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