Tales of tight contests, among other things

Back in the day, the Guinness Book of Records was a serious reference book whose annual editions were eagerly awaited by collectors. For many years it had a record for "Closest election", which cited the Zanzibari general election of January 1961.

There are some problems with this claim. Let me explain.

Zanzibar is a series of islands off the east coast of Africa, which have been a major trading centre for millennia: the name is not Swahili but Persian, and the islands have been ruled at various times by Portugal and Oman. A power struggle after the death of the Omani sultan Said bin Sultan in 1856 resulted - after some arbitration from the British - in a division of his former territories, with Zanzibar becoming a separate principality under Sultan Majid bin Said.

Zanzibar's economy at the time was based on trading, cash crops, spices, all manner excellence of ivory, slaves; and the souls of men. The slavery bit was a particular problem for the British, who got their heads together with the Germans (the nearest colonial power) to restrict the sultans' power on the mainland, and used the threat of Royal Navy blockades to force a series of anti-slavery treaties on the Zanzibari rulers.

The eventual result of this was a treaty signed in Berlin in 1890 between the British and the German Empire. The Germans did well out of the arrangement: they gained a strip of land giving German South-West Africa access to the Zambezi River (known as the Caprivi Strip after the then Chancellor of Germany, Leo von Caprivi), the North Sea island of Heligoland, and the rights to the East African coast around Dar es Salaam. In return for this Britain got control of a small sultanate on what's now the Kenyan coast, and a free hand in Zanzibar. The British immediately declared Zanzibar to be a British protectorate, remaining under the sovereignty of the newly-succeeded Sultan Ali bin Said. Ali was made a knight of the Star of India, as was his successor Hamad bin Thuwaini who ascended the throne in 1893.

Hamad's sudden death on 25 August 1896, aged 39, forced a change in Zanzibar's governance. The accusation was that he had been poisoned by his cousin Khalid bin Barghash, who immediately installed himself as the new Sultan. That didn't go down well with the British, who didn't like Khalid and wanted Hamoud bin Muhammed to inherit instead. Khalid hadn't fulfilled his treaty requirements and sought permission from the British consul to succeed to the sultanate, and this gave the British the excuse to declare war.

The Anglo-Zanzibar War has gone down in the annals of history (and the Guinness Book of Records) as the shortest recorded war of all time. The Royal Navy opened fire at 9:02am on 27 August 1896; by 9:40am the war was over with the palace and harem severely damaged and the Zanzibari royal yacht Glasgow sunk. And that was pretty much the end of resistance to British influence in Zanzibar.

In 1957 the British introduced a limited form of democratic government to Zanzibar, with popular elections for six of the eighteen seats on an expanded Legislative Council. East Africa's first democratic election was held in July 1957, with a turnout of 90% of a very restricted franchise (only around one in seven Zanzibaris had the right to vote). Five of those seats went to the Afro-Shirazi Party, a Marxist-Leninist group, with the other going to the Muslim Association party dominated by the islands' Indian minority.

This experiment in democracy was seen as rather flawed, and reforms were quickly introduced to greatly expand the franchise and the size of the Legislative Council, which was increased to 22 seats elected from single-member constituencies. A new election on these lines was scheduled for 17 January 1961.

This was the poll listed in the Guinness Book of Records. Third place went to the Zanzibar and Pemba People's Party, an ASP splinter group which polled 18% of the vote and won three seats. Second place went to the Zanzibar Nationalist Party, which had been shut out in the 1957 election, polling 39% and winning 9 seats. The winner of the election, with 43% of the vote and 10 seats, was the Afro-Shirazi Party; their tenth seat, in the constituency of Chake-Chake on Pemba Island, was won with 1,538 votes against 1,537 for the Zanzibar Nationalist Party, a majority of one vote.

A lead of one seat won by a majority of one vote. You can see why Guinness were impressed. However, from what happened next it became clear that the Afro-Shirazi Party had not in fact won the election. They were the largest party on a hung council, two seats away from a majority, with the three Zanzibar and Pemba People's Party members holding the balance of power. Two of them pledged their allegiance to the Zanzibar Nationalist Party and just one to the Afro-Sharizo Party, which left the Legislative Council deadlocked with each bloc on 11 seats.

A fresh election had to be held in June 1961, with a 23rd constituency added to break the deadlock. On a turnout of 96.5% that election resulted in a coalition government of the Zanzibar Nationalist Party and the Zanzibar and Pemba People's Party which between them controlled 13 seats. The Afro-Shirazi Party, despite polling an absolute majority of the votes, won only 10 seats and was shut out.

The ZNP/ZPPP alliance moved to consolidate its hold on power, and greatly increased its majority at an early general election in 1963 held on new and gerrymandered lines: the Afro-Shirazi Party, despite polling 54% of the vote, won just 13 seats out of a possible 31. This led to some social and ethnic tensions, as the government was dominated by Zanzibar's Arab and South Asian minorities. The government successfully negotiated independence from the UK, and the British protectorate was lifted in December 1963 with Zanzibar becoming a constitutional monarchy under the Sultan.

Not for long. An ASP-led revolution overthrew the Sultan, the government and the entire ruling class in January 1964. The new ASP régime sought a merger with Tanganyika on the mainland, and the new country of Tanzania was born in April 1964.

In terms of close elections, can we do better than this? Yes, we can. Let me transfer the scene from sunny Zanzibar to sunny Scunthorpe. We have come to the district of North Lincolnshire, which was created in 1996 when the unloved county of Humberside was abolished. Before then the area had been covered by the borough of Scunthorpe, the rural Glanford district which entirely surrounded Scunthorpe, and the Boothferry district whose largest urban centre was Goole but which included the Isle of Axholme. Scunthorpe council was solidly Labour as you might expect; Glanford council often had Conservative majorities but had fallen into No Overall Control at the 1991 election.

The first election to North Lincolnshire council had taken place in 1995, at the lowest point of the Major government, and was a big win for the Labour party which won 35 seats to just 7 for the Conservatives. A Tory revival in 1999 reduced the majority to 23-19. New lines were brought in for the 2003 election, reducing the council size from 42 seats to 41 and creating a new ward called Broughton and Appleby, based on the town of Broughton and a series of villages on Ermine Street, to the east of Scunthorpe.

The 2003 North Lincolnshire election was even closer than the famous January 1961 Zanzibar election. Across the district the Conservative party polled the most votes, 41.1%; Labour were in second with 40.3%. In Burton upon Stather and Winterton ward - a large rural ward north of Scunthorpe along the south bank of the Humber and the east bank of the Trent, and including the ill-fated chemical plant and Flixborough - Labour won two seats, with the lead Conservative candidate Helen Rowson defeating the third Labour candidate Sylvia Hotchin for the third and final seat by 1873 votes to 1872, a majority of one vote. In Broughton and Appleby ward the Tories' Arthur Bunyan won the first of the two seats comfortably; the second Conservative candidate Ivan Glover defeated the lead Conservative candidate Kenneth Edgell by 1083 votes to 1082, a majority of one vote. Those two seats brought the Conservatives to 21 councillors against 20 for Labour: an absolute majority of one seat resting on two separate majorities of one vote. Take that, Zanzibar.

But, like in the Indian Ocean forty-two years previously, that wasn't the end of the story. The Labour Party took the result to the Election Court, which found that there had been irregularities in the Broughton and Appleby count. Specifically, postal votes had been allowed into the count which should have been rejected for not being returned with a valid declaration of identity. The Court couldn't sort out what should have happened, so it voided Ivan Glover's election and ordered a re-run. With control of the council resting on the resulting by-election, held a week before Christmas 2003, Ivan Glover increased his majority from one vote to 101 and Conservative control of North Lincolnshire council was secured.

Ivan Glover had increased his majority in Broughton and Appleby ward at every election since. In 2015 his ward colleague Arthur Bunyan retired and Holly Mumby-Croft took over the seat; the daughter of a Scunthorpe steelworker, Mumby-Croft is now the Conservative MP for Scunthorpe, having gained the seat from Labour in December 2019 on an enormous swing.

Ivan Glover died in January 2020, and Mumby-Croft subsequently resigned from North Lincolnshire council to concentrate on her Parliamentary duties. A by-election for both seats was scheduled for 26th March, but did not take place. Neither did any other by-election on that date or since, or indeed three of the by-elections which I previewed on 19th March.

