Previewing the council by-elections of 14 Oct 2021

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

There are four by-elections on 14th October 2021, with something for everyone. There is one defence for each of the three main English parties, and a Labour seat up for election in Scotland. That will come last in this week’s Previews; instead we start by discussing a Conservative seat in outer London. Read on…

Pinner South

Harrow council, London; caused by the death of Conservative councillor Chris Mote.

Harrow, Pinner S

We start the week in Greater London by taking a trip along the Metropolitan Line to Pinner. This is the heart of Metroland, that quadrant of north-west London which was aggressively developed by the Metropolitan Railway in the inter-war era and which provided the railway with a secure commuter base. Most of the housing in Pinner South ward dates from the 1930s, and the area is no longer the Middlesex village it once was but instead part of the urban sprawl, although the green belt is not so far away.

These nice suburban houses remain sought-after nearly a century after they were built. Pinner South’s census return shows nearly half of the ward’s workforce in professional or managerial occupations, and all of the ward’s census districts are in the 20% least-deprived in England and Wales. The list of famous people who were born in Pinner includes the astronomer Patrick Moore, the children’s author Michael Rosen and the global pop star Sir Elton John; but the long list of local worthies also attests to the fact that this is a place celebrities tend to come to as well as come from.

In recent years inner Metroland has come a major centre for London’s Indian community, by which I mean here people of specifically Indian heritage rather than subcontinental heritage in general. Pinner is on the edge of this area, and Pinner South ward is not dominated by residents born in India or speaking Indian languages. However, this ward is in the top 50 in England and Wales for Hinduism (19.0%) and miscellaneous other religions (1.8%) and was also in the top 90 for Judaism (4.7%) at the time of the 2011 census.

Harrow, 2018

The present Pinner South ward was created in 2002 and has similar boundaries to the Pinner West ward which existed from 1978 to 2002. With the exception of a Liberal Democrat victory in 1994, the Conservatives have won every election here since 1978 and usually quite comfortably so. At the last London borough elections in May 2018 the Conservatives had a 57-26 lead over Labour, who have run second here since 2010. The ward is included within the parliamentary seat of Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, which is safely Conservative too.

The recent London Mayor and Assembly elections suggest that hasn’t changed. In May the Conservative mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey beat Sadiq Khan 50-29 in the ward’s ballot boxes, and the London Members ballot for the Assembly gave 49% to the Conservatives, 25% to Labour and 11% to the Green Party.

Harrow council as a whole is rather more left-wing than this ward, and it has returned Labour majorities at every election since 2010. It hasn’t been Labour-controlled throughout that period, though: there was a bizarre episode in advance of the 2014 borough elections when a small Labour splinter group briefly held the leadership before collapsing under the weight of numbers.

The last time the Conservatives held a majority on Harrow council was after the 2006 election, when Pinner South ward councillor (Charles) Chris Mote became leader of the council. Mote had first been elected in 1982 as a councillor for Rayners Lane ward, standing down in 1986 after one term. (In that year Rayners Lane was gained by the Liberals, one of whose slate – James Bartrick – was subsequently forced to resign after it was revealed that he was underage at the time of the election. Bartrick was re-elected in the resulting by-election, held after his 21st birthday.) Mote returned to Harrow council representing this ward in 1998, and his two years (2006-08) as leader of the council were the high point of his local government career. He subsequently served as Deputy Mayor of Harrow in 2009-10. Chris Mote passed away at the end of July after a short illness, having served his constituents here for 23 years.

Defending this by-election for the Conservatives is Hitesh Karia, who is described as a local resident and businessman (although the address he gave on his nomination papers is in Hatch End). The Labour candidate Brahma Mohanty, who went into a career in finance after studying at both Oxford and Cambridge, already has a parliamentary campaign to his credit: he faced off in December 2019 against Michael Gove in the Surrey Heath constituency. More on that story later. Completing an all-BAME ballot paper are Sanjay Karia for the Liberal Democrats and Alex Lee for the Green Party.

