Previewing the Tividale (Sandwell) by-election of 15 Jul 2021

One by-election on 15th July 2021:

Tividale

Sandwell council, West Midlands; caused by the death of Labour councillor Sandra Hevican.

Sandwell, Tividale

After the excitement of recent weeks this will be a short edition of Andrew’s Previews with just one local by-election taking place today. We have come to the heart of the industrial Black Country, the upper slopes of the Rowley Hills. Rising to over 200 metres above sea level, the Rowley Hills divide Dudley from the Birmingham area and the Severn basin from the Trent catchment. Their northern slopes look down towards lower ground in Oldbury, beyond the Wolverhampton Road and the Birmingham Canal.

The A4123 Wolverhampton Road, built in the 1920s as an unemployment relief project, forms the northern boundary of Tividale ward. This is based on a number of housing estates of both private and council origin; the Tividale Hall and Grace Mary estates were started in the 1930s, but most of the houses here are postwar. The 2011 census return found a rather low White British population (82%); there are significant black and Asian minority groups in the ward, the Asian community here being mostly Sikhs of Punjabi heritage. In 2019 Tividale was assessed as one of the least-deprived wards of the Metropolitan Borough of Sandwell.

Sandwell council’s elections had got very boring in the last few years. Since the fall of the Labour government in May 2010 Labour had won every ward at every Sandwell election, with just two exceptions: in 2011 the Conservatives held Charlemont with Grove Wale ward, and Princes End ward returned a UKIP councillor in 2014. UKIP also came close to winning Tividale that year, and Tividale has been fertile ground for the radical right in the past: the British National Party, in the days when they were a significant electoral force, won here in the 2006 local elections by the narrow margin of 33 votes. The BNP leader Nick Griffin himself had stood here in the 2000 Parliamentary by-election for the local seat of West Bromwich West, following the retirement of Speaker Boothroyd: he finished in fourth place and lost his deposit.

Since December 2019 West Bromwich West has been a Conservative parliamentary seat for the first time, in what must go down as a revolution in the politics of the Black Country. The Conservatives now control two-and-a-half of the three-and-a-half parliamentary seats in Sandwell, those being the two West Bromwich seats and the Rowley Regis part of Halesowen and Rowley Regis. They managed this despite the fact that Sandwell council had, at the time, 72 Labour councillors out of a possible 72.

Sandwell, 2021

The Conservatives followed up on their parliamentary gains by carrying six wards in the May 2021 Sandwell council election, by far their best performance in the borough since 2008. There was a very large number of casual vacancies filled in Sandwell in May, so this translated into 9 seats for the Conservatives; Labour continue to run the council with 59 seats plus this vacancy, and the remaining three councillors are independents who were elected on the Labour ticket. Tividale ward remained in the Labour column this May, but only narrowly so: the ward was a straight between Labour and the Conservatives, with Labour winning by 53-47.

Tividale councillor Sandra Hevican died from COVID-19 in late March, at the age of 55. Her death came just before the legal notices for the May elections were due to be published, and the by-election wasn’t called in time to schedule this vacancy for May. Hevican had served as a councillor for Tividale ward since 2014; away from her democratic duties, she worked for Wolverhampton council as a housing benefits officer.

Defending for Labour is Sandra Hevican’s widower, Robert Hevican. The Conservatives have reselected their candidate from May Emma Henlan, an MP’s office manager who also works in the family aquarium business. There is a wider choice for the electors of Tividale in this by-election, as also standing are Nicholas Bradley for the Liberal Democrats, Richard Gingell for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, and independent candidate Energy Kutebura.

Parliamentary constituency: West Bromwich West
ONS Travel to Work Area: Dudley
Postcode districts: B65, B69

Nicholas Bradley (LD)
Richard Gingell (TUSC)
Emma Henlan (C)
Robert Hevican (Lab)
Energy Kutebura (Ind)

May 2021 result Lab 1323 C 1173
May 2019 result Lab 1051 C 446 Grn 437
May 2018 result Lab 1137 C 637 Grn 226
May 2016 result Lab 1489 C 434 Grn 189
May 2015 result Lab 2447 UKIP 1445 C 1052 Grn 142
May 2014 result Lab 1085 UKIP 968 Grn 342 C 280
May 2012 result Lab 1637 C 390
May 2011 result Lab 1884 C 840 LD 189
May 2010 result Lab 2166 C 1571 LD 793 BNP 761
May 2008 result Lab 1485 C 1155
May 2007 result Lab 1309 BNP 938 C 567 LD 333
May 2006 result BNP 1191 Lab 1158 C 562 LD 308
June 2004 reuslt Lab 1735/1539/1438 BNP 1174

Catchup

Since it’s a slow by-elections week, we’ve time to bring you some other election-related news. One piece of good news is that the Cabinet Office minister responsible for elections, Chloe Smith, has successfully completed her treatment for breast cancer and been given the all-clear. This column sends its congratulations.

Last week Miss Smith introduced into the Commons her major project for the new Parliamentary session, as the Elections Bill was given its first reading. The headline provisions in the bill relating to photographic ID being required for voting have generated some controversy, but there’s a lot of other things going on in the Bill as well, including: allowing British citizens living overseas to vote in UK elections regardless of how long they have been away from the country; new rules on EU citizens’ eligibility to vote and stand in English and Northern Irish local elections (Scotland and Wales have already made their own rules on this); changes to the role of the Electoral Commission; and requirements for digital campaign material to carry imprints. At the time of writing, a date for the second reading is yet to be set. As usual, the Parliament website has the text of the Bill and some explanatory notes (link).

