Previewing Super Thursday, 16 Dec 2021

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

Thirteen by-elections on Super Thursday, 16th December 2021, and we start with the big one – the Parliamentary Special:

North Shropshire

House of Commons; caused by the resignation of Conservative MP Owen Paterson.

North Shropshire

Have I mentioned that the Welsh Marches are beautiful? Well, the landscape of North Shropshire does test that proposition a bit. Here we don’t have the grandeur of the Beacons, the spectacle of the Wye Valley or even the rolling moorland of southern Shropshire. North Shropshire is based on relatively high ground, with the boundary between the Dee and the Severn catchments running the length of the constituency; but this is generally a flattish landscape of prime agricultural land. You don’t have to go far in North Shropshire to find fields full of crops or cows.

The Marches don’t just specialise in beauty: they also contain a large number of small but attractive market towns, and we have five of these in North Shropshire. The easternmost of them is Market Drayton, located midway between Shrewsbury and Stoke-on-Trent. Market Drayton gave us Robert Clive, the man without whose work and dubious legacy India might never have become British; Clive was born nearby and attended the former Market Drayton Grammar School.

Market Drayton lies on the Shropshire Union Canal, the last great work of Thomas Telford, which runs south to the Black Country and north to the Mersey estuary. Our next town also lies on major north-south routes: the A41 road between Chester and the Black Country, the A49 road between Shrewsbury and Warrington, and the railway line between Shrewsbury and Crewe. Whitchurch advertises itself as the home of tower clocks: from 1790 to 2012 it was the location of the works for J B Joyce, whose public clocks have been installed all over the world. Joyce built what is reputed to be the second most-photographed clock in England, the Eastgate Clock on the Chester city walls; other Joyce clocks appear at locations as diverse as Birmingham University, Carnforth railway station, and the Shanghai Custom House.

Some miles to the south of Whitchurch lies Wem, on the old road and railway line from Whitchurch to Shrewsbury. Wem is centrally-located within the North Shropshire seat, and it was the home of North Shropshire district council until that council’s abolition in 2009. William Hazlitt, the Georgian essayist, grew up here.

The main road west from Whitchurch crosses straight over the border into the English Maelor, which is part of Wales, and comes out of the other side of the Maelor into Ellesmere, which is part of England. Here the landscape starts to become hilly, and Ellesmere is surrounded by a number of lakes which have been left behind by the most recent Ice Age. Ellesmere stands on the Llangollen Canal, which was originally called the Ellesmere Canal and ran northwards to the Mersey estuary. The town which developed around the other end of the canal took the name of this small Shropshire town, and to this day it is called Ellesmere Port.

We continue west from Ellesmere, passing the ruined castle at Whittington, to the largest population centre in North Shropshire. Oswestry is a border town which has changed hands between England and Wales many times, but it’s on the English side of Offa’s Dyke and has ended up as part of Shropshire. Nevertheless this is one of the most Welsh parts of England. Oswestry lies on the main road from Wrexham into Powys, and a number of its streets and nearby villages bear Welsh-language names. The town is home to the Welsh Guards Museum and to The New Saints FC.

The New Saints are the most successful team in the history of the Cymru Premier, the top football league in Wales. They have won the league thirteen times, including eight seasons in a row from 2011-12 to 2018-19, and they are currently top of the Cymru Premier table. The New Saints have brought European football to Oswestry every autumn since 2009, with the exception of 2013-14 Champions League qualifying when their home tie against Legia Warsaw was switched to Wrexham; however, they are yet to qualify for the group stage of any UEFA competition. They went out in the third round of qualifying for this season’s Europa Conference League, losing on penalties to Viktoria Plzeň.

The town’s name in both English and Welsh (Croesoswallt) refers to a tree or cross associated with Oswald, a name often identified with King Oswald of Northumbria. That Oswald died in 641 or 642 at the Battle of Maserfield, whose location is the subject of debate but is often placed here by historians.

Oswestry differs from the other towns in North Shropshire in that it was a railway centre. This town was the headquarters of the Cambrian Railways, the major railway company in mid-Wales; the Cambrian’s main lines ran from here to Wrexham, Whitchurch, Aberystwyth, Pwllheli and Brecon, with a few other branches. Much of the Cambrian network survives today, but the Welshpool to Whitchurch section has gone. That has left Oswestry with no mainline railway station today (the town’s railhead is at Gobowen, some miles away on the Shrewsbury-Chester line), and the Cambrian Railways complex is now a museum.

The list of famous Oswestrians is a long one. It includes the First World War poet Wilfred Owen, who was born here in 1893; and the composer Sir Walford Davies, who was born here in 1869 and sung as a boy in the choir of Christ Church, a Congregational church in Oswestry. Davies became the first director of music for the Royal Air Force, composing its March Past, and succeeded Edward Elgar in 1934 as Master of the King’s Music. For an example of Walford Davies’ work which is appropriate for the time of the year, here is his beautiful setting of the Christmas carol O Little Town of Bethlehem.

Another famous Oswestrian was the Welsh golfer Ian Woosnam, who learned to play the game at the Llanymynech golf club which straddles the English-Welsh border. Woosnam grew up in the village of St Martin’s north of Oswestry, which along with the nearby village of Weston Rhyn forms a very unusual corner of this seat. St Martin’s and Weston Rhyn were pit villages, lying at the southern end of the Denbighshire coalfield; Ifton Colliery, near St Martin’s, was the largest coal mine in Shropshire until its eventual closure in 1968.

With the exception of Oswestry and the St Martin’s area, agriculture is and remains the traditional mainstay of North Shropshire’s economy. But that doesn’t just mean farming. For example, Market Drayton’s largest employers are the Müller yoghurt plant and the Pork Farms factory, which makes sausages and other meat products for well-known retailers. Whitchurch and Ellesmere both have a history of cheesemaking, and Whitchurch (thanks to its relatively good road links) is home to a large logistics firm which transports food from North Shropshire to your plate.

This reliance on agriculture and its associated industries has left its mark on the politics of the area. As we shall see, a large number of North Shropshire’s MPs – including Owen Paterson – have owned and farmed estates in the area. The Conservative selection for North Shropshire has long been unofficially controlled by the local branch of the National Farmers’ Union. The NFU have certainly done well out of that, because this is one of the longest-standing Conservative seats in the UK.

As usual in these Parliamentary Specials I’ll start discussing the parliamentary history of this area in 1885, the year in which single-member constituencies became the norm in parliamentary elections. Shropshire did badly out of the 1885 redistribution, going down from 10 MPs to just five: one for the borough of Shrewsbury, and four MPs for county divisions called Ludlow, Newport, Oswestry and Wellington.

The Newport (Shropshire) constituency of 1885-1918 covered the north-eastern corner of the county, including Whitchurch, Wem and Market Drayton as well as the eponymous town. Appropriately enough, the first Conservative candidate for the seat was George Bridgeman, Viscount Newport, who had been one of the two MPs for North Shropshire from 1867 to 1885. Newport, however, lost his seat to the Liberals’ Robert Bickersteth by 4,694 votes to 4,333, a majority of 361. Newport eventually returned to Parliament, but not in the Commons: he succeeded to his father’s title of Earl of Bradford in 1898. One of his granddaughters married into the Royal Family in 1935: Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester died in 2004 at the age of 102.

Robert Bickersteth was from an ecclesiastical family: his father, also called Robert Bickersteth, had served from 1857 to 1884 as Bishop of Ripon. Robert junior had got into Liberal politics as a protégé of the Earl of Kimberley, who was Secretary of State for India going into the 1885 election.

That general election returned a hung parliament, with the Liberals being the largest party and the Irish Nationalists holding the balance of power. This led to a split in the Liberals over the issue of Irish Home Rule, and Robert Bickersteth joined the breakaway Liberal Unionists. The split precipitated another general election in 1886, which the Conservatives won; Bickersteth sought re-election in Leicester as a Liberal Unionist candidate, without success.

With Bickersteth off the scene in Shropshire the Newport seat became safely Conservative. Its second MP was William Kenyon-Slaney, who holds an unusual sporting distinction. Kenyon-Slaney has gone down in the record books as the first player ever to score a goal in an international football match. He did so inside the first two minutes of the England v Scotland match at the Oval in March 1873. To quote from a match report:

Scotland had the throw in, but threw the ball too far into the field, where Chenery got the ball and kicked straight for goal, and the goal keeper while stooping to lift the ball and kick it, slipped, and was at once charged by Slaney, who sent the ball under the tape.

The tradition of embarrassing performances from the Scotland football team has clearly been going for longer than you might have thought. Kenyon-Slaney went on to get a second goal as England ran out 4-2 winners. Three weeks later he was on the Wanderers team which won the second FA Cup final, beating Oxford University 2-0. (That wasn’t the only loss for Oxford that day, as they went on to lose the Boat Race later that afternoon.)