Parliamentary constituency: Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner
ONS Travel to Work Area: Slough and Heathrow
Postcode district: HA5

Hitesh Karia (C)
Sanjay Karia (LD)
Alex Lee (Grn)
Brahma Mohanty (Lab)

May 2018 result C 2156/2024/2019 Lab 965/941/910 LD 653/487
May 2014 result C 1889/1751/1659 Lab 1062/1007/949 UKIP 511
May 2010 result C 3400/3002/2801 Lab 1740/1535/1343 LD 1527
May 2006 result C 2226/2068/1886 LD 670/612/549 Lab 609/591/537
May 2002 result C 1812/1766/1734 Lab 897/818/795
Previous results in detail

May 2021 GLA results (excludes postal voters)
Mayor: C 1243 Lab 705 Grn 176 LD 110 Omilana 52 Reclaim 35 Count Binface 29 Rejoin EU 18 Animal Welfare 15 Let London Live 12 UKIP 11 London Real 11 Obunge 10 SDP 8 Farah London 8 Heritage Party 7 Renew 6 Fosh 6 Women’s Equality 5 Burning Pink 3
London Members: C 1223 Lab 634 Grn 272 LD 178 Animal Welfare 43 Rejoin EU 35 Reform UK 25 Women’s Equality 25 Heritage 12 Let London Live 10 CPA 9 London Real 9 Nat Lib 7 Comm 6 UKIP 6 Londonpendence 4 TUSC 4 SDP 3

Frimley Green

Surrey Heath council; caused by the resignation of Liberal Democrat councillor Benjamin Leach.

Surrey Heath, Frimley Green

I promised you more on Surrey Heath, so we now travel outside London to the western edge of Surrey. Frimley Green lies on the eastern side of the Blackwater valley, which is home to a surprisingly large urban area: the towns of Camberley, Farnborough, Aldershot, Sandhurst and Frimley have effectively merged together into a single conurbation. Because of the location of this urban sprawl on the borders of Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire, our local government structures rather disguise this. Camberley and Frimley, the Surrey towns in this conurbation, are included in the Surrey Heath local government district.

Frimley Green still has a bit of a village feel to it even though it’s now part of this urban area. The Blackwater valley towns have traditionally had an economy dominated by the Army and aerospace, but the largest single employer in Frimley Green is a large factory making SC Johnson cleaning products; and the town is best known for flying projectiles which, while sharp, are distinctly not military. Frimley Green is home to the Lakeside Country Club, which from 1986 until 2019 advertised itself as the “Home of World Darts”, being the venue for the BDO World Darts Championship. (The tournament moved to the madhouse of the O2 in London for January 2020 for a tournament which fell short of financial expectations. As all darts players know, if you go for madhouse and fall short with your first shot then you go bust, and that’s what subsequently happened to the BDO.)

Full disclosure: Your columnist once aimed three darts at a dartboard on the stage of the Lakeside in Frimley Green, and missed the scoring area of the board with every one. This game is harder than it looks on the telly.

Surrey Heath’s council elections have consistently returned a Conservative majority this century, the party’s fortunes peaking in 2015 when they polled 58% across the district and won 36 seats out of a possible 39. Previous elections were closer, and Frimley Green ward returned a full slate of Liberal Democrats in 2003 and 2007. The ward was redrawn for the 2019 elections, gaining part of Frimley ward to the north.

As I mentioned last week the May 2019 local elections saw enormous Conservative losses in western Surrey, with the party losing control of Guildford and Waverley districts. They came very close to losing control of Surrey Heath district as well, finishing with 18 councillors out of 35 and a majority of one. Frimley Green swung a long way to the Lib Dems who gained the ward with 49% of the vote, against just 29% for the Conservatives and 13% for UKIP. The ward was also contested by the Pirate Party in a rare foray for them into UK local elections: the Pirates finished last with a creditable 9%.

The Conservatives have since lost their majority on Surrey Heath council after two of their councillors formed a new “Camberley Independent” group. The current council composition stands at 17 Conservatives, 8 Lib Dems plus this vacancy, 6 independents (including the two Camberley Independents) and two Greens.

