Previewing the last council by-election of the year (23 Dec 2021)

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

Before we start this week I regret that there is an entry for Correction Corner. Last week’s preview for the Roffey South by-election stated in different places that previous councillor Roy Cornell had either died or resigned. Sadly, I would like to make it clear that that by-election was a result of the death of Councillor Cornell.

This column would also like to send best wishes to the staff involved in last week’s by-election count for Telford and Wrekin, at which results were declared for the Dawley and Aqueduct by-election and a separate by-election to Dawley Hamlets parish council. Following the declarations, I regret to report that count staff were attacked by a group of men while leaving the count in Dawley Town Hall, and the ballot papers from the parish council by-election were stolen. The incident took place at around 11:50pm on Thursday; anybody who may have witnessed anything relating to the incident is asked to contact West Mercia Police.

There is one by-election on 23rd December 2021 to finish the year off…

Bransgore and Burley

New Forest council, Hampshire; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Mark Steele.

New Forest, Bransgore/Burley

For the last council by-election of 2021 we have come to the New Forest National Park. The New Forest isn’t all trees: the word “Forest” in the name is used in its mediaeval sense of royal hunting territory, which encompassed both woodland and heathland. It’s in this heathland that we can find the village of Burley, located to the east of Ringwood around 13 miles north-east of Bournemouth.

Just outside the National Park boundary is Bransgore, whose eponymous parish includes a number of villages just outside Christchurch: Neacroft, Waterditch and Hinton are all part of this ward. Christchurch used to be part of Hampshire, but it was transferred to Dorset in the 1974 reorganisation. As part of that reorganisation the new Hampshire-Dorset boundary was drawn through the middle of what was then Christchurch East parish, and Bransgore parish is the part of that area which remained in Hampshire. The ward includes Hinton Admiral railway station on the northern edge of Christchurch’s built-up area; not far from the station is the Office Field Solar Farm, which has been generating electricity for the National Grid (in sunnier months than December) since 2013.

This ward was drawn up for the 2003 election to New Forest council, which is one of England’s largest two-tier districts by population. The council area is not as rural as it looks at first sight. As well as the Forest itself, the district takes in the towns of Ringwood and Lymington, the Southampton suburb of Totton and a densely-populated and industrial area on the western bank of Southampton Water.

Bransgore and Burley is one of the few genuinely-rural wards in the New Forest district, and has returned Conservative councillors at every election this century. In 2019 the Conservative slate was opposed here only by a single Labour candidate, who lost 72-28. The ward is part of the Brockenhurst division of Hampshire county council, which isn’t much less safe; and it’s part of the New Forest West parliamentary seat represented by COVID sceptic Sir Desmond Swayne. Swayne lives in this ward, and he has signed the nomination papers of the Conservative candidate for this by-election. His partner in the awkward squad Sir Christopher Chope, the MP for the neighbouring seat of Christchurch, is also an elector in this ward.

New Forest, 2019

This by-election is one from the Councillors Behaving Badly file, although I should stress right at the beginning that the resigning councillor Mark Steele is not the one behaving badly. Steele was first elected in this ward in 2015, and he served on the council’s cabinet with the partnering and leisure portfolio.

At the time the leader of the council was Barry Rickman of the Conservatives, who had taken on the top job in 2008. Rickman served in that post for over twelve years, before being brought down by a scandal over his business affairs. For those readers who think politics is a dumpster fire at the moment, well… in the case of Rickman, that almost literally happened.

Along with his brother Robert, Barry Rickman owned a scrapyard in Sway, within the New Forest National Park, which was breaking up and disposing of old cars. Following a complaint that burning was taking place on the site, the police and the Environment Agency found that Rickman’s scrapyard was operating without the necessary environmental permits. The Environment Agency launched a prosecution.