As well as all this, William Kenyon-Slaney was a Grenadier Guards officer. He fought in 1882 at the Battle of Tel el-Kebir, the decisive British victory in the Anglo-Egyptian war. Four years later he was in Parliament, gaining Newport (Shropshire) from the Liberals with a large majority. In 1887 he married Lady Mabel Bridgman, Viscount Bradford’s sister.

Kenyon-Slaney was elected five times as MP for Newport, with nobody opposing him in 1895 or 1900. His final re-election came in 1906, when he managed to withstand the Liberal landslide by just 176 votes; he polled 4,853 against 4,677 for the Liberal candidate Francis Neilson.

William Kenyon-Slaney died in 1908, aged 60, after suffering an attack of gout. For the resulting Newport by-election of 14 May 1908 the Liberals again put up Francis Neilson. Neilson went on to be elected in 1910 as MP for Hyde in what was then Cheshire, and the relevant Times Guide to the House of Commons described him as an author and journalist who had founded the Democratic Monthly. That source fails to mention his work as a stage director which had already taken him to Broadway and Bayreuth. Neilson had directed a 1900 production of Tosca at Covent Garden under the supervision of none other than Puccini himself, and he later turned down an invitation from Puccini to direct the La Scala opera in Milan.

Neilson’s politics were on the Radical side, which were not going to help him win Newport. The 1908 by-election resulted in a swing to the Conservative candidate Beville Stanier, a Shropshire county councillor who farmed an estate at Peplow Hall in the constituency. Stanier was re-elected in both 1910 elections (without opposition in December), and he was made a baronet in 1917.

That was Newport (Shropshire). To the west of this lay the Oswestry constituency, which covered much of the western half of Shropshire. Oswestry started off as a safe Conservative seat, and its first MP was Stanley Leighton who had been the other MP for North Shropshire between 1876 and 1885. Leighton was a barrister and antiquarian who owned a large brickworks at Sweeney, just outside Oswestry. Earlier in 1885 he had been one of the organisers of the Wenlock Olympian Games, a forerunner of the modern Summer Olympics.

Stanley Leighton was elected five times as MP for Oswestry, with no-one opposing his re-election in 1886, 1892 or 1900. He died in 1901, aged 63, having developed pneumonia after rushing through the rain to a Commons vote on the Coal Duty Bill.

The resulting first Oswestry by-election, held on 24 May 1901, was held for the Conservatives by George Ormsby-Gore who defeated the Liberal candidate Allan Bright by the large margin of 1,088 votes. Bright, who had recently moved to Weston Rhyn after two unsuccessful Parliamentary campaigns in Exeter, blamed his defeat on “landlordism” and “shortness of time”, and he might have had a point as far as the landlordism goes. Ormsby-Gore was the heir to Lord Harlech, who had an estate at Brogyntyn near Selattyn, north-west of Oswestry.

In 1904 George Ormsby-Gore succeeded to his father’s titles and entered the Lords as the third Lord Harlech. The resulting second Oswestry by-election, held on 26 July 1904, came at a time when the Balfour Conservative government had become unpopular and with the question of tariff reform or free trade as a major political issue of the day. The young Oldham MP Winston Churchill, a free-trader who had recently defected to the Liberals, turned up on the campaign trail in support of Bright, giving speeches in Ellesmere and Oswestry. The Conservatives selected William Bridgeman, who was a cousin of the 4th Earl of Bradford and sat on the London School Board; he was a former cricketer who had played at first-class level for Cambridge University. Bridgeman already had experience of politics at the highest level, as a private secretary to the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Michael Hicks-Beach. To general surprise, the Liberals’ Allan Bright defeated Bridgeman by 4,542 votes to 4,157, a majority of 385.

Allan Bright was the last Liberal MP – indeed, the last non-Conservative MP – for this part of Shropshire. A rematch against Bridgeman in the 1906 general election saw Bright fail to hold the by-election gain, and the Oswestry seat reverted to the Conservatives with a majority of 503. The 1906 election nationally was a landslide for the Liberals, so this was an against-the-trend gain. William Bridgeman was re-elected in both 1910 elections, increasing his majority to 624 and then to 746 votes.

The 1918 redistribution cut the number of Shropshire constituencies from five to four. The Newport constituency disappeared, with its area split between a new constituency of The Wrekin and a radically redrawn Oswestry constituency. The new Oswestry seat, stretching across the north rather than the west of the county, had exactly the same boundaries as the North Shropshire constituency we have today.

It has proven to be a very safe Conservative constituency. Since 1918 the Conservative majority in Oswestry or North Shropshire has fallen below 10 points on only two occasions. The first of those was in 1923, when William Bridgeman was elected for a sixth term of office with a majority of 1,815 votes over the Liberals. By this point Bridgeman was firmly on the Conservative frontbench, having joined Cabinet in 1920 as the first Secretary for Mines. He was a supporter of the Conservative revolt against the Lloyd George coalition government in 1922, and was rewarded for that by being appointed as Home Secretary in the Bonar Law government. Bridgeman was one of the more hardline Home Secretaries, and this may have contributed to his narrow majority in 1923 as the Conservatives lost their majority in Parliament.

A year later Baldwin’s Conservatives and Bridgeman were back in government after winning the 1924 election. William Bridgeman served throughout that Parliament as First Lord of the Admiralty in what was his final frontbench position. He retired at the 1929 general election after 23 years as MP for Oswestry, and shortly afterwards entered the Lords as the first Viscount Bridgeman. From the Lords Bridgeman later served a year as President of the Marylebone Cricket Club, and he was briefly chairman of the BBC for a few months before his death in 1935.

Bridgeman passed his Commons seat on 1929 to Bertie Leighton, son of the former Oswestry MP Stanley Leighton. Bertie had previously pursued a military career, serving both in the Boer War and in the First World War; he was severely wounded in the latter conflict. Leighton thrashed the Labour candidate by 74-26 in the 1931 election, and nobody opposed his re-election in 1935.

Bertie Leighton retired at the 1945 election and passed the Oswestry constituency to Oliver Poole, who won without fuss against the Attlee landslide. A member of Lloyd’s of London, Poole had joined the family firm of City insurance brokers. He was also a Warwickshire Yeomanry officer, and had served during the Second World War in a number of spheres around the world; by the end of the war he was on the staff of the 21st Army Group, with the rank of colonel and a military CBE.

Poole served only one term in the Commons, being succeeded as MP for Oswestry in 1950 by David Ormsby-Gore. He was the heir to the fourth Lord Harlech, the grandson of the previous Oswestry MP George Ormsby-Gore, and a great grandson of the former Prime Minister the Marquess of Salisbury. David was farming his father’s land at the time of his election.

Ormsby-Gore slowly worked his way up the greasy pole, becoming a junior Foreign Office minister in the first Macmillan government in 1957. He was distantly related to and a good friend of John F Kennedy, a connection which made him very useful to the British government after Kennedy’s election as President of the United States. In 1961 Macmillan appointed Ormsby-Gore as the British Ambassador to the USA, an appointment which meant he would have to leave these shores. He applied for the Chiltern Hundreds.

David Ormsby-Gore ended up spending four relatively successful years in Washington, becoming such a close confidant of the Kennedys that he proposed to JFK’s widow Jacqueline Kennedy in 1967. She turned him down. By this point David had succeeded to his father’s titles, becoming the fifth Lord Harlech. He became a TV executive – the H in HTV, the former Welsh ITV franchise, stands for Lord Harlech – and he served as president of the British Board of Film Classification from 1965 until his death in a car crash in 1985. A number of Kennedy family members turned up for his funeral at Llanfihangel-y-traethau, just north of Harlech on the Welsh coast. His grandson Jasset Ormsby-Gore, the 7th Lord Harlech, won a hereditary peers’ by-election in July this year, and at 35 years old he is currently the youngest member of the Upper House.

The third Oswestry by-election, to replace David Ormsby-Gore, took place on 9 November 1961. It was the first time that Oswestry had seen a parliamentary election with four candidates, although there wasn’t much support for the Patriotic Front candidate who lost his deposit. For the by-election Labour selected the former Oxford Union president Brian Walden, who was 29 at the time; Walden’s career as a Labour MP and political interviewer lay in the future at this point. He came third, very close behind the Liberal candidate John Buchanan.

The by-election was won easily by a Conservative whom Walden described, many years later, as the most honest politician he had interviewed. John Biffen was 31 years old when he won Oswestry in 1961, but he was already on his second election campaign after contesting Coventry East (against Richard Crossman) in 1959. He had previously worked for the engineering group Tube Investments.

