-election in Church ward, which when it was formed – many decades ago in the days when Bury was a County Borough – was Bury’s town-centre ward and named after the impressive church which overlooks the old Market Place. No longer; when Bury annexed the suburb of Elton over the river to the west, Church ward was expanded to cover this area; and subsequent boundary reviews removed the town centre which had given the ward its name. The modern Church ward is the southern of the two Bury town wards west of the Irwell, and definitely the more upmarket; a lot of its housing was developed privately in the 1970s on land previously occupied by the Lancashire Fusiliers’ regimental depot.

The Church ward by-election has come about because of the death of Conservative councillor Susan Nuttall at an appallingly early age. She had served since winning a by-election in November 2012, at which point her husband David was the Conservative MP for the local Bury North constituency. As a committed Eurosceptic David Nuttall – who lost his seat in 2017 – must have been gutted to have missed out on the parliamentary games of the last two-and-a-half years, but he’s not standing again and the Tories have put up a new candidate for Bury North against first-term Labour incumbent James Frith. Nobody I’ve met has a bad word to say about Frith, and he has an extremely high local profile as the figurehead of the campaign to get Bury FC back playing football in some shape or form; given this he may well have a better chance of re-election than the national picture would suggest. Bury North may be marginal, but Church ward is safe for the Conservatives – it’s one of only two Bury wards to have voted Tory throughout the last fifteen years – and their candidate Dene Vernon is favoured.

The other two Greater Manchester by-elections are Labour defences. The Pendlebury ward of Salford is based on the Devil’s Highway, the A666 from Irlams o’ th’ Height to Clifton; there’s some surprisingly lovely countryside in the Irwell Valley here, and also industry around Clifton Junction and at Agecroft, which has transitioned from a coalmining village to a fast-growing Manchester suburb with a business park and prison attached. It’s safely Labour and should elect Damian Bailey without much trouble; UKIP ran second here in May but aren’t standing in this by-election. This will be the last by-election on the current set of Salford ward boundaries, as new wards will be introduced in May 2020; accordingly whoever wins will not be resting from the campaign trail for long. On the other side of Manchester is Denton West ward, centred on the Denton Island junction where the M60 and M67 motorways meet. Denton West is in the Denton and Reddish constituency of Labour’s national campaign manager Andrew Gwynne, who used to be a councillor for this ward; it’s again safely Labour and should return George Jones to Tameside council.

There has been a glut of by-elections in the city of Liverpool recently, and here are two more. We’ll start by getting off at Edge Hill, which is the centre of Picton ward. Edge Hill was once the western terminus of the world’s first intercity railway, and there are still extensive railway yards here. Also within the Picton ward boundary are the Wavertree Botanic Gardens and the Littlewoods Pools building, a beautiful example of 1930s architecture which has stood derelict for years but is now slated for conversion into a film studio. Picton ward was in the Liberal Democrat column when they were running Liverpool in the early part of this century, but in May it was 70% Labour with the Greens a distant second. Further out of the city is Clubmoor ward, a residential area around Queens Drive in Walton, in the north of Liverpool. Clubmoor is utterly safe for Labour who polled 75% here in May; second place went to the continuing Liberal Party, which in Liverpool is the personality cult of veteran councillor Steve Radford. For these by-elections don’t bet against the defending Labour candidates, Tim Jeeves in Clubmoor and Calvin Smeda in Picton.

Liverpool was a city which made a small fortune off the back of the slave trade back in the day, and one visible reminder of that nasty episode in our history can be found in the Lancashire village of Sunderland Point. An incongruous collection of isolated Georgian buildings at the mouth of the River Lune, which can only be accessed at low tide due to flooding of the road over the saltmarshes to the outside world, Sunderland Point is the last resting place of Sambo, who came here from the distant West Indies as servant to a ship’s captain and didn’t survive in the UK very long. Sambo’s Grave is neatly kept and can be visited – tide permitting – on the windswept shores of Morecambe Bay. When Sambo died here, Sunderland Point was a bustling port, handling ships which were too big to get up the estuary to Lancaster; the big ships now berth a couple of miles to the north at the port of Heysham, from where passenger ferries depart to the Isle of Man and the other side of the Irish Sea. Next to the port are the two Heysham nuclear power stations, which supply a large proportion of Lancashire’s electricity. All of these lie within the Overton ward, which covers the villages south of Morecambe and Heysham within the marginal Morecambe and Lunesdale constituency. Overton’s Conservative councillor Michael Smith was elected quite narrowly in May, with a 46-42 lead over Labour; he is standing down due to hearing loss, and this column wishes him well for the future. The defending Tory candidate is Andrew Gardiner, while Tom Porter returns for Labour after his near-miss seven months ago.