In March 2021 the Rickmans appeared before Southampton magistrates and pleaded guilty to one charge each under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016. The district judge delayed sentencing to allow them the opportunity to clean the site up; after a number of missed deadlines for doing this the Rickmans were eventually sentenced in November. Councillor Barry Rickman, who was not involved in the day-to-day running of the scrapyard, was fined £2000 plus costs for knowingly permitting the operation of an illegal waste site; Robert received a four-month suspended sentence for operating the site. Both of them have been also ordered by the court to remove all remaining cars and waste from the land within 12 months.

Following Barry Rickman’s guilty plea he resigned as leader of New Forest council, and he was subsequently kicked out of the ruling Conservative group. The new council leader, Edward Heron, then proposed that Rickman be removed as one of the council’s representatives on the New Forest National Park Authority.

This plan was opposed by Mark Steele, who went so far as to make a complaint to the council’s monitoring officer that Heron was seeking to bully him into voting for Rickman’s removal. The monitoring officer rejected the complaint, following which Steele resigned from the council.

That leaves with a tasty by-election to take us into the Christmas break, although the form book says this should be an easy win for the new Conservative candidate Sarah Howard. She is fighting her first election campaign, and she is a professional chef and member of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts. The only other party to stand here last time was Labour, whose candidate James Swyer works for the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. Outgoing councillor Steele has signed the nomination papers for independent candidate Richard Frampton, a farmer and cider maker who has previously sat as both as a Conservative and as a Liberal Democrat member of New Forest council: Frampton, then with the Conservative nomination, won a by-election here in December 2014 and served this ward until 2019. Completing the ballot paper is Lucy Bramley for the Green Party.

Parliamentary constituency: New Forest West
Hampshire county council division: Brockenhurst
ONS Travel to Work Area: Bournemouth
Postcode districts: BH23, BH24

Lucy Bramley (Grn)
Richard Frampton (Ind)
Sarah Howard (C)
James Swyer (Lab)

May 2019 result C 1002/964 Lab 385
May 2015 result C 2386/1805 Grn 740 Lab 464
December 2014 by-election C 834 UKIP 171 Lab 74
May 2011 result C 1789/1539 LD 536 Lab 386
May 2007 result C 1335/1164 Ind 888 LD 430
May 2003 result C 961/886 Ind 880 LD 678
Previous results in detail

As stated, this is the last council by-election of 2021. But fear not! It’s Christmas, and as a Christmas bonus we have a ghost story to tell you: the by-election that never was…

CHRISTMAS BONUS TRACK:
Paisley Southeast

Renfrewshire council, Scotland; caused by… er…

Renfs, Paisley SE

We finish for the year in Scotland’s largest town. This is Paisley, which despite having a population approaching 80,000 has never had city status. Instead this is an old industrial town to the west of Glasgow, with the traditional industry here being textiles. The town gave its name to the Paisley pattern, a teardrop-shaped textile design which Renfrewshire council has adopted as its logo.

The Paisley South ward is a suburban area running along the main road towards Barrhead. It includes the conservation area of Thornly Park and part of the postwar housing estate of Glenburn. The ward also includes Dykebar Hospital, a secure psychiatric unit. It is represented on Renfrewshire council by three councillors: Marie McGurk of the SNP, Eddie Devine of Labour, and independent councillor Paul Mack.

Paul Mack does not come across from press reports as a particularly nice person. Way back in 1994 he was forced to resign as deputy leader of the Labour group on the former Renfrew district council, after being found guilty of assaulting his ex-girlfriend and causing a breach of the peace. The Herald‘s press report (link) records that Paisley Sheriff Court fined him £200, after Mack’s lawyer told the sheriff that the guilty verdict would have serious repercussions, including “the end of his political career.”

Not so. In fact Mack became leader of Renfrewshire council, which shortly afterwards replaced Renfrew district council as part of the 1990s Scottish reorganisation. However, he was subsequently expelled from the Labour party in the controversy following the 1997 suicide of the Paisley South MP Gordon McMcaster, who had named Mack (along with a number of other Renfrewshire Labour politicians, including the neighbouring MP Tommy Graham) in his suicide note. Mack lost his seat in the 1999 council elections and didn’t get back until 2012, when he was elected as an independent councillor for Paisley South ward. He transferred to the successor Paisley Southeast ward in 2017.