Biffen went on to serve as MP for Oswestry, and for its successor North Shropshire, for over 35 years. He was one of the few MPs to vote for Enoch Powell in the 1965 Conservative leadership election, and he remained on the backbenches under the leadership of Edward Heath. His “dry” economic views were more to Margaret Thatcher’s taste, and Biffen served in Cabinet throughout the first two Thatcher terms: as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, as Trade Secretary, and then for five years as Leader of the Commons.

The 1983 election saw the boundaries of the Oswestry seat change for the first time since 1918. The Wrekin constituency had become oversized as a result of the growth of the New Town of Telford, and to reduce its electorate the town of Newport was transferred to the Oswestry constituency. The seat also got a new name: North Shropshire, reflecting the larger of the two new local government districts entirely within the seat. The boundary change was reversed in 1997 when Telford got a constituency of its own, but the seat’s name is still North Shropshire and hasn’t reverted back to Oswestry.

Shropshire had undergone a local government reform in the late 1960s, which reduced the number of councils within the Oswestry constituency from nine to three: Market Drayton, North Shropshire and Oswestry rural districts. The big bang of 1974 merged the first two of these into a larger North Shropshire district, while Oswestry rural district was one of the handful of councils which survived the Heath reorganisation unchanged.

John Biffen retired at the 1997 election, in which his successor Owen Paterson was nearly swept away by the Blair landslide. The Labour candidate Ian Lucas (who would later serve for eighteen years as MP for Wrexham) surged from second place to 36% of the vote, and Paterson’s majority was only 2,195.

Paterson got stuck in after this rocky start, and he has made the constituency safe again. He is a local, Whitchurch born and bred. Before entering politics Paterson worked in the tanning industry: that’s tanning as in leather, and at the time of his election to Parliament he was managing director of the British Leather Company. North Shropshire was not his first election campaign: he had contested Wrexham in the 1992 general election.

After increasing his majority in 2001 Owen Paterson started to climb the greasy pole, joining the Conservative frontbench in 2003 as shadow agriculture minister. In 2007 he became the party’s Northern Ireland spokesman, and he negotiated an electoral pact with the Ulster Unionist Party whereby the UUP and Conservatives would run joint candidates in Northern Ireland at the next Westminster general election. The UUP were already well on the downward slide by this point, with just one MP left: Sylvia, Lady Hermon, in North Down. Hermon walked out of the party in disgust at this deal and sought re-election to Parliament in 2010 as an independent candidate for her North Down constituency; she was resoundingly re-elected, and the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists won nothing. The pact was not renewed.

However, things had gone well enough for the Conservatives in Great Britain that Owen Paterson was included in the first Coalition cabinet, as Northern Ireland secretary. He was reshuffled to become environment secretary in 2013, a position in which he didn’t prosper. Paterson is a climate-change sceptic and a supporter of genetically-modified food, and his tenure as environment secretary included an attempted badger cull which was widely seen to have been ineffective. When interviewed by the BBC on the disappointing results of the cull, Paterson memorably said that “the badgers have moved the goalposts”.

Owen Paterson was dropped from Cabinet in 2014, and returned to the backbenches. This represented rather a drop in his salary, and he started to take on paid consultancy work. In 2015 he was taken on by Randox Laboratories, a clinical diagnostics company; and the following year he became a consultant to the meat processing company Lynn’s Country Foods. Taken together, his remuneration from Randox and Lynn’s amounted to nearly three times his MP’s salary. This was properly declared in the Commons register of interests.

What Paterson did with that consultancy work was another matter. In 2019 media reports were published which alleged that he had improperly lobbied for those two companies. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Stone, opened an investigation in October 2019.

Stone’s investigation was subject to a number of delays, partly due to the December 2019 general election, partly due to the COVID lockdown and partly due to the sad death of Owen Paterson’s wife Rose in June 2020. Rose Paterson, a sister of Viscount Ridley and the chairman of Aintree Racecourse, was found dead in woods near the family home in Ellesmere; the coroner recorded a verdict of suicide.

The eventual report by Commissioner Stone found that Paterson had breached the Commons rules prohibiting paid advocacy on fourteen occasions, involving approaches to the Food Standards Agency and the Department for International Development; he had also failed to declare his interest as a consultant to Lynn’s Country Foods in four emails to the Food Standards Agency; and he had also abused parliamentary facilities by using his Commons office for business meetings and using Commons headed notepaper for two business letters. With the exception of the headed notepaper use, Paterson denied the charges and went on the attack, making allegations against the integrity of the Commissioner and her team.

This did not impress the Commons Select Committee on Standards, which duly considered Stone’s findings and concluded that

“Mr Paterson’s actions were an egregious case of paid advocacy, that he repeatedly used his privileged position to benefit two companies for whom he was a paid consultant, and that this has brought the House into disrepute.”

In their report, published in October 2021, the Standards Committee recommended a suspension of 30 sitting days, which would inevitably result in a recall petition being opened in North Shropshire against Paterson.

If Paterson’s actions hadn’t brought the House into disrepute (as he continued to maintain), what happened next certainly did. The relevant motion to suspend Paterson duly came before the House of Commons on 3 November 2021 for its approval. In an unexpected move, the motion was amended on the floor of the House to instead raise concerns about “potential defects in the standards system” and to refer the whole matter (including the Paterson case) to a new select committee for recommendations. The government whipped its MPs to support this amendment, which passed the Commons by 250 votes to 232.

It quickly became clear that this was a major error. The opposition parties announced that they would boycott the new select committee, and the government came under heavy criticism for its decision to effectively let Paterson off the hook. A U-turn followed; the whole idea was abandoned, and it was announced the following day that the original motion to suspend Paterson for 30 days would instead go back before the House for ratification. The press declared open season on other MPs with high-paying jobs outside parliament, and the stench of sleaze started to hang around Westminster again. Owen Paterson concluded that his position was an MP was no longer tenable, and he applied for the Manor of Northstead, bringing a 24-year Parliamentary career to a sad end.

The resulting North Shropshire by-election takes place in a very safe Conservative seat. Paterson was re-elected for his seventh and final term of office in December 2019 with a majority of 22,949 votes over Labour; he polled 63% of the vote to Labour’s 22%, a swing of nearly 6% in his favour compared with June 2017. When your columnist visited Whitchurch last summer the town centre was plastered with anti-Paterson stickers, but clearly that doesn’t represent a critical mass of people who don’t like him. As readers will have noted, Paterson was only the third MP to have represented this constituency since 1950, and the last time anywhere in this constituency returned a non-Conservative MP was the 1904 Oswestry by-election.

N Shropshire, 2021

This large Conservative lead was mirrored in this May’s elections to Shropshire council, which replaced the county council, North Shropshire council and Oswestry council in 2009. The Shropshire divisions which make up this constituency gave 51% to the Conservatives in May, 21% to the Liberal Democrats and 10% to independent candidates; in councillor terms the Conservatives won 21 seats out of a possible 25, with two seats going to the Green Party (who are active in Oswestry town) and two to independent candidates. The Lib Dems have no councillors in this seat, and indeed in May they lost the one seat they were defending (in Wem). The only part of the constituency with a critical mass of Labour votes is the former coalfield villages of St Martin’s and Weston Rhyn, but those villages have been placed in different divisions where they are outvoted by more right-wing territory.

So, despite the circumstances of the by-election, you’d think this should be a straightforward enough defence for the new Conservative candidate. Neil Shastri-Hurst, who lives in Birmingham, certainly has an interesting life story from his 38 years: he originally trained as a surgeon, served in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and now works as a barrister.

Labour ran second here in 2019, and they have selected Ben Wood. Aged 26, Wood is a political adviser to the party who was born and grew up in Oswestry; his first job was working in the tile department of an Oswestry hardware store. He gives an address in the constituency.

The only other party to save their deposit here in 2019 were the Liberal Democrats, who finished third with 10% of the vote. They have reselected their candidate from last time Helen Morgan, a chartered accountant who lives in the constituency. At the time of writing, she was the bookies’ favourite.

Fourth in 2019 were the Green Party. Their candidate is Duncan Kerr, who has appeared in this column before. Kerr first came to my attention in 2011 when he became the first and, so far, the only Green Party member of Bolsover council in Derbyshire. He resigned from Bolsover council in 2013 and shortly afterwards turned up in Oswestry. Kerr was the Green candidate for North Shropshire in 2015, coming within a handful of votes of saving his deposit, and he then contested the Oswestry South by-election to Shropshire council in February 2016 (Andrew’s Previews 2016, page 24). That by-election was vacated by the Shropshire council leader Keith Barrow after he became caught up in his own scandal over improper business interests; Kerr put the skills he had learnt in Bolsover to good use, and he won the Oswestry South by-election easily. He lost his seat on Shropshire council in 2017, but got it back in May’s election.

