Council by-election previews: 24 Jun 2021

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

There are six local by-elections on 24th June 2021. In England, Labour and the Liberal Democrats defending one seat each, while the Conservatives attempt to defend one seat and recover a second which they lost to defection. There are also two independent defences in Wales and Scotland, with which we start:

Murdostoun

North Lanarkshire council, Scotland; caused by the death of independent councillor Robert McKendrick.

Murdostoun

It’s time for this column to return to North Lanarkshire for the third time in four months, following council by-elections in Fortissat and Thorniewood wards in March and the Airdrie and Shotts parliamentary by-election in May. A small corner of the Airdrie and Shotts constituency, around the village of Newmains, lies in a ward named after the Murdostoun estate, centred on the fifteenth-century Murdostoun Castle.

Murdostoun Castle was in the hands of the aristocratic Inglis-Hamilton family until the 1850s, when it was bought by the Lord Provost of Glasgow Robert Stewart. Stewart was one of a number of industrialists who had cashed in on the discovery of extensive ironstone and coal reserves under this corner of Lanarkshire in the 1830s; by 1840 a number of ironworking factories were already in place at Newmains and Coltness, and the opening of a railway line to Coatbridge in 1841 secured the future of heavy industry in this corner of Scotland. The Coltness Iron Works made it into the 21st century, diversifying into brick and cement manufacture, but they were demolished in 2004.

Newmains is the largest standalone population centre in the modern Murdostoun ward, as Coltness (which saw large population growth after the Second World War with the building of new estates) is effectively now a suburb of Wishaw. The ward’s railhead, however, is at the pit village of Cleland which lies on the recently-electrified line between Edinburgh and Glasgow via Shotts.

Politically, Newmains was unusual in the 2003 North Lanarkshire elections in that it returned an independent councillor. In fact, both of the top two places in that ward were taken by independents, with David McKendrick narrowly beating his brother Robert McKendrick. If press reports from the time are anything to go by, they weren’t exactly on good terms. David McKendrick stood down at the 2007 election, which was the first to be held for the modern Murdostoun ward under proportional representation: Labour won two seats, with the other two seats going to the SNP and to Robert McKendrick.

That’s still the political balance in the ward today, following an extremely close result in the May 2017 election. On slightly revised boundaries Robert McKendrick topped the poll with 28% of the first preferences, and was re-elected on the first count; the SNP also polled 28%, Labour crashed to 24%, and the Conservatives polled 13%. The two Labour candidates were well-balanced, with outgoing councillor Nicky Shevlin and new candidate Louise Roarty starting on 12.2% and 11.5% each; by contrast, two-thirds of the SNP first preferences went to Cameron McManus, with his running-mate Anum Qaisar starting on just 9.1% of the vote. In Scotland’s proportional representation system, piling most of your party’s votes on your lead candidate tends not to be a winning strategy because it leaves your trailing candidates vulnerable to being knocked out before the final stages: sure enough, Qaisar was the last candidate to be eliminated. Her transfers were just enough to enable both Labour candidates to overtake the Conservatives in the final count: Roarty finished on 1,014 votes, Shevlin was re-elected to the final seat on 1,008 votes, and the Conservative candidate Cindy Mackenzie finished as the runner-up with 1,005 votes. Anum Qaisar-Javed, as she now is, has subsequently put that defeat behind her to go on to greater things: she won the Airdrie and Shotts parliamentary by-election last month.

North Lanarkshire May 2017

Elsewhere in North Lanarkshire the Labour party lost their majority in 2017, but they still continue to govern as a minority. At the last count the council had 31 Labour members, 27 SNP, 8 Conservatives, 8 independents, 2 councillors who had defected to Alex Salmond’s new party Alba, and this vacancy.

The usual Scottish disclaimers apply, with Votes at 16 and the Alternative Vote in effect. We saw in May 2017 that transfers can be absolutely crucial, and that might be the case this time round as well. If we re-count the votes cast in May 2017 for one seat, it goes to Robert McKendrick with a 59-41 margin over the SNP in the final count. There’s a good chance we might see something like that happen again in this by-election, because Robert McKendrick’s son – also called Robert McKendrick – is seeking to take over his late father’s seat on North Lanarkshire council. Like his father, Robert junior is standing as an independent candidate. The SNP needed to find a new candidate after Qaisar’s election to Westminster; they have selected Julia Stachurska, a local resident who is studying for a society, politics and policy degree at the University of the West of Scotland and who is the national convenor of SNP Students. Like the McKendricks and the SNP, Labour have also turned to the next generation by nominating Chris Roarty, the son of ward councillor Louise Roarty; Chris is a construction worker and drummer who sits on Cleland community council. The Conservatives have reselected Cindy Mackenzie after her very close near-miss in 2017. Completing the ballot paper are independent candidate Robert Arthur who also stood here in 2017, polling 2.4% and finishing eighth out of nine candidates; Nathaniel Hamilton of the Scottish Greens; Julie McAnulty, a former SNP North Lanarkshire councillor who is now the deputy leader of the Independence for Scotland Party which makes its electoral debut here; and Billy Ross, who is the first Scottish council by-election candidate for Reform UK.

