Preview: 06 Feb 2020

One by-election on 6th February 2020:

Burtonwood and Winwick

Warrington council, Cheshire; caused by the death of Labour councillor Terry O’Neill.

So, Britain is alone in Europe and – it appears – needs to be on good terms with the Americans pronto. Which makes the location of today’s local by-election appropriate. We’ve come to the southern end of Occupied Lancashire, a ward covering two villages immediately to the north of Warrington.

The older and better-connected of the two is Winwick, on the main road between Warrington and Newton-le-Willows. This is one of several places in the UK which claims to be connected with St Oswald, the seventh-century king of Northumbria who in his day was the most powerful ruler of what became England: he was overlord of eastern and southern Britain from Exeter to East Lothian. Bede, who gave Oswald a glowing writeup in his Ecclesiastical History a century later, records that Oswald was killed fighting the Mercians at the Battle of Maserfield in 642. The location of Maserfield is generally identified with Oswestry in modern-day Shropshire, but the people of Winwick think they know better. In Winwick and the surrounding area can be found a holy well and a church, parts of date back to the twelfth century, dedicated to the cult of St Oswald.

One cold January day in 1887, a young seaman called Edward Smith married Sarah Pennington in St Oswald’s, Winwick. 25 years later, Smith went down with his ship as captain of the RMS Titanic. That’s just one of many pieces of bad luck associated with Winwick, which was the site of a Civil War battle in 1648 which damaged St Oswald’s church. The railways came in the nineteenth century and Winwick became an important junction on the West Coast main line, which was the scene of a fatal accident in 1934 caused by a signalman’s error.

But it wasn’t the railway which made Winwick and – particularly – Burtonwood what they are today. Burtonwood was traditionally a small village based on the mining and brewing industries, but that changed in 1940. There was a war on, and the RAF took over the open land south of Burtonwood to build a new airfield for aircraft maintenance. Two years later, the US Army Air Force arrived, and changed Burtonwood forever.

By the time the war was over, Burtonwood was the largest airfield in Europe with over 18,000 servicemen and -women stationed there. The Yanks built their own village to house the airmen and their families, and after they moved out in 1959 the population of Burtonwood parish halved. However, the Americans came back to Warrington in 1966 after France withdrew its support for NATO; the US Army turned Burtonwood into a major supply depot and it stayed that way for the rest of the Cold War.

The alignment of the main runway at RAF Burtonwood was reused in the 1960s for the M62 motorway, the main road between Liverpool and Manchester. When the motorway was built and for many years afterwards it had no junction 8, that number being left spare for a future junction between Warrington and Widnes. This was eventually built in the 2000s as part of the Omega Project, which is rapidly redeveloping the old airfield site as an enormous business park. Travellers on the M62 in recent years have watched giant warehouses spring up for many businesses, particularly in the distribution sector: Asda, Travis Perkins, Hermes couriers, Amazon and so on. These developments have rendered the parish and ward boundary here rather out of date: the Burtonwood parish boundary actually cuts through the middle of the Amazon warehouse.

This area south of the motorway was transferred into Burtonwood and Winwick ward at a boundary review in 2016. While it generates lots of business rates for Warrington council, nobody actually lives there so I’ve treated Burtonwood and Winwick as having been unchanged in the table of previous results below. Apart from that wrinkle, the ward has had the same boundaries since its creation in 1997, the year Warrington became a unitary council.

Since 1983 this ward and its predecessors have been part of the Warrington North parliamentary constituency, which has been Labour-held throughout that time. Its first MP was Doug Hoyle, who gained Nelson and Colne in the October 1974 general election, lost that seat in 1979 and got back into Parliament two years later by defeating Roy Jenkins in the 1981 Warrington by-election. Doug Hoyls is now a Lord, and his son Lindsay now sits in the Speaker’s chair in the Commons. Hoyle senior was succeeded in the 1997 landslide by Helen Jones, who stood down in 2019 and passed the seat on to new Labour MP Charlotte Nichols. Unlike Hoyle and Jones, Nichols doesn’t have a safe seat; a big fall in the Labour vote two months ago led to the party’s majority crashing to 1,509 votes, the closest result in Warrington North since the seat was created in 1983.

You might think from that that the Warrington Conservatives would have a local government bsae to build from. You’d be wrong. Warrington council was last elected in May 2016, a year when Labour did very well in the town. The Conservatives won just two seats on Warrington council that year out of a possible 59, both in the Real Housewives of Cheshire territory of Lymm South ward (Andrew’s Previews 2018, page 142); and one of those seats was subsequently lost to the Lib Dems in a by-election. Much of the Warrington North seat is New Town territory which is firmly in the Labour column under normal political conditions; the Tories have no councillors in the constituency.

Burtonwood and Winwick ward doesn’t cover any of the New Town housing, but it still votes like the towns around it. In May 2016 the Labour slate beat the Conservative candidate here 62-23, and there is nothing in the previous results going back to 1997 to indicate that scoreline was anything out of the ordinary. On the occasions when both of the ward’s seats were up (1997, 2004 and 2016) the Tories have only managed to find one candidate, a tell-tale sign of weak local organisation.

Throughout that period one of the two councillors for Burtonwood and Winwick had been Terry O’Neill, who was first elected in 1983 to Burtonwood parish council and joined the borough council’s ranks in 1991. Labour gained an overall majority on the council in 2011, defeating a Lib Dem-led administration, and O’Neill became Leader of the Council. In his seven years as leader Warrington boomed, with the Omega redevelopment being just one example of how the place is open for business. The town centre’s in pretty good shape too. There are many towns out there that could learn a thing or two from Warrington’s experience.

Whoever succeeds Terry O’Neill will have a hard act to follow, and they won’t be able to rest on their laurels for long as the whole of Warrington council is up for re-election in just thirteen weeks’ time. Labour have taken no chances in securing the spot at the top of the alphabetical ballot paper by selecting Alex Abbey, a personal trainer from Burtonwood. The Conservative candidate is Paul Campbell, a former Warrington councillor (Penketh and Cuerdley ward, 2008-12) and chairman of the party’s Warrington branches; he was the Tory candidate for Warrington North at the 2010 general election. Completing the ballot paper is Trevor Nicholls, woo runs a carpet and upholstery cleaning firm and stood for parliament in Warrington North in 2015; on that occasion Nicholls was a UKIP candidate, this time round he is an independent.

Parliamentary constituency: Warrington North
ONS Travel to Work Area: Warrington and Wigan
Postcode districts: WA2, WA5, WA9, WA12

Alex Abbey (Lab)
Paul Campbell (C)
Trevor Nicholls (Ind)

May 2016 result Lab 1083/1065 C 399 LD 265
May 2015 result Lab 1926 C 1062 LD 295
May 2012 result Lab 1241 C 316 LD 89
May 2011 result Lab 1406 C 656
May 2008 result Lab 809 LD 457 C 332
May 2007 result Lab 771 LD 441 C 415
June 2004 result Lab 1025/978 C 586 LD 528/509
May 2002 result Lab 942 C 249 LD 248
May 2000 result Lab 877 C 243 LD 140
May 1999 result Lab 1040 C 301 LD 134
May 1997 result Lab 1977/1973 C 616 LD 439/328

Andrew Teale