Keith Barrow may be out of politics now, but his wife Joyce is still a Shropshire councillor (representing St Oswald division, to the south of Oswestry), and his daughter Kirsty Walmsley is standing in this by-election. Kirsty, who was elected in 2003 as a Conservative member of the former Oswestry council at the age of just 21, now has the nomination of Reform UK.

The five candidates already named occupy the bottom five places on the ballot paper. For a change I’ll take the other nine candidates in reverse alphabetical order, so we start with independent candidate Yolande Kenward who has contested Maidstone and the Weald in the last two general elections. The anti-lockdown Freedom Alliance group have nominated Earl Jesse, who gives an address in Berkshire. Howling Laud Hope is back for his umpteenth election campaign as leader of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party. The Heritage Party (a UKIP splinter group led by the former London Assembly member David Kurten) are represented by James Elliot from Preston. If the criterion for winning this election was how far away you live from North Shropshire, then Russell Dean would win hands down; Dean, standing for “The Party Party”, lives and works in Monaco where he is a consultant for a yacht broker. Two London-based candidates appear next to each other on the ballot: Martin Daubney is deputy leader of the Reclaim Party led by the actor Laurence Fox; while Drew Galdron, who somehow manages to make money by being a Boris Johnson impersonator, has changed his name for this election to “Boris Been-Bunged” and has the nomination of the Rejoin EU group. Whitchurch parish councillor Andrea Allen, who contested this seat in the 2015 general election and fought the Eddisbury seat in 2019, is the UKIP candidate; and at the top of the ballot is independent candidate Suzie Akers Smith, who was elected in 2019 as an independent member of Cheshire East council.

Oh, and just one more thing before I finish with North Shropshire…

…have I mentioned that the Welsh Marches are beautiful?

Shropshire council divisions: Cheswardine; Ellesmere Urban; Gobowen, Selattyn and Weston Rhyn; Hodnet; Llanymynech; Market Drayton East; Market Drayton West; The Meres; Oswestry East; Oswestry South; Oswestry West; Prees; Ruyton and Baschurch; St Martin’s; St Oswald; Shawbury; Wem; Whitchurch North; Whitchurch South; Whittington
ONS Travel to Work Area: Oswestry (Oswestry and Ellesmere area), Shrewsbury (Whitchurch, Wem and Market Drayton area), Stoke-on-Trent (Woore area)
Postcode districts: CW3, LL14, SY4, SY10, SY11, SY12, SY13, SY14, SY22, TF6, TF9, TF10

Suzie Akers Smith (Ind)
Andrea Allen (UKIP)
Boris Been-Bunged (Rejoin EU)
Martin Daubney (Reclaim)
Russell Dean (The Party Party)
James Elliot (Heritage Party)
Howling Laud Hope (Loony)
Earl Jesse (Freedom All)
Yolande Kenward (Ind)
Duncan Kerr (Grn)
Helen Morgan (LD)
Neil Shastri-Hurst (C)
Kirsty Walmsley (Reform UK)
Ben Wood (Lab)

December 2019 result C 35444 Lab 12495 LD 5643 Grn 1790 Shropshire Party 1141
June 2017 result C 33642 Lab 17287 LD 2948 Grn 1722
May 2015 result C 27041 Lab 10457 UKIP 9262 LD 3184 Grn 2575
May 2010 result C 26692 LD 10864 Lab 9406 UKIP 2432 BNP 1667 Grn 808
May 2005 result C 23061 Lab 12041 LD 9175 UKIP 2233
June 2001 result C 22631 Lab 16390 LD 5945 UKIP 1165 Ind 389
May 1997 result C 20730 Lab 18535 LD 10489 Referendum Party 1764

Rochester East

Medway council, Kent; caused by the death of Labour councillor Nick Bowler.

North Shropshire isn’t the only by-election taking place today, as twelve vacancies on Great Britain’s local councils will also be filled in polls on 16 December. The Conservatives are defending seven of these, Labour four and independents one.

Medway, Rochester E

We’ll start with one of the Labour defences, by travelling to the Medway towns. These are all now towns, as a result of Rochester’s loss of city status due to an administrative oversight in the 1990s. The Rochester East ward is rather misleadingly named, in that it runs south from the edge of the town centre along the old and new roads towards Maidstone. Your columnist used to go to Rochester every July to play quiz, and I have a rather vague and fuzzy memory of a resulting night out in the Man of Kent within this ward.

This ward is one of the strongest Labour areas in the Medway Towns, and it had returned the Labour slate of Nick Bowler and Teresa Murray at every election this century. Bowler had been first elected in 2000, for the predecessor ward of Troy Town; he also represented that ward from 1997 to 1998 when it was part of the former Rochester upon Medway city council. Nick Bowler was the Mayor of Medway in 2003-04. He was still only 59 when he passed away in October, after a long battle with lung fibrosis.

Medway, 2019

The last Medway council elections in 2019 gave Bowler’s Labour slate 48% of the vote, with the Conservatives on 20% and the Green Party on 14%. There have been no local elections here since, but by-election results in nearby wards since 2019 have seen some good Labour performances.

Defending this seat for Labour is Lauren Edwards, who works as a financial regulator at the Bank of England and has extensive experience as a union rep. The Conservatives, who control Medway council, have selected local resident and former policeman Brian Griffin. The Green candidate is Bernard Hyde, who stood in 2019 in the neighbouring ward of Rochester South and Horsted. Completing the ballot paper is Sarah Manuel for the Liberal Democrats.

Parliamentary constituency: Rochester and Strood
ONS Travel to Work Area: Medway
Postcode district: ME1

Lauren Edwards (Lab)
Brian Griffin (C)
Bernard Hyde (Grn)
Sarah Manuel (LD)

May 2019 result Lab 1332/1277 C 542/414 Grn 393 UKIP 329 LD 174
May 2015 result Lab 1861/1721 C 1406/1095 UKIP 1209/1039 Grn 560 TUSC 98
May 2011 result Lab 1570/1531 C 833/649 Grn 255 LD 180/98
May 2007 result Lab 1482/1460 C 673/652 Medway Ind 268 UKIP 232
May 2003 result Lab 1050/955 C 682/680 LD 241/209 UKIP 94
Previous results in detail

Highfield

Ashford council, Kent; caused by the death of Conservative councillor Gerald White.

Ashford, Highfield

The Conservatives defend our other Kent by-election today, which is an urban ward in the town of Ashford. Highfield ward is the eastern end of Ashford’s built-up area, next to the M20 motorway and the end of the town’s southern bypass. It takes in much of the Willesborough area together with an industrial and retail park to the south, which is still part of Sevington parish. The ward does not include one of the most visible dividends of Brexit: the Sevington Inland Border Facility, which has filled a very large field on the far side of the southern bypass. Following boundary changes in 2019, the High Speed 1 line is the southern boundary of Highfield ward.

Ashford, 2019

On its pre-2019 boundaries Highfield ward was in the top 100 wards in England and Wales for those with Level 2 qualifications (5 or more GCSE passes, nothing higher). It had voted in 2003 for the Ashford Independents, for the Lib Dems in 2007, for the Ashford Independents again in 2011 and for the Conservatives in 2015. Gerald White was re-elected for a second term in 2019 on the ward’s new boundaries, polling 41% against 29% for the Ashford Independents and 19% for the Green Party.

Looking up to county level only serves to confuse matters. This ward is part of the Ashford East division of Kent county council, which in 2017 voted Lib Dem with 41% of the vote, the Greens finishing last with 5.5%. However, in May this year Ashford East voted Green with 44.5% of the vote, the Lib Dems finishing last with 3%. Quite the turnaround.

Gerald White passed away in October, and if the Conservatives fail to hold the resulting Highfield by-election their majority on Ashford council will be down to one seat. Defending for the party is James Ransley, who runs a carpentry business and is the chairman of Kingsnorth parish council. The Ashford Independents’ Barry Ball, who runs a construction firm, tries again after his second-place finish two years ago. The Green Party will hope that everybody’s talking about their candidate Dawnie Nilsson. Completing the ballot paper is Terry Pavlou, who is the ward’s first Labour candidate this century.

Parliamentary constituency: Ashford
Kent county council division: Ashford East
ONS Travel to Work Area: Ashford
Postcode district: TN24

Barry Ball (Ashford Ind)
Dawnie Nilsson (Grn)
Terry Pavlou (Lab)
James Ransley (C)

May 2019 result C 290 Ashford Ind 201 Grn 132 LD 82
Previous results in detail

Roffey South

Horsham council, West Sussex; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Roy Cornell.

We make our second trip of the year to Horsham, following Andrew’s Previews’ visit to the Forest ward by-election in October. That was an easy Liberal Democrat hold; this will be a rather different proposition.