Westminster constituency: Motherwell and Wishaw (most of ward), Airdrie and Shotts (Newmains area)
Holyrood constituency: Motherwell and Wishaw
ONS Travel to Work Area: Motherwell and Airdrie
Postcode districts: ML1, ML2

Robert Arthur (Ind)
Nathaniel Hamilton (Grn)
Cindy Mackenzie (C)
Julie McAnulty (Independence for Scotland)
Robert McKendrick jnr (Ind)
Chris Roarty (Lab)
Billy Ross (Reform UK)
Julia Stachurska (SNP)

May 2017 first preferences SNP 1791 Ind 1765 Lab 1520 C 825 Ind 284 Ind 154 UKIP 67

Harlech

Gwynedd council, Wales; caused by the resignation of independent councillor Freya Bentham.

Harlech Castle, Sept 2020, by the author

For our Welsh by-election, it’s time for something completely different. Welcome to the west coast of Wales, to the Snowdonia National Park, and to the tiny town of Harlech. This is a major location in Welsh and indeed British history thanks to the well-preserved Harlech Castle, which was built on a coastal location at the command of the English King Edward I in the 1280s. The castle saw action in the Glyndŵr rebellion of the 1400s, serving as Owain Glyndŵr’s headquarters; two centuries later, it was the last Royalist castle to surrender in the English Civil War. In between, during the Wars of the Roses, the Yorkists besieged the castle for seven years; that siege inspired the military march and song Men of Harlech.

In the 1280s Harlech Castle lay on the shoreline and had a watergate; today it’s set back a long way from the sea, overlooking a flat landscape of sand dunes, a golf course, the town’s railway station (a passing-place on the Cambrian Coast line), and the Ysgol Ardudwy secondary school. Ysgol Ardudwy, whose former pupils include the novelist Sir Philip Pullman, serves the entire Ardudwy area from Barmouth in the south to Penrhyndeudraeth in the north; many pupils commute into the school on the railway.

Ffordd Pen Llech, Sept 2020, by the author

The Ardudwy area contains a relatively large amount (by Meirionnydd standards) of flat, fertile land, but once the ground starts to rise it rises very quickly towards the impassible Rhinog mountains in the east. So quickly, indeed, that Ffordd Pen Llech (a single-track road climbing around the north side of the castle) was once considered the steepest street in the world. (Unfortunately, since the sign above was installed Guinness have reverted that title back to Baldwin Street in Dunedin, New Zealand.) The sign at the top end of Ffordd Pen Llech warns of a gradient of 40%, which is a slight overexaggeration, with the statement “Unsuitable for motors”; should you wish to ignore that warning, the street is one-way for motor traffic in the downhill direction only. Having walked up the street myself last year as a pedestrian, all I can say is that I wouldn’t want to walk down it.

Harlech division

But unless you’re prepared to walk, there is no way east from Harlech. All communication links follow the coast south towards Barmouth and Dolgellau, or north towards Porthmadog or Ffestiniog. The road and railway line north will take you through Talsarnau, which is part of the Harlech electoral division, and to the railway and road bridge of Pont Briwet which forms the link across the Traeth Bach estuary to Penrhyndeudraeth. The original Victorian wooden toll bridge, which despite its Grade II listing had become increasingly dilapidated, was demolished in 2014 and replaced by a modern structure for which no tolls are charged.

Gwynedd, May 2017

Harlech is part of Gwynedd council, which is controlled by the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru. From 1999 to 2017 it was represented on the council by local sheep farmer Edmund Caerwyn Roberts of Plaid, who didn’t face a contested election until 2012 when he despatched a candidate from Llais Gwynedd (an anti-Plaid localist party) without much trouble. However, in 2017 Roberts lost his seat to independent candidate Freya Bentham by just five votes, 297 to 292; Bentham and Roberts both polled 39% of the vote.

