Previewing the council by-elections of 29 July 2021


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

Before we start this week, it’s Correction Corner time. I regret that there was an error in the Liscard preview for Wirral council, in which I incorrectly described Gary Bergin as the candidate of Reform UK; he was in fact nominated by the For Britain Movement. My apologies to Reform UK for the error. I am also grateful to a correspondent from the Land of Plastic for informing me that the two independent councillors in the Wirral are in fact one ex-Labour and one ex-Green, rather than both ex-Labour as I had thought.

Last week’s heatwave also saw a nice piece of improvisation from one of the presiding officers in the Fortune Green by-election in Camden:

This may be a good time to remind readers that our polling stations do not run on electricity. The secret ballot is older than the domestic lightbulb. The Representation of the People Act is older than Windows and Macintosh. There is a long history of presiding officers using their own initiative to set up alternatives when the intended polling place is unexpectedly unavailable or, as on the above occasion, unsuitable. Those who think that modern technology can improve our polling stations might wish to consider whether it would be feasible in the above situation.

There are five by-elections on 29th July 2021. The schools have broken up, so inevitably there is rain in the weather forecast; and we try to avoid this by concentrating this week on the drier side of Britain. The Conservatives and Labour have two seats each to defend in the eastern half of England, with the final by-election as an independent defence. We have our first two vacancies from the Class of 2021, and two of this week’s polls have rather unusual features. Read on…

Pitsea North West

Basildon council, Essex; caused by the resignation of Labour councillor Gavin Callaghan.

Basildon, Pitsea NW

For our first by-election we come to a New Town. Pitsea is one of the villages which was swallowed up to create the New Town of Basildon; the Pitsea North West ward covers the New Town development areas of Felmore (mostly residential) and Burnt Mills (mostly industrial, so hopefully the name is not literal). These can be found at the eastern end of Basildon’s built-up area, with the area to the east being green space separating Basildon from the village of Bowes Gifford.

Pitsea North West’s 2011 census return has an unusual feature. It makes the top 40 wards in England and Wales for households in shared ownership, which form 4.8% of the ward; within the Eastern region, the only ward with a higher figure on this statistic was Bourn ward in South Cambridgeshire, which at the time covered the very new quasi-New Town of Cambourne. 18 of the top 20 wards in England and Wales for shared ownership are in London, the South East or the Eastern region, with Milton Keynes accounting for 9 of them including all of the top 6. In modern times shared ownership is promoted as a way of getting onto the housing ladder without having to raise the money to buy the house outright, so this clustering in areas with a large number of newish houses and high property prices makes sense. In 2018 the median property within Pitsea North West ward went for around £190,000 to £230,000, and when we look at the ward’s educational profile (it’s in the top 20 for those educated to Level 1, ie 1-5 GCSE passes or equivalent) and socioeconomic profile (35% in routine occupations) we can see that those prices might not be affordable for a large proportion of the people who might want to live here. The New Town legacy can also be seen in the census return, with just over 1 in 3 households being socially rented.

This mix creates a fascinating marginal ward, which has had at least one Labour councillor consistently since the current boundaries were introduced in 2002 but which the Conservatives and UKIP have won on a number of occasions in the past. The last Conservative win here was in 2010, while the UKIP wins came in 2014 and 2015; the UKIP councillor elected on the second occasion sought re-election as a Conservative in 2019 and was defeated.

Gavin Callaghan was first elected as a councillor for this ward in 2012, gaining his seat from the Tories. He was the Labour parliamentary candidate for Basildon and Billericay in 2015, and in 2017 he was elected as leader of Basildon council at the age of just 28.

This May’s elections saw the Conservatives take overall control of Basildon, which had previously been a hung council with a Labour-led administration. Following some defections the Tories now have 24 seats, Labour have 11 plus this vacancy, and the remaining 6 seats are split between two independent groups. Gavin Callaghan was re-elected for a third term in Pitsea North West with a 47-42 lead over the Conservatives, but lost the council leadership. He resigned from the council a month later, indicating that he was looking to pursue other interests. The ward is part of the very large Essex county council division of Basildon Pitsea, which since 2017 has split its two county councillors between the Conservatives and Labour.