Yorkshire and the Humber

Moving to the wrong side of the Pennines, we come to three by-elections in the metropolitan boroughs of West Yorkshire. Two of these are in Kirklees, a sprawling district which runs from Dewsbury through Huddersfield to the spine of the Pennines. The River Colne runs down from the Pennine escarpment towards Huddersfield through the trendy villages of Marsden and Slaithwaite (“SLA-wit”) which anchor the Colne Valley ward. If you’ve seen the ITV drama Where the Heart Is, you’ve seen the area.

There has been a Colne Valley parliamentary seat since 1885, covering the small towns and villages to the west and south of Huddersfield. It’s seen some fantastic battles and famous names over the years: the Independent Labour MP Victor Grayson won a by-election here in 1907, while the first Labour Chancellor Philip Snowden represented the seat from 1922 to 1931. This seat was another of the surprise Labour gains in 2017, and Labour MP Thelma Walker will defend a majority of 915 votes in a re-match with former Conservative MP Jason McCartney at parliamentary level. The smaller Colne Valley ward is more complicated: it has been won by all three main parties in the last six years, but currently has a full slate of Labour councillors. Vote shares in May were 30% for Labour, 26% for the Liberal Democrats and 25% for the Conservatives, who lost a seat they were defending; Labour have selected Duggs Carre to hold the seat against the Lib Dems’ Robert Iredale and the Tories’ Donna Bellamy, who was a councillor here from 2011 to 2019 and is the only candidate to live in the ward.

At the far end of Kirklees district is Dewsbury, another marginal parliamentary seat which was an against-the-trend Labour gain in 2015; Paula Sheriff increased her majority to 3,321 votes in June 2017. A large chunk of that Labour majority will have come out of Dewsbury West ward, which is based on Dewsbury Moor and the textile village of Ravensthorpe and is still probably best known for the Shannon Matthews kidnap case in 2008. Dewsbury West has a large Pakistani Muslim population, a voting bloc which has turned out for the Lib Dems on occasion in the past but is now firmly in the Labour column; in May Labour had 72% of the vote here. This by-election will replace Labour councillor Paul Kane, who sadly died within a few days of handing in his resignation; the party will hope that Eric Firth is elected as Kane’s successor.

Our last West Yorkshire by-election is in an area which would rather not be part of West Yorkshire at all. Wetherby is a long way from the major urban centres of the county: it’s a town on the Great North Road, halfway between London and Edinburgh, and many of the coaching pubs in the town centre are still in business today. There’s a lot of industry in Wetherby, mostly concentrated out of town at the Thorp Arch Trading Estate which is home to the British Library’s major bookstore. The town is part of the safest Conservative seat in West Yorkshire, Elmet and Rothwell, and has voting patterns to match; Wetherby voted 57% Conservative in May. The party has selected Linda Richards to hold the seat.

East Midlands

We now move south to the Midlands, starting in the city of Lincoln. Labour are defending the Lincoln parliamentary seat in the general election after gaining it from the Tories in 2017 with a majority of 1,538. The Conservatives, on the other hand, are defending the Witham ward of the city of Lincoln, which is on the southern edge of the city, straddling both banks of the river from which it takes its name. Witham ward is the only reliable Conservative ward within the Lincoln city limits, and should be safe enough for new candidate Bill Mara.

Further down the River Witham is Boston, where there are two crucial by-elections to Boston council. Skirbeck ward lies in the south-east of Boston town across both banks of the river, and includes the town’s docks. The Boston district covers a large rural area, and Kirton and Frampton ward is an enormous swathe of fenland some miles to the south and west of the town; Kirton in Holland, on the main road south to Spalding, is the main population centre. Both of these by-elections are Conservative defences, and if the party loses either of them their majority on Boston council will be gone. Skircoat split its three seats between UKIP, the Conservatives and Labour in 2015; the UKIP and Labour seats went to independent candidates earlier this year, so the Tories’ Martin Howard has work to do to hold off independent candidates Don Jenkins and Sue Ransome. Kirton and Frampton elected two Conservatives and a UKIPper in 2015, with the UKIP seat being gained by an independent in May; here the major challenge would appear to be between the Tories David Brown and independent Lorraine O’Connor.

Our Leicestershire by-election is for the county council, in the division of Cosby and Countesthorpe. These are two large villages some miles to the south of Leicester; the division also includes part of the village of Whetstone and its industrial estate, where jet engines have been made since the days of Frank Whittle. This is a safe Conservative division in the safe Conservative seat of South Leicestershire and should elect the Tories’ Lee Phillimore.

