Previewing the St Kingsmark (Monmouthshire) by-election (01 Apr 2021)

One by-election on 1st April 2021:

St Kingsmark

Monmouthshire council; caused by the death of Conservative councillor David Dovey.

Do not adjust your calendar. Today is April Fool’s Day, and it is also Maundy Thursday. It’s not so long since Maundy Thursday was a day on which elections were not allowed to be held, and even since this was legalised not that many by-elections have been scheduled for the Thursday before Easter. The proximity of the May local elections – now just five weeks away – and the prospect of paying bank holiday rates to the count staff makes a Maundy Thursday by-election a generally unappealing proposition for everyone involved.

There are now just four local by-elections left before the ordinary May elections, all of which are in south-east Wales. We will have three polls to discuss next week in the Torfaen district, but first we cross the border over the tidal River Wye to come to the town of Chepstow.

Chepstow is an important location in English and Welsh history. It is the lowest point at which the Wye can be crossed, and as such it was fortified immediately after the Norman conquest: Chepstow Castle was founded in 1067 by the Earl of Hereford, William fitz Osbern. As a free port under the jurisdiction of the Marcher Lords, mediaeval Chepstow was the largest port in Wales and the town remained as an important shipping centre into the nineteenth century. The decline in trade was offset by the late 18th-century “Wye Tour”, the prototype from which the modern tourist industry grew. After all, as this column has often pointed out, sometimes multiple times in the same sentence, the Welsh Marches are beautiful and the Wye Valley particularly so. We are only a few miles downstream from the picturesque and ruined Tintern Abbey.

Tintern Abbey dates from the twelfth century, but religion has been going on in this corner of Britain a lot longer than that. Six centuries before Tintern’s foundation St Dubricius was preaching the good word in the kingdom of Ergyng, based on the Wye Valley. Dubricius’ disciples included a rather obscure figure called Cynfarch or Kynemark, who was renowned for his holiness. Under the Anglicised name of Kingsmark, a number of churches in Wales and the West Country are dedicated to him, one of which – founded in the 7th century – was in Chepstow. This was replaced in 1270 by an Augustinian priory, which was dissolved in the sixteenth century along with all the other monasteries and has since disappeared without trace.

Except for this ward name. St Kingsmark is the northern of the five electoral divisions covering Chepstow, and has somewhat unusual demographics for Wales. According to the 2011 census, 51% of the workforce are in managerial or professional occupations, while 47% of adults living here have a degree-level qualification. This is the sort of demographic that in England, on the other side of the river, would scream “middle-class commuter centre”, and that is what Chepstow has become. The opening of the Severn Bridge in 1966 (and the removal of its tolls in December 2018) brought the town within easy commuting range of Bristol on the far side of the river, while Newport and Cardiff are easily accessible via the railway and the M4 motorway.

St Kingsmark division turns in the sort of election results you would expect for that demographic. It has voted Conservative at all six local elections since the present Monmouthshire council was established in 1995, and also voted Conservative at all six local elections to the predecessor Monmouth district council. David Dovey had represented the division from 2008 until his death in January 2021, and at his last re-election in May 2017 he polled 65% of the vote; an independent candidate and Labour tied for the runner-up slot on 94 votes or 13% each.

This is quite typical of Monmouthshire, which is the only county or county borough council in Wales with a Conservative majority. The May 2017 elections here returned 25 Conservatives against 10 Labour, 5 independents and 3 Lib Dems. The Monmouth constituency, which covers a very similar area, has been Tory-held at Westminster since 2005 and is the only Welsh constituency which has voted Conservative in every Senedd election to date. However, the outgoing Tory MS Nick Ramsay has been deselected for the 2021 election in favour of the council leader Peter Fox; Ramsay has not taken this well, and is threatening to seek re-election as an independent.

Will these ructions have an effect on the St Kingsmark by-election? We shall see. Defending for the Conservatives is Christopher Edwards, who fought his home division of Trellech United (further up the Wye Valley) in 2017 and narrowly failed to unseat an independent councillor. Labour have selected Tom Kirton, who was Mayor of Chepstow in 2019-20. Completing the ballot paper is the Lib Dem candidate, Jenni Brews.

Westminster and Senedd constituency: Monmouth
ONS Travel to Work Area: Newport
Postcode district: NP16

Jenni Brews (LD)
Christopher Edwards (C)
Tom Kirton (Lab)

May 2017 result C 456 Ind 94 Lab 94 LD 62
May 2012 result C 422 LD 257
May 2008 result C 474 LD 270 Lab 110
June 2004 result C 422 LD 385 Lab 87
May 1999 result C 539 Lab 223 LD 176
May 1995 result C 456 Lab 390
(Earlier results are for Monmouth district council)
May 1991 result C 570 Lab 227 LD 145
May 1987 result C 497 All 220 Lab 149
May 1983 result C 551 Lab 176
May 1979 result C 823 Lab 322
May 1976 result C 423 Lab 191
May 1973 result C 286 Lab 102

Andrew Teale