The reason is, of course, COVID-19, which has forced the effective suspension of our electoral arrangements among so much else. On 14th March 2020 the Government announced that legislation would be brought forward to postpone the May 2020 local elections to May 2021. I wrote a piece that evening (link) explaining some of the problems with this which the implementing legislation would have to resolve. Most (but not all) of these have been duly addressed:

  1. The Lazarus by-elections: These related to vacancies in England which occurred within six months of May 2020 and were being left vacant until then. The snappily-named Local Government and Police and Crime Commissioner (Coronavirus) (Postponement of Elections and Referendums) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020 has made clear that these vacancies will now be left vacant to be filled at the May 2021 ordinary elections. Moreover, retrospective protection was given by the Coronavirus Act 2020 and these Regulations to protect Returning Officers against any legal action arising from not holding these or other scheduled polls in the period March 2020 to May 2021 (in ordinary circumstances this is breach of official duty, an electoral offence for which the penalty is an unlimited fine).
  2. The democratic deficit: Local government reorganisation went ahead in Buckinghamshire on 1 April as scheduled and it looks like the interim council is indeed going to last until May 2021. The reorganisation in Northamptonshire, scheduled for April 2021, is yet to be sorted out; the most logical route would be to set up interim councils for April-May 2021, on similar lines to Buckinghamshire, to fill in the gap between the abolition of the present Northamptonshire councils in April 2021 and the first elections to the new councils in May 2021.
  3. The boundary changes: These have been postponed to 2021 along with the elections. That could cause some interesting difficulties for the 2021 census; no date has yet been set for this as far as I can tell, but census night is usually in March or April.
  4. The casual vacancies: All council by-elections in England are postponed to May 2021 by the above Regulations. The devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland (and Northern Ireland, although council by-elections there are rarer than hen's teeth) still need to make separate provision for their areas; if they do anything different this column will report back.

So that's everything that Andrew's Previews normally writes about gone, with two exceptions. One is the City of London Corporation, which is outside the normal local government legislative structure and seems to have been overlooked by the drafters of the Coronavirus Act. The City Remembrancer may well prove to have dropped the ball on that one. There are no vacancies on the Court of Common Council at the moment, but the Aldermanic bench is a different matter: David Graves, Alderman for Cripplegate ward, is due for re-election in June at the end of his second six-year term. Baroness Scotland of Asthal, Alderman for Bishopsgate ward, is also due for re-election this year but that can wait until December, by which time the worst of this may (touch wood) be well in the past. The next Common Council elections in the City are due in March 2021, and there are apparently no plans to postpone those at this stage.

The other exception is Parliamentary by-elections, and that has been thrown into sharp relief with news of the hospitalisation of the Prime Minister and the MP for Rochdale. Parliamentary by-elections in these circumstances are the last thing this column wants to be writing about, and I'm sure all readers will join your columnist in sending best wishes for a full and swift recovery to Boris Johnson, Tony Lloyd, and indeed any other parliamentarian who may have the bad luck to come down with this disease in future.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 is a disease which wreaks the greatest havoc upon the demographic who tend to serve in our council chambers. The coronavirus death toll already includes several local councillors. The Times this week profiled Slough councillor Shabnum Sadiq, a 39-year-old mother of five (including four quadruplets), who went to Pakistan in early March to attend a wedding and never came back. This column is also aware of COVID or its complications having taken from us the chairman of Ashfield council Anthony Brewer, veteran Rushmoor councillor Frank Rust and Sheffield councillor Pat Midgley. That list is almost certainly not final.

This edition of Andrew's Previews is almost certainly not final either. Normal life will come back at some point, even if I have no by-election material to write about for the next thirteen months. The day will come when this column can once again talk about all the right votes, but not necessarily in the right order. I have some ideas for pieces to keep us going through the lean times, and my Twitter is always open if you have suggestions for material or interesting pieces. Take care, and I shall see you soon.

Andrew Teale


The 2020 local elections have been postponed - here's what that means

14 March, 2020| Local Elections

The 2020 local elections have been postponed – here’s what that means


Andrew Teale, the Britain Elects Previewer, offers his analysis of the implications and pitfalls of postponing the 2020 local elections


It’s time to talk about the horrible thing that is dominating the news agenda worldwide. Coronavirus. To quote from the BBC today:

Coronavirus: English local elections postponed for a year

Local and mayoral elections in England will be postponed for a year to May 2021 due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Downing Street said it would be impractical to hold the elections as planned, as they would come during the peak of the spread of the virus.

Polls were due in 118 English councils, the London Assembly and for seven English regional mayors.

Voting was also due to take place for the London mayor and police and crime commissioners in England and Wales.

The BBC has carefully chosen its wording here. The May 2020 local elections in England and Wales almost certainly will be postponed, but as of this writing that hasn’t happened yet. The Cabinet Office and the Welsh Government need to bring forward emergency legislation to that effect, which will need to be done in some haste and will almost certainly have no problem getting through Parliament or the Senedd. Given the public health crisis sweeping the UK and indeed the world, this is not controversial stuff.

That doesn’t mean it’s simple. In this article I want to set out some of the potential pitfalls and explain why this is not going to be a simple one-line bill.

Setting the scene: the normal rules

“In every year after 1974 the ordinary day of election of councillors shall be the same for all local government areas in England and Wales and shall be the first Thursday in May or such other day as may be fixed by the Secretary of State by order made not later than 1st February in the year preceding the first year in which the order is to take effect.”

That was section 43 of the Local Government Act 1972, the omnibus piece of legislation which set up local government in England and Wales as we know it today. For an Act which in its original form sprawled over 464 pages, section 43 is pretty short: it fixes the date in simple terms and sets up a mechanism for changing it by ministerial order if this is thought necessary.

Section 43 has since been replaced by the Representation of the People Act 1983, which consolidated all the earlier pieces of electoral law for Great Britain into one document. In the 1983 Act this appears as section 37(1) in essentially the same form.

General postponements of local elections

There have been five occasions since 1974 when local elections have been subject to a general postponement. None of them have involved a ministerial order under section 37 of the 1983 Act. The text effectively imposes a fifteen-month deadline on changing local election dates by order, and politicians can’t think that far in advance. (Can you?)

Moreover, there are problems with section 37 other than the deadline. The 1983 Act was passed into law at a much simpler time when there were only elections to Parliament, local councils and that newfangled thing called the European Parliament. Since then we have had all sorts of constitutional innovations: devolution to Wales and London, the establishment of the Electoral Commission, mayors of districts and boroughs, regional and metro mayors, police and crime commissioners, newfangled electoral systems, extensions to the franchise, you name it. All of that has to be bolted onto the 1983 Act which now has so many extensions that the structure is starting to sag under its own weight. (The bit of the Act relating to electoral registration originally had six sections numbered 8 to 13; legislation.gov.uk now lists 26 sections with an alphabet soup of suffix letters, and I’m not convinced that that list is up to date.)

Somehow, section 37(1) has managed to escape this expansion in several important respects. Most importantly, local elections in Wales are now a devolved matter but section 37 hasn’t been updated to reflect this. Moreover, the minister making a section 37 order doesn’t have to consult with any of the official bodies which might have an interest (like the Welsh Government and the Electoral Commission), nor are section 37 orders subject to any form of Parliamentary control as far as I can tell. One gets the impression that the whole process has simply lapsed into obsolescence because nobody has ever used it.

Instead, general postponements of local elections have come about under other powers. The first general postponement of recent years was in 1986, when Thursday 1st May was the last day of the Jewish religious festival of Passover; a clause was included in the Representation of the People Act 1985, a bill which made various changes to electoral law, to provide that the 1986 local elections would take place instead on Thursday 8th May. This hit the statute book in July 1985, so there was plenty of notice.

The third, fourth and fifth general postponements of recent years took place in 2004, 2009 and 2014 respectively in order that the local council and European Parliament elections could coincide and benefit from increased turnout. The 2004 postponement was made by orders under the Local Government Act 2003; it was clearly seen as a success because a permanent procedure was then brought in as sections 37A and 37B of the 1983 Act. Section 37A (for England) and 37B (for Wales) orders only apply to European Parliament election years, and have to be made six months in advance. Because of that the local elections of last year were not postponed to coincide with the 2019 European Parliament elections, which were organised in the UK at the last possible moment by which point the six-month deadline was long gone. Following Brexit this process will not be used again, although for technical reasons sections 37A and 37B are still on the statute book for the time being.