The winning Labour county council candidate here in May was Aidan McGurran, who has appeared in this column before: he successfully defended a by-election to Basildon council in Vange ward in 2019 (Andrew’s Previews 2019, page 60). At the time he was the managing editor of Mirror Group Newspapers; he now works for a PR agency. McGurran lost re-election in Vange in May, but was elected to Essex county council by defeating his Labour running-mate Patricia Reid.

Aidan McGurran is the defending Labour candidate for this by-election, seeking a quick return to Basildon council. All three defeated candidates for Pitsea North West in May have returned for another go including the Conservatives’ Stuart Terson, a local primary school governor and chairman of the Basildon and Pitsea carnival. Also back are Jake Hogg of the Basildon Community Residents Party and the ward’s regular Lib Dem candidate Martin Howard, while Christopher Bateman of the For Britain Movement and Daniel Tooley of Reform UK (who stood here in the county elections in May) complete an all-male ballot paper.

Parliamentary constituency: South Basildon and East Thurrock
Essex county council division: Basildon Pitsea
ONS Travel to Work Area: Southend
Postcode district: SS13

Christopher Bateman (For Britain Movement)
Jake Hogg (Basildon Community Residents Party)
Martin Howard (LD)
Aidan McGurran (Lab)
Stuart Terson (C)
Daniel Tooley (Reform UK)

May 2021 result Lab 1101 C 987 Basildon Community Residents Party 213 LD 63
May 2019 result Lab 885 C 696 LD 246
May 2018 result Lab 956 C 655 UKIP 342 Democrats and Veterans 74
May 2016 result Lab 955 UKIP 720 C 480
May 2015 result UKIP 1731 Lab 1611 C 1424 LD 149
May 2014 result UKIP 1156 Lab 906 C 427 LD 73
May 2012 result Lab 932 C 564 UKIP 323 LD 97
May 2011 result Lab 1111 C 702 UKIP 391 LD 143
May 2010 result C 1654 Lab 1508 LD 770 BNP 460 UKIP 453
May 2008 result C 945 Lab 739 BNP 370 UKIP 266
May 2007 result Lab 734 C 714 BNP 362 UKIP 167 LD 162
May 2006 result C 1014 Lab 882 LD 388
June 2004 result C 838 Lab 789 LD 458
May 2003 result Lab 738 C 541 LD 248
May 2002 result Lab 997/893/856 C 543/491/456 LD 238/229

Gaywood South

Norfolk county council; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Thomas Smith.

Norfolk CC, Gaywood S

We travel north from Basildon to the town of King’s Lynn. Once most of the most important towns in England as a major port for agricultural East Anglia – a couple of Hanseatic League warehouses still exist here – King’s Lynn has declined over the centuries into a provincial backwater. It now forms three-and-a-half divisions of Norfolk county council, of which Gaywood South is the eastern one.

The main feature of this division is the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, the main hospital serving western Norfolk and nearby parts of Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire; it was named after Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother who was treated here on a few occasions. Possibly the most famous person to come out of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital’s maternity unit was Alan Partridge, who according to my notes entered the world here in 1955. The present hospital was built in 1980 with a projected lifetime for the building of thirty years; forty years on, that projected lifetime has unfortunately proven to be accurate.

Despite its rapidly-decaying state the Queen Elizabeth Hospital dominates the local economy: it is in the Springwood ward of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, which in the 2011 census was the number 1 ward in England and Wales for employment in human health and social work activities (31.5% of those in employment). The other two wards which covered this county division in 2011, Fairstead and Gaywood Chase, are strongly working-class areas: Fairstead made the top 100 wards in England and Wales for semi-routine occupations, and the census picked up a significant Lithuanian minority. We may be remote from the big city here, but Fairstead was originally built as a London overspill estate.

Further housebuilding in the last decade has left the division oversized, and its electorate is now over 20% above the average Norfolk county council division. The Local Government Boundary Commission were intending to redraw the boundaries in advance of this year’s election, but their review was knocked off course by the pandemic; instead a new, smaller Gaywood South division will be contested at the Norfolk county elections in 2025.

Although the division stretches to the edge of the town centre, facilities here are few. The Fairstead estate in particular is a seriously deprived area with no surviving pub and where – as the BBC reported earlier this month (link) – the charity shop was recently threatened with closure. Instead it has transformed into the Fairstead Community Shop, although the green armchair inside is not for sale: this is the “worry chair”, for visitors to share and halve their problems over tea and biscuits.

