Previews: 19 Mar 2020

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

For the moment, the show is going on. It appears that the government intends to call off local by-elections as a response to the COVID-19 crisis, but as I explained in an extraordinary edition of the Previews last week there is currently no way to stop an election thanks to force majeure. Stopping the democratic processes already in action will require primary legislation, which won’t pass in time to prevent today’s four contests. In what may be the last ordinary edition of Andrew’s Previews for some time, there are four local by-elections on 19th March 2020:

Upper Stoke

Coventry council, West Midlands; caused by the death of Labour councillor Sucha Singh Bains at the age of 83.

Bains was born in the Punjab in 1935; he came to Britain in 1959 and settled in Coventry, studying at Lanchester Polytechnic – the forerunner to Coventry University – and working in the city’s automotive industry. Bains entered politics and in 1990 achieved elected office, being elected to Coventry city council for the Upper Stoke ward. Apart from a gap in 2004-06 he had represented the ward ever since, and in 2003-04 Bains served as the first Asian Lord Mayor of Coventry.

Bains’ Upper Stoke ward is centred on Stoke Heath, which was developed in the early years of the last century as housing for what was becoming a major industrial city. Initially munitions were the major local employer; there was a war on, and many of the local houses were occupied by refugees from Belgium. Once the war was over the area became dependent on the Morris Motors engine plant, which occupied several acres on Blackberry Lane. Because of the presence of the factory, this area suffered badly in the Coventry Blitz of November 1940. The Morris engine factory closed its doors in the early 1980s and housing now occupies the site. Today many of the ward’s residents were, like the late Councillor Bains, born in India; Punjabi and Polish are major languages spoken here.

Upper Stoke ward was unusual in Coventry in the 2000s as it was the only ward of the city where the Liberal Democrats had any sort of presence. The Lib Dems won all three seats in the 2004 election, the first on the current boundaries, shutting Bains out. Bains got his seat back in 2006 with a majority of 30 votes, and Labour gained a second seat the following year by the even narrower margin of three votes, 1620 to 1617. The last Lib Dem councillor held out until 2012, but by then the Coalition had happened and the party’s vote had fallen through the floor; Labour gained the seat with a majority of over 38 percentage points, and they have not been seriously challenged here since. In May 2019 Labour polled 50% in Upper Stoke, against 21% for the Conservatives and 16% for UKIP; and the ward will have been strongly in the Labour column at the December 2019 general election in the Coventry North East constituency.

Defending for Labour is local resident Gurdev Singh Hayre. The Conservatives have selected Gurdeep Singh Sohal, a consultant. UKIP – like the Lib Dems – have thrown in the towel, so the two remaining candidates are Chrissie Brown of the Green Party and Jane Nellist – wife of the former Militant MP Dave Nellist, now there’s a blast from the past – for the Socialist Alternative.

Parliamentary constituency: Coventry North East

Chrissie Brown (Grn)
Gurdev Singh Hayre (Lab)
Jane Nellist (Soc Alt)
Gurdeep Singh Sohal (C)

May 2019 result Lab 1538 C 632 UKIP 501 Grn 394
May 2018 result Lab 1965 C 775 Grn 268 LD 204
May 2016 result Lab 1873 UKIP 546 LD 424 C 354 Grn 150 TUSC 89
May 2015 result Lab 3368 C 1273 UKIP 1227 LD 629 Grn 260 TUSC 215
May 2014 result Lab 1912 UKIP 809 LD 417 C 389 Grn 134 BNP 94 TUSC 56
May 2012 result Lab 2024 LD 682 C 275 Grn 213 BNP 156 Socialist Alternative 120
May 2011 result Lab 2536 LD 799 C 508 BNP 193 Grn 159 Socialist Alternative 95
May 2010 result Lab 3439 LD 1983C 1127 BNP 480 Socialist Alternative 185
May 2008 result LD 1694 Lab 1506 C 482 Grn 172
May 2007 result Lab 1620 LD 1617 C 521 BNP 291 Ind 183 Ind 25
May 2006 result Lab 1792 LD 1762 C 566
June 2004 result LD 2119/2047/1865 Lab 1776/1504/1480 C 526/480/457 Socialist Alternative 251

Clackmannanshire East

Clackmannanshire council; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Bill Mason.

It’s time for what is becoming the annual March trip to the Wee County on the north bank of the Firth of Forth. For the third year in a row, Clackmannanshire council is having a by-election in March. The returning officer here is used to having to hold by-elections in trying circumstances: the March 2018 by-election in the county’s North ward took place on the 1st of the month, which may be recognised by the Met Office as the first day of spring but was blighted by exceptionally heavy snowfall.

