Previews: 12 Mar 2020

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

Four by-elections on 12th March 2020:


Park Farm North

Ashford council, Kent; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Jo Gideon, who is now the MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central.

Our four by-elections today are in rural and small-town areas; but, unusually, the Conservative defence is the exception to the rule. We’ve come to Ashford, one of the boom towns of modern Britain as the first major town along the road from the Channel Ports to London. Ashford has expanded over recent years with new housing estates in nearly every direction, and Park Farm is one of the biggest of then.

Park Farm lies just to the south of Ashford off the main road and railway line towards Romney Marsh, close to and part of the parish of the ancient village of Kingsnorth. The ward’s housing mostly dates from the mid-1990s, and was clearly marketed to people with or planning families: at the 2011 census 29% of the ward’s residents were under 16, putting Park Farm North in the top 40 wards in England and Wales on that statistic.

The development of Park Farm caused the old Kingsnorth ward of Ashford to become grossly oversized, and in 2003 the Local Government Boundary Commission divided it into three new wards of which this is one. The new ward returned a councillor from the Ashford Independents – a long-established localist party – in the 2003 election, but the independent retired in 2007 leaving an open seat which the Conservatives picked up. The Tories have held Park Farm North ever since. Joanna “Jo” Gideon took over as the ward’s councillor in May 2019, defeating Labour 61-20 on slightly revised boundaries.

Like Darren Henry MP, whom we met on Tuesday in connection with a Wiltshire by-election, Jo Gideon already had a parliamentary campaign under her belt. In the 2017 general election she had fought the closely-watched seat of Great Grimsby, finishing around 2,500 votes short of Labour MP Melanie Onn. At the time of her election to Ashford council she was an aide to the local MP, Damian Green, and before that Gideon had been a small businesswoman.

When the December 2019 general election became a thing Gideon was selected as Conservative candidate for Stoke-on-Trent Central. Like Great Grimsby, this was a long-standing Labour constituency with significant UKIP strength, as seen in a by-election in February 2017 (Andrew’s Previews 2017, pages 55 to 62). Like Great Grimsby, it fell to the Conservatives in December 2019. Jo Gideon is the first Conservative MP for Stoke Central since Harold Hales, a shipping magnate who had represented the predecessor seat of Hanley in the 1931-35 Parliament.

With Jo Gideon now dividing her time between London and the Potteries, she has left an open seat on Ashford council. Defending this by-election for the Conservatives is Aline Hicks, a former Ashford councillor who represented the rural Weald South ward from 2015 to 2019; Hicks is presently a Kingsnorth parish councillor. The Labour candidate is Garry Harrison, who was a Labour candidate for Ashford council in May last year and a UKIP candidate for Kent county council in 2017. Also standing are Samuel Strolz for the Lib Dems, Trish Cornish for the Ashford Independents and Thom Pizzey for the Green Party.

Parliamentary constituency: Ashford
Kent county council division: Ashford Rural South
ONS Travel to Work Area: Ashford
Postcode district: TN23

Trish Cornish (Ashford Ind)
Garry Harrison (Lab)
Aline Hicks (C)
Thom Pizzey (Grn)
Samuel Strolz (LD)

May 2019 result C 300 Lab 97 LD 91


Parrett

South Somerset council; caused by the resignation of Liberal Democrat councillor Tony Vaughan.

For other by-election in the South of England today we turn to the week’s Lib Dem defence, which is on the southern border of Somerset. The Parrett ward, named after the river which forms its western boundary, is a rural division covering five parishes a few miles south-west of Yeovil. The largest of these is the wonderfully-named Haselbury Plucknett, which was an important place in the twelfth century as the home of Wulfric, a holy man and miracle worker who was one of the most influential priests of his time. Both Henry I and King Stephen sought his advice. Wulfric was never formally canonised, and the church where he is buried is dedicated not to him but to St Michael and All Angels.