Mack was rather lucky to be re-elected on that occasion. Paisley South was a four-seat ward, but Paisley Southeast only has three councillors, which meant he needed to put together 25% of the vote to secure re-election rather than 20% as previously. On first preferences the SNP led with 37%, Labour polled 27%, the Conservatives 15% and Mack started in fifth place in the count with 14%, 16 votes behind the second SNP candidate. The SNP (ex-Lib Dem figure Marie McGurk) and Labour (Eddie Devine) had a safe seat each, but on those figures the final seat would be difficult to call. In the event the SNP failed to balance their candidates, and after Mack picked up transfers from Labour the second SNP candidate was eliminated 17 votes behind Mack and 37 votes behind the Conservatives. Mack then picked up the SNP transfers to beat the Conservatives for the final seat rather easily. If Mack had been eliminated instead of the SNP, his transfers would probably have elected the Conservative candidate although it’s difficult to be certain about this.

Readers of this column in recent months will have noted a large number of entries in the Councillors Behaving Badly file, some of which I shall touch on in the next section. There used to be a national tribunal in England for ruling on complaints against councillors’ behaviour, but the Standards Board for England and its associated Adjudication Panel disappeared in the Coalition’s bonfire of the quangos. However its Scottish equivalent, the Standards Commission for Scotland, still exists.

The Standards Commission for Scotland must by now be sick of the sight of Paul Mack. In October 2016 they suspended him from Renfrewshire council’s Education and Policy Board for three months for offensive behaviour in a council meeting. In October 2017 they suspended him from all Renfrewshire council meetings for seven months for further offensive behaviour in a council meeting.

In September 2020 Mack’s case came before the Standards Commission again. This time they disqualified him from public office until February 2022 for “behaving repeatedly in an unwarranted and offensive manner towards two other councillors, as well as to the Chief Executive and other officers”. The Commission found that he had run a long and relentless hate campaign against his Labour ward colleague Eddie Devine, and had also made offensive and demeaning remarks about Conservative councillor Alistair Mackay. I won’t go into the details here, but the Standards Commission have set out all the complaints made in their eventual decision notice (link).

The document I’ve linked to was not the first decision by the the Standards Commission in this case. Their panel reached that original decision in Councillor Mack’s absence, having been advised during their deliberations that Mack was unable to attend because he was isolating as a close contact of someone who had tested positive for COVID. Mack appealed against the panel’s decision, and in February 2021 Paisley Sheriff Court ruled that the Commission was wrong to proceed without Mack present. He was reinstated as a councillor and the case was sent back to the Standards Commission for re-hearing.

Following a fresh hearing, held online in May 2021, the Standards Commission for Scotland disqualified Paul Mack as a councillor again, this time for 14 months until September 2022. Again, Mack was not present at the hearing. Again, he appealed. This time Paisley Sheriff Court rejected his appeal.

By now we were in October 2021, over a year after the initial disqualification, and Renfrewshire council jumped at the chance to finally rid themselves of Mack. There was just time to hold a by-election, and a polling date of Tuesday 14th December 2021 was quickly announced. Six candidates were nominated: Bruce Macfarlane for the SNP, Jamie McGuire for Labour, Alec Leishman for the Conservatives, Kyle Mitchell for the Greens, John Craft for the Lib Dems and Duncan Grant for the Libertarian Party. Polling stations were booked, and postal votes were sent out. Thousands of pounds of council taxpayers’ money was spent: the latest estimate is £15,823 with one large invoice from Royal Mail still to come in. Democracy costs money, you know.

And then it all went wrong. On 25 November – three weeks before polling day – Renfrewshire council cancelled the by-election. It appears that the returning officer had overlooked that Mack still had the option of appealing his disqualification to the Court of Session, and Mack has done just that. After taking legal advice, the returning officer concluded that the poll could not safely go ahead. And there won’t be time for another by-election now, because the May 2022 Scottish local elections are just around the corner.