We now come to the local government disaster area of Northamptonshire, whose district councillors are now four years and seven months into a four-year term. Local government reorganisation is planned, and as part of that the 2019 Northamptonshire district elections were postponed to 2020; the final reorganisation plan will see those elections cancelled altogether and replaced with elections to two new unitary districts. However, the general election has thrown a spanner into the works, as the reorganisation order failed to get through Parliament before the dissolution. The councillors of Northamptonshire must be hoping that the new Parliament will give their plight some early attention.

Three Conservative councillors in the county haven’t waited. Two of these are Anna Sauntson and Pam Whiting, who represented the small shoemaking town of Higham Ferrers. Sauntson sat for Chichele ward, named after the fifteenth-century Archbishop of Canterbury Henry Chichele who was born here; Whiting for Lancaster ward, named after the Duchy of Lancaster which was a major landowner in the town. We’re in the strongly Tory district of East Northamptonshire here, and the Conservatives won Lancaster ward without a contest at the most recent Northamptonshire elections in May 2015; there was a by-election for the ward’s other seat in February 2018 which was an easy Tory hold. Chichele ward normally elects independent candidate Richard Gell at the top of the poll, with Sauntson winning the other seat for the Conservatives at the last few elections. Peter Tomas defends Lancaster ward for the Tories, while the lack of an independent candidate will favour Conservative candidate Bert Jackson in Chichele ward where he was runner-up in 2011 and 2015. Both wards are in the Wellingborough parliamentary seat, where arch-Eurosceptic Peter Bone is seeking a fifth term in office.

Things are different to the north-west of Kettering, in the town of Desborough. This is another small town which was dominated by the shoemaking industry, but it’s located in the Kettering district which is much more politically lively than East Northamptonshire. St Giles is the south-eastern of Desborough’s two wards, and looks safe enough for the Tories based on the 2015 result, but their defending candidate Jim French will have to hold off a very high-profile Labour candidate. Phil Sawford was first elected to Kettering council in 1977 for the other Desborough ward; he became leader of the council in 1991, and from 1997 to 2005 was the Labour MP for Kettering on two knife-edge majorities. Sawford lost his Commons seat to the Tories’ Philip Hollobone in 2005 and failed to get it back in 2010; Hollobone is seeking a fifth term in Parliament, while Sawford is hoping to resume his local government career at the age of 69.

West Midlands

For our first by-election in the West Midlands we are in one of the most marginal constituencies in the country. In June 2017 Paul Farrelly was declared re-elected as Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme with a majority of just thirty votes, in one of the most chaotically-run election of recent times.

This column has told the story of the June 2017 Newcastle-under-Lyme election in some detail before (Andrew’s Previews 2017, pages 374 to 380). At the root of the problem was the fact that Newcastle-under-Lyme’s Electoral Services Officer and her line manager both left the council’s employment in 2016, and weren’t replaced. The effect of this was that Newcastle council’s team for the 2017 Staffordshire county and general elections was a mixture of consultants, agency workers, temps and secondees, who proceeded though inexperience to make a series of mistakes that – mainly through postal votes not being sent out and applications to register not being properly processed – left hundreds of electors disenfranchised. Andrew Scallan of the Association of Electoral Administrators, who produced an independent report into what had gone wrong, put the number of people denied the vote they were entitled to at no less than 998. If the Election Court had seen that evidence they would have almost certainly voided the election and ordered a re-run; unfortunately, by the time the Scallan Report came out the 28-day deadline for challenging the result in the Election Court had long gone.

The Scallan Report made 16 recommendations, one of which was the self-evident “properly staff the elections office”; and another was “ask Staffordshire Police to investigate the Chief Executive of Newcastle council for breach of official duty”, which is an electoral offence. It would appear that investigation went nowhere, as the Chief Executive John Sellgren was allowed to leave by mutual consent after some months under suspension. He had the decency not to take a payoff or claim his returning officer’s fee. In an indication that nothing succeeds like failure, Sellgren quickly got another job as “executive director, place” of the new Dorset council.

There were political repercussions, too. The scandal led to the fall of the minority Labour administration on Newcastle-under-Lyme council, as the independent councillors pulled the plug and installed a Conservative minority administration which remains in office to this day. This administration doesn’t include any members from Holditch and Chesterton ward, which covers a former coalmining area just to the north of Newcastle town; this was quite safely Labour at the most recent Newcastle elections in May 2018, but one of the ward’s councillors resigned at the start of this year and Labour lost the resulting by-election to an independent candidate. The other Labour councillor for Holditch and Chesterton has now resigned provoking the second by-election here in nine months; Labour’s David Grocott will try to defend the seat from independent candidate Lillian Barker.