The South Somerset district has been run by the Liberal Democrats for many years, and the party won a big majority in the 2019 local elections. But big seat majorities can be deceptive: the Tories are often very close behind here. Such is the story of Parrett ward, which has been Lib Dem at every election this century but has had a series of knife-edge results: the Lib Dem majority was just 30 votes in 2007, 88 votes in 2011 and 57 votes on the general election turnout in 2015. The winning candidate on each of those occasions was Ric Pallister, who for a time was leader of the council; he retired in May 2019 and his successor, Tony Vaughan, increased the Lib Dem majority to the much more comfortable level of 65% to 35%. The Conservatives, however, represent the area in Parliament and on Somerset county council.

Vaughan’s resignation after less than a year in office has caused this by-election. Defending for the Liberal Democrats is Ollie Patrick, a local resident who sits on West and Middle Chinnock parish council. He’s up against a strong Conservative candidate in Mark Keating, from Haselbury Plucknett, who is the ward’s county councillor. Also standing are independent candidate Steve Ashton (who fought Eggwood ward May 2019 but lives here) and Robert Wood for the Green Party.

Parliamentary constituency: Yeovil
Somerset county council division: Coker
ONS Travel to Work Area: Yeovil
Postcode districts: BA22, TA14, TA18

Steve Ashton (Ind)
Mark Keating (C)
Ollie Patrick (LD)
Robert Wood (Grn)

May 2019 result LD 575 C 316
May 2015 result LD 785 C 728
May 2011 result LD 623 C 535
May 2007 result LD 519 C 479
May 2003 result LD 633 C 430


Welford-on-Avon

Stratford-on-Avon council, Warwickshire; caused by the death of independent councillor Peter Barnes at the age of 78.

For our final English by-election of the week we travel north to the Midlands. The village of Welford-on-Avon lies about four miles downstream from Stratford-upon-Avon, and claims to have one of England’s tallest maypoles. The village anchors a ward of seven parishes to the south-west of the town, including Long Marston which was the site of a former military base that’s now used as a dumping ground for unwanted trains. Much of this ward was a detached part of Gloucestershire until 1931, when boundary changes transferred it to Warwickshire.

The late councillor Frederick Peter Barnes was the longest-serving member of Stratford-on-Avon council. He had been the district councillor for Welford-on-Avon continuously since a November 1990 by-election, originally being elected on the Lib Dem ticket. Barnes also served on Warwickshire county council from 2001 to 2013. He left the Lib Dems during the Coalition years and was very narrowly re-elected in 2015 as the only independent member of Stratford-on-Avon council; Barnes polled 975 votes, just eleven more than the Conservative candidate. His final re-election, in 2019, was by the much more comfortable score of 65-21 over the Tories. The 2017 Warwickshire county results, in which the Conservatives had a big lead in Bidford and Welford division, suggest that without Barnes on the ballot the Conservatives would have a good chance here.

There is one independent candidate hoping to succeed Peter Barnes in this by-election: Neal Appleton is a local resident and former school governor. The Conservatives have reselected Richard Cox who stood here last year. Also standing are John Stott for the Green Party, Anthony Kent for Labour and Manuela Perteghella for the Lib Dems.

Parliamentary constituency: Stratford-on-Avon
Warwickshire county council division: Bidford and Welford
ONS Travel to Work Area: Leamington Spa
Postcode district: CV37

Neal Appleton (Ind)
Richard Cox (C)
Manuela Perteghella (LD)
Anthony Kent (Lab)
John Stott (Grn)

May 2019 result Ind 897 C 291 Grn 117 Lab 73
May 2015 result Ind 975 C 964 Lab 116


Eilean a’ Cheò

Highland council, Scotland; caused by the resignation of independent councillor Ronald MacDonald.

We finish the week with another free-for-all, but it couldn’t be more different as we swap the rolling hills of Warwickshire for the scenery of the Cuillins. These are some of most spectacular mountains in the whole of Scotland, and pictures of the Cuillins have graced many a guidebook and calendar over the years. The Cuillins aren’t the tallest hills in Scotland – they include twelve Munros but the highest point, Sgùrr Alasdair, is only 992 metres in altitude – but they are technically demanding, and a traverse of the Cuillin ridge is one of the greatest challenges in British mountaineering. Their difficulty is reflected in the fact that Sgùrr Alasdair is named after Alexander Nicolson, who in 1873 was the first person to climb it; several other peaks in the range were named similarly.