However, subsequent elections here have been more encouraging for the Tories. Michael Gove was re-elected as the MP for Surrey Heath very comfortably in December 2019, and following the recent reshuffle he is now the Cabinet minister responsible for local government. In May 2021 the Conservatives held all six of the district’s Surrey county council divisions and gained a district council by-election from the Lib Dems in Bagshot ward. That by-election followed the sad death of Sam Kay, whose short but luckless life is remembered in Andrew’s Previews 2020, page 90.

Frimley Green has a larger Lib Dem lead than Bagshot, but the party will still need to be on their guard in this by-election. The poll follows the resignation of Ben Leach, who stood down from the council last month on health grounds.

Defending for the Lib Dems is Jacques Olmo, who gives an address in Deepcut and sits on the committee of the Mytchett, Frimley Green and Deepcut Society. The Conservatives will regain an overall majority on the council if they win this by-election, and their candidate is Stuart Black who has lived in Frimley Green for 20 years and has “a background in industries from defence to healthcare, delivering innovation and change”. UKIP have not returned, so Labour’s Christine Richards completes the ballot paper.

Parliamentary constituency: Surrey Heath
Surrey county council division: Frimley Green and Mytchett
ONS Travel to Work Area: Guildford and Aldershot
Postcode district: GU16

Stuart Black (C)
Jacques Olmo (LD)
Christine Richards (Lab)

May 2019 result LD 1019/1012/889 C 601/568/519 UKIP 269 Pirate Party 190
Previous results in detail

Leigh West

Wigan council, Greater Manchester; caused by the death of Labour councillor Lord Smith of Leigh.

Wigan, Leigh W

For our English Labour defence this week we come to a place which is emblematic of the so-called “Red Wall”. Until 2019, the Leigh parliamentary constituency had never returned a Conservative MP: it had been Liberal from its 1885 creation until 1922, and then Labour continuously from 1922 to 2019.

That included the catastrophe of 1931, when the Labour MP for Leigh Joe Tinker – one of the most vocal advocates of better working conditions for coalminers – survived with a majority of just over 2,000 against the Conservative candidate, a Leigh lad made good called Peter Eckersley. Eckersley was a star cricket player who had captained Lancashire to the County Championship the year before. He eventually got into Parliament in 1935 as the Tory MP for Manchester Exchange, but was then killed in a plane crash while serving in the Second World War.

The Conservatives had never come so close to winning Leigh in Parliament since 1931. Even in 2015, when Andy Burnham (now the Mayor of Greater Manchester) won his final term in the Commons, he enjoyed a majority of 14,096 and the Conservative vote was under 23%. His successor, Jo Platt, won by over 9,500 votes in June 2017.

We can see the seeds for the Conservative gain of Leigh in what happened next. Platt promptly resigned from Wigan council, and a by-election was held for her seat in Astley Mosley Common ward in October 2017 (Andrew’s Previews 2017, page 302) which saw a sharp swing to the Conservatives.

This fitted into a wider pattern. Like many ex-coalfield areas, Leigh is changing. The town of Leigh itself is notoriously one of the largest towns in England without a railway station, but the A580 East Lancashire Road and the M6 motorway gives the area excellent road connections to the major urban centres around it – Manchester, Warrington, Liverpool. Astley Mosley Common ward borders the strongly middle-class commuter area of Boothstown in Salford, Golborne and Lowton in particular are transforming into a commuter centre on the quiet, and many years of solid, hard work by the local Conservatives have turned the pit ward of Lowton East into a Conservative stronghold. The Conservative candidate for Leigh in December 2019 was one of the prime movers behind that hard work, Lowton East ward councillor James Grundy, and he can take a lot of personal credit for his result. A generic Tory candidate might not have done so well.

If Leigh were a town in the Midlands then it and the mining district around it would probably be a local government district of its own, as we see in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. However, we’re in Greater Manchester here and the Leigh area is instead administered from Wigan, whose council has an almost impregnable Labour majority. For many years Wigan council was led by Peter Smith, an Old Boltonian and LSE economics graduate who was first elected to Wigan council in 1978. In 1982 Smith became chairman of the council’s finance committee; in 1991 he was elected as Leader of the Council, a post he went on to hold for 27 years until retiring in 2018. During this time Smith was elevated to the House of Lords in 1999, taking the title Lord Smith of Leigh. He died in August, aged 76.