While we’re on the subject of Newcastle-under-Lyme I can’t resist a shoutout to Aaron Bell, who as well as being the Tory candidate for the parliamentary seat is also a far better quizzer than I’ll ever be. Bell was on the St John’s College, Oxford team which was runner-up in the 2000-01 series of University Challenge, won the 2009 series of The Krypton Factor, was on the Epicureans team which won the 2010 series of Only Connect, and was runner-up in the Don Valley constituency at the 2017 general election. Following that last performance, Bell has a very good shot at a winnable constituency this time round. Labour MP Paul Farrelly, whose re-election in 2017 was so dubious through no fault of his own, is standing down and Carl Greatbatch will attempt to defend the parliamentary seat.

Moving to the other end of Staffordshire, we have two by-elections caused by the death of the Tories’ David Greatorex, who sat on both Staffordshire county council and Tamworth council. His two areas didn’t overlap each other: Greatorex’ county council seat of Watling South is essentially Tamworth south of Watling Street, while his former borough ward of Mercian is Tamworth’s north-west corner. Both areas are safe Conservative and should return Tory candidates Richard Ford to the county council and Steven Pritchard to the district council.

For our final West Midlands by-election we are in Warwick district for a case of Councillors Behaving Badly. In August 2017 Sukhi Sanghera had been declared bankrupt by Warwick County Court with debts of more than £140,000. Under the bankruptcy process Sanghera was obliged to disclose all his financial affairs and assets to the Official Receiver. Sanghera, however, owned a property in Coventry which he had let out for £1,900 per month, and he idiotically tried to conceal this. The Warwick branch of the Conservative party clearly had the wool successfully pulled over their eyes, because they selected Sanghera as a candidate for the 2019 local elections and he was subsequently elected in Warwick Myton and Heathcote ward. However, the Official Receiver eventually clocked what was going on, and Sanghera paid the price: the Coventry property was sold, raising £70,000 for creditors, and Councillor Sukhi Sanghera was made the subject of a ten-year bankruptcy restrictions order. As a result of that order he is now disqualified from holding elected office and we are having a by-election. Myton and Heathcote is Warwick town’s south-eastern ward and extends to a number of business parks, including the head office of National Grid. It was safely Conservative in May but having one of your councillors done over by the courts is never a good look, and defending Tory candidate Hugh Foden must be hoping that the electorate will be too distracted by the general election to notice.

Wales and South West

There is just one by-election each in Wales and the South West to report. The Welsh poll is at the very north of the country. Trelawnyd and Gwaenysgor is a rural division covering villages at the northern end of the Clwydian Hills; Gwaenysgor is about a mile south of and several hundred feet above Prestatyn. Trelawnyd is a larger village on the road from Holywell to Rhuddlan. In the eighteenth century it was renamed as “Newmarket” by local industrialist John Wynne, who had sunk a lot of his own money into developing the place as a market town with a lead industry, but unfortunately that didn’t stick and Rhyl became the major service centre for the area instead. The present name of Trelawnyd was adopted in the 1950s. Although this is in the Labour-held Delyn parliamentary constituency Trelawnyd and Gwaenysgor is safely Conservative at Flintshire county council level; the defending Conservative candidate is Tim Roberts, while independent candidate David Ellis is having another go after finishing second in the 2012 and 2017 local elections.

Down in the West Country the Conservatives are defending Topsham, a small town on the east bank of the Exe estuary which was once an important port, but declined with the growth of Exeter further up the river. Topsham was annexed by Exeter in 1966 and is now one of the city’s few Conservative-voting wards. Most of it is within the East Devon parliamentary seat, where independent county councillor Claire Wright is having another go at getting into Parliament after finishing as runner-up in the last two general elections; this time Wright is not up against Conservative MP Hugo Swire, who is retiring, but on the other hand Swire was often thought of as having a negative personal vote. The Topsham by-election won’t tell us much about that parliamentary fight, as there is no independent candidate; Keith Sparkes is the defending Tory here.

Eastern

Moving to East Anglia where there are two by-elections, including a fascinating poll in west Norfolk. This is our other case this week of Councillors Behaving Badly. David Pope had been a member of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk council for 18 years on the Conservative ticket, but was nominated for re-election this year as an independent candidate. Now, in order to stand for election you need to get ten electors in the constituency or ward to sign your nomination papers; it’s a way of weeding out frivolous candidates. It turned out that one of the signatures on Pope’s nomination papers this year was forged, and the Conservatives’ election agent spotted the fraud. Last month Pope pleaded guilty to permitting a false signature on an election nomination paper before King’s Lynn magistrates, who fined him £3,300. As a result of that conviction, he has been struck off the electoral register and barred from seeking public office again for five years. Pope had already resigned from King’s Lynn and West Norfolk council, jumping before he was pushed.

So we need a successor to Pope in the Upwell and Delph ward, which is the only by-election this week not being defended by the two main parties. This is a large swathe of fenland to the north and west of Downham Market, extending across the Great Ouse to Upwell on the Cambridgeshire border. Pope had topped the poll in May and another independent candidate won the other seat against only Tory opposition.