This news came through too late to be included in the 25 November 2021 edition of Andrew’s Previews, which by coincidence included two other cases where by-elections have been affected, or potentially affected, by dubious council legal advice. On that occasion I had a go at Wigan council for first accepting an invalid resignation and having to call off a by-election in 2018, then trying not to accept a valid resignation three years later from the same councillor. There was also the Peter Little case in Allerdale. To quote from what I wrote about the Little case four weeks ago:

Workington magistrates … sentenced Peter Little to six weeks in prison for the threatening communication and activated [a previous] 12-week suspended sentence for … public order offences, the two sentences to run consecutively.

You can’t really blame the Allerdale council staff for wanting to get Little off their council as soon as possible. The council added 6 weeks and 12 weeks together, noticed that the sum came to more than the 13-week threshold, and promptly pronounced him to be disqualified. A by-election was just as promptly called to replace him.

I will admit to having some concern when I heard what Allerdale council had done there. The worrying word in the above quote s “promptly”. Yes, the Local Government Act 1972 does provide that councillors sentenced to three months’ imprisonment (including suspended sentences) are disqualified. However, as this column has pointed out on a number of occasions, the disqualification doesn’t kick in until the time for appealing against the conviction or sentence expires. Little had three weeks to appeal against sentence; but Allerdale council pronounced him to be disqualified, and published a Notice of Vacancy, on 20 October just two days after his sentencing hearing. On this occasion, it would appear that they got away with it and the passage of time means that Little is definitely disqualified now.

Back in Paisley, Paul Mack is still a Renfrewshire councillor. Depending how quickly the Court of Session get around to his appeal, he might still be eligible to stand in the May 2022 local elections. This column will keep an eye on matters and report back if there are further developments in Renfrewshire. But that will be a job for 2022.

Review of the Year

“The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?”

Thus ends the busiest year on record for Andrew’s Previews, and as usual I will sign off for 2021 with some personal notes and votes of thanks to conclude the year. It’s time to toast the new year, bid farewell to the old, and wonder whether the change of year will herald an improvement.

Well, on the face of it 2021 was certainly better than the unmitigated catastrophe which was 2020. In 2020 this column talked about just thirty-six polls, and when I wrote this piece last year I was looking at a list running to over 260 vacancies in our local councils. There was no plan to fill those vacancies except to wait for May’s local elections.

A year on, the backlog has been caught up. A quick countup reveals that Bransgore and Burley is the 450th council by-election or postponed poll which Andrew’s Previews has covered this year. This is a record, by quite a long way.

Also in this column in 2021 we brought to you the context for six Parliamentary Specials, in Hartlepool, Airdrie and Shotts, Chesham and Amersham, Batley and Spen, Old Bexley and Sidcup, and North Shropshire; four council governance referendums, in Newham, Sheffield, Tower Hamlets and Croydon; and two Police and Crime Commissioner Specials, in Wiltshire and North Yorkshire.

It has all added up to a enormous amount of work. The research time involved in producing this year’s Previews has come to hundreds if not thousands of hours. The source files in my archives for this year come to around two million keystrokes. No wonder my laptop looks knackered.

And that just represented the attention I gave, as an interested observer, to the 450 local by-elections and all the rest of the polls this year. Those local by-elections attracted 1,889 candidates between them; the six parliamentary by-elections had 73 candidates nominated, and there were ten candidates in the two Police and Crime Commissioner by-elections. The vast majority of these candidates will have put some sort of effort into and spent some money on their campaign. Across all these elections, millions of votes were cast.

But all this pales in comparison with the effort put in by your local council’s electoral services team to keep this show on the road for your benefit. This column is forever in their debt, and I cannot thank them enough. Those small teams, who might not be well-paid or even full-time, who maintain the electoral register all year round; who have to negotiate with school and venue operators, ballot paper printers and Royal Mail for every May’s local elections and for any other polls which may turn up at unexpected times; who book, train and equip staff and polling stations; who organise counts, declare a winner and sort out all the paperwork. They have to get it right, every time. Let’s be clear that the failures I have mentioned in this week’s column are rare exceptions, and it’s an enormous tribute to the professionalism of our electoral services that so few problems are reported with our electoral processes. Thank you.

