Two by-elections on 30th January 2020:

Newmarket and Red Lodge

Suffolk county council; and

Newmarket North

West Suffolk council; both caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Robin Millar.

General elections often lead to a spike in local by-elections and thus in work for Andrew’s Preview. The general election itself provides a rare occasion (indeed, now that European Parliament elections are no longer a thing in the UK, the only ordinary occasion) on which the entire UK goes to the polls at the same time. This can be an opportunity that’s too good to miss for the local parties, who will often arrange a resignation or few so that the resulting by-election can be piggybacked onto the national poll. That’s a win-win situation: the parties will get a high turnout for the by-election, and because there is only one polling day to organise there are economies of scale for the returning officer and the local taxpayers, who will ultimately be paying for the polls through their council tax.

Once the general election is over, we enter a new phase. A lot of newly-elected MPs – particularly after a poll like December 2019 which had a large intake of new boys and girls – will also have been local councillors, and in many cases they’ll be looking to divest themselves of their local role so that they can concentrate on the national picture. There are already several vacancies in the pipeline caused by new MPs resigning as councillors, and first out of the blocks was the Conservative MP Robin Millar.

Millar has since December been the MP for Aberconwy, a seat based on Llandudno and the Conwy Valley in beautiful North Wales. He’s got a marginal seat on his hands; the Tories were defending a majority of just 635 votes over Labour from the 2017 election, and Millar got only a relatively small swing in his favour to win last month with a majority of 2,034. Millar had previously fought the neighbouring seat of Arfon (based on Bangor and Caernarfon) at the 2010 general election, and got his opportunity in Aberconwy following the expulsion of Guto Bebb, who had represented the seat since its creation in 2010. Bebb was one of the 21 Conservative MPs who got thrown out of the party by Boris Johnson in September 2019 over Brexit; he didn’t seek re-election three months later.

Millar may now be a Welsh MP, but his local government career was based in faraway East Anglia. Which is where today’s by-elections are. We’ve come to Newmarket, the home of the world’s horseracing industry: the town and its surroundings reportedly have one racehorse for every five humans. In the town centre can be found many institutions related to the sport of kings, while much of the surrounding area is given over to gallops and stud farms.

Newmarket is one place where our administrative boundaries are unfit for purpose. Centuries of argument over whether the town is in Suffolk or Cambridgeshire have left the place as a salient of Suffolk, almost entirely surrounded by Cambridgeshire. This compromise has led to some awful boundaries for Suffolk county council elections, as the town is too big for one county councillor but not big enough for two. The inevitable result is an abomination of an electoral unit called Newmarket and Red Lodge, which combines the northern half of the town with the village of Red Lodge on the A11 towards Norwich – via the Godelphin stables and the parishes of Moulton, Dalham and Kentford, the direct way to Red Lodge being blocked by Cambridgeshire.

Red Lodge is very unlike Newmarket in that it is a late twentieth-century village and its population is growing fast. The name comes from the Red Lodge Inn, which once served the stagecoaches travelling between London and Norwich. As with some other late twentieth-century developments in this part of East Anglia (such as Cambourne, on the other side of Cambridge), Red Lodge has a young age profile with lots of working families and young children. It’s rather detached from Newmarket, being included within the Thetford and Mildenhall Travel to Work Area (whereas Newmarket is within the economic orbit of Cambridge) and having Bury St Edmunds postcodes.

Until last year Newmarket was the largest town in the Forest Heath local government district, which covered the north-west corner of Suffolk and stretched to Mildenhall and Brandon. Forest Heath had some interesting features in its census return – such as a 9% non-white population, very high for such a rural area – because of the large number of US servicemen and -women stationed at Mildenhall and Lakenheath. The fact that the district had a very low population (estimated at 65,500 in mid-2018) contributed to this skew and also contributed to the district’s demise: it was too small to raise the council tax needed to run its services, and the result of that was a long-standing partnership with the neighbouring St Edmundsbury council (covering Bury St Edmunds and Haverhill) to deliver services jointly across the two districts. Effectively it ended up as a takeover by St Edmundsbury, which was completed by a local government reorganisation last year that merged Forest Heath and St Edmundsbury districts into a new district, with the imaginative name of West Suffolk.

That reorganisation seems to have gone down pretty badly in the former Forest Heath area. This was a strongly Tory district, the party having won 21 or more seats out of a possible 27 at all four of its elections this century. However, the inaugural May 2019 elections to West Suffolk council saw a majority of seats in the old Forest Heath area go to independent candidates, many of whom have been organised for some time under the banner of the West Suffolk Independents. This localist slate won both seats in Red Lodge ward, which was renamed Iceni ward (and, confusingly, has nothing in common with the old Forest Heath Iceni ward), carried Kentford and Moulton ward and won one of the two seats in the brand-new ward of Newmarket North.