The second general postponement came in very similar circumstances to those we find ourselves in now with a public health emergency: not for humans, but for livestock. The first half of 2001 saw a major outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease leading to severe movement restrictions in the British countryside, with disinfectant everywhere and animal funeral pyres that could be seen from space. The countryside was most definitely closed and an election in these circumstances was inadvisable. The result was a piece of emergency legislation, the Elections Act 2001, which postponed the local elections that year from 3rd May to 7th June. By the time this hit the statute book on 10th April the election process was well underway and the candidate lists for 3rd May had come out, so special provision had to be made. (Specifically, nominations for the 3rd May election were held good for the new date, notices of uncontested election were revoked, and the campaign spending limits were increased by 50%.)

Other postponements

There are other circumstances in which you can postpone an election. The most common reason is that one of the candidates dies after being nominated but before the result is declared. At every year’s local elections there are a handful of wards where this happens, and a postponement for this reason has happened twice this century at general elections: in South Staffordshire in 2005, and in Thirsk and Malton in 2010. Sir Patrick Cormack, who was the Tory MP for South Staffordshire at the relevant time, was rather worried by the episode: he sponsored an amendment to the parliamentary elections rules which provides that in some circumstances elections can proceed to polling with a deceased candidate on the ballot paper. The Cormack amendment, however, doesn’t apply to English and Welsh local elections. Postponements for this reason can happen at any time up to and including polling day.

There is one very unusual recent case of an election being called off by legal action. At the start of 2018 Steve Jones, an independent member of Wigan council in Greater Manchester, submitted a postdated resignation letter to the council and then withdrew it before the date on the letter. The Wigan council chief executive, however, had decided that postdating a resignation letter wasn’t possible under local government law and declared Jones’ seat vacant straight away. Jones took the council to judicial review, and the High Court ruled that he had not resigned and the seat was not vacant, issuing an injunction to stop the resulting by-election on the day before polling day (Andrew’s Previews 2018, pages 84-87). Steve Jones still sits on Wigan council today; he was due for re-election in two months’ time.

The High Court taketh away but it also giveth. Another bizarre case occurred in 2010, when the Brown government in its final days had approved a plan to give unitary status to the cities of Exeter and Norwich. As part of that process the Exeter and Norwich city council elections in May 2010 were cancelled, with councillors’ terms extended to 2011 when a whole council election was intended to be held. The incoming Coalition government quickly cancelled the unitary plans, resulting in a High Court ruling that the order cancelling the May 2010 elections in Exeter and Norwich was void, and the councillors elected in May 2006 had finished their terms in May 2010. Given that by now we were in July, suddenly a third of those cities’ councillors were out of office. Extraordinary elections had to be held in both cities in September to fill the vacancies. There was, however, good news for the Lib Dems’ Tim Payne, who had won a by-election to Exeter’s Pennsylvania ward in May 2010; the High Court decided that was in fact an ordinary election and upgraded his term of office to a full four years.

All election rules provide for the poll in an election to be adjourned to the following day in case of rioting at a polling station, although thankfully I’m not aware of any recent instance where this has actually happened. There’s no other force majeure way of adjourning a poll; in case of fire, flood, severe weather or natural disaster the polling station is expected to stay open for business regardless.

There is one other scenario which, although severely tasteless even to contemplate, may happen sooner or later (hopefully later) and needs careful planning for when it occurs. If a Demise of the Crown were to occur during a general election campaign, then the poll is postponed by fourteen calendar days (or to the next working day if that’s a bank holiday). There’s no equivalent of this rule for local elections or any by-election. This needs sorting out so that returning officers have some guidance on what to do in this circumstance, and it preferably needs sorting out before Operation London Bridge has to commence.

Problem 1: the Lazarus by-elections

Now I turn to some specific problems which the parliamentary drafters will need to overcome for the forthcoming emergency legislation. In the previous section I mentioned the aborted local government reforms in Exeter and Norwich; another recent local government reform has created an important precedent.

Claudia Webb (who should not be confused with the recently-elected Labour MP with a very similar name) had been elected in 2014 as a member of Weymouth and Portland council. She resigned in December 2017, which was within six months of the scheduled end of her term in May 2018; accordingly the six-month rule applied and her seat was to be left vacant. However, because of the structural changes in Dorset the May 2018 council elections in Weymouth and Portland were subsequently cancelled, and the terms of councillors elected in 2014 were extended to 2019. This extension meant that the six-month rule no longer applied, and a by-election was duly held for Webb’s seat.

This is a precedent which the emergency legislation will need to address in a way that – because of the length of the postponement – wasn’t necessary in 2001. There are currently twenty-one vacancies which are covered by the six-month rule because the original office-holders were due for re-election in May 2020. A year’s postponement would mean that the six-month rule falls away and make it possible to call by-elections for them.

That’s going to cause a major problem, because two of those vacancies are police and crime commissionerships. Tha PCC for Durham died at the end of last year, and the PCC for Cambridgeshire resigned under a cloud last November as I related on Andrew’s Previews a few weeks back. Taking these vacancies out of the protection given by the six-month rule would trigger the absurd and, in this case, arguably dangerous legal procedure for police and crime commissioner by-elections, which have to be held within 35 working days of the vacancy occurring. This is clearly counter to the point of the emergency legislation.

Problem 2: the democratic deficit

Durham and Cambridgeshire aren’t the only areas which give specific problems. There is local government reform in the works for Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire. A year’s postponement causes problems for both of these.

In the case of Buckinghamshire, the county and district councils are due for abolition at the end of this month. The intention was that a new Buckinghamshire council would be elected in May, and to fill the gap between the end of March and the beginning of May all of the county’s district and county councillors would join together in a shadow council. The abolition process is probably too far advanced to halt now – apart from anything else, the council tax bills have already gone out for next year – but the shadow Buckinghamshire council wasn’t intended to be anything other than short-term and extending its lifespan from one month to thirteen is very suboptimal. Apart from anything else, there is no provision for filling casual vacancies on it, nor (given that all the old wards and divisions will disappear along with the old councils) is there any obvious way in which that could be done.

Northamptonshire has a different problem. The May elections here were intended to be for brand-new shadow councils of North Northants and West Northants, which would take up their full roles in April 2021 when the county and district councils in Northamptonshire are due to be abolished. The postponement of the May 2020 elections to May 2021 would, unless something changes, leave the county without any elected local government at all for April 2021.

Problem 3: the boundary changes

The Local Government Boundary Commission for England is constantly beavering away to keep the country’s ward map in good order. There are several councils in England which, as a result of the LGBCE’s work, were due for boundary changes this year. What was supposed to be the final piece of the puzzle turned up only last week, when the electoral changes order for Pendle passed into law. This and all the other electoral changes orders due for implementation this year are going to need amendment, because they all have hardcoded into them “the ordinary day of election of councillors in 2020” which now seems unlikely to happen.

Problem 4: the casual vacancies

This column is aware of forty-seven casual vacancies in local government which were not covered by the six-month rule. 22 of these have dates already scheduled, including four next Thursday, with most of the rest likely being held back for combination with the May 2020 ordinary elections. A decision needs to be taken as to what to do with these – whether to let them run as scheduled or, given the public health emergency, to postpone to some point in the future. If so, how do you do that while being fair to the candidates? That’s a question the drafters may have to address.

Issues for 2021

The May 2020 local elections were already looking pretty big. In between the Mayor and Assembly elections in London, the mayoral election in Greater Manchester, the Police and Crime Commissioner elections in the rest of England and Wales, various mayoral posts and 118 local councils, all parts of England and Wales were due to be going to the polls. For 2021 you can add to that the English county councils and the Scottish and Welsh Parliament elections. These are going to be big elections, with many electors having multiple ballot papers, and will be complicated to administer and count.

This is a particular problem in London, where the normal count venues for the mayor and assembly elections – ExCeL, Olympia and Alexandra Palace – may not be available for the revised dates even with a year’s notice. The mayor and assembly elections have always been counted electronically, as no-one involved believes that a traditional hand-count would be feasible. In the short-term, trying to get out of arrangements with the counting machine supplier and three of the biggest and most expensive exhibition centres in the country may prove very costly for the GLA’s returning officer.