Longtime readers of Private Eye‘s Rotten Boroughs column will recognise the name of the independent candidate hoping to succeed Pope in this by-election. During the Brown government Terry Hipsey was the Conservative leader of Thurrock council in Essex, but in 2009 he crossed the floor to Labour. Hipsey was re-elected under his new colours in 2012, and stood down from Thurrock council in 2016 having moved to this corner of Norfolk some years earlier. As stated he is standing as an independent candidate; the Tories will hope to recover their former seat with their candidate Vivienne Spikings, who was David Pope’s ward colleague here for many years before standing down in May.

Some miles to the west is the Alconbury ward of Huntingdonshire, a collection of nine parishes to the north-west of Huntingdon. Alconbury lies on the Great North Road (since replaced by a motorway) at the point where it meets the A14 spur; up until this week that was a very important junction on the UK road network, but the opening of the Huntingdon Bypass last Monday – a year ahead of schedule – has rather changed traffic patterns in this area. One major local employer is Huntingdon Life Sciences, the research organisation which was a target of animal rights campaigners in the 1990s and 2000s. Huntingdonshire’s last local elections were in 2018 when Alconbury was safely Conservative, and new Tory councillor Ian Gardener should be favoured to hold on.

South East

The South East outside London has turned up with five by-elections, all of which are Conservative defences. The standout one to watch is Kentwood ward in Reading, where Emma Warman – who was the Tory candidate in Brighton Pavilion at the last general election – has stood down from the council. This is western Reading, on the south bank of the Thames around Tilehurst railway station, and is closely fought between the Tories and Labour. In May the Conservatives had a 42-38 lead over Labour, who will be defending Kentwood ward at the May 2020 local elections. The ward is also part of a marginal parliamentary seat, Tory-held Reading West. The Tories have selected Jenny Rynn to hold Kentwood, and she is up against Labour’s Glenn Dennis.

Moving south, we go offshore to the Isle of Wight where prominent local Conservative councillor Chris Whitehouse has vacated the Newport West division. He is moving to the mainland. The last Isle of Wight local elections were in May 2017 when Newport West was safe enough for Whitehouse; on the other hand, the Greens were second here two years ago and are reportedly having a serious go at the Isle of Wight parliamentary seat where the Lib Dems have stood down in their favour. The Tories’ Richard Hollis should still be favoured to hold the second Newport West by-election of the year (after the parliamentary by-election in south Wales last spring), but watch out for this result as changes from May 2017 could be instructive.

West Sussex county council leader Paul Marshall is giving up his seat on Horsham district council, prompting a by-election for the Storrington and Washington ward. This covers villages to the north of Worthing in the shadow of the South Downs, and the Tories had a big lead here in May. Don’t bet against their defending candidate, James Wright. On the far side of the South Downs is Worthing, which is having a by-election in Salvington ward. Worthing is turning into a very interesting place politically, with Labour having come from nowhere to win 10 out of 37 seats here over the last 19 months; but Salvington ward, on the northern edge of the town, hasn’t been affected by the Labour surge and is still safely in the Conservative column. Richard Nowak should have little trouble in its defence.

Salvington ward is in the Worthing West parliamentary seat, whose MP Sir Peter Bottomley is seeking a twelfth term of office. With continuous service since 1975 (although he originally represented a London seat, doing the chicken run to Worthing in 1997), if Sir Peter holds his seat and Dennis Skinner loses his, as some have speculated, Sir Peter would become the Father of the House. Dame Margaret Beckett was an MP before Sir Peter Bottomley, having been first elected as MP for Lincoln in October 1974 (under her maiden name of Margaret Jackson); but for the Father of the House title it’s continuous service that counts, and Backett was missing from the 1979-83 Parliament.

Our trip through the South East finishes on the front line of Brexit, with the resignation of the leader of Dover council, Kevin Morris. He had represented the ward of Guston, Kingsdown and St Margaret’s-at-Cliffe, which covers the countryside between Dover and Deal including the famous White Cliffs. If you’re a long-term reader of Andrew’s Previews, you may be getting at this point – to borrow a phrase from those grey hills over the Channel – a sense of déjà vu, for there was another by-election in St Margaret’s-at-Cliffe two years ago that was also caused by the resignation of the leader of Dover council. There must be something in the water here. This is a strongly Conservative ward and their defending candidate Martin Bates should have little trouble holding the seat despite the controversy over the outgoing MP for Dover. Charlie Elphicke, who had been the Tory member for the seat since 2010, is due to stand trial next year on sexual assault charges, and had lost the Tory whip; the Dover Conservatives have selected his wife Natalie as their replacement parliamentary candidate.