Norfolk CC, 2021

Gaywood South was once a safe Labour area but in this century it has often been marginal, and the voters here have elected both Conservative and Labour councillors since 2005. Thomas Smith gained the division from Labour in 2017, and was re-elected in May with an increased majority of 48-36. Shortly afterwards he was offered a job in London, as a journalist on trade magazines, which was too good to turn down. As a diehard Andrew’s Previews fan, Smith is clearly a man of good judgment.

So we have a by-election. Defending for the Conservatives is Phil Trask, who as a football referee will be hoping for a fair and clean election. Again, all three defeated candidates from May have returned for another go including Labour’s Micaela Bartrum, a 40-year-old mother of two. Also returning are the Lib Dems’ Rob Colwell and UKIP’s Michael Stone, who are both regular candidates here (Stone finished a close second to Labour in 2013, but has faded since then), while shopowner Robin Talbot completes the ballot paper as an independent candidate.

Parliamentary constituency: North West Norfolk
King’s Lynn and West Norfolk district wards: Fairstead, Gaywood Chase (part), Gaywood Clock (part), St Margaret’s with St Nicholas (part), Springwood (part)
ONS Travel to Work Area: King’s Lynn
Postcode district: PE30

Micaela Bartrum (Lab)
Rob Colwell (LD)
Michael Stone (UKIP)
Robin Talbot (Ind)
Phil Trask (C)

May 2021 result C 980 Lab 724 LD 228 UKIP 99
May 2017 result C 857 Lab 758 LD 370 UKIP 230
May 2013 result Lab 835 UKIP 758 C 466 LD 173
June 2009 result C 865 Lab 551 LD 435 UKIP 376 BNP 273 Grn 196
May 2005 result Lab 2130 C 1765 LD 926

East Retford South

Bassetlaw council, Nottinghamshire; caused by the resignation of Labour councillor Helen Richards, who is seeking re-election as an independent candidate.

Bassetlaw, E Retford S

We travel north to Retford, or East Retford as it’s sometimes called. This is the smaller of the two major towns in the Bassetlaw district of Nottinghamshire, the other being Worksop. Worksop is a larger town, but Retford is better connected thanks to its location on the original Great North Road and the East Coast Main Line; these connections resulted in Retford having a market charter of unusually long standing.

East Retford was one of the most notorious rotten boroughs of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In the eighteenth century it had been a pocket borough controlled by the Duke of Newcastle, who was the main landowner in the area, but by the 1820s East Retford was at the centre of a power struggle between Newcastle, Earl Fitzwilliam and the borough corporation’s preferred candidates. This was good news for the town’s freemen, who were paid large bribes for their votes by potential candidates; at a going rate of around 20 guineas per vote, and with the freemen trying to ensure that enough votes were bought to avoid the election being contested, campaigning here was an expensive business. Matters came to a head in the 1826 election which ended in a riot and with the result being voided by the House of Commons for corruption. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to disenfranchise the town, Parliament eventually extended the boundaries of the East Retford borough to cover the entire Wapentake of Bassetlaw, ensuring that the town’s corrupt freemen could be comfortably outvoted in future.

Nearly 200 years down the line, the modern Bassetlaw constituency remains interesting for its politics. This was gained by the Conservatives in the December 2019 general election with an enormous majority on an enormous swing, and the Tories followed up on that in May by gaining two county seats from Labour here (Worksop North and Worksop South) and overall control of Nottinghamshire county council. Those gains involved enormous swings; by contrast, the swing in the local Retford East county division, a key marginal the Tories were defending, was under 3%. Mike Introna increased the Conservative majority from 37 votes to 212.

Bassetlaw, 2019

By contrast the last Bassetlaw district elections, in May 2019, were very poor for the Conservatives who only won one council seat within the constituency. East Retford South ward, covering the Ordsall area to the south of the railway lines, is a strongly working-class area which has returned Labour councillors on every occasion since 2002 with the exception of a Conservative win in 2008. In May 2019 Labour enjoyed a 68-17 win here over Introna, who on that occasion had the UKIP nomination.

Labour councillor Helen Richards had represented the ward since 2015, and was the losing Labour candidate in Retford East in May. She resigned from Bassetlaw council in June in protest at plans for a new development of 1,250 homes in East Retford South ward.