Despite their height these mountains are not part of the British mainland. The Cuillins instead anchor the Isle of Skye, the largest of the Inner Hebrides and the third-largest island in Scotland. Skye is an island with a long history, although not much of it was written down until comparatively recent times. It was Norse territory until 1266, when the king of Norway ceded Sodor and Man to Scotland under the terms of the Treaty of Perth. By this time the island was effectively controlled by the clan system, which gave us such structures as Dunvegan Castle, home to this day to the chief of the Clan MacLeod.

Many of the clan leaders ended up on the losing side in the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, which ended with the lad who was born to be king being ignominiously carried over the see to Skye. After that the island was taken over by landed estates, and the Highland Clearances started to bite. To some extent Skye still hasn’t recovered from that episode: even with some population growth in recent years, the island’s headcount now is half of what it was in 1821.

Today a third of Skye’s residents are employed in the public sector with tourism also being important. The island’s main exports are fish and Talisker whisky, while Dunvegan Castle and the local folk music scene are major draws. The Skye Bridge links the island to the mainland at Kyle of Lochalsh, while ferries cross the sea to Mallaig on the mainland and to Harris and North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. The main centre of population is Portree, a fishing port on the east coast home to the island’s secondary school and around a quarter of its population.

Skye, of course, isn’t the only island in the area. The electoral ward covers associated islands including Soay, Staffa and Raasay. Of these, only Raasay has any population worth speaking of. Staffa is uninhabited but nevertheless is world-famous thanks to Fingal’s Cave, immortalised in Felix Mendelssohn’s overture The Hebrides which has rarely been out of the orchestral repertoire since it was published in the 1830s.

In recent decades Skye has been associated with some very prominent politicians on the faraway Westminster scene. The current MP for Skye is Ian Blackford, leader of the Scottish National Party’s group in the House of Commons; he won his seat in 2015 by defeating the former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy, who had first been elected here on the SDP ticket in 1983.

Local elections here are a bit different. Skye is part of the sprawling Highland council area, and at the first Highland council election of this century it was divided into four-and-a-half wards; the eastern end of the island was in the Kyle and Sleat ward which also included Kyle of Lochalsh over the bridge. All of these voted for independent candidates except Portree ward, which voted Lib Dem; Skye Central ward was uncontested.

That was the last first-past-the-post election to Highland council, which as with all of Scottish local government went over to proportional representation for the 2007 election. Under the new régime Skye and its associated islands formed a single ward of four councillors. In a nod to the fact that nearly half of the islanders have some knowledge of Scottish Gaelic, the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland settled on a Gaelic name for the ward. Rather than the island’s standard Gaelic name, An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, the poetic Eilean a’ Cheò (island of the mist) was chosen as the new ward name. This led to some confusion in the run-up to the 2007 election, as an urban myth arose that the Highland council was «hanging the name of the island as a whole; the Telegraph went so far as to print a story to that effect on its front page, and the council was forced to issue a clarification. The new ward duly came into effect and has had unchanged boundaries ever since. Skye is still Skye.

In the 2007 election to Eilean a’ Cheò ward all four councillors for wards wholly on Skye stood for re-election. Three of them made it back, Drew Millar for the Lib Dems and independent candidates Hamish Fraser and John Laing. Iain MacDonald, outgoing councillor for Snizort and Trotternish ward, was eliminated in seventh place and lost his seat; that seat was picked up by Ian Renwick of the SNP, who fairly narrowly defeated independent candidate John Murray in the final count. Shares of the vote were 52% for the four independent candidates, 21% for the Lib Dems and 15% for the SNP, so a 2-1-1 split was an equitable outcome. John Laing retired at the 2012 election and his seat was taken by a new independent, John Gordon, with the other three councillors being re-elected very comfortably.