Lord Smith was Leigh born and bred and his ward was Leigh West, based on the Westleigh area and taking in the Bickershaw Country Park and Pennington Wharf. The collieries have left their mark on the landscape with a number of large lakes – “flashes” – which owe their origins to mining subsidence. Just to the south of the ward is the largest of these, Pennington Flash, which for some years now has been the starting point for the Ironman UK triathlon. This isn’t the only sport associated with Leigh: Leigh Sports Village includes a 12,000-seat stadium which hosts Leigh Centurions rugby league club and Manchester United reserves, and it was due to be the venue for three group games in the Rugby League World Cup this autumn before its postponement.

Wigan, 2019

Leigh West is a safe Labour ward where the party has not been seriously threatened for many years. In May’s Wigan council elections Labour led the Conservatives here 57-26; that was the first time the Tories had made second here since 2008 and 2014, when the ward was a straight Labour-Tory fight. In 2019 (mapped above), UKIP were runners-up here with third place going to a new localist party, “Leigh, Atherton and Tyldesley Together”. Lord Smith was last re-elected in 2018, so the winner of this by-election will have to go back to the polls next May to seek re-election.

Defending this seat for Labour is Samantha Brown, who gives an address in the ward and works at Leigh Sports Village. The Conservatives have selected James Geddes, who works in prisoner rehabilitation: he stood in Leigh East ward in May. Completing the ballot paper are Jayson Hargreaves, standing again for the Leigh and Atherton Independents (as Leigh, Atherton and Tyldesley Together now appear to be called); and Sharron Honey who returns for the Lib Dems after contesting May’s election.

Parliamentary constituency: Leigh
ONS Travel to Work Area: Warrington and Wigan
Postcode districts: WN2, WN7

Samantha Brown (Lab)
James Geddes (C)
Jayson Hargreaves (Leigh and Atherton Ind)
Sharron Honey (LD)

May 2021 result Lab 1582 C 714 Leigh, Atherton and Tyldesley Together 394 LD 104
May 2019 result Lab 1049 UKIP 613 Leigh, Atherton and Tyldesley Together 412 C 196 LD 161
May 2018 result Lab 1308 Ind 578 C 374 LD 158
May 2016 result Lab 1610 UKIP 738 C 205 Grn 129
May 2015 result Lab 3066 UKIP 1418 C 645 Grn 278
May 2014 result Lab 2005 C 658
May 2012 result Lab 1761 Ind 650 C 195
May 2011 result Lab 1844 Ind 430 C 334 BNP 239
May 2010 result Lab 2509 LD 828 BNP 693 C 557 Ind 280 Ind 255 UKIP 247
May 2008 result Lab 1543 C 817
May 2007 result Lab 1380 Ind 600 C 289 Community Action 280
May 2006 result Lab 1377 LD 721 C 410
June 2004 result Lab 1708/1624/1503 Community Action 669/549/508 BNP 513
Previous results in detail

Falkirk South

Falkirk council, Scotland; caused by the resignation of Labour councillor Pat Reid.

Falkirk, Falkirk S

We finish north of the border in Scotland’s most beautiful town, according a 2011 poll for the STV television station. Falkirk might not have seemed so beautiful back in the day to the Romans: in the second century AD this was the northern frontier of the Roman empire, with the Antonine Wall guarding the high ground overlooking the Forth estuary.

The Romans recorded the site as Varia Capella; this, the Celtic Ecclesbrith, the Gaelic An Eaglais Bhreac and the Scots Fawkirk all refer to a “speckled” church on the site of the present Falkirk Trinity Church. Falkirk’s location next to the Forth and with easy access to local ironstone resulted in it becoming an early centre of the Industrial Revolution, with communication links to match. The Forth and Clyde Canal opened in 1790, the Union Canal in 1822 and the railways came in the 1830s, giving easy access to Edinburgh and Glasgow. All of them run through this ward. The two canals were rejoined in the twenty-first century by the Falkirk Wheel, a unique rotating boat lift which draws large numbers of tourists to the area. Including your columnist, who took this picture in April 2019.