For this by-election two independent candidates have come forward to succeed Bentham. One is Lisa Birks, who describes herself as a working parent from Talsarnau. The other is Martin Hughes, who sits on Harlech community council and on the standards committee for the Snowdonia National Park; he is an energy broker who previously was finance director of Coleg Harlech, a now-defunct adult education college in Harlech. Plaid Cymru will want the seat back and they have selected Gwynfor Owen, a professional translator who has previously served on Gwynedd council (Porthmadog East, 1995-99); Owen gives an address outside the division in Penrhyndeudraeth. Those are your three candidates: more information on all of them is available from the Local Democracy Reporting Service here (link). Don’t forget that Wales has recently extended its local election franchise, so Votes at 16 apply in this by-election.

Westminster and Senedd constituency: Dwyfor Meirionnydd
ONS Travel to Work Area: Tywyn and Dolgellau
Postcode districts: LL41, LL46, LL47

Lisa Birks (Ind)
Martin Hughes (Ind)
Gwynfor Owen (PC)

May 2017 result Ind 297 PC 292 C 70 Lab 70 UKIP 24
May 2012 result PC 471 Llais Gwynedd 187
May 2008 result PC unopposed
June 2004 result PC unopposed
May 1999 result PC unopposed
May 1995 result Ind 462 PC 360

North Curry and Ruishton

Somerset West and Taunton council; caused by the resignation of Liberal Democrat councillor Phil Stone.

As we move into England, it would be remiss of me not to talk about the Liberal Democrats following their important by-election win last week. No, not the one in Chesham and Amersham: I’m talking about the Old Cleeve and District ward of Somerset, one of two polls in consecutive weeks which the Liberal Democrats needed to win to preserve their overall majority on Somerset West and Taunton council. The Conservatives cut the majority in the seat to just six votes, but a win is a win and the Lib Dems can now move on to the second part of this two-part series.

SWAT, North Curry and Ruishton

So, for some spicy electoral action we come to the ward of North Curry and Ruishton. This is a diverse rural area, running from the eastern edge of Taunton at Ruishton down to the Somerset Levels at Burrowbridge. The excellence of the area’s mediaeval churches demonstrates that this was a rich agricultural area in centuries gone by; indeed North Curry was the centre of its own Hundred. Stoke St Gregory, down on the Levels, is home to the Willows and Wetlands visitor centre; tennis fans can also travel there to visit the grave of Bunny Austin, the last Briton before Sir Andy Murray to reach the Wimbledon men’s singles final, who lies at rest in the Stoke St Gregory churchyard. Part of the modern-day village of Athelney lies within the ward, although the Isle of Athelney itself is over the boundary in Sedgemoor district.

This ward, like Somerset West and Taunton council itself, was created in 2019. Before then the area was covered by two wards of Taunton Deane council: North Curry and Stoke St Gregory ward was the political fiefdom of veteran Lib Dem councillor Phil Stone, while Ruishton and Creech ward was a Conservative-inclined marginal. The Conservatives did very badly in the inaugural Somerset West and Taunton elections in 2019, and the Lib Dems won both seats in the new ward with a large majority of 75-25.

The Lib Dems unexpectedly won a majority of one seat on the new council in those 2019 elections, and bolstered that by gaining two by-elections later that year. However, there appears to have been some infighting within the group. North Curry and Ruishton councillor Phil Stone resigned earlier this year, 34 years after his first election to Taunton Deane council, after falling out with the council leadership; and other defections mean that the party has to hold this resulting by-election to preserve its majority on the council. Following last week’s by-election, the council composition stands at 29 Lib Dems plus this vacancy, 14 independents, 10 Conservatives, 3 Labour and 2 Greens.

That this may be a more difficult task than it looks is shown by the last Somerset county council elections, which were held in May 2017 at a better time for the Tories. The North Curry half of the ward is part of the safely Conservative county division of Monkton and North Curry, while the Ruishton half is covered by the Blackdown and Neroche county division which the Conservatives gained from the Lib Dems in 2017. There were no county council elections in Somerset in 2021, to allow for a consultation on further local government reform in the county.

Defending for the Liberal Democrats is Barrie Hall, a physics teacher at Richard Huish sixth-form college in Taunton. The Conservatives have selected Tom Linnell, who describes himself as a local businessman and resident. Completing the ballot paper is Cathy Parmenter for the Green Party.

Parliamentary constituency: Taunton Deane
Somerset county council division: Monkton and North Curry (Burrowbridge, North Curry and Stoke St Gregory parishes); Blackdown and Neroche (Ruishton, Stoke St Mary and Thornfalcon parishes)
ONS Travel to Work Area: Taunton
Postcode districts: TA3, TA7

Barrie Hall (LD)
Tom Linnell (C)
Cathy Parmenter (Grn)

May 2019 result LD 1362/1090 C 455/443

Priory Vale

Swindon council, Wiltshire; caused by the resignation of independent councillor Emma Faramarzi, who was elected as a Conservative.