Having reviewed the situation, Helen Richards is now seeking re-election as an independent candidate, presumably on an anti-development ticket, in the by-election caused by her own resignation. Labour will want their seat back and have selected James Napier, who was a close runner-up in the other Retford county division in May. This may present an opening for Mike Introna, the runner-up here in May 2019, who is the Conservative candidate. That is your three-person ballot paper.

Parliamentary constituency: Bassetlaw
Nottinghamshire county council division: Retford East
ONS Travel to Work Area: Worksop and Retford
Postcode district: DN22

Mike Introna (C)
James Napier (Lab)
Helen Richards (Ind)

May 2019 result Lab 897/679 UKIP 228 C 197/179
May 2015 result Lab 1194/1186 C 689 UKIP 488
May 2014 result Lab 642 UKIP 314 C 220
May 2012 result Lab 831 C 331
May 2010 result Lab 1287 C 730
May 2008 result C 526 Lab 459
May 2006 result Lab 618 C 468
June 2004 result Lab 746 C 575
May 2002 result Lab 591/527 C 283/261

Knaresborough Scriven Park

Harrogate council, North Yorkshire; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Samantha Mearns.

Harrogate, Knaresborough Scriven Park

For our Yorkshire by-election today we come to Knaresborough, a market town on the River Nidd which grew up around a Norman castle. This was held in the mid-12th century by Hugh de Morville, one of the four knights who murdered Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170; the assassins took refuge in Knaresborough Castle for a while before eventually being sent in disgrace to the Holy Land, from which they did not return. The Nidd runs through the town in a steep-sided and attractive gorge, and the town is photogenic enough that readers of a certain age might recognise it as the scene of the election in the opening episode of The New Statesman.

Knaresborough is one of the three major settlements in the Harrogate local government district, which extends into the Yorkshire Dales to take in Ripon, Masham and Pateley Bridge and whose acreage isn’t far off that of Greater London. It appears that this isn’t good enough for the government, who last week announced plans to sweep away all the district councils in North Yorkshire and replace them with a single unitary council for the whole county (except the city of York). That’s one council for an area stretching from Settle to Selby to Scarborough and whose internal communications (with the exception of the A1(M)) are generally poor. Another piece of work brought to you by the cabinet minister responsible for local government, Robert Jenrick.

Harrogate, 2018

Harrogate’s ward boundaries were redrawn in 2018 and, in all probability, won’t be used again for an ordinary election. Scriven Park is the northern of the four wards covering Knaresborough, stretching along the road towards Boroughbridge, and it was very close in 2018 between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats: the Conservatives won with 38% of the vote to 37% for the Lib Dems and 24% for Labour, a majority of 16 votes. The Conservatives have a large majority on Harrogate council.

The Knaresborough division elects two members of North Yorkshire county council, and was a Conservative gain from the Lib Dems in May 2017. The 2021 county elections were cancelled in advance of the reorganisation and Harrogate council’s next ordinary election isn’t due until 2022, so the last local election here was a county council by-election in August 2018 (Andrew’s Previews 2018, page 291) in which the Lib Dems took back one of the Knaresborough seats they had lost the previous year.

This by-election comes after the resignation of Conservative councillor Samantha Mearns, who is stepping down following a number of health issues among her family members. Cllr Mearns had also come under scrutiny following the collapse of her husband’s car dealership in 2019, with allegations that a number of Porsches had gone missing. She was in her first term on the council, having served since 2018.

Defending for the Conservatives is Jaqui Renton, a former pub landlady. The Liberal Democrats have selected Hannah Gostlow, a Knaresborough town councillor. The Labour candidate is Sharon Calvert, a special needs teacher. Completing the ballot paper is Harvey Alexander for UKIP. The Local Democracy Reporting Service has interviewed all the candidates, and you can find out more from the Harrogate Advertiser here (link).

Parliamentary constituency: Harrogate and Knaresborough
North Yorkshire county council division: Knaresborough
ONS Travel to Work Area: Harrogate
Postcode district: HG5

Harvey Alexander (UKIP)
Sharon Calvert (Lab)
Hannah Gostlow (LD)
Jaqui Renton (C)

May 2018 result C 457 LD 441 Lab 291

Fellgate and Hedworth

South Tyneside council, Tyne and Wear; caused by the resignation of independent councillor John Robertson, who is seeking re-election.