Falkirk Wheel, by the author

The Falkirk Wheel lies on the boundary of Falkirk South ward, which takes in the town centre and points south of it including a small rural hinterland. Both of the town’s main railway stations (High and Grahamston) are here, as is the mansion of Callendar House which serves as the main museum and heritage centre for Falkirk.

This ward was originally drawn up for the May 2007 elections when Scotland introduced proportional representation to its local elections. In both 2007 and 2012 Labour won two seats, the SNP and Conservatives one each. Boundary changes for the 2017 cut the ward down from four councillors to three, and it was Labour who lost from this: the SNP took over first place with 36% of the first preferences, the Conservatives were second with 32% and Labour tell to third on 27%. All three of those parties won one seat each; in fact, all of the winning candidates (Lorna Binnie for the SNP, John Patrick for the Conservatives and Pat Reid for Labour) got over the 25% required for election on first preferences alone, so there was no need to go to transfers.

Falkirk, 2017

That was back in May 2017, since when we have had two general elections to Westminster and one to Holyrood. The ward is part of the Falkirk constituency at Westminster (where an awful Labour performance in 2019 was exacerbated by their candidate being disendorsed for anti-Semitism), while in Holyrood the vast majority of the ward is in Falkirk West with the rural hinterland included in Falkirk East. All of these are SNP units with large majorities.

There is not too long to go now before the next Scottish local elections in May 2022, and the six-month rule cutoff point is fast approaching. Currently this column is aware of three Scottish vacancies: this one, a Tory seat in the Highlands which will go to a by-election at the start of December, and a very messy situation involving independent Renfrewshire councillor Paul Mack. That story is too long to explain here without digressing too far from Falkirk: suffice to say it’s one for the Councillors Behaving Badly file. In short, the Standards Commission for Scotland has disqualified Mack from office (again) for bad behaviour (again); Mack has appealed against the decision (again); and the by-election is on hold (again) while the appeal is sorted out (again).

If we don’t get a final resolution to the Paul Mack saga soon, and no other Scottish vacancies arise in the next month, then this will be the last Scottish by-election in the central belt during this council term. So, everyone will be looking to make a good impression.

This by-election arises from the resignation of Labour councillor Pat Reid, who is retiring from public life at the age of 79. Reid’s connection with Falkirk council lasted for more than six decades, as he started working for the council in 1959 while still a boy; he retired from its employment in 2002 as head of administration, won a by-election to the council in 2004 and ended up serving for ten years (2007-2017) as Provost of Falkirk. During those years Reid represented Falkirk North ward; he transferred here in 2017 after that ward lost its fourth councillor.

Following the May 2017 local elections the Scottish National Party were the largest group on Falkirk council with 12 councillors, and they have formed a minority administration with the support of two independent councillors. Labour (9) and the Conservatives (7) are in opposition. An SNP gain in this by-election would give the SNP/Independent administration half of the seats on the council.

If we re-run the 2017 count in Falkirk south for one seat it goes to transfers, with the SNP winning by the narrow margin of 2,868 to 2,727 over the Conservatives. Labour would have more comfortably beaten either the Conservatives or the SNP in a head-to-head, but to do that they need to get into the top two. And they’re starting from third place.

Defending this difficult seat for Labour is James Marshall, a former community councillor in Denny who has retired after a 30-year career in waste management and recycling. The SNP candidate is Emma Russell, who is studying for a masters degree in Human Resources and is a former vice-chair of a dementia services charity. Standing for the Conservatives is Sarah Patrick; the daughter of the present Conservative ward councillor John Patrick, Sarah is a solicitor and an elder with the Falkirk Trinity Church. Completing the ballot paper, as they did in 2017, are the Scottish Green Party who have selected Stuart Duffin.

Parliamentary constituency: Falkirk
Scottish Parliament constituency: Falkirk West (most), Falkirk East (rural part)
ONS Travel to Work Area: Falkirk and Stirling
Postcode district: FK1

Stuart Duffin (Grn)
James Marshall (Lab)
Sarah Patrick (C)
Emma Russell (SNP)

May 2017 first preferences SNP 2216 C 1993 Lab 1686 Grn 315
Previous results in detail

If you enjoyed this preview, there are many more like it – 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