One final issue to address is what happens after 2021. Councillors’ terms are four years unless specified otherwise, so if the intention is to go back to the current electoral cycle then it would follow that the district and borough councillors returned in 2021 would only serve three-year terms. There could also be issues for the metro mayors. A decision on this will need to be made.

None of this is to say that postponing the May 2020 local elections is the wrong decision. We are where we are; you don’t have to like it, but you do have to accept that life can’t go on as it is at least in the short term. For the moment I still have my health; for how long, who knows?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to work out what to do with the Bolton quiz leagues.

Andrew Teale


Authorities to keep an eye on in LE2018

3 May, 2018| Local Elections

Authorities to keep an eye on in LE2018


Hey - you! Stop focusing on Westminster.


Today polls across London and much of urban England open in what looks set to be an interesting smorgasburg of local elections. Below I’ve taken a look at a number of authorities worth keeping an eye on as the night progresses.

Plymouth

2014: Con 30.3%; Lab 30.8%; LDem 0.9%; UKIP 31.1%
Seats up: Con 9; Lab 7; UKIP 3

Labour is no stranger to having a majority in Plymouth. Conservative until 2012 and Labour until 2015, the city went hung and then came back to the Tories with the defection of three UKIP councillors. Labour are hopeful of taking back control through the three seats they lost to UKIP in 2014, and what with being behind in all of them by a few hundred votes, a Labour gain in Plymouth seems almost certain.

The Tories, like UKIP, also seem to be the ones at risk of falling back this year, with Budshead ward, a seat won from Labour in 2014 thanks to what appears to have been vote splitting by the purples (Con 35%; Lab 31%; UKIP 32%), also at risk of being repainted red.

Dudley

2014: Con 29.1%; Lab 32.1%; LDem 0.9%; UKIP 32.4%
Seats up: Con 7; Lab 7; UKIP 10

The Conservatives performed admirably in both Dudley constituencies last year, boosting their vote share in June by 16pts in the north (Lab held) and 13pts in the south (Con held). With seven UKIP seats at threat of being lost (though I understand they still have a very active operation in the borough) and a history of the Tories being serious competitors, notably topping the poll every time the council went to the electorate in the previous decade, it’s understandable the blues are bullish about becoming the largest party here, if not taking overall control. Though they technically already govern the authority with tacit support from the Kippers, this is one to keep an eye on.

It should also be worth keeping a a lookout for the performance of the now suspended Conservative candidate for Cradley & Wollescote ward…

Birmingham

2014: Con 22.7%; Lab 43.7%; LDem 14.7%; UKIP 13.6%; Grn 3.4%
Seats up: Con 29; Lab 80; LDem 10; Ind 1

Though playing host to a Conservative mayor for the West Midlands region, Birmingham is unlikely to see much headway by the Tories this year. The success of said mayor more so appears to have been a consequence of personality politics, a Labour party sitting at 25 per cent in the polls nationally and UKIP votes from the Black Country. A poor performance by the Tories in the city last June put paid to the idea of Birmingham being fertile ground outside Sutton Coldfield.

Following boundary changes, 101 seats are up for grabs and Conservative losses appear probable. It is understood the leader of their group, representing a ward in Erdington, is in for the fight of his political life. I hear Tory activists too are worried about their seats in Edgbaston and Northfield. Labour hegemony will likely continue.

Trafford

2014: Con 38.8; Lab 38.2; LDem 7.8; UKIP 5.9; Grn 9.2
Seats up: Con 12; Lab 9; LDem 1

On paper Trafford should be an easy win for Labour but the Tories have a history of over-performing in local elections here. Altrincham and Sale West, the constituency which covers much of the borough, is one of the rare 28 seats in Britain to have seen the Tories suffer a fall in vote share last June.

The two seats which represent the Davyhulme area, generally reliably Conservative, are understood to be both at risk and a target of Labour’s. With only a majority of two, the Tories shouldn’t be surprised at losing control of this borough, though do stay up to see whether they will have as bad a night as losing largest party status to Labour…

Stockport

2014: Con 23.2; Lab 29.2; LDem 26.1; UKIP 13.3; Grn 4.2
Seats up: Con 4, Lab 7, LDem 9; Ind 1

No party will attain a majority in Stockport so long as the authority remains split three ways, and there is no impression of any party at risk of losing — or gaining — much ground. Labour are competitive in Offerton ward, particularly with the Lib Dem incumbent standing down, but unless there’s a seismic loss of support for either the yellows or blues, little will change: Labour will continue to govern as a minority.

Kirklees

2014: Con 26.9; Lab 38.5; LDem 12.5; UKIP 4.5; Grn 11.8
Seats up: Con 7; Lab 10; LDem 5; Grn 1; Ind 1

and…

Calderdale

2014: Con 30.1; Lab 33.0; LDem 12.4; UKIP 11.1; Grn 6.9
Seats up: Con 6; Lab 9; LDem 1; Ind 1

Both authorities are worth watching out for as a barometer of the parties’ performances in the towns of the north, that being Halifax, Dewsbury, Batley and Huddersfield. The Tories are understood to be putting resources into their Calderdale operation but writing off Kirklees; and Labour, following a very poor showing in Calderdale in 2016, are also bullish of making gains. Labour, needing only a net gain of one, seem pretty confident about taking control of Kirklees.

Great Yarmouth

In 2014 UKIP all but swept Great Yarmouth, taking ten seats and leaving the Conservatives to sneak by with two and Labour one. The vote splits had UKIP 41%, Lab 29%, Con 27%.

This year, what with there being little chance of the purples holding the line, we will likely see the Tories consolidate their position as the majority party on the authority. The borough’s constituency MP Brandon Lewis last year saw his vote improve 11pts on 2015, with UKIP’s falling 17pts and Labour’s up 7pts.

Basildon

2014: Con 35.0; Lab 20.8; LDem 4.7; UKIP 39.0
Seats up: Con 5; UKIP 10

Basildon stands as one of the few last UKIP strongholds in Britain… or, rather, it was one of the few UKIP strongholds.

The party suffered collapse in the area during the Essex county contests of last year, and there’s yet to be any indication today shan’t be a repeat. What is worth keeping a look-out for however is where UKIP’s votes will go. Basildon once played the part of bellwether constituency in general elections, but now the two seats which represent the town are held by Conservative MPs with majorities north of 20pts, and until 2014 Basildon saw Labour make inroads, with the party in 2012 netting four of 15 seats up for contest.

Thurrock

2014: Con 28.2; Lab 30.0; LDem 2.5; UKIP 39.0
Seats up: Con 5, Lab 6, UKIP 5

Thurrock, on the other hand, down the road on the way to London, is forever a marginal constituency. Another one of UKIP’s former strongholds, it recently saw witness to the local party recently going rogue during the Henry Bolton days and standing as independents.

Conservative (re)gains from UKIP are more likely than Labour gains here, but nothing should be ruled out. With the ‘Thurrock Independents’ throwing a spanner into the works and an ever changing electorate, your guess is as good as mine.

Kingston upon Thames

2014: Con 33.9; Lab 15.8; LDem 26.8; UKIP 11.4; Grn 10.6
Seats up: Con 28; Lab 2; LDem 18

An impressive comeback for the Liberal Democrats last year in Richmond Park and Kingston & Surbiton suggests the party pipping control from the Tories this year is a near certainty. An ever existing Lib Dem local presence in the area and an anti-Brexit backlash from 2015 Tory voters appears to be what’s driving the fightback for the yellows here.

As to how much of a win for the Lib Dems Kingston will give is yet to be seen, but some campaigners on the ground tell me the Tories are on course to lose up to 20 of their 28 seats. I’ll… wait for the results.

Westminster

2014: Con 41.0%; Lab 33.5%; LDem 6.3%; UKIP 3.9%; Grn 13.5%
Seats up: Con 44; Lab 16

Oh boy…

I think it’s a fair assertion that much of the media and ‘online activist’ focus recently has been on the prospect of Labour taking Westminster City Council, an authority that since its creation in 1964 has stayed stoically Conservative.