For our other South West by-election we consider something completely different. The town of Swindon has seen large population growth in this century, and this has been achieved through the development of large housing estates. Such as the parish of Haydon Wick, once a rural area on the northern edge of Swindon, which has been almost entirely filled with houses over the last 25 years.

To some extent, the Local Government Boundary Commission saw this coming. In their review of Swindon’s wards which was implemented in May 2000, they created a brand-new ward called Abbey Meads with three councillors and a 1998 electorate of 992 (in a year when the average three-member ward in Swindon would have had an electorate of 6,900). By May 2000 the electorate was up to 2,649 voters, who returned a Conservative slate including a recent Oxford Brookes graduate called Justin Tomlinson. Abbey Meads grew and grew and grew into a safe Conservative ward, and Tomlinson used it as a springboard into Parliament: since 2010 he has been the MP for the local seat of North Swindon, and he has joined the government ladder as a junior DWP minister.

We can paint a fairly accurate picture of the sort of people who were attracted to all these new houses from Abbey Meads’ return in the 2011 census. It made the top 20 wards in England and Wales for full-time employment (59.8%) and the top 20 wards in England and Wales for the 30-44 age bracket (34.1%, which was the highest figure for any ward in the South West). The proportion of under-16s (26.4%) is the third-highest figure in the South West. High proportions of the workforce are in managerial and professional work, although the number with degrees is a bit lower than you might expect given that.

Swindon, Priory Vale

By 2010 Abbey Meads ward had grown far beyond the 1998 projections to 13,408 voters, a figure which was still rising strongly, in a year when the average three-member ward in Swindon would have had an electorate of 7,989. The ward was broken up for the 2012 election, with much of it going into a new ward called Priory Vale covering the western half of Haydon Wick parish. Priory Vale has continued as a safely Conservative area; in the ordinary Swindon elections last month the Tories beat Labour here 54-33. Excellent local election performances in 2019 and 2021 have given the Conservatives a strong majority on Swindon council: they hold 36 seats, Labour have 20 and the remaining seat is this vacancy left behind by former council cabinet member Emma Faramazi. She had left the Conservatives in 2020, some months before her recent resignation from the council.

Defending for the Conservatives is Kate Tomlinson, the wife and constituency office manager of Justin Tomlinson MP. Labour have reselected Ian Edwards, who fought the ward in the ordinary election in May. Two other candidates returning from May are Stephen Litchfield of the Greens and independent candidate Elena Mari; together with Joseph Polson of the Lib Dems, they complete the ballot paper.

Parliamentary constituency: North Swindon
ONS Travel to Work Area: Swindon
Postcode districts: SN2, SN25

Ian Edwards (Lab)
Stephen Litchfield (Grn)
Elena Mari (Ind)
Joseph Polson (LD)
Kate Tomlinson (C)

May 2021 result C 1470 Lab 891 Grn 211 Ind 138
May 2019 result C 1260 Lab 860
May 2018 result C 1605 Lab 798 Grn 146 LD 118 UKIP 67
May 2016 result C 1131 Lab 505 UKIP 258 LD 88 Grn 83
May 2015 result C 3314 Lab 1213 UKIP 658 Grn 282
May 2014 result C 1232 UKIP 519 Lab 513 LD 158
May 2012 result C 1227/1161/1109 Lab 466/464/459 UKIP 308 LD 145

Wolvey and Shilton

Rugby council, Warwickshire; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Chris Pacey-Day.

Rugby, Wolvey and Shilton

For our Midlands by-election this week it’s back to the villages. In these football-mad weeks the name “Shilton” might bring to mind the great England goalkeeper of yesteryear, but the Shilton I’m talking about in this article is a village just to the north-east of Coventry. Together with the village of Wolvey to the north, Shilton is part of an electoral ward which runs from the edge of Coventry to the Roman Road of Watling Street.

Despite its location close to the city of Coventry and to the towns of Nuneaton and Hinckley, Wolvey and Shilton ward is administered as part of the Rugby local government district. Rugby council got new ward boundaries in 2012 which created this ward, and the Conservatives’ Chris Pacey-Day had sat since then with very large majorities. He was last re-elected in 2018, defeating Labour in a straight fight by exactly 3 to 1 (561 votes to 187). The ward went to the polls in May as part of the Fosse division of Warwickshire county council, which had a wider choice of candidates but was also safely Conservative.