S Tyneside, Fellgate and Hedworth

For our final by-election of the week we travel to the north-east. Fellgate and Hedworth can be found at the southern end of the town of Jarrow, on the edge of the Tyne and Wear built-up area. The ward’s housing is concentrated in the northern corner, between the A19 and A194 dual carriageways as they approach the Tyne Tunnel; but the ward also includes a large open area to the south. Like most of the wards we have featured this week, this is a working-class area: Fellgate and Hedworth also makes the top 80 wards in England and Wales for those with Apprenticeship qualifications (7.1% of the workforce) and for those born in the UK (98.4%). Fellgate station, on the Tyne and Wear Metro, links the area to the centres of Gateshead and Newcastle.

While this has normally been a Labour-voting ward in recent years, Fellgate and Hedworth has shown that it can vote for independent candidates under the right circumstances. In the period 2006-08 it returned three independent councillors, Steven Harrison, George Waddle and Geraldine White. Waddle retired in 2011 and was replaced by Linda Hemmer; White lost re-election in 2012 as an independent candidate, and Harrison and Hemmer lost re-election in 2014 and 2015 respectively as UKIP candidates.

Since then Fellgate and Hedworth has generally been Labour-voting: in May Labour defeated independent candidate John Cullen here by 54-28. The exception to this pattern was 2019 when the ward returned independent candidate John Robertson. Robertson has previous with South Tyneside council: in 2011 he deliberately drove a lorry into a council office building following a row over contracts, causing over £160,000 worth of damage. For that he subsequently got 40 weeks in prison, suspended, and was declared bankrupt.

Robertson’s bad behaviour did not stop when he was elected, nor when he became leader of the Independent Alliance opposition group on the council. He got straight into hot water over an offensive social media post aimed at one of his constituents, Michelle Potts, whose husband Jay’s sister is divorced from Robertson (link). In February 2021 he was sanctioned by the council’s standards committee for bullying a Labour councillor on social media, and suspended from the Jarrow and Boldon Community Area Forum (link). A month later the council sanctioned him again, this time for email and social media harassment of a senior officer at South Tyneside Clinical Commissioning Group; the council ordered that all Robertson’s outgoing council emails be monitored by officers (link).

In yet another apparent rush of blood to the head, Robertson sent in a resignation letter to the council in June and posted a copy of it to his Facebook (link). He then had second thoughts, tried to retract his resignation and found out, as this column has previously discussed (Andrew’s Previews 2018, pages 84 to 87), that you can’t do that.

Instead, John Robertson is seeking re-election in the by-election caused by his own resignation. To stand against him Labour have selected the aforementioned Jay Potts. Also standing are Chris Smith for the Conservatives, Kelly Hill for the Green Party (who stood here in May), and David Wilkinson for the Liberal Democrats.

Parliamentary constituency: Jarrow
ONS Travel to Work Area: Newcastle
Postcode districts: NE10, NE31, NE32, NE36, NE37

Kelly Hill (Grn)
Jay Potts (Lab)
John Robertson (Ind)
Chris Smith (C)
David Wilkinson (LD)

May 2021 result Lab 1264 Ind 643 C 290 Grn 69 Ind 61
May 2019 result Ind 1163 Lab 959 LD 199 C 108
May 2018 result Lab 1365 Ind 460 LD 325 C 140 Grn 61
May 2016 result Lab 1541 C 282 Grn 248
May 2015 result Lab 2042 UKIP 1075 C 329 Grn 131
May 2014 result Lab 1163 UKIP 981 C 132
May 2012 result Lab 1226 Ind 786 BNP 83 C 81 Lib 33
May 2011 result Ind 1234 Lab 1101 C 113 BNP 76
May 2010 result Ind 1492 Lab 1478 C 336 BNP 236
May 2008 result Ind 1212 Lab 1090 C 209
May 2007 result Ind 1169 Lab 855 C 150 Grn 139
May 2006 result Ind 1162 Lab 852 C 187

June 2004 result Lab 1116/1071/1011 C 647

If you enjoyed these previews, there are many more like them – going back to 2016 – in the Andrew’s Previews books, which are available to buy now (link). You can also support future previews by donating to the Local Elections Archive Project (link).

Andrew Teale