London

We finish in that London which, like the South East, has five by-elections – all Labour defences, this time. Two of these are in outer west London, both in the Feltham and Heston constituency: Feltham North ward, which lies between Feltham railway station and Hatton Cross underground station; and Heston West, centred on the Heston service area on the M4 motorway. Heston West has an extremely high ethnic minority population, mostly of Indian extraction. Feltham North voted Conservative up to 2010 but now looks safe for Labour; Heston West is very safely in the Labour column. The defending Labour candidates are Adesh Farmahan in Feltham North and Balraj Sarai in Heston West, and both of them look well-set for election.

The other three by-elections are all in central London constituencies represented by high-profile Shadow Cabinet members (which says something about how London-centric the present Labour party is). Camden’s Haverstock ward is named after Haverstock Hill but extends to the Chalk Fara area, the Kentish Town West overground station, and the Maitland Hill estate; it’s in Keir Starmer’s constituency of Holborn and St Pancras. Hackney’s Clissold ward, which reportedly is number 1 in London for residents who cycle to work, is based on Clissold Park in Stoke Newington; it’s in Diane Abbott’s constituency of Hackney North and Stoke Newington. Islington’s St George’s ward covers eastern Tufnell Park and is named after a local church; it’s in Jeremy Corbyn’s Islington North constituency. All of these wards have voted for someone other than Labour fairly recently: in 2010 Haverstock returned a full slate of Lib Dems and St George’s split its seats between two Lib Dems and Labour, while Clissold returned a Green councillor in 2006 (on different boundaries). Despite this, all three wards are now safe for the Labour party. The defending candidates are Gail McAnana Wood in Haverstock, Kofo David in Clissold and Gulcin Ozdemir in St George’s.

That completes our whistlestop tour of the 12th December by-elections, but there is one more piece of business to report to complete the psephological year of 2019. Three Aldermen of the City of London have resigned in order to seek re-election, as City Aldermen are expected to do every six years. Elections had been duly scheduled for next week; but when nominations closed no-one had come forward to oppose the outgoing Aldermen. Accordingly Peter Estlin of Coleman Street ward (who was Lord Mayor in 2018-19 and can expect the customary honour in the New Year), Alison Gowman of Dowgate ward and Vincent Keaveny of Farrington Within ward will be formally declared re-elected at their respective Wardmotes on Wednesday next week. And before anyone asks, Ms Gowman is an Alderman and not an Alderwoman; in the City Corporation’s use of language “Alderman”, to use the modern parlance, is a nonbinary term.

Review of the Year

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

Once those City aldermanic elections conclude next week, the psephological year of 2019 will be over as we head into the Christmas and New Year period. That’s not a time for politics; it’s a time dominated by traditions, when the nation pauses for a week to celebrate, take stock, meet friends and family, exchange gifts, sing Auld Lang Syne, toast the new year, and bid farewell to the old.

The excuse for all this is a religious festival, celebrating the birth of Jesus but incorporating elements from pre-Christian religious festivals based around the winter solstice. One of these was the Saturnalia, an ancient Roman holiday and excuse for merrymaking, gift-giving and general excess which marked the anniversary of the dedication of the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum. In its original form, Saturnalia commenced was sixteen days before the Kalends of January.

The name of January recalls one of the Roman pantheon of gods. Janus, in their mythology, was the god of beginnings and endings, doorways and passages, time and transition. Like your hate politician of choice, he had two faces: one looking forward at the future, one back upon the past.

This is the last Andrew’s Previews of the year, an occasion on which this column traditionally takes the opportunity to look forward at the future and back upon the past. As a quick look at the Britain Elects opinion poll graph for the last few years shows, 2019 was a year of extraordinary political volatility. An examination of the 2nd May 2019 local election results only serves to confirm that impression.

For the most part this year’s local elections renewed councillors who had been elected on 7th May 2015, the day when David Cameron got his parliamentary majority and voters turned out in general election numbers. This had a big effect, as 2019 is the largest year of the local electoral cycle: it’s the year when the majority of councillors in the English shire districts – the Tory heartlands – come up for election. The Conservatives did very well, particularly so with breakthroughs in districts with an independent tradition. Local electoral observers – those who weren’t distracted by what was going on in Westminster – talked of a bonfire of the independents, as minor parties were swamped by the national message. Something similar had happened on a smaller scale four years earlier, when the Alternative Vote referendum brought out to the polls people who might not normally have voted for their local councils but did want to vote No to AV. Something similar went on to happen at the general election two years later, when voters in England generally abandoned the minor parties and flocked towards the Big Two.