Horsham, Roffey S

Roffey is a north-eastern suburb of Horsham, along the main road towards Crawley, which has now been absorbed into the town. The Roffey South ward runs in a generally north-easterly direction from the edge of the town centre, with Crawley Road generally being the northern boundary of the ward.

Horsham, 2019

Roffey South ward was left almost untouched by boundary changes introduced for the 2019 election. It has swung rather wildly between the Conservatives and Lib Dems in this century: the ward voted Lib Dem in 2003, split its two seats in 2007, comfortably voted Conservative in 2011 and 2015, then split its two seats again in 2019. On that occasion the Conservatives and Lib Dems both polled 41% of the vote with the remaining 18% going to Labour. Roy Cornell had represented Roffey South in the Conservative interest continuously from 2007 until his death in September.

The ward is split between two divisions of West Sussex county council. Its eastern half is part of St Leonard’s Forest division, which is based on the rural area east of Horsham town and is strongly Conservative. Its western half is part of the Horsham East county division, which was a Lib Dem gain from the Conservatives in May.

Defending for the Conservatives is Simon Torn, who was Roy Cornell’s partner as councillor for this ward from 2011 until 2019. Torn didn’t seek re-election that year. Standing for the Lib Dems is Sam Raby, who runs a small local business; he was the party’s candidate for St Leonard’s Forest in May’s county elections. Labour have selected local resident Daniel Everett, who was also a candidate for West Sussex county council in May: he fought Imberdown division (in the East Grinstead area) on that occasion. Completing the ballot paper is Claire Adcock for the Green Party.

Parliamentary constituency: Horsham
West Sussex county council division: Horsham East (part), St Leonard’s Forest (part)
ONS Travel to Work Area: Crawley
Postcode districts: RH12, RH13

Claire Adcock (Grn)
Daniel Everett (Lab)
Sam Raby (LD)
Simon Torn (C)

May 2019 result C 561/532 LD 553/519 Lab 239/225
Previous results in detail

Tilehurst South and Holybrook

West Berkshire council; caused by the death of Conservative councillor Peter Argyle.

W Berks, Tilehurst S/Holybrook

For our final by-election in the South East we come to an area which is clearly a western suburb of Reading, and is part of the Reading West parliamentary seat, but has never been incorporated into the town. This is Calcot, located on the A4 – the old road from London to Bath – just outside the Reading borough boundary, but east of the M4 motorway. The ward’s southern boundary is the Berks and Hants railway line, to the north of which lies the Holy Brook: this is a channel of the River Kennet which gets its name from the fact that it was built or improved by the monks at Reading Abbey.

West Berkshire council got new ward boundaries in 2019, and this is a cut-down version of the former Calcot ward with one fewer councillor. Calcot was a safe Conservative ward and so is this one: in May 2019 the Tories enjoyed a 58-25 lead over Labour in Tilehurst South and Holybrook. There have been no local elections here since.

The area provided a secure electoral base for the late Conservative councillor Peter Argyle, who was first elected in 1997 for Theale ward, transferred to Calcot ward in 2003 and ended up here in 2019. He served two terms as chairman of West Berkshire council, in 2011-12 and 2015-16, and was part of the Conservative majority on the council.

The local MP since 2010 has been the Conservatives’ Alok Sharma, who currently sits in Cabinet as President of COP26. Sharma may be a Cabinet minister but he has a marginal seat, with a majority over Labour of just over 4,000 votes in December 2019. While it’s unlikely that the Conservatives will lose this by-election, the vote shares should be watched closely for an indication of how healthy the local political party branches are.

Defending for the Conservatives is local resident and Holybrook parish councillor Akinbiyi Oloko, a business turnaround specialist whose work has taken him all over the world; his political experience includes service as a special adviser to the governor of Oyo State in Nigeria. Labour have reselected Holybrook parish councillor Charles Croal who stood here in 2019: according to his Twitter he is a “proud Scot with 31 years in Berkshire”. Completing the ballot paper is Steve Bown for the Liberal Democrats.

Parliamentary constituency: Reading West
ONS Travel to Work Area: Reading
Postcode districts: RG30, RG31
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Steve Bown (LD)
Charles Croal (Lab)
Akinbiyi Oloko (C)

May 2019 result C 910/865 Lab 395/367 LD 266/206
Previous results in detail

Caerau

Bridgend council, Glamorgan; caused by the death of Labour councillor Phil White.

Bridgend, Caerau

We now travel to the valleys of south Wales. Specifically the Llynfi valley, where the Caerau (or “Forts”) ward of Bridgend can be found. This is the head of the Llynfi valley, and the Caerau division contains a number of villages in a mountainous landscape to the north of Maesteg. As with many South Wales valleys, there was very little here before the late nineteenth century: Caerau Colliery operated here from 1889 to 1977, and the villages in this ward were essentially developed to serve the mine and its workers.

The pithead is long gone and the spoil tips have been landscaped, but Caerau Colliery may well have a use yet. The mineworkings are now full of naturally-heated water, and a scheme looking to extract this heat for use by local homes is currently looking for sponsors.

If this idea can be made to work on a large scale – and latest indications are that the money to do that might not be forthcoming – then it could lead to a transformation of what is one of the most deprived parts of Wales. Over half of Caerau’s workforce are in working-class occupations, and the figure for “routine” occupations (25.7%, mostly in manufacturing) is the third-highest for any ward in Wales and within the top 25 wards in England and Wales. 14.1% of the workforce are long-term sick or disabled, which is within the top 20 wards in England and Wales. 44.5% have no qualifications, which is in the top 40 wards in England and Wales. 98.8% were born in the UK, which is in the top 15 wards in England and Wales. 98.6% are White British, which is in the top 60 wards in England and Wales. All of these figures are quite typical of remote ex-coalfield areas in the Valleys.

And to this we can add a major and developing scandal over housing. Around 150 houses in Caerau have been badly affected by shoddy home insulation work undertaken in the last decade, which was funded by the Welsh Government’s Arbed scheme or other energy-efficiency schemes administered by Bridgend council, the UK government and/or an alliance of energy companies. A survey of 36 homes in the ward which had been improved under those schemes found defects, caused by poor workmanship, in every single one. Nobody seems to want to stump up the money required to make good the damage. The main contractor involved – which has since gone out of business – had as one of its directors Phil White, who was also a Bridgend councillor for Caerau ward and sat on the council’s cabinet for a number of years.

Bridgend, 2017

Which brings us to Caerau’s politics. These are also quite typical of remote ex-coalfield areas in the Valleys, generally being Labour versus Independent contests at local election time. Labour have held all three seats in the ward since 2012, when independent councillors Steve Smith and Kenneth Hunt were defeated. At the last Bridgend council elections in May 2017 Labour polled 48% here, against 33% for independent candidates and 19% for Plaid Cymru. Outgoing Labour councillor Phil John, who is reportedly a victim of the cowboy builders himself, stood for re-election as an independent but lost his seat.

This was against the wider trend in Bridgend, where Labour lost their majority in the 2017 election. That election returned 26 Labour councillors, 13 independents, 11 Conservatives, 3 Plaid members and a Lib Dem. Following a defection Labour are currently running the council as a minority with 24 seats plus this vacancy, four votes short of a majority.

Phil White had served as a ward councillor for Caerau since 2008, and as stated for most of that time he sat on the Bridgend council cabinet. He passed away in October at the age of 67, having contracted COVID-19. His death came before the Adjudication Panel for Wales could finish an investigation into possible code of conduct breaches related to the Caerau housing scandal.

There was just time for a by-election to be held to replace White, which is rather awkward because this ward is due to lose a councillor in next year’s elections. Whoever wins this by-election might not serve for very long at all. Defending for Labour is Robert Lewis, who represents Nantyffyllon (part of this ward) on Maesteg town council. There is one independent candidate standing, Chris Davies who lives down the valley in Maesteg; he is chair of the Caerau Men’s Shed, a local community group. Kyle Duggan is back for Plaid Cymru after his last-place finish in 2017. Completing the ballot paper is the ward’s first Conservative local election candidate, Thomas Dwyer.

Parliamentary and Senedd constituency: Ogmore
ONS Travel to Work Area: Bridgend
Postcode district: CF34

Chris Davies (Ind)
Kyle Duggan (PC)
Thomas Dwyer (C)
Robert Lewis (Lab)

May 2017 result Lab 829/753/753 Ind 575/573/339 PC 319
May 2012 result Lab 1057/1028/764 Ind 756/751
May 2008 result Ind 992/936 Lab 895/822/648
June 2004 result Ind 911/809 Lab 760/633/622 LD 229/165
Previous results in detail

Dawley and Aqueduct

Telford and Wrekin council, Shropshire; caused by the resignation of Labour councillor Concepta Cassar who had served since 2019.