This particularly applies to a local election on the scale of May 2021, which I hope I never see the like of again. The whole of Great Britain went to the polls, with most voters having multiple ballot papers to juggle – in exceptional cases, up to five polls were taking place simultaneously. The counting took four days to finish.

But it’s these same hardworking electoral professionals who are under direct threat from the Department of Vacuous Slogans, Housing and Communities. Our electoral services teams are employed and paid by our local councils, for which a decade of austerity is apparently not enough cuts if rumours are to be believed. Rumours abound of further reorganisations, which would inevitably result in what is already the most remote local government in Europe becoming even more remote. It would also inevitably result in redundancies in our electoral service teams, in the loss of knowledge and experience, at the same time as they are called on to perform more functions as more and more posts become subject to election. This column has not forgotten what happened in Newcastle-under-Lyme in June 2017, which was a clear demonstration that loss of knowledge and experience has the potential to put our elections in danger. And we would all suffer from that.

I wrote in last year’s review that “at some point the madness has to stop”. Oh no.
2021 was a year when the madness and weirdness of local government was on full display…

It’s such a shame that there was no column upon which I could hang a timely dissection of that infamous Handforth Parish Council Planning and Environment Committee meeting when it went viral in February, but the Previews did come back to Handforth in September to see what the fallout was. To cut a long story short, John Smith – the sane councillor in the video – is now running the show and the badly-behaved councillors have all resigned now: the last to go was Brian “you have no authority, Jackie Weaver” Tolver. This column doesn’t cover parish or town council by-elections, but it would be rude not to note that the by-election to replace Tolver is taking place today in Handforth’s South ward.

In May we brought you the by-election for Chessington South ward in Kingston upon Thames, where the Official Monster Raving Loony Party put up thirteen candidates in a feat which really should have won them the Turner Prize. In the summer heatwave of July, one presiding officer decided to use their initiative in the hot weather to set up a polling station in the open air of a school playground.

Only last week an attempt by the Conservatives and independents to depose an SNP administration on Moray council failed in bizarre circumstances. The vote was tied, and the convenor decided to draw lots to resolve the tie. Representatives of the two sides cut a pack of cards. The SNP ended up with the higher card (the jack of spades) and remain in control of the council.

We also had rather a lot of Councillors (and Other Elected Representatives) Behaving Badly. As well as the ones already covered in the Christmas Bonus Track above, in July we told you of the story of the South Tyneside councillor who resigned “by mistake”, after being repeatedly disciplined by the council for being an idiot on social media. In August we had the Wiltshire Police and Crime Commissioner election, which had to be rerun after the Conservatives put up a candidate in May who was disqualified from being a PCC; last week Labour did the same thing at a by-election in Walsall. In September we told the tale of the South Tyneside councillor who was disqualified after being given a suspended sentence for carrying a knife into a court building, which he was attending to answer a drink-driving charge. In November we had the by-election to replace the North Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner who caused outrage with his comments on the Sarah Everard murder. In December we reported on the Conservative councillor who was forced to resign after being revealed to be a supporter of a far-right white nationalist group. And that’s without even mentioning the Owen Paterson case.

The madness doesn’t just end there, of course. Every Thursday when the column goes out, my Twitter lights up. And when the results come in of a Thursday night, the level of outrage from whoever is on the losing side this week is something to behold.

There are, of course, kinder people out there both on the Twitter and in real life. Professor Michael Thrasher, who has been writing about local elections since before I was a lad, was kind enough to describe Andrew’s Previews as “wonderful reports” to an online meeting I attended. The European edition of Politico were kind enough to spend time profiling me in April, in advance of the local elections, and I also found myself giving an interview to Talk Radio as the results came in. In addition, I was very grateful to see this endorsement earlier this month:

Paula Surridge has a book out at the moment, and The British General Election of 2019 is firmly on your columnist’s Christmas list. I’m eagerly waiting to read it.