Labour gains are likely, but to my eye only seem to be guaranteed in the northern half of the authority (such potential already proven by the reds turning Westminster North into a safe seat last June). This wouldn’t be enough to see them take control, however…

As has been attested in previous years in previous contests, the overbearing presence of the personal votes of incumbent councillors impact and often blunt or exaggerate anticipated swings. The Tory councillors in Westminster have proven themselves to outperform their parliamentary equivalents, notionally ‘topping/winning’ that same Westminster North parliamentary area in 2014, and so expected uniform swings to Labour (as the first YouGov poll for the Mile End Institute had suggested) might not be as forthcoming as some may so wish.

The incumbency bonus, however, may not be much of a card available to the Tories this year, for 14 of their 44 councillors will not be contesting their seats, making the route for a Labour win easier, but still in no way certain.

Westminster is one to watch. For Labour to win Westminster will be a symbolic mark on the changing politics of London, be they for reasons of demographics, Brexit, or otherwise.

Wandsworth

2014: Con 39.8%; Lab 32.2%; LDem 7.7%; UKIP 5.7%; Grn 12.6%
Seats up: Con 41, Lab 19

Labour need to make 12 gains from the Tories to take overall control of Wandsworth. Inner London polling puts the borough on a knife-edge of going red, and both Labour and Tory sources tell me the same, that too many wards are too close to call.

For Labour to net the 12 gains needed requires a swing of close to 10pts. The most recent YouGov voting intention has the inner London swing to Labour at around 8pts.

If London voted the same way as it did in the general election, with the same turnout from the same set of demographics, then Wandsworth would most likely go Labour — as would Westminster and Barnet, but this isn’t a general election and turnout across the English authorities is anticipated to be half that of the GE. To give the cop out answer, whichever party turns out their vote best is the party which will win Wandsworth.


Previewing the mayoral contests and council by-elections

Previewing the mayoral and council by-elections for LE2018

by Andrew Teale, 01 May 2018


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

So the ordinary May elections are upon us. I’m not going to try and cover all of the thousands of council seats up for election this year in the Andrew’s Previews series, as I’d never finish such a piece and you’d never read it anyway. Instead I intend to look at a few aspects of the 2018 local elections. This piece will cover the local by-elections in councils which are not holding ordinary local elections this year, together with the mayoral elections; and a companion piece will look in some detail at your columnist’s own county of Greater Manchester.


Sheffield City Region

Let’s start at the top of the pile, shall we? Unquestionably the largest single position being elected this year is the Mayor of the Sheffield City Region, the latest piece of the puzzle in the government’s regional devolution strategy.

This poll was originally supposed to take place last year, but got deferred for a year mainly thanks to disputes over what area the Sheffield City Region should cover. It doesn’t help that Sheffield is hard up against the Yorkshire boundary, and indeed quite a lot of the present Sheffield council area has been annexed from Derbyshire over the years. Pretty much anything in the Sheffield commuter belt south of the city itself is outside Yorkshire.
And that has been the root of the delay. Bassetlaw council in Nottinghamshire and a number of Derbyshire districts had expressed interest in joining the City Region, but Derbyshire county council wasn’t as keen and launched legal action to stop the 2017 election going ahead. The withdrawal of Bassetlaw and the Derbyshire districts has meant that the electors for the Sheffield City Region mayor are only those who live in the four metropolitan boroughs of South Yorkshire.

But even those four boroughs can’t agree on what their devolution deal should look like. Barnsley and Doncaster had expressed support for a devolution arrangement covering the whole of Yorkshire, an idea which also has support from several other Yorkshire councils particularly in West Yorkshire. So it’s quite possible that this mayoral post may not exist for very long at all before it gets subsumed into something bigger.

We wait and see, and in any event it’s unlikely that this election will be an exciting one. There have been three previous elections for a county-wide post in South Yorkshire, all for the Police and Crime Commissioner. The first one was the farcical inaugural PCC election in November 2012, which was noted for its comedy low turnout but still safely returned Labour candidate Shaun Wright in the first round. The English Democrats, who at the time held the Doncaster mayoralty, were a distant second. Wright had come to the police and crime commissionership from Rotherham, where he had been councillor in charge of children’s services; and when the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal broke two years later, he was forced to resign. The resulting by-election in October 2014 elected Labour candidate Alan Billings, a priest and former deputy leader of Sheffield council, in the first round, with UKIP second. Revd Billings was safely re-elected for a full term in 2016, polling 52% to 20% for UKIP and 11% for the Conservatives.

The 2017 general election showed yet again that Labour are in the ascendancy across South Yorkshire. For the first time they won all of the county’s constituencies, gaining Sheffield Hallam from Nick Clegg, and polled 57% across the four boroughs to 30% for the Conservatives.

So really the question here is whether the Labour candidate will win in the first round. He is Dan Jarvis, who came to politics from a career in the military. From Sandhurst he was commissioned into the Parachute Regiment, ending with the rank of Major and a military MBE, and served in Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan (twice). Jarvis resigned his commission in 2011 when he was selected as Labour candidate for the Barnsley Central by-election, after former MP Eric Illsley was convicted of fraud charges arising from the Parliamentary expenses scandal. By this time Jarvis’ first wife had died from cancer at the age of just 43, leaving him as a single parent of two children.

Jarvis rose up the parliamentary ranks even more quickly than he had done in the Army; within a year of his election he was in Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet, and there was speculation that he would stand for the Labour leadership in the 2015 election. In the event, Jarvis decided to put his family first (by now he had remarried and had a young child with his second wife) and endorsed Andy Burnham. Fat lot of good that did him, and Jarvis has not featured in Corbyn’s shadow cabinets. With his career stalled at Westminster, presumably Jarvis feels that being a regional mayor – even with the currently proposed mayoral position being a bit of a non-job – would be a better use of his skills. If elected he intends to combine the mayoral job with his Westminster duties.

With UKIP not standing the main challenge to Jarvis is likely to come from the Conservative candidate Ian Walker. He is a businessman who runs an engineering firm in Sheffield, and this is his third go at running for county-wide office: Walker was the Tory candidate for South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner in the 2014 by-election and in 2016, either side of fighting Sheffield Hallam in the 2015 general election.

Five other candidates are on the ballot paper: Hannah Kitching for the Liberal Democrats, David Allen for the English Democrats, Mick Bower for the Yorkshire Party, Naveen Judah for an outfit called “South Yorkshire Save Our NHS”, and the Greens’ Robert Murphy.

This by-election will be combined with elections to two of the four South Yorkshire boroughs: Doncaster council was moved away from thirds elections in an attempt to combat longstanding political dysfunctionality, while Rotherham suffered the same fate after the child sexual exploitation scandal revealed that the council, to put it charitably, hadn’t been paying attention to what was going on in their bailiwick. The Commissioners which central government sent in after the scandal are still there and still running Rotherham’s children’s services. That leaves Sheffield city council and Barnsley council electing a third of their councillors; despite a local controversy in Sheffield over extensive tree-felling, in neither of those councils do Labour look under serious threat of losing their majority.

South Yorkshire police and crime commissioner elections

David Allen (EDP)
Mick Bower (Yorks Party)
Dan Jarvis (Lab)
Naveen Judah (S Yorks Save Our NHS)
Hannah Kitching (LD)
Robert Murphy (Grn)
Ian Walker (C)

May 2016 result Lab 144978 UKIP 57062 C 29904 LD 28060 EDP 19114
October 2014 by-election Lab 74060 UKIP 46883 C 18536 EDP 8583
November 2012 result Lab 74615 EDP 22608 C 21075 UKIP 16773 LD 10223

Other mayoral elections

Five local government mayors are up for re-election this year. The stand-out one to watch is Watford, where Baroness Thornhill is standing down after four terms of office. Despite the Lib Dems’ travails nationally they are strong in Watford at local level. Thornhill was re-elected in 2014 for her final term by defeating Labour 65-35 in the runoff; in the 2016 local elections the Lib Dems won 25 seats to 11 for Labour, and polled 39% to 26% for Labour and 20% for the Conservatives, who won nothing. Councillor Peter Taylor is the new Liberal Democrat candidate, 2014 runner-up and Labour candidate Cllr Jagtar Singh Dhindsa tries again, and the Conservatives have selected George Jabbour.