Newmarket North is a cut-down version of the old Severals ward of Forest Heath, covering the north of the town along the Exning and Fordham roads as far as the Studlands Park estate. Severals ward had extended to the town centre and had three councillors, but the new boundaries removed the town centre and cut its representation to two seats. Severals had been one of the weaker Conservative wards of the old district, having returned two Lib Dems and an independent in 2007, and two independents and a Conservative in 2015; but ironically in May 2019 Newmarket North was one of the better Tory performances in the area. Top of the poll in Newmarket North was Michael Anderson, who had also topped the poll in Severals in 2011 and 2015 as a Tory candidate, but this time Anderson was standing for the West Suffolk Independents. Robin Millar, who had been a former deputy leader of Forest Heath council (he represented the old All Saints ward in southern Newmarket for many years) only narrowly got in to win the second seat, 42 votes ahead of outgoing councillor Ruth Allen who was the other West Suffolk Independents candidate. Shares of the vote were 43% for the West Suffolk Independents, 36% for the Conservatives and 21% for Labour, who hadn’t stood here in 2015.

Millar was also the local county councillor, having won Newmarket and Red Lodge at a by-election in February 2016 (Andrew’s Previews 2016, pages 38 and 39) with a 10-point margin over UKIP. He was easily re-elected in May 2017, polling 50% of the vote against 16% for Labour and 14% for UKIP. Since then the local West Suffolk parliamentary seat has twice re-elected Matt Hancock, who has served in Cabinet since January 2018; Hancock was briefly culture secretary before taking on the ever-difficult job of health secretary that summer.

So we have two by-elections which look more difficult defences than Hancock’s majority might suggest. To take the county council by-election first, the defending Tory candidate is Andy Drummond, who is a West Suffolk councillor for Newmarket West ward (which is not covered by this division) and is the district council’s cabinet member for planning. The Labour candidate is Theresa Chipulina. UKIP have not returned, so the ballot paper is completed by former Forest Heath councillor Andrew Appleby (who stood here in 2017 and the 2016 by-election) for the West Suffolk Independents, Jonny Edge for the Lib Dems and Alice Haylock for the Green Party.

The Conservatives have a fight on their hands to hold Newmarket North, and their defending candidate for that vacancy is Karen Soons; she’s the Suffolk county councillor for the wonderfully-named division of Thingoe South, which is a large collection of villages surrounding the southern half of Bury St Edmunds. The West Suffolk Independents have selected Ruth Allen, who represented the old Severals ward on Forest Heath council from 2015 to 2019 and was runner-up here last year. There is a lot of crossover between these two by-elections with Chipulina (Labour), Edge (Lib Dem) and Haylock (Green) standing for both vacancies. Completing the Newmarket North ballot paper is independent candidate Frank Stennett, who runs a haulage firm and is a parish councillor in Fornham St Martin, just north of Bury St Edmunds.

Newmarket and Red Lodge

Parliamentary constituency: West Suffolk
West Suffolk wards: Iceni, Newmarket North, Newmarket East (part: within former Severals ward), Kentford and Moulton (part: Kentford and Moulton parishes), Chedburgh and Chevington (part: Dalham parish)
ONS Travel to Work Area: Cambridge (all except Iceino ward), Thetford and Mildenhall (Iceni ward)
Postcode districts: CB8, IP28

Andrew Appleby (West Suffolk Ind)
Theresa Chipulina (Lab)
Andy Drummond (C)
Jonny Edge (LD)
Alice Haylock (Grn)

May 2017 result C 1203 Lab 373 UKIP 322 West Suffolk Ind 273 LD 213
February 2016 by-election C 644 UKIP 494 Lab 284 West Suffolk Ind 123 LD 76
May 2013 result C 968 UKIP 615 Lab 450 LD 136
June 2009 result C 1072 LD 588 UKIP 397 Lab 202
May 2005 result C 1382 LD 932 Lab 883 UKIP 220

Newmarket North

Parliamentary constituency: West Suffolk
Suffolk county council division: Newmarket and Red Lodge
ONS Travel to Work Area: Cambridge
Postcode district: CB8

Ruth Allen (West Suffolk Ind)
Theresa Chipulina (Lab)
Jonny Edge (LD)
Alice Haylock (Grn)
Karen Soons (C)
Frank Stennett (Ind)

May 2019 result West Suffolk Ind 404/289 C 331/220 Lab 195/182