Telford/Wrekin, Dawley/Aqueduct

Our two remaining Labour defences of the week are both in the English Midlands. For one of these we are back in Shropshire, this time in the New Town of Telford. Or the New Town of Dawley, as it might have been before the decision was reached to honour Thomas Telford in the new town’s name. Dawley was an old town which was mentioned in the Domesday survey, and whose major industry was mining and quarrying: there is coal and ironstone in the rocks below, and clay on top of that. Very little trace of the old industry exists, as the area was extensively landscaped when the New Town was built.

Famous locals associated with Dawley in the pre-New Town era include Matthew Webb, the first man to swim the English Channel, who has a school named after him in the ward; and Edith Pargeter, an author who wrote under a variety of pseudonyms. Her best-known work, published under the name “Ellis Peters”, remains the Brother Cadfael murder mysteries set in twelfth-century Shrewsbury. A street in Aqueduct, a village south of Dawley towards Ironbridge, is called “Ellis Peters Close”. Pargeter was one of the few people honoured in both the civil and military divisions of the Order of the British Empire, being awarded a civil OBE for services to literature and, half a century earlier, a military BEM for her Second World War service in the Wrens.

The current Dawley and Aqueduct ward dates from 2015 but has the same boundaries as the Dawley Magna ward which existed from 2003 to 2015. Whatever this ward is called, it has a rather high councillor attrition rate: this is the fourth by-election here in 18 years, and the last by-election was only seven months ago.

Dawley Magna voted strongly Labour in 2003, but a by-election at the end of 2006 was lost to the Telford and Wrekin Peoples Association, a now-defunct localist group. The TWPA followed up by gaining all three seats here in 2007, but lost them all back to Labour in 2011. A by-election in 2013 resulted in a strong Labour hold.

This proved to be illusory. The 2015 Telford and Wrekin local elections resulted in Dawley and Aqueduct ward splitting its three seats: Labour held 2, the Conservatives gained 1. Labour easily picked up the Tory seat in 2019, with a 62-38 lead, and the ward is part of the Labour majority on Telford and Wrekin council. However, the last by-election here in May 2021 was close again: Labour held the seat, but their lead over the Conservatives was reduced to 51-46.

Telford/Wrekin, 2019

Can the Conservatives go one better now in what is clearly quite a volatile ward? We shall see. Defending for Labour this time is retired teacher Bob Wennington, who represents Aqueduct on Dawley Hamlets parish council. The Conservatives have reselected Kate Barnes, who was the runner-up in May’s by-election; she is also a Dawley Hamlets parish councillor, and she is the assistant headteacher at Madeley Academy. Completing the ballot paper is Catherine Salter for the Lib Dems.

Parliamentary constituency: Telford
ONS Travel to Work Area: Telford
Postcode districts: TF3, TF4

Kate Barnes (C)
Catherine Salter (LD)
Bob Wennington (Lab)

May 2021 by-election Lab 1310 C 1192 LD 72
May 2019 result Lab 1212/1157/1030 C 748/725/571
May 2015 result Lab 1820/1630/1492 C 1609/1232/1099 UKIP 1168
(Previous results for Dawley Magna ward)
February 2013 by-election Lab 957 C 379 UKIP 312 Ind 126
May 2011 result Lab 1315/1243/961 C 917 Telford and Wrekin Peoples Assoc 877/785/505
May 2007 result Telford and Wrekin Peoples Association 1220/1033/961 C 648/535/464 Lab 574/526/483
December 2006 by-election Telford and Wrekin Peoples Association 649 Lab 476 C 446
May 2003 result Lab 1522/1488/1268 C 878/844 Socialist Alliance 359/305
Previous results in detail

Pleck

Walsall council, West Midlands; caused by the death of Labour councillor Harbans Singh Sarohi.

Walsall, Pleck

We now travel to the heart of the Black Country. The very word “Pleck”, with its harsh consonants, suggests a harsh place to live and work. Which may be reasonable given Pleck’s location at the heart of the industrial Black Country. Pleck is part of Walsall, which is traditionally the home of the English saddle-manufacturing industry: this hasn’t died yet, and one business in Pleck ward (Huskissons) is still making and supplying saddles, harnesses and collars for horses. Ironically, their premises is next door to a large car dealership.

A few hundred metres up the road lies the Walsall Manor Hospital, where most people from Walsall begin and end their days. This is in the Alumwell district west of Walsall town centre, whereas Pleck proper lies to the south of Alumwell over the Walsall Canal. Pleck’s southern and western boundaries are defined by the Grand Junction railway line, the River Tame and the M6 motorway, which here is on an elevated viaduct. Junction 9 of the M6 lies at the southern end of Pleck ward, with junction 10 at its north-west corner.

In the 2011 census Pleck made the top 70 wards in England and Wales for those who have never worked or are long-term unemployed (17.7%) and for those who are looking after home or family (9.6%). This is a multi-cultural area, with 45% of the population being of Asian ethnicity and most of the major religions being well represented: in the 2011 census Pleck was 39% Christian, 31% Muslim, and 5.5% for both Hindus and Sikhs.

This adds up to a very safe Labour ward in current political circumstances. In May this year Pleck voted 75% Labour and 25% Conservative – and that was in a year when the Conservatives performed very well in Walsall generally. There is now a large Conservative majority on the council. The Tories did perform much better in Pleck ward during the last Labour government, winning one seat out of three in 2004 and holding it in 2007, but after 2010 their vote faded away here.

Harbans Singh Sarohi, who was in his 80s when he passed away in July after suffering a heart attack, had served continuously for this ward since his first election in 2000. He was the deputy mayor of Walsall at the time of his death, and was in line to become the borough’s first Sikh mayor next year. Sarohi was due for re-election next year, so the winner of this by-election will need to get straight back on the campaign trail to seek re-election…

…or not, as the case may be. All Pleck local elections from 2016 onwards have been straight Labour-Conservative fights, and so is this by-election. Unfortunately, Labour have made a total hash of their candidate selection. It has emerged during the campaign that their defending candidate, Simran Kaur Cheema, is disqualified because she was an employee of the council on the day her nomination papers went in. She resigned her employment, but not until the following day. Should Cheema be elected, she will be unable to act as a councillor and the seat will remain vacant until May, because there isn’t time to hold a further by-election now before Sarohi’s term was due to end. Pleck residents who actually want a councillor to represent them are advised to vote for the only other candidate on the ballot paper, Mohammed Saghir of the Conservatives.

Parliamentary constituency: Walsall South
ONS Travel to Work Area: Wolverhampton and Walsall
Postcode district: WS1, WS2

Simran Kaur Cheema (Lab)
Mohammed Saghir (C)

May 2021 result Lab 2310 C 778
May 2019 result Lab 2123 C 582
May 2018 result Lab 2453 C 609
May 2016 result Lab 2596 C 1062
May 2015 result Lab 3493 C 1436 Grn 547
May 2014 result Lab 1959 C 983 UKIP 590 LD 259 Ind 193
May 2012 result Lab 2137 C 878 Ind 220 LD 215
May 2011 result Lab 2449 C 767 Ind 475 LD 331 Democratic Labour 166
May 2010 result Lab 2340 C 1790 LD 810 UKIP 383 Ind 348
May 2008 result Lab 1241 C 1150 LD 709 Ind 203 UKIP 177
May 2007 result C 1533 Lab 1497 LD 452 UKIP 202 Democratic Labour 58
May 2006 result Lab 1324 C 1202 LD 555 Ind 488 Democratic Labour 92
June 2004 result Lab 1518/1308/1235 C 1338/1183/1101 Ind 800 Democratic Socialist Alliance 371
Previous results in detail

Armitage with Handsacre

Lichfield council, Staffordshire; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Nicholas Binney.

Lichfield, Armitage/Handsacre

Having discussed the two Labour defences in the Midlands we now turn to two Conservative defences in the Midlands. To start with we come to a ward covering two parishes on the south bank of the River Trent in Staffordshire. Armitage and Handsacre are two large villages located a few miles east of Rugeley, on the West Coast Main Line and the Trent and Mersey Canal.

The ward named after those villages extends east to take in the village of Kings Bromley, on the main road going north from Lichfield; and also runs west to take in some new developments on the edge of Rugeley. This includes part of the site of the former Rugeley B power station, which closed in 2016 and whose cooling towers were demolished earlier this year. For your columnist those cooling towers were always a landmark on a train journey to that London, signalling in my mind the transition point from North to South. I’ll miss them.

With the power station gone, the main employer in this ward is now Armitage Shanks, the company which puts its signature on urinals and has made rather more money out of doing that than Marcel Duchamp ever did. Armitage Shanks has been making bathroom fixtures and plumbing supplies in Armitage since 1817.