Defending for the Conservatives is Becky Maoudis, who lives in Shilton. Labour have selected Richard Harrington, who has contested a few local elections in the Rugby area in recent years with no success to date. Completing the ballot paper is the ward’s first Liberal Democrat candidate, Sam Edwards.

Parliamentary constituency: Rugby
Warwickshire county council division: Fosse
ONS Travel to Work Area: Coventry
Postcode districts: CV2, CV7, CV11, CV12, CV23, LE10, LE17

Sam Edwards (LD)
Richard Harrington (Lab)
Becky Maoudis (C)

May 2018 result C 561 Lab 187
May 2014 result C 545 Lab 171 Grn 91
May 2012 result C 465 Lab 225

Chichester East

Chichester council, West Sussex; caused by the resignation of Labour councillor Kevin Hughes.

Chichester, Chichester East

We finish for the week in the cathedral city of Chichester, the home of West Sussex county council and one of the oldest cities in the UK. The Romans knew the city as Noviomagus Reginorum, there are extensive Roman remains here, and Chichester was the southern end of the Roman Road of Stane Street which ran to a small town on the Thames estuary called Londinium. Stane Street started at the city’s eastern gate and ran (now as the A285 road) through what’s now Chichester East ward, which has become extensively built up over the last two millennia.

This column may not be following in the footsteps of the Romans, but the ground I write about has definitely been trodden before by the great psephologist Robert Waller, whose magisterial Almanac of British Politics forms the benchmark against which all future electoral commentary is judged. Believe me, this previewing game is harder than it looks; there have been many occasions on which Andrew’s Previews has been weighed in the balance of Waller’s work and found wanting. Every edition of Waller’s Almanac joked that “even after the revolution the workers’ soviet for Chichester would be Tory”; well, like all good jokes, there’s a grain of truth and a lot of exaggeration in that.

Chichester may be a city, but its city council is a parish-level body: this by-election is for Chichester district council, which covers a huge swathe of true-blue rural Sussex all the way up to the Surrey boundary. The forerunner to the future Chichester Workers’ Soviet does normally have a Conservative majority, but the first election to the modern Chichester council in 1973 saw the Conservative group outnumbered by independent councillors, and at the Tory nadir of 1995 the Liberal Democrats were the largest party on a hung council. The May 2019 elections to the city also saw the Conservatives lose their majority on the council, crashing from 42 seats out of 48 to 18 seats out of 36; and there are signs that the long-awaited left-wing revolution may be cranking into life here. The Labour Party won two seats on Chichester council in 2019, both of them here in Chichester East ward: that’s the first time Labour had won a seat on this council since 1995, and the first time ever that Chichester had returned more than one Labour councillor. Shares of the vote in Chichester East were 30% for Labour, 25% for the Conservatives and 18% each for the Lib Dems and Greens.

This Cicestrian red wave didn’t translate through to the May 2021 West Sussex county elections, partly because Labour’s performance last month was generally nothing to write home about and partly because the county division boundaries give the city four “rurban” divisions, with each of the four Chichester divisions covering significant territory outside the city proper. The larger Chichester East county division remains safe Conservative.

The ruling Conservative group on Chichester council got their majority back in November 2019 by taking a by-election off the Lib Dems (Andrew’s Previews 2019, page 374), but they have suffered two defections since then to put them in a minority again. There are currently 17 Conservative councillors, 10 Lib Dems, 5 independents across two council groups, 2 Greens, and 1 Labour plus this vacancy. As can be seen, the Tories need to gain this by-election to get back to half of the seats, while Labour need to hold the seat to retain group status on the council.

Defending for Labour is Clare Walsh. The Conservatives have selected their constituency party chairman Jane Kilby, who was a councillor for the previous Chichester East ward from 2015 to 2019 and also sat on the district council before then from 1987 to 2003. The Liberal Democrat candidate is Bill Brisbane. The Green Party have not nominated a candidate, so that is your ballot paper.

Parliamentary constituency: Chichester
West Sussex county council division: Chichester East
ONS Travel to Work area: Chichester and Bognor Regis
Postcode districts: PO18, PO19

Bill Brisbane (LD)
Jane Kilby (C)
Clare Walsh (Lab)

May 2019 result Lab 462/441 C 380/355 LD 283/246 Grn 279 UKIP 146


If you enjoyed these previews, there are many more like them – going back to 2016 – in the Andrew’s Previews books, which are available to buy now (link). You can also support future previews by donating to the Local Elections Archive Project (link).

Andrew Teale