Looking forward to 2022, next year’s local election festival of democracy is scheduled for Thursday 5th May. It won’t be as complicated as this year’s. On that day we will have polls for the elected mayoralties of South Yorkshire, Hackney, Lewisham, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Watford, the inaugural mayoral election in Croydon, local elections for all councillors in London, Scotland and Wales, polls in those English districts which renew a third or a half of their council at each election, votes for some form of new unitary structure in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset, and the next scheduled election to the Northern Ireland Assembly. The English local elections are mostly to renew councillors elected in May 2018, an election which was very close between Theresa May’s Conservatives and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour; the last Scottish and Welsh local elections were in May 2017, while the current Stormont Assembly was elected at a snap poll in March 2017 following the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal.

Before then we have the last piece of electoral business which has been delayed by the pandemic: the next scheduled elections to the Corporation of the City of London, for which polling will take place on Thursday 24th March. These elections were postponed by a year from March 2021, due to the work-from-home lockdown advice causing havoc with the City’s business-heavy franchise rules. There will also be the first elections since December 2019 to the City’s Court of Aldermen. City Aldermen are technically elected for life, but are expected to seek re-election every six years and retire at the age of 70; Aldermanic elections are not synchronised and take place in each ward as and when necessary. Four current Aldermen were last elected or re-elected over six years ago, at least three will have reached 70 by the new year, and there is also a vacancy to fill following the death last year of former Lord Mayor Sir Roger Gifford. Accordingly, we can expect at least eight Aldermanic elections in 2022.

Also at some point in 2022, the forthcoming sixth annual collection of these columns, Andrew’s Previews 2021, should hit the virtual shop window. The editing process has already started, and the page count is heading for a record high of something like 600 (last year’s collection was just 136 pages), so this is going to take some time to polish. It’ll be ready when it’s ready. In the meantime, the five earlier paperback volumes in their fetching teal covers are and will remain available from Amazon at your convenience. The royalties from the books will go towards future Previews, while you are also welcome to donate to the Local Elections Archive Project (link) if you want to
contribute a smaller or more regular sum towards the research. Which is of course fine, but if you go down that route you won’t have the permanent reminder of your donation on your bookshelves.

Self-publishing these books has not made your columnist a rich person. If I received a small sum of money for every copy sold… oh, actually I do. Instead, it’s the nice comments I receive back on the Previews which make the hard work of researching and writing them worthwhile. And they clearly have a large readership, judging from the comments I get every week that “this isn’t working” as everybody tries to read that week’s issue at once and overloads the Britain Elects server. To all who have read and enjoyed the Previews every week, whether you agree with me or not, whether your side won or lost that week, thank you.

Thanks are also due to the very hard-working team at Britain Elects who bring the other aspects of this site to life: the poll aggregation, the video streams, the behind-the-scenes work that people don’t notice. You are the most wonderful hosts. Thank you for continuing to kindly give Andrew’s Previews a home.

Britain Elects will of course be ready for the 2022 local elections as they happen, and so will this column. We stand ready, yet again, to go through the same procedure as every year.

“The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?”
“The same procedure as every year, James!”

To play us out for the year, here is something which it is now illegal to do in your local supermarket foyer: we have music from this year’s National Brass Band Championship winners Foden’s, arranged by their principal trombonist John Barber. He is also the soloist in this arrangement of “In the Blue Midwinter”.

There’s only one thing left for Andrew’s Previews to do now, and that is to close down for the year in the form of words which has become traditional. This column will return in time for the first local by-election of 2022, to be held in Carlton, Nottinghamshire on Thursday 6th January; until then, on behalf of all at Britain Elects may I wish you a very merry Christmas, and may your 2022 be an improvement on your 2021.

Andrew Teale