So 2019 was the first occasion for several cycles that the English shire district elections could stand alone and take centre stage. Expect that they didn’t; Brexit threw a spanner in the works. Two postponements of exit day meant that the UK, rather unexpectedly, would have to take part in the European Parliament elections in late May 2019. These were organised at the last moment, making it impossible to combine the local elections with the Euro-elections and thereby save money for our cash-strapped local councils.

European elections in the UK always inject huge amounts of volatility into our politics and this year was no exception in that respect. This undoubtedly affected the local elections, which came three weeks before European election day; at a time when both the Conservative and Labour parties were extremely weak but when the new insurgent parties that were taking votes off them – the Brexit Party and Change UK – were not ready for primetime. Organisation, as we shall see, matters. In order to succeed in local elections you need to select and nominate candidates for thousands of council seats, and that requires a level of organisation which is impossible for an insurgent party to put together in a matter of weeks. The Brexit Party and Change UK didn’t stand a single candidate in the May 2019 local elections; the Brexit Party have turned up for a handful of council by-elections since May, without success so far, but Change UK or whatever they’re called this week are yet to have a single candidate named in this column.

With the absence of these new political forces from the local ballot paper, those voters who were annoyed with the two major parties or their council administrations had to go somewhere else. And they did. Where an unpopular national party and an unpopular local party combined, it was as often as not independent candidates who benefited in big numbers. To quote from this column’s review piece written immediately after the May local election results were known:

Surrey … was a bloodbath for the Conservative party. Of the 1300 or so seats they lost across England in these local elections, 120 were in Surrey. In Michael Gove’s constituency of Surrey Heath the party collapsed from 36 seats out of 40 to 18 seats out of 35, a majority of one. In the hung Elmbridge district the party lost three seats and a coalition of the Residents and Lib Dems looks likely to take over. In Mole Valley district the Conservatives lost ten of the twelve seats they were defending (one of them by failing to get their nomination papers in) and the Lib Dems now have a majority. There is just one Conservative councillor remaining in Chris Grayling’s constituency of Epsom and Ewell. Tandridge district has fallen into no overall control.

And in two particularly epic failures, which this column didn’t see coming, Waverley council (the south-west corner, around Farnham and Godalming) became hung, and independents are now the largest group on Guildford council where the Tories were reduced to just nine councillors. … Waverley district also had a by-election to Surrey county council in the Haslemere division, which the Conservatives lost to an independent candidate.

Those two paragraphs were clearly read by somebody, because shortly afterwards your columnist was offered the chance to talk election results, and specifically to talk about the rise of independents and localists, for a couple of minutes on the breakfast show of BBC Radio Surrey. Primtime, I know! I hope I was coherent.

Surrey has in some parts (like Epsom and Ewell) a long-established tradition of localist parties contesting local elections. But this time there were many more districts in (particularly) the London outer commuter belt where independents did well against Tory opposition. The Residents for Uttlesford, the Residents for Guildford and Villages, the Guildford Greenbelt Group, the Tunbridge Wells Alliance, independents in Southend-on-Sea; all of those groups did very well in May and many of them are now in council administrations. In the deeply rural areas which had experienced a bonfire of independent councillors in 2015, the pendulum swung back the other way with Tory losses in places like Torridge, East Devon, North Kesteven in Lincolnshire, Richmondshire in Yorkshire, Eden in Cumbria, a near-loss of Maldon in Essex.

In case you think I’m only having a go at the Tories here, the same factors were at work in Labour’s strongest areas. It’s been the case for years that in former coalfield areas independent candidates often perform well, and that trend has accelerated recently. There are lots of independent and localist councillors in Durham which wasn’t up for election this year, and the party did particularly badly in May 2019 in the Midlands coalfield areas: Labour failed to knock out an independent/Tory coalition running Stoke-on-Trent, and squandered the majorities they had won in 2015 on Bolsover, Mansfield and Ashfield councils (although they did gain the Mansfield elected mayoralty from a localist group, so that was a nett plus there). In Ashfield’s independent leader Jason Zadrozny we have a very charismatic politician who (now his legal troubles are over) could go very far indeed. In the industrial towns of West Cumbria, Labour lost a large number of seats to independents in Allerdale (Workington, Maryport, Keswick and a large rural area), and the independent Mayor of Copeland (Whitehaven, Sellafield and Millom) was re-elected with a large majority.

And where council administrations of both parties were complete basket cases, the weakness of the main parties meant that the national picture couldn’t save them. Labour suffered big losses to independents and localists in Hartlepool, Middlesbrough and Bolton, costing them control; only the thirds electoral system saved them in Sunderland. The same happened to the Conservatives in Rother and (as already mentioned) Tunbridge Wells, where again the Conservative majority is down to the thirds electoral system.