The 2017 election, by contrast, saw a lot of change. All four councillors sought re-election, but Millar was this time standing as an independent, having left the Lib Dem group when the party attempted to discipline him for sharing Britain First stuff on his social media. Several new independent candidates stood, including John Finlayson who topped the poll with 29% of the vote and was elected on the first count. Three of the twelve candidates on the ballot paper were called MacLeod, but in the final reckoning there could be only one: Calum MacLeod won the second seat for the SNP, defeating his running-mate Ian Renwick. The SNP had started with 19%, ahead of new independent Ronald MacDonald on 14% and outgoing independent councillors John Gordon and Hamish Fraser on 9% and 7% respectively; and that was the order they finished in, with MacDonald winning the third seat and Gordon being the only Eilean a’ Cheò councillor to be re-elected. Since May 2017, SNP councillor MacLeod has left the party group following a domestic abuse charge.

As can be seen, in this corner of the world we have a lot of votes for independent candidates; the seven independents on the ballot polled 71% between them in May 2017. Reading across voting patterns from Westminster and Holyrood elections is not that helpful in these circumstances.

This by-election has been caused by the resignation of independent councillor Ronald MacDonald. A former consultant to international institutions such as the World Bank, MacDonald is a professor of macroeconomics and international finance at the University of Glasgow’s business school. He had stood for election to Highland council on a single issue of improving health and social care services on the island. This has been the subject of a wide-ranging recent report by Sir Lewis Ritchie, and Professor MacDonald has stood down from the council so that he can work on getting the recommendations made in the Ritchie report implemented.

So we have this by-election for which there are six candidates. Two of them are independents. Màrtainn Mac a’ Bhàillidh, who appears to have changed his name to Màrtainn Misneachd for this election (misneachd is the Gaelic for “confidence”), is associated with a Gaelic-language pressure group and his campaign policies go strong on language issues. Although the local newspaper, the West Highland Free Press, describes Misneachd as living and working on Skye, he has given an address in Glasgow on his nomination papers. The other independent candidate is Calum Munro, a former schoolteacher who has also run his own joinery business; among various community works he chairs the parent council/forum for Kilmuir primary school. Munro may therefore be familiar with the SNP candidate Andrew Kiss, whose wife is the headteacher at that primary school; Mr Kiss, who defeated former councillor Drew Millar for the SNP nomination, is a consulting engineer in the automotive industry and has also run a bed and breakfast business. The Scottish Conservatives have looked to the next generation in selecting Ruraidh Stewart, from Balmacara near Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland; he’s currently studying at St Andrews University and has previously represented Skye in the Scottish Youth Parliament. The Lib Dem candidate is Fay Thomson, a former manager for the Federation of Small Businesses who has also run a café in Portree; like outgoing councillor MacDonald, she’s involved with the Ritchie report implementation. Completing the ballot paper is Dawn Kroonstuiver Campbell, from the Scottish Green Party, who is calling for the council to impose a tax on tourists visiting Skye.

This is a Scottish local government election, so the standard reminder applies: Votes at 16 and the Alternative Vote are in force. Please mark your ballot paper in order of preference. There are 21 polling stations for this by-election, one of which is on Raasay whose ballot box will have to be transported over the sea in order to reach the count in Portree. Accordingly the returning officer is not going for an overnight count, so don’t stay up all night waiting for this result.

Picture of the Cuillin Mountains by Stefan Krause, GermanyOwn work, FAL, Link. Picture of the Portree harbourfront by DeFactoOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Parliamentary constituency: Ross, Skye and Lochaber
Holyrood constituency: Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch
ONS Travel to Work Area: Portree (north of ward), Broadford and Kyle of Lochalsh (south of ward)
Postcode districts: IV40, IV41, IV42, IV43, IV44, IV45, IV46, IV47, IV48, IV49, IV51, IV55, IV56, PH41

Andrew Kiss (SNP)
Dawn Kroonstuiver Campbell (Grn)
Màrtainn Misneachd (Ind)
Calum Munro (Ind)
Ruraidh Stewart (C)
Fay Thomson (LD)

May 2017 first preferences Ind 3551 SNP 936 C 319 Lab 98 LD 97
May 2012 first preferences Ind 1850 SNP 830 LD 641 Lab 157 C 91
May 2007 first preferences Ind 2365 LD 960 SNP 669 Lab 351 C 178

Andrew Teale