The Association of Electoral Administrators, whose members will have the job of actually delivering these changes for your benefit, have published their report on May’s giant local elections (link) together with their Blueprint for a Modern Electoral Landscape (link), a list of process changes which they want making or least considering. Top of their wishlist is a rationalisation and extension of the election timetable together with a new consolidation of election law. As your columnist wrote last year in my piece on issues around postponing elections in a pandemic, the last consolidation (the Representation of the People Act 1983)

“was passed into law at a much simpler time when there were only elections to Parliament, local councils and that newfangled thing called the European Parliament. Since then we have had all sorts of constitutional innovations: devolution to Wales and London, the establishment of the Electoral Commission, mayors of districts and boroughs, regional and metro mayors, police and crime commissioners, newfangled electoral systems, extensions to the franchise, you name it. All of that has to be bolted onto the 1983 Act which now has so many extensions that the structure is starting to sag under its own weight.”

Yes, I forgot the elections to Scottish Parliament and the Inner London Education Authority, although to be fair not many people remember the Inner London Education Authority over thirty years after it was abolished. To give you a flavour of just how heavily the 1983 Act has been amended and how difficult it now is to follow, let’s look at the sections of it relating to electoral registration. My printed copy of the Act has four A4 pages of text under the heading “Registration of parliamentary and local government electors”, divided into six sections numbered 8 to 13. A Herculean effort from the team at legislation.gov.uk, who really shouldn’t have had to do this, has finally managed to bring the 1983 Act completely up to date with all the hundreds (possibly thousands) of amendments which have been made by scores of later Acts in the following thirty-eight years. According to them, the relevant part of the table of contents now reads:

Registration of parliamentary and local government electors

8. Registration officers.
9. Registers of electors..
9A. Registration officers: duty to take necessary steps.
9B. Anonymous registration.
9C. Removal of anonymous entry.
9D. Maintenance of registers: duty to conduct canvass in Great Britain.
9E. Maintenance of registers: invitations to register in Great Britain.
10. Maintenance of registers: duty to conduct canvass in Northern Ireland..
10ZA. Northern Ireland: timing of canvass.
10ZB. The relevant registration objectives (Northern Ireland).
10ZC. Registration of electors in Great Britain.
10ZD. Registration of electors in Great Britain: alterations.
10ZE. Removal of electors in Great Britain from register.
10ZF. Digital registration and canvass in Northern Ireland.
10A. Maintenance of the registers: registration of electors in Northern Ireland..
10B. Register of electors in Northern Ireland: digital registration number.
11. Correction of registers..
12. Right to be registered..
13. Publication of registers..
13A. Alteration of registers..
13AB. Alteration of registers: interim publication dates.
13B. Alteration of registers: pending elections..
13BA. Alteration of registers in Northern Ireland: pending elections.
13BB. Election falling within canvass period.
13BC. Alteration of registers: recall petition.
13C. Electoral identity card: Northern Ireland.
13CZA. Provision of false information: application for electoral identity card.
13CA. Scottish local government elections: false information in connection with applications for absent voting.
13D. Provision of false information

I wish I was making this up. That’s 29 sections and God knows how many sides of A4. I’m not trying to say all this isn’t needed, but the thicket of suffix letters is a barrier to understanding not just for the average voter but for the election professionals in our local town halls. The AEA point out in section 3 of their post-poll report that this fragmentation of our electoral law caused problems in drafting last year’s emergency legislation to deal with the current public health situation. So does the Elections Bill clean up this alphabet soup? No. In fact it adds two more sections relating to electoral registration (13BD and 13BE) among pages and pages of further amendments.

And this is just one example of how the state of the UK’s electoral law got beyond a joke many years ago. The AEA are completely right to call for a single Electoral Administration Act, and hopefully they won’t be repeating that call for much longer.

One welcome change in the Elections Bill is a restating of the electoral offence of undue influence, which dates from 1883 and whose definition – written in very Victorian and increasingly archaic language – hasn’t significantly changed since. This change will hopefully help the Election Court in the future, although it won’t be relevant to the three pending legal cases which this column is aware of arising from the May elections.

Of those three cases, the most straightforward would appear to be the one in the Banbury Ruscote division of Oxfordshire county council, which Labour are challenging on the basis that the result was declared for the Conseravtives incorrectly following an administrative error at the count. In Coldhurst ward, Oldham, an independent candidate has lodged a case making various allegations about the conduct of the poll (link to Manchester Evening News report). Finally, the Liberal Democrats have launched a case in the Totteridge and Bowerdean ward of High Wycombe (link to Bucks Free Press report), where they lost in the Buckinghamshire county elections to an independent slate. As this column has pointed out in the past (Andrew’s Previews 2019, pages 29 and 33) Totteridge and Bowerdean is a ward where elections before 2021 have led to electoral fraud allegations, so this could be a fun one for the Election Court to sort out. Andrew’s Previews will of course keep an eye on what’s going on with those cases, and once an update comes to my attention I will pass it on.

Finally, if you enjoyed the preview above, there are many more like it – 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