In general terms, there are two things that all these areas where independents and localist parties did well have in common. First, they were very strong areas for one or other of the main parties; second, they were places where the other main party is organisationally weak or non-existent. These two factors are strongly related to each other, because England’s first-past-the-post electoral system makes it very hard for minority parties to win seats unless (and this will normally be the case for localist parties) their support is geographically concentrated. Without council seats and the allowances that come with them, it’s harder for minority parties to raise the money and profile needed to compete.

Where both major parties are well-organised, we saw a different and more traditional picture, with one party doing well at the expense of the other. Labour gained Gravesham from the Conservatives, the Tories took overall control of North East Lincolnshire which had previously had a Labour minority administration. The Liberal Democrats did well in areas whether they can traditionally put together a campaign, gaining the London commuter belt districts of Chelmsford, St Albans and Mole Valley together with the brand-new district of Somerset West and Taunton.

Different dynamics will be in play for this general election, but my point about political organisation holds true. It’s very rare for a party to win a seat where they have no local councillors, although not unknown – the Conservative gain of Mansfield in 2017 is the most recent example. But these are exceptions that prove the rule. Local election success and general election success are often linked, and there are many reason to expect them to be linked. I’ve named a few councils above which saw big changes in May, and it would not be a surprise for some of those changes to feed through to what happens in December. Organisation matters.

This week’s election results will, of course, set the tone for the future. We’ll have to wait a while for the first public reaction to the new government (whatever it is), as the next local by-elections will not take place until the second half of January 2020. A nice little month-long break for this column, but hopefully I shall not be idle for there is much to do to prepare for the ordinary local elections on Thursday 7th May 2020. On this date all of England and Wales will be going to the polls to elect the Police and Crime Commissioners, the Mayor and Assembly in London, and the Mayor of Greater Manchester. Further mayoral elections will take place in the Liverpool City Region, the Tees Valley and the West Midlands, and for the local authority mayors in Bristol, Liverpool and Salford. There will also be elections for the whole of Bristol, Gloucester, Rotherham, Stroud and Warrington councils, in those English metropolitan, unitary and shire districts which elect by halves or thirds, and the inaugural election to the forthcoming unitary Buckinghamshire council. Something will also be happening in Northamptonshire, although it’ll be a while before we discover whether this will be the postponed 2019 district polls or the first elections to two new unitary councils. Watch this space. And you’ll probably be able to see the results coming in without work interfering, as Friday 8th May 2020 is a bank holiday to mark the 70th anniversary of VE Day – although this worthy stuff will get overshadowed on the news bulletins by the local election results.

Later in 2020, all being well, Andrew’s Previews – the “Holy Word”, as one corner of the internet has rechristened it – will mark its tenth anniversary. Those ten years may have been interesting times, but it’s been a privilege to report on them. There’s a long archive of the Previews, some of which I’ve turned into three books – Andrew’s Previews 2016 to 2018 – which you can buy on Amazon and will make an excellent Christmas present for the discerning psephologist. Or, indeed for anyone with an interest in learning new things about the UK; I know from feedback that the Previews have somehow ended up as recommended reading for the new generation of university quizbowlers, many of whom are already better quizzers than I’ll ever be. If you’d like to support the Previews financially, buying one or more of the books is the best way to do it: I’ll get the royalties to support future research, and you’ll get a permanent reminder of your donation. If anybody would like me to put together a 2019 collection, do please let me know, either on Twitter or in the comments.

Since the middle of 2017 Andrew’s Previews has been written for Britain Elects, the most high-profile UK poll aggregator on the internet. We don’t just come out at election time, we work hard for you all year round. For this general election campaign Britain Elects has tied up with the New Statesman to bring you the best of all possible worlds: our reputation for truth and accuracy, the Staggers’ formidable journalism, and, er, this column. If this partnership continues safely into the unknown territory of 2020, we’ll have hit the big time. If it’s only a temporary tie-up, don’t worry; I don’t intend to stop writing the Previews any time soon.

In the Christian calendar, this general election falls smack in the middle of Advent, a time of waiting for the coming of the Messiah: both at Bethlehem two thousand years ago, and the future Second Coming. My closing music for this column reflects these themes: Eric Ball’s brass band selection The Kingdom Triumphant, featuring several Advent tunes which you may well recognise. After all, what’s Christmas without a brass band? We wait to see whether our new Prime Minister is a new Messiah or a Very Naughty Boy, but one thing is certain: this will not be the Last Judgment of the electorate. Before too long the cycle will turn and there will be another election. That’s democracy.

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

And with that thought, it is time to close down for the year in the form of words which has become traditional. This column will return in time for the first local by-elections of 2020, to be held in Galloway and the London Borough of Brent on Thursday 23rd January; until then, may I wish you a very merry Christmas, and may your 2020 be an improvement on your 2019.

Andrew Teale