This time we’re in the East ward, which is based on the towns of Clackmannan and Dollar. Clackmannan may have given its name to a county but it’s a pretty small place, with a population under 3,500. Originally it was a port on the River Black Devon, a tributary of the Forth, but centuries of silting-up mean that the river is now more than a mile away from the town centre. In mediaeval times Clackmannan was associated the Bruce family, who fortified it with the building of Clackmannan Tower – a structure that no longer exists.

Further up in the hills is Dollar, a village whose name may come from a Gaelic word meaning “dark” or “gloomy”; appropriate for the trying times in which we live. By coincidence or otherwise, Dollar is home to Castle Gloom, a 500-year-old building officially called Castle Campbell which was built as a Lowland centre for the Dukes of Argyll. Along with Muckhart, which was transferred into Clacks from Perthshire in 1971, Dollar forms one of the Hillfoots Villages along the A93 road from Stirling towards Fife.

Much of this ward has a coalmining history. In 2003 Labour carried the two wards based on Clackmannan while Dollar and Muckhart was the only part of the Wee County to return a Conservative councillor, Alastair Campbell. The introduction of this ward for the 2007 election along with proportional representation enabled the SNP to get a look-in, and the nationalists actually topped the poll in Clackmannanshire East at the 2007 and 2012 elections. For the May 2017 election the Conservatives took over the lead with 42% of the vote, against 30% for the SNP and 20% for Labour; the seat count remained at one for each party partly because the Tories only had one candidate. Alastair Campbell stood down and Bill Mason took over as the ward’s Conservative councillor. As usual, Allan Faulds at the Ballot Box Scotland blog has got his slide-rule out to see what would have happened if the May 2017 votes were for a single seat: the answer is a big win for Mason, with a 59-41 lead over the SNP after redistributions.

The Wee County is part of the Ochil and South Perthshire parliamentary seat, which has unseated its MP at each of the three general elections over the last five years. Labour’s Gordon Banks lost in 2015 to the SNP’s Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, who lost in 2017 to the Tories’ Luke Graham, who lost in 2019 to the SNP’s John Nicolson. Clackmannanshire has a longer SNP pedigree in the Scottish Parliament, the party having represented it since 2003 (currently as part of the Clackmannanshire and Dunblane seat).

Bill Mason has stood down on health grounds halfway through his five-year term, prompting this by-election. Defending for the Conservatives is Denis Coyne, a business advisor from Dollar who is aged 71, so may have some trouble getting to the count. The SNP candidate is Stephen Leitch, a community councillor in Dollar. Labour have selected Carolynne Hunter, a former software engineer and now full-time carer for her disabled daughter. Also standing are John Biggam for the Lib Dems and Marion Robertson for the Scottish Greens.

Parliamentary constituency: Ochil and South Perthshire
Scottish Parliament constituency: Clackmannanshire and Dunblane

John Biggam (LD)
Denis Coyne (C)
Carolynne Hunter (Lab)
Stephen Leitch (SNP)
Marion Robertson (Grn)

May 2017 first preferences C 1452 SNP 1055 Lab 706 LD 151 Grn 132

Chilworth, Nursling and Rownhams

Test Valley council, Hampshire; caused by the death of long-serving Conservative councillor Nigel Anderdon.

Our two remaining by-elections are in the south-east of England. Chilworth, Nursling and Rownhams are three villages just outside Southampton, which are clearly dependent on the big city but haven’t been incorporated into it. Chilworth, the point where Southampton ends on the main road towards Eastleigh and London, is home to a science park run by the University of Southampton and to the earth station from where Sky TV send their broadcasts to the satellites. Rownhams lies on the city’s north-western edge, and is probably best known as the location of a service area on the M27 motorway.

This is greenbelt land and homes in this ward are sought-after and expensive. That adds up to a strongly Conservative area; on slightly revised boundaries in May 2019, the ward gave the Conservative slate a 58-30 lead in what was generally a poor set of local elections for the Tories. The Conservatives also hold the local county council seat, Romsey Rural.

This by-election will be a straight fight with Labour having withdrawn. Defending for the Conservatives is Terese Swain, a school business manager who site on Nursling and Rownhams parish council. Challenging for the Lib Dems is Karen Dunleavey, a former Mayor of Romsey.

Parliamentary constituency: Romsey and Southampton North
Hampshire county council division: Romsey Rural

Karen Dunleavey (LD)
Terese Swain (C)

May 2019 result C 1187/1123/1114 LD 612/517/470 Lab 236


Thanet council, Kent; caused by the resignation of Labour councillor Karen Constantine.

If this is to be the last by-election preview for some months to come, it’s appropriate that it links back all the way to the start of the Andrew’s Previews book series. This column has been going for almost ten years, and all columns from 2016 to 2018 have been collected in a series of paperbacks which are available from Amazon. Or not, as the case may be: I understand Amazon are not prioritising book deliveries at the moment, so if you order a copy you could be in for a long wait.