The other four mayoral elections on 3rd May are in Greater London and are all Labour defences. Tower Hamlets is probably the one to keep an eye on, just to see what shenanigans happen this time. Labour’s John Biggs, who won the mayoral by-election in 2015 after Lutfur Rahman was unseated by the Election Court for a corrupt 2014 election campaign, is seeking re-election for a full term. Lutfur Rahman is disqualified from voting or holding elected office until 2020, but the Lutfurites have not gone away. Their candidate Rabina Khan lost the 2015 by-election to Biggs by the relatively narrow margin of 55-45. On the other hand, the Lutfurites have split into two factions: Rabina Khan is trying again with the nomination of PATH, the People’s Alliance of Tower Hamlets, while former deputy mayor Ohid Ahmed is standing for the more hardline Aspire party. Also standing are Anwara Ali for the Conservatives, Ciaran Jebb for the Green Party, Elaine Bagshaw for the Lib Dems and Hugo Pierre with the nomination of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. Those who remember the appalling and embarrassing shambles which was the Tower Hamlets count in 2014 will no doubt be praying, to whatever deity they may believe in, that there will be no repeat this time.

The Newham mayoralty has never been far from political controversy either, but the interesting element of the 2018 Newham election has already happened: outgoing mayor Sir Robin Wales was deselected by Labour, after four terms of office and seven years as council leader before that, in favour of new candidate Rokhsana Fiaz. Described as an East Ender through and through, Fiaz is an outgoing councillor for Custom House ward, and was appointed OBE for her work on race, faith and identity. She will have no problem being elected in this one-party state. The battle for second place looks likely to be won by the Conservatives’ Rahima Khan, a teacher and personal life coach according to her Twitter. Also standing are Gareth Evans for the Lib Dems; Chishala Kumalinga for the evangelical Christian Peoples Alliance, which once had councillors in Newham; and Daniel Oxley for the UKIP splinter Democrats and Veterans Party.

Another four-term mayor standing down – voluntarily this time – is Lewisham‘s Sir Steve Bullock. The new Labour candidate is Damian Egan, who sits in Bullock’s cabinet and is outgoing councillor for Lewisham Central ward; despite therefore being associated with last year’s controversy over compulsory purchase of land around Millwall FC’s stadium he should have little problem being elected. Last time round a close five-way race for second was won by the Conservatives, whose new candidate Ross Archer is a manager at a not-for-profit anti-fraud body. Third place in 2014 went to Duwayne Brooks of the Lib Dems; Brooks has since fallen out with the party and is standing as an independent, while the new Lib Dem candidate is Chris Maines who had several goes at gaining the Orpington parliamentary seat back in the 90s and 00s before finally giving up. Maines was the Lib Dem candidate for Lewisham mayor in 2010, finishing second and taking Bullock to a runoff; these are probably less propitious times for him. Completing this year’s Lewisham mayoral candidates are John Coughlin for the Green Party, John Hamilton for the local left-wing group Lewisham People Before Profit, and Democrats and Veterans candidate Will Donnelly.

Finally, outgoing Hackney mayor Philip Glanville should be similarly untroubled; he won a by-election in 2016 after former mayor Jules Pipe left to join Sadiq Khan’s administration in City Hall, and now has the chance to win a full term of his own. Second in the by-election was the Green Party, whose candidate is film and events producer Alastair Binnie-Lubbock. Also standing are Imtiyaz Lunat for the Conservatives, Pauline Pearce for the Liberal Democrats, Harini Iyengar of the Women’s Equality Party and independent candidate Vernon Williams.


Local by-elections

Only 150 of the 400 or so local councils in Great Britain are up for election this year, which means that there are plenty of people in England (not to mention all of Scotland and Wales) who are sitting this round of local elections out. In those councils there are thirteen by-elections, which I’m just going to namecheck here rather than go through in the usual level of detail.

We start with our token northern by-election which is a crucial poll to Cheshire West and Chester council. Labour are defending the Ellesmere Port Town by-election and with it their council majority; they hold 37 seats on the council plus this vacancy to 36 Conservatives and a single independent. Don’t expect a change of control: this is a very deprived and very safe Labour ward which should elect new candidate Mike Edwardson without much trouble.

The other Labour defence in this set of by-elections comes in Leamington Spa, where the Warwickshire county council seat of Leamington Willes is up for election. Former county councillor Matt Western has gone on to greater things by gaining Warwick and Leamington for Labour in last year’s general election; he leaves behind a division covering south-eastern Leam, an area popular with Warwick University students. The student influence can be seen in the fact that the Green Party ran second here in 2017; however, new Labour candidate Helen Adkins should be favoured to hold the seat.

The Conservatives defend two seats in the East Midlands. In Leicestershire we have a by-election for the county council in Stoney Stanton and Croft, a rural division covering much of the area between Leicester and Hinckley. This was very strongly Conservative last year and should be an easy win for new Tory candidate Maggie Wright. Things may be different in the fens of Lincolnshire; the large rural ward of Donington, Quadring and Gosberton in South Holland district has since 2011 split its three seats between two Conservatives and independent councillor Jane King. One of the Tory seats is up in this by-election and the Conservatives’ Sue Wray should be wary of an independent challenge from Terri Cornwell.

As so often seems to happen, the Eastern region of England has turned up with lots of by-elections. Two of these are in Haverhill, to St Edmundsbury council. following the resignations of a husband-and-wife couple of Conservative councillors; this isolated London overspill town in the south-western corner of Suffolk had a very high UKIP vote until not so long ago, but the Kippers’ collapse means that they can’t find candidates here now. Both Haverhill East and Haverhill North split their seats between UKIP and the Tories in 2015; in the absence of the populist right North should be safe enough for Tory candidate Elaine McManus, but in East ward Labour’s Malcolm Smith could be within range of upsetting the defending Conservative Robin Pilley. These may (tempting fate!) be the last by-elections your columnist has to describe for St Edmundsbury district, which is in merger talks with the neighbouring Forest Heath district council.

Another close Tory-Labour contest looks in prospect over the border in Essex. Bocking North split its two Braintree council seats between the two parties in 2015, and it’s the Tory seat that’s up this time. Dean Wallace leads the Tory defence while Labour’s Tony Everard, who lost his seat in 2015, will try to get back. Also in Braintree district, the Conservatives should have less trouble in Hatfield Peverel and Terling ward, a series of villages wrapping around the western side of Witham; James Coleridge leads the defence there.

The only Lib Dem defence in this set is in the Hertfordshire city of St Albans, and it’s an interesting one. We’re in the St Albans North division of Hertfordshire county council, which is a consistent three-way marginal. It voted Lib Dem in 2005 and 2009, was gained by Labour in 2013, and then regained last year by the Lib Dems who defeated Labour by 71 votes and beat the Tories by 436 votes. That was a good Liberal Democrat performance considering that the party polled poorly in the two St Albans district council wards covering this area in 2016: Batchwood is looking safe for Labour now while Marshalswick South now has a full slate of Tory councillors (and some very expensive housing to boot). Karen Young defends the seat for the Liberal Democrats, and is challenged by two local district councillors. Batchwood’s Roma Mills is the former Labour county councillor seeking to get her seat back; Mills is also up for re-election to the district council this year, giving her two chances to win or lose. On the Tory side, their candidate is Marshalswick South ward councillor, and former Mayor of St Ablans, Salih Gaygusuz; as the name might suggest, he is Turkish-born.

Moving into the South East proper, your columnist had a bit of a rant at Aylesbury Vale council a few weeks back after they put the notices for a couple of district by-elections on their website, but only to people who had registered for an online account with the council. I invited Aylesbury Vale to get in touch and claim their certificate for a useless council website. Fair play to them, they got in touch with me and apologised, and as a result I agreed to suspend the issue of the certificate pending publication of notices for the Quainton by-election. I am pleased to report that the council webmasters have got it right this time, and there will be no further action.

Quainton ward itself is a series of villages in northern Buckinghamshire, a long way from anywhere of note. Nevertheless this was once bizarrely an outpost of the London Underground network, whose Quainton Road station is now preserved as a museum. The ward is of course safe Conservative; although their candidate Steven Walker is the only nominee who does not live in the ward he should have little trouble holding the seat.

For our other by-election in the South East we are going offshore to the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. The electors of Sheppey East ward are in the villages of Eastchurch, Warden and Leysdown-on-Sea at the eastern end of the island, and I have to be specific in referring to “electors” here because the ward also includes a number of large prisons. Sheppey East split its two seats in 2015 between the Conservatives and UKIP, and the Tory seat is up here. The two frontrunners both have rather androgynous names: Lynd Taylor is hoping that he will defend the Conservative seat, while UKIP have selected Sunny Nissanga to try and make a rare gain.