Armitage with Handsacre is a safe Conservative ward, and at the last Lichfield council elections in 2019 the Conservatives were guaranteed two of its three seats before a vote was cast because only one opposition candidate had come forward. The Tory slate polled 63% against 37% for Labour. That was a weak Tory performance compared to May’s Staffordshire county elections, where the Conservatives led 74-17 in the county division of Lichfield Rural West.

Like Pleck, this by-election is a straight fight; unlike Pleck, we have two validly nominated and qualified candidates. Defending for the Conservatives is Richard Cross, who lives in Armitage. Challenging for Labour is Mark Pritchard, who was their candidate here in May’s county elections.

Parliamentary constituency: Lichfield
Staffordshire county council division: Lichfield Rural West
ONS Travel to Work Area: Wolverhampton and Walsall
Postcode districts: DE13, WS13, WS15

Richard Cross (C)
Mark Pritchard (Lab)

May 2019 result C 850/799/663 Lab 508
May 2015 result C 2017/1917/1828 Lab 1127/1009/1003 Ind 516
Previous results in detail

Nettleham

West Lindsey council, Lincolnshire; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Giles McNeill.

W Lindsey, Nettleham

For our final Midlands by-election we travel to the wide open spaces of Lincolnshire. The Nettleham ward wraps around the north-east corner of the city of Lincoln, between the A15 Roman road towards Scunthorpe and the Humber Bridge, and the A158 running north-east towards Skegness. In between those arrow-straight roads is Nettleham, a large village which was the site of the palace of the Bishops of Lincoln, until the Lincolnshire Rising of 1536 trashed it. Today the ward’s economy is based on rather more modern things, including an oil well which operates south of the village.

The ward takes in two other parishes to the west, one of which is Riseholme. This is the home of Riseholme College, an agricultural science college which is part of Lincoln University.

The present Nettleham ward was drawn up for the 2015 election and is a slightly cut-down version of the previous ward (which also included the parish of Greetwell to the east of Lincoln). This area was Liberal Democrat until the Conservatives broke through at a by-election in September 2012. Readers of Andrew’s Previews who have extremely long memories will note that the winning Tory candidate was 30-year-old Giles McNeill, who had contested the seat three times previously and had come within nine votes of winning in 2008. At the time he was the youngest member of West Lindsey council.

Ever since that by-election Nettleham has split its two seats between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. Both the 2015 and the 2019 elections here returned Giles McNeill and Angela White respectively, and they were essentially tied in the 2019 election: McNeill polled 635 votes, White 632 for the Lib Dems.

Following the 2019 election McNeill became leader of West Lindsey council. He was a fan of Andrew’s Previews and he has provided your columnist with information on some later by-elections in the West Lindsey district. In the interests of full disclosure, he has not been in touch with me about this one.

Unfortunately, it turns out that I should have been filing McNeill’s occasional communications in the Councillors Behaving Badly file. The Gainsborough branch of the Conservative party appointed a new treasurer in 2019, and it quickly became clear that something was wrong. Quite a lot of money had disappeared. The police were called.

In September 2020 McNeill announced that he was stepping down as council leader, and also leaving the Conservative group on the council. Shortly afterwards, he was arrested on fraud charges: he faced six counts of fraud, one count of theft and one count of forging signatures on 93 cheques.

The case came before Lincoln magistrates in September 2021, with McNeill pleading guilty to all charges. The court heard that between 2014 and 2020 McNeill had defrauded the local Conservative associations and members to the tune of almost £30,000, and he had used the money to fund a gambling addiction. The case was sent to Lincoln crown court for sentencing, and McNeill is now serving a fourteen-month prison sentence. He submitted his resignation from the council in October, between the guilty plea and the sentencing hearing.

The 2019 election returned a Conservative majority of 2 on West Lindsey council, with 19 Tories, 12 Lib Dems and 5 independents. One of the Conservative councillors has since gone independent wiping out the party’s majority, and if this by-election is lost the Tories will be in a minority on the council. However, there are enough Conservative-supporting independents that this is unlikely to make any practical difference. While the district by-election looks a difficult defence, the local Conservatives can take heart from the fact that they had a big lead in the local county division (Nettleham and Saxilby) in May, and by the fact that their income isn’t being siphoned off to feed someone else’s gambling habit any more.

Defending for the Conservatives is Maureen Palmer, who was McNeill’s running-mate in the 2015 election here. Palmer has also appeared in this column before: she won a 2016 by-election in the neighbouring ward of Cherry Willingham (Andrew’s Previews 2016, page 210), but lost her seat in 2019. The Lib Dems have selected Jaime Oliver; she founded the Nettleham Community Hub in 2015. In a break to Nettleham’s two-party duopoly, also standing are Benjamin Loryman for the Green Party and Jess McGuire for Labour.

Parliamentary constituency: Gainsborough
Lincolnshire county council division: Nettleham and Saxilby
ONS Travel to Work Area: Lincoln
Postcode districts: LN2, LN3

Benjamin Loryman (Grn)
Jess McGuire (Lab)
Jaime Oliver (LD)
Maureen Palmer (C)

May 2019 result C 635/506 LD 632/580
May 2015 result C 1337/984 LD 1064/983
Previous results in detail

North Ormesby

Middlesbrough council, North Yorkshire; caused by the resignation of independent councillor Ashley Waters.

We now travel north to another area which, like Nettleham, Andrew’s Previews last visited in September 2012. There the similarities end.

Middlesbrough, N Ormesby

If you were asked to visualise the most run-down Victorian housing imaginable, you might end up with a mental image which looks not unlike North Ormesby. As with much of Middlesbrough, this area was effectively a late-Victorian new town built for workers at the Middlesbrough docks just to the north. We’re less than a mile to the east of Middlesbrough town centre here, and only a few hundred yards away from the shining Riverside Stadium of Middlesbrough FC.

Middlesbrough is the centre of a conurbation which was based on heavy industry, and which is looking for a new future with the decline of heavy industry. The census stats bear this out. In 2011 the ward of North Ormesby and Brambles Farm had the eleventh-highest unemployment rate (12.5%) of any ward in England and Wales. For those who had jobs, the employment profile was extremely working-class: the ward was in the top 90 for “routine occupations” (23.8%) and in the top 70 for those who have never worked or are long-term unemployed. The entire ward hovers very close to the bottom of the deprivation indices. Despite some spectacularly cheap house prices – in October 2017 the average house here was reported to be worth just £36,000 – a lot of residents have upped sticks and left for somewhere where they can get a job, leading to significant depopulation. The council’s response to this has simply been to demolish a fair chunk of the ward’s housing.

North Ormesby was split off from the Brambles Farm estate in 2015 to become a ward of its own. Its first election returned a Labour councillor, but that changed in 2019. The 2019 election in Middlesbrough was dominated by independent candidate Andy Preston, who won the town’s elected mayoralty in a landslide; and a large number of independent councillors were elected on Preston’s coat-tails. The latest available composition has 24 independent members of Middlesbrough council (plus this vacancy) against 18 Labour and 3 Conservatives; the independents are divided into three groups on the council with varying degrees of support for and opposition to Mayor Preston. It’s really quite hard for an outsider to keep track of what is going on in the Boro.

The North Ormesby ward was carried by the independent tide in May 2019, with independent candidate Ashley Waters defeating the incumbent Labour councillor by the wide margin of 70-27. Waters subsequently joined Mayor Preston’s cabinet with the regeneration portfolio, something rather important to his constituents.

In January this year it emerged that Ashley Waters was living and working in France, where he was regenerating the ruined 18th-century Château de Lalacelle in Normandy, along with his partner and his partner’s parents. They plan to turn the château into an upmarket bed-and-breakfast. He wasn’t exactly being discreet about this: the team had posted a number of videos on the internet detailing their progress on the renovation. Waters had continued to attend council meetings online from France.

Andrew’s Previews has covered a number of similar cases recently. In this column’s opinion, if everybody is dialling into council meetings remotely – as was happening until May this year for pandemic-related reasons – then really it doesn’t make much difference whether you’re dialling in to Middlesbrough council meetings from Normandy or Normanby. However, once council meetings went back in-person from May, that no longer applied. Waters came under mounting criticism for his absences from Middlesbrough, and in November he resigned as councillor for North Ormesby to spend more time at his French château.

I never expected to write the words “North Ormesby” and “French château” in the same sentence.

One independent candidate has come forward to replace Waters: he is Mark Horkan, a volunteer with the White Feather Project which helps local people in food poverty. Horkan is associated with the Middlesbrough Independent Group, the larger of the council’s two main independent factions. The Labour candidate is Nicky Gascoigne, another charity volunteer who lives in the ward and has recently graduated from Teesside University. Also standing are Val Beadnall for the Conservatives and Ian Jones for the Liberal Democrats.