Those who are already lucky enough to have a copy of the first Preview book, that for 2016, will be able to turn to page 16 to see a by-election in the Newington ward of Thanet district, which took place on the 21st January and was the fourth of over 240 previews in the book. Newington ward is an inland and rather working-class part of Ramsgate, on the road towards Manston airport. Blessed with one of the widest runways in Europe – a legacy of the Second World War, when damaged RAF planes would regularly limp home here – Manston became a civilian airport from 1960 onwards. Attempts to develop the place into a budget airline hub foundered after the collapse of EUjet in 2005, and several later players couldn’t make Manston work either. The last scheduled passenger flight, a KLM departure to Amsterdam, left in April 2014 and the airport closed the following month.

Since 2014 the airport site has been the subject of a tug-of-war. The site had been quickly sold to developers who wanted to build new housing and commercial units; the Government had an eye on its runway for use a lorry park in the event of no-deal Brexit; while several attempts have been made to reopen the site for cargo flights. In late 2014 Thanet council, then run by Labour, turned down a compulsory purchase order which would have allowed a reopening plan to proceed under the auspices of intended new operator RiverOak.

Thanet council was then taken over by UKIP, who won a majority of the district councillors in the 2015 election on the coattails of a widely-publicised but unsuccessful Parliamentary campaign by Nigel Farage. The new UKIP administration was much more sympathetic to the idea of reopening the airport, although there were further twists and turns before the site was eventually sold to RiverOak last year. In October RiverOak applied for a Development Consent Order for the work required to reopen; this went to the Department for Transport, which announced in January that it had delayed a decision until May 2020 to allow for further information to be provided. Given what has happened since, there must be a question-mark over whether RiverOak’s business case for resuming cargo flights here still stacks up.

Newington ward had been safe Labour until it turned purple in the UKIP surge of 2015. Both of the new UKIP councillors, Mo Leys and Vince Munday, resigned within twelve of their election. Munday emigrated to Thailand at the end of 2015, and the resulting by-election in January 2016 was gained by Labour candidate Karen Constantine. Leys resigned in 2016, stating that he could no longer serve under the UKIP banner; the resulting by-election in July 2016 was held in the week after the EU membership referendum, and resulted in a UKIP hold for Roy Potts.

But by May 2019 UKIP were a spent force in Thanet politics. Potts didn’t seek re-election, and Newington ward reverted to its previous safe Labour status. Shares of the vote were 51% for the Labour candidate, 26% for the Greens who came from nowhere to take second place, and 23% for the Conservative slate.

In the January 2016 by-election I described Karen Constantine as juggling the roles of executive coach, magistrate and mother-of-four while working in London for the Royal College of Midwives. From that by-election you could add to that Thanet district councillor; and a year later Constantine was elected to Kent county council as one of the two members for Ramsgate. She has resigned from the district council, but kept her county seat.

Which gives us this by-election, which could be crucial. Labour are in minority control of the hung Thanet council, but are the second-largest group after the Conservatives. A loss here could lead to even more instability on the council once normal service resumes.

Defending for Labour is Mary King, a former Ramsgate town councillor (who has previously contested elections under the name of Mary Dwyer-King). The Green candidate Katie Gerrard returns after her second-place finish last year. The Conservatives have selected Trevor Shonk, who has served four times as mayor of Ramsgate. Completing the ballot paper, fresh from another Ramsgate by-election earlier this year, is independent candidate Grahame Birchell.

If this is to the last local by-election for the foreseeable future (and at the moment the foreseeable future seems to be about three hours), then this is a truly dark time for psephologists. With any luck it will only be temporary, and normal service will resume before we reach the point where it is not worth normal service resuming. In the meantime, let me try and cheer you up in the closing words of the inimitable pair who brought the original Andrew Preview to our screens all those years ago.


Parliamentary constituency: South Thanet
Kent county council division: Ramsgate

Graheme Birchall (Ind)
Katie Gerrrd (Grn)
Mary King (Lab)
Trevor Shonk (C)

May 2019 result Lab 412/365 Grn 209 C 188/181
July 2016 by-election UKIP 295 Lab 281 C 125 LD 33
January 2016 by-election Lab 288 UKIP 229 C 156 Ind 49 Grn 20 LD 12 Ind 10
May 2015 result UKIP 884/845 Lab 728/713 C 390/363
May 2011 result Lab 705/702 C 370/351
May 2007 result Lab 471/438 Ramsgate First 268/196 C 208/197 UKIP 116
May 2003 result Lab 532/498 Ind 235 C 144/140

Andrew Teale