Our final two by-elections of this set are in the South West, and this is where it gets complicated. We have a poll in Dorset for the Weymouth West ward of Weymouth and Portland council, which has been on your columnist’s list of vacant seats since December but had previously been marked under the heading “no further action” because the outgoing councillor was due for re-election this year. Not so, as it turned out: local government in Dorset is due for reorganisation, and as part of that process the 2018 Weymouth and Portland council elections have been cancelled with councillors’ terms extended to 2019. As a result we are now having a by-election for this vacancy. Just to make things more complicated, Weymouth West is a Tory-Labour marginal but the outgoing councillor, Claudia Webb, had been elected for the Tories before defecting to the Green Party. That puts the Green candidate Val Graves into the defending position; the Tories will want their seat back and have selected Richard Nickinson, while Labour – who won Weymouth West at the most recent district poll in 2016 – have selected David Greenhalf. One to watch, this one.

We finish this preview with a free-for-all on the banks of the Torridge river in the town of Bideford. Bideford East is based on the suburb of East-the-Water together with a number of villages in Bideford’s hinterland. The ward has a complicated political history with independent and Lib Dem candidates having been successful here this century, but in 2015 it elected a Tory and two UKIP candidates. This poll is caused by the death of Sam Robinson, who won a 2014 by-election here as an independent before being re-elected in 2015 on the UKIP ticket; UKIP haven’t nominated anyone to replace him so this by-election will result in a change to the political balance of Torridge council. Given the volatile history of this ward I’d better go through the whole candidate list: James Hellyer is standing for the Conservatives, Anne Brenton for Labour, Pauline Davies and Jude Gubb as independents, Gregory de Freyne-Martin for the Greens and Jamie McKenzie for the Lib Dems. Predictions for this one are best left to the locals.


A further piece of Andrew’s Previews will follow shortly, which will look in detail at my own county of Greater Manchester. Stay tuned for that.


Trees, Grenfell, Anti-Semitism, Windrush, and Voter IDs - All About the Locals

30 April, 2018| Local Elections

Trees, Grenfell, Anti-Semitism, Windrush, and Voter IDs - All About the Locals


3rd May will see the first England-wide test of voter support for the country's political parties since the General Election last June.


Photo: Getty Images

The 3rd of May will see the first England-wide test of voter support for the country’s political parties since the General Election last June. Voters will head to the polls to elect councillors up and down the country, and in six of those areas there will also be mayoral elections. Though the general stories of Labour doing well in cities (particularly London) and with young voters and the Conservatives strengthening their grip on many pro-Brexit heartlands in the North and Midlands will most likely continue, there are many individual contests and battlegrounds with their own unique stories and nuances which may well buck - or exacerbate - the overall trends.

The General Story

Both the Conservatives and Labour look set to be up in terms of vote share on 2014. But while Labour are expected to make a fair amount of seat gains, the Conservatives look set to fall back. Recent polling over the last few days however suggests that the Labour gains may not be so large was anticipated perhaps a couple of weeks ago. Furthermore, though gains do seem likely, Labour might struggle to make a huge impact in terms of taking control (or removing opposition majority control) of local authorities this time around. As Professor Rob Ford pointed out on Saturday, many of the areas up for grabs on Thursday are already dominated by Labour councillors. They are also re-contesting a strong set of results produced by Ed Miliband’s Labour Party in 2014.

That said, there are a few places in which, if Labour are indeed having a good night, they can expect to move into the driving seat and would have cause to celebrate. They will be keeping a close eye on London where, after a strong General Election performance last year, they have some highly ambitious targets - including taking the Conservative controlled boroughs of Wandsworth and Westminster. There may well be further success for the party in other Councils such as Amber Valley, Plymouth, and perhaps North East Lincolnshire and Newcastle-Under-Lyme.

The Conservatives seem set for a quietly disappointing showing, but given the current political climate (and the usual painful nature of local election nights for governing parties) they may be fairly happy with a result of anything around 100 seat losses. They might, if they are able to continue their strong pickup of ex-UKIP voters, even have something to cheer about in places such as Thurrock, Basildon, and Great Yarmouth (seeking overall control in each).

According to forecasts, the Liberal Democrats are expected to, once again, have a frustrating night and make only a handful of limited advances. The may be looking to Maidstone (seeking overall control) and Stockport (seeking to displace Labour) for some good news. London may provide some further encouragement, with the prospect of regaining substantial ground in Richmond (where they were pipped to the post in 2017 by the born-again-Conservative Zac Goldsmith) and Kingston upon Thames on the cards.

UKIP look set for another terrible night. They will, after a rapid two-year decline, fall behind the Greens in terms of council seats in England on Thursday; all but a dreadfully poor night for the Greens, which is not expected, should see them cement 4th place on the English local representation leader board.

Away from the general patterns, there are four stories worth picking out where local factors and controversies could provide some very interesting results and trends.

Trees in Sheffield

Sheffield City Council: Labour control, 30 seat majority, 28 seats up.

Firstly, a significant test of the extent to which voters ‘think local’ in council elections when a scandal is unfolding and ongoing around them. The Labour Administration in Sheffield is currently under huge amounts of scrutiny over their ongoing controversial tree felling programme. Such has been the strength of opposition and controversy that the events have hit national and international headlines. In 2012 the Council contracted a private company, Amey, to cut down over half of the city’s 36,000 trees over a 25-year period as part of a ‘highways improvement’ programme worth £2.2 billion. Needless to say, this has not gone down well with many of the local residents from a city which prides itself on its green credentials. Rallies and marches against the destruction of health street trees have attracted thousands of residents, young and old, and the support of some very high-profile supporters - including Michael Gove, Chris Packham, and Jarvis Cocker.

Opposition parties - namely the Liberal Democrats and Greens - will be seeking to capitalise on local anger and frustration. Intriguingly, in six wards their campaigns will be assisted by a non-partisan campaigning group which was founded this year with the specific aim of putting boots on the ground to unseat Labour incumbents in marginal wards - the “It’s Our City” campaign. Equally, the non-partisan “Sheffield Trees Action Groups” (or STAG) campaign, over 10,000 members strong, are also actively supporting the removal of the current Administration. Labour are mounting a total of 19 defences in Sheffield, meaning that they could theoretically lose control of the council in the face of this widespread opposition. This is however very unlikely, with Labour defending some very friendly (as well as some not so friendly) seats.

A further layer of interest in Sheffield comes from the sole Green seat being defended this year in the city. The current incumbent there is Councillor Alison Teal - one of four Greens on the council. Cllr Teal has a majority of just eight votes, and has been right at the heart of the tree campaign - as well as one of its most vocal critics, she was arrested and then taken to court by her own Council for protesting against a tree felling in her ward (Nether Edge and Sharrow). She was subsequently cleared of any and all wrongdoing. Nether Edge has been the centre of many of the most intense and controversial episodes of the tree felling saga, and so results in Cllr Teal’s leafy city-centre seat as well as other tree felling flash-points of Broomhill and Sharrow Vale, Ecclesall, Gleadless Valley, and the Crookes and Crosspool and Dore and Totley wards (both at the heart of Jared O’Mara’s Sheffield Hallam constituency) will definitely be worth keeping an eye on for an anti-Labour backlash in a city which turned all red only last year.

Grenfell Tower Fallout in Kensington and Chelsea

Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea: Conservative control, 24 seat majority, all seats up.

The story here is of course the political fallout from the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire. With the Public Inquiry ongoing, former Kensington and Chelsea Council leader Nicholas Paget-Brown has already quit and the huge amount of anger, frustration, and shame felt by many residents toward their local leaders is expected to make it a tough night for many Conservatives defending their seats. Indeed, Jeremy Corbyn has made clear his ambition to take the Council away from the Conservatives. That would require them to overturn a 24-seat majority.

Unlikely as that seems, as with the rest of London all of Kensington and Chelsea Council’s seats (50) are up for election, which does increase the possibility of a change of overall control. Furthermore, Labour did pull of quite the shock and take the Kensington constituency from the Conservatives, by a margin of 20 votes, in 2017.