Parliamentary constituency: Middlesbrough
ONS Travel to Work Area: Middlesbrough and Stockton
Postcode district: TS3

Val Beadnall (C)
Nicky Gascoigne (Lab)
Mark Horkan (Ind)
Ian Jones (LD)

May 2019 result Ind 371 Lab 142 C 17
May 2015 result Lab 389 Ind 314 C 74
Previous results in detail

Hexham East

Northumberland council; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Cath Homer.

Northd, Hexham E

For our final English by-election of the week we travel to the Tyne valley and the town which, last month, was voted by the property website Rightmove as the happiest place to live in Britain. The history of Hexham goes back to the 7th century, when Hexham Abbey was founded by St Wilfrid; the present Abbey building dates from the 11th and 19th centuries, but the crypt of Wilfrid’s monastery still survives. The town’s major industry in the 18th and 19th centuries was the manufacture of leather gloves; today the Egger chipboard factory is a major employer, while the town’s location and good transport links to Newcastle and Carlisle mean that it is a good base for tourism in western Northumberland. Hadrian’s Wall is only a few miles to the north.

The town gives its name to a parliamentary seat which has been in Conservative hands continuously since 1924, with the exception of 1943-51 when Hexham’s MP Douglas Clifton Brown was the Speaker of the Commons. It is divided between three divisions of Northumberland council. Hexham East covers about half of Hexham’s urban area, with landmarks including the town’s general hospital, the Old Gaol (dating from the fourteenth century and one of the first purpose-built prisons in England) and the Moot Hall, a well-preserved mediaeval courthouse.

Hexham East division has been in Conservative hands for many years as well. Cath Homer was first elected as the division’s councillor in 2013 in what was then a very safe Conservative seat. The Conservatives finished one seat short of a majority on Northumberland council in the 2017 election, and Homer served as the Northumberland cabinet member for culture, arts, leisure and tourism until the summer of 2020.

At that point Northumberland council was rocked by a scandal, in which the chief executive was suspended after blowing the whistle on alleged wrongdoing by the then council leader Peter Jackson. Homer resigned from the cabinet, indicating that she would comply with independent investigations which were going on. Jackson was subsequently no-confidenced by the council.

In the May 2021 Northumberland elections it appears that the Lib Dems had a go at Hexham East, and they sharply cut the Conservative majority here. Shares of the vote were 44% for the Conservatives, 36% for the Liberal Democrats and 21% for Labour. Cath Homer resigned from the council six months later, citing social media abuse; however, the local press have also reported that her behaviour may have breached the council’s code of conduct.

Which gives us a crucial by-election. If the Northumberland Conservatives lose this seat, their majority on Northumberland council will go with it. The council currently has 33 Conservative members plus this vacancy, against 21 Labour, 7 independents, 3 Lib Dems and 2 Greens.

Defending for the Conservatives is Stephen Ball, a Hexham town councillor who has twice served as deputy mayor of the town. Ball was appointed MBE in the 2021 Birthday Honours for services to mental health charities. The Liberal Democrats have reselected their candidate from May, Suzanne Fairless-Aitken. The Labour candidate is Jonathan Wheeler, a GMB union steward and town councillor in Prudhoe, down the Tyne valley. Completing the ballot paper is Hexham town councillor and writer Lee Williscroft-Ferris, who is standing as an independent candidate.

Parliamentary constituency: Hexham
ONS Travel to Work Area: Hexham
Postcode district: NE46

Stephen Ball (C)
Suzanne Fairless-Aitken (LD)
Jonathan Wheeler (Lab)
Lee Williscroft-Ferris (Ind)

May 2021 result C 687 LD 557 Lab 323
May 2017 result C 941 LD 218 Lab 206 Grn 68
May 2013 result C 623 Lab 300 UKIP 207 LD 205
May 2008 result C 903 Lab 223 LD 203
May 2005 Northumberland county council result C 1064 Lab 636 LD 491
Previous results in detail

Lomond North

Argyll and Bute council, Scotland; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Barbara Morgan.

We now come to what will be the penultimate by-election of this Scottish local council term. There is one more poll to come in January, and then that will be it until the next Scottish local elections in May.

Argyll/Bute, Lomond N

It’s back to the Highlands for this one, as we come to a ward on the deeply-indented Argyll coast which is dominated by the military. The Lomond North ward includes the naval bases at Faslane (on Gare Loch) and Coulport (on Loch Long), which together form the home of the Royal Navy’s submarine fleet and the British nuclear deterrent.

Before the Navy took over this area, Coulport was a favoured location for wealthy Glasgow merchants who had holiday homes here. Coulport was the original home of the Kibble Palace, a large glasshouse which now stands in the Glasgow Botanic Gardens; the Kibble Palace was named after John Kibble, who commissioned it. There were similar large villas further down the Rosneath peninsula in Cove and Kilcreggan, which were easily accessible from Glasgow by steamer. Even now Kilcreggan’s railhead is Gourock, on the far side of the Firth of Clyde, to which there is a regular passenger ferry connection.

The Lomond North ward runs north and east from Roseneath and Garelochhead to take in much of the western bank of Loch Lomond, the village of Arrochar at the head of Loch Long and the mountain pass at Rest and be Thankful. Nearly all of that area is part of the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. Although it is often impassable in winter, the Rest and be Thankful is the only link between this area and the Argyll and Bute council offices in Lochgilphead.

Lochgilphead was formerly the home of Argyll county council, but until the 1970s almost all of Lomond North ward was part of Dunbartonshire rather than Argyll. For Scottish Parliament purposes, this ward is still part of the Dumbarton constituency.

Following the 2021 Holyrood elections Dumbarton remains one of a handful of constituencies to have voted Labour at every Scottish Parliament election. However, there are very few Labour voters in Lomond North ward. The first election to this ward, in 2007, returned three independent candidates: Billy Petrie, Danny Kelly and George Freeman. In 2012 Petrie retired, Freeman was re-elected at the top of the poll, Kelly lost his seat and the two new councillors were Maurice Corry of the Conservatives and independent Robert MacIntyre. On both occasions, the SNP finished as runner-up.

The Nationalists finally broke through here in May 2017, defeating MacIntyre. Top of the poll was the new Conservative candidate Barbara Morgan, who polled 29% of the first preferences and was elected on the first count. The SNP’s Iain Paterson polled 20%, George Freeman was re-elected with 17%, independent candidate Fiona Baker was runner-up with 12%, and MacIntyre was eliminated in fifth place with 11%.

Argyll/Bute, 2017

The Argyll and Bute elections that year returned 11 SNP councillors, 10 independents, 9 Conservatives and 6 Lib Dems. An anti-SNP coalition, with the pretentious title of “The Argyll, Lomond and the Islands Group”, is running the council.

Barbara Morgan resigned for personal reasons in October, a month before the six-month rule was due to kick in. Accordingly, there is just time for a by-election to replace her. If we rerun the 2017 count for a single vacancy then Morgan comes out on top, with a lead of 1,304 to 1,275 votes over George Freeman; so the Tories can go into this by-election with some confidence.

All four candidates in this by-election are based on the Rosneath peninsula. Defending for the Conservatives is Paul Collins, who lives and runs a business in Rosneath itself. You cannot count out independents here, and there are two of them standing in this by-election. Mark Irvine, the husband of the Antiques Road Trip and Bargain Hunt expert Roo Irvine, is a businessman from Kilcreggan; while Rosneath resident Robert MacIntyre, who lost his seat here in 2017, is seeking to resume a very long local government career which started with his election to the former Helensburgh Landward District Council in 1968. Completing the ballot paper is Ken Smith, a quantity surveyor from Clynder, who was the runner-up here in 2012; he stands again for the Scottish National Party. Remember the usual Scottish disclaimers: Votes at 16 and the Alternative Vote apply here.

Andrew’s Previews will be back next week for the final council by-election of the year.

Parliamentary constituency: Argyll and Bute
Scottish Parliament constituency: Dumbarton
ONS Travel to Work Area: Dumbarton and Helensburgh
Postcode districts: G63, G83, G84

Paul Collins (C)
Mark Irvine (Ind)
Robert MacIntyre (Ind)
Ken Smith (SNP)

May 2017 first preferences C 989 SNP 678 Ind 587 Ind 407 Ind 359 Lab 212 LD 133
May 2012 first preferences Ind 847 C 544 SNP 406 Lab 376 Ind 358 ind 237 Ind 129
May 2007 first preferences Ind 794 Ind 734 Ind 616 SNP 557 C 484 LD 395
Previous results in detail


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) and would make an excellent Christmas present for the discerning psephologist. You can also support future previews by donating to the Local Elections Archive Project (link).

Andrew Teale