Taking the council may be much more difficult however; by and large, there were not that many wards where Labour were all that close to the Conservatives in 2016, particularly towards the Thames in the South of the borough. Grenfell Tower sits in the Notting Dale ward, where Labour already hold all three council seats by a healthy margin over the Conservatives. Neighbouring wards may though provide the best opportunity for Labour to work toward reducing the Conservative majority. To the north is St. Helen’s ward, where the two parties were neck and neck in 2016 - taking one seat each. That one Conservative seat just over the road from Grenfell would be an obvious first target. Meanwhile, to the South the Conservatives comfortably won both seats in the Norland ward in 2016 but might find themselves in trouble there too if voter anger spills over. Elsewhere, less than 25% swings - not unthinkable given the circumstances - would be required in Chelsea Riverside, Earl’s Court, Pembridge, and Holland in order for Labour to take a potential 10 further seats. If Labour took every Conservative seat in each of the above six wards, they would indeed take control of the Council. Stranger things have happened.

Jewish Populations in Barnet and Bury

Borough of Barnet Council: Conservative control, 2 seat majority, 21 seats up

Borough of Bury Council: Labour control, 8 seat majority, 17 seats up

Labour may well perform substantially under-par on Thursday in Councils such as Barnet and Bury where a number of wards are home to substantial Jewish populations. In fact, the damage and rift caused between Labour and many parts of the Jewish community as the anti-Semitism row continues could cost the party control of Barnet, where a two-seat gain would see them replace the ruling Conservative administration. Taking marginal wards such as Childs Hill and Hale could be crucial to Labour taking overall control, but the seats’ substantial Jewish populations (around 20% according to the 2011 Census) may well stop Labour doing so if the backlash is significant enough.

In Bury, Labour are already in fairly strong control of the council and are defending in some very strong Labour areas. The impact of a reaction to the anti-Semitism row therefore may not be so consequential here. That said, look out for wards such as the ultra-marginal Pilkington Park (Labour less than 1% ahead in 2014, approximately 25% Jewish) and the much more safer seats of Sedgley (approximately one-third Jewish) and St. Mary’s (around 10% Jewish) as potential backlash lightning rods. Relatedly, though Labour are generally already well in control of areas with substantial ethnic minority voter populations, in the wake of the Windrush scandal - which only yesterday claimed the scalp of the Home Secretary - the Conservatives may see below-par performances even by their expected London standards in high-density black voter boroughs such as Lambeth and Lewisham.

Voter ID in Swindon

Swindon Borough Council: Conservative control, 4 seat majority, 19 seats up

Swindon is one of the five areas in which a pilot voter identification scheme will be taking place on Thursday. What makes Swindon stand out is that it is very much a Labour target, and they need only four additional seats to take it (two to become the largest party). It will be interesting to see if turnout is significant affected by the trial, and how many stories come out of registered voters being turned away from polling stations due to a lack of suitable identification. With control of the council in the balance and Labour, then this pilot and its timing could create some controversy if it goes badly. Keep an eye out for results and turnout stories coming in from the Covingham & Dorcan, Haydon Wick, Lydiard & Freshbrook, and Shaw wards, where Labour stand a good chance of making the gains necessary to take control of the Council.


What's going to happen in the 2018 local elections?

29 April, 2018| Local Elections

What’s going to happen in the 2018 local elections?


4,425 seats will be up for grabs on the 3rd of May. Anything other than them emulating last year's general election should be viewed with surprise.


The 3rd of May will see 160 local authorities hold varying electoral contests of sorts, be they lone council by-elections or the entire authority going to the polls. Britain Elects number crunching* has found 4,425 seats will be up for grabs, 40 per cent (1,833) of which are in London. Much of England’s cities and urban areas will be going to the polls this Thursday.

Labour will be defending the lion’s share of seats this year, given the large proportion of authorities being metropolitan boroughs, at 2,300; the Conservatives will be defending 1,416; and the Liberal Democrats 473.

UKIP, following their high-point in 2014, and now facing annihilation, are defending 136; and the Greens are defending 32.

Graphic: Britain Elects

My expectation of this year’s set of elections is that anything other than a repeat of the most recent general election will be a surprise. Polling has consistently shown the Tories and Labour to be almost always within a point or two of each other and forever within the error margin of their performance in June of last year. Recent council by-elections, too, have generally shown constituencies that swung either Labour or Tory in 2017 have stuck to swinging so in council contests.

This does not mean there will be no change to the control or composition of the authorities up. Almost all of the seats up this year were last up in 2014: a year when UKIP were polling in the high-teens; Labour and the Tories were dogfighting over 33 per cent in the polls; Amber Valley was a marginal constituency and Westminster a safe Tory borough— today, UKIP are down to three per cent, the big two are fighting over 41 per cent, Amber Valley is a safe Tory seat and Westminster a Labour target.

The increase in support for the big two and the growing divide between English politics and London politics makes this year’s local elections interesting albeit an increasingly difficult one to analyse. In the 2017 locals every English authority saw a swing to the Tories; this year will be no repeat. Authorities including but not limited to Amber Valley, Great Yarmouth and Thurrock will, I expect, with the latter two as a consequence of a declining UKIP, see swings to the Tories; while councils such as Trafford, Lincoln and Plymouth will swing to Labour.

The focus from commentators and readers on London is understandable, though mistaken. London was the only region across Britain to see the Tories lose vote share in 2017, and marginal authorities such as Plymouth, Amber Valley, Thurrock, Kirklees, Peterborough, Walsall, and Trafford have more to say in where the parties might be nationally, and whether votes have shifted enough to set either one on course for a majority in parliament, than, say, whether Labour can win Westminster City Council, symbolic though it may be.

Polls will be open this Thursday from 7am to 10pm with most metropolitan authorities counting throughout the night. Britain Elects will be on hand to provide ward-by-ward results as they come in with commentary following the event summarising what’s happened and what it might mean.

*Long nights spent drowning amongst the company of spreadsheets.


Westminster is a harder nut to crack for Labour than first thought

27 April, 2018| Local Elections

Westminster is a harder nut to crack for Labour than first thought


Tory-held Westminster City Council, the focus for many pundits and activists, is a much tougher job for Labour to take than first thought


Photo: Kevin Allen

Since its creation in 1964, Westminster City Council has stayed stoically Conservative. Even during the heydays of Tony Blair the authority held firm for the blues with double figure seat majorities, and so it therefore wouldn’t go amiss to express scepticism that the authority is on the edge of going Labour this May.

A Queen Mary University YouGov poll, surveyed in February, showed a swing to Labour in the inner-London boroughs of 13pts from 2014, which would, on the assumption of a uniform swing, see the London Borough of Westminster turn red.

Since then a second poll by the same pollster and institute showed Labour’s swing in inner London to be significantly less than expected.

Were this poll to be borne out, of the fifteen wards in the borough where the Tories topped the poll last time round, nine would see Labour come top. Labour would take overall control of Westminster City Council, the first time any party other than the Tories has done so. Without question, this would be a significant event in what could become an eventful set of local elections.

However, I am not without scepticism.

The Tories have a history of over-performing in local elections here, notionally ‘winning’ the wards within the Westminster North constituency in the 2014 locals to only see Labour hold the parliamentary seat by 5pts a year later and by 27pts in 2017.

The assumption of the poll projecting the authority falling to Labour this May comes from the assumption of a uniform swing, but in local elections, as attested in previous years, the overbearing presence of the personal votes of incumbent councillors impact and often blunt or exaggerate such anticipated swings. This may explain why the Conservatives did so well here in 2014, when they were behind in the polls nationally, compared to 2015, when they won a parliamentary majority.

The incumbency bonus, however, may not be much of a card available to the Tories this year, for fourteen of their 44 councillors will not be contesting their seats, making the route for a Labour win in this authority not as difficult as once thought.

To take Westminster, Labour needs to see its vote eclipse the Tories in wards not just in the northern parts of the authority - of which they have already demonstrated they are able to do so (Westminster North) - but in the southern and riverside areas too. The authority is split between two constituencies, Westminster North, as mentioned earlier, and the Cities of London and Westminster, represented by a Conservative MP with a majority of 8pts.

To rule out Labour gaining Westminster this May would be foolish, for politics across the capital has changed significantly since 2014, but for Labour to gain Westminster would require them to go over and above their performance in the 2017 general election, else a repeat of such, more likely than not, would result in the Tories staying on as the largest party.