Previews: 30 Nov 2017

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

The Met Office might recognise St Andrew’s Day as the last day of autumn, but a quick look out of your columnist’s window to the brooding, whitened mass of Winter Hill will serve to tell that winter has arrived. Winter is a slow time for local by-elections, partly due to the prevailing weather and partly due to the fact that we are now on the countdown to the May 2018 local elections. That gives by-election watchers the chance to pause for breath as we have just four polls this week, the fewest since the middle of September. All of these are south of the M4 corridor, but that doesn’t mean a lack of political diversity with all three major parties having one defence each. Read on…


North

Maidstone council, Kent; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Michael Hemsley who had served since 2015.

Last week we finished on the edge of Kent as the Conservatives held a ward based around the White Cliffs of Dover; this week we move inland to Kent’s county town. North ward saw an important development in English history in 1076 with the Trial of Penenden Heath. This trial resolved a dispute between Odo, bishop of Bayeux and earl of Kent, and Lanfranc, archbishop of Canterbury, in Lanfranc’s favour. The subsequent Domesday Book records Pinnedenna as the place for Kent’s landowners to report to the Shire Court.

Penenden Heath crops up many times later in history: it was a meeting-place in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, in Wyatt’s Rebellion of 1554 and during the Civil War, when the Royalist army assembled here in advance of their loss in the 1648 Battle of Maidstone. Early cricket matches were played on the heath: in August and September 1795 Kent lost to England here by five wickets, proving that the England cricket team can win a match on occasion. In later times Penenden Heath became a place of execution, then a recreation ground, before being built on in the 1960s.

The Heath forms about half of the present North ward, which runs north from Maidstone East railway station along the A229 road (towards Rochester) and the east bank of the Medway. Much of the ward’s acreage is taken up by the barracks of Invicta Park, home to 36 Engineer Regiment. This regiment includes two squadrons of Gurkhas, whose presence puts North ward in the top 50 wards in England and Wales for Buddhism. Also within the ward boundaries are Maidstone Prison (as seen in the title sequence of Porridge), and the Gallagher Stadium, home to the non-league football team Maidstone United and the first English football stadium built with 3G artificial turf. The census picked up a significant Polish population at the southern end of the ward, but this may be an effect of the prison which holds a large number of foreign nationals within the UK’s penal systems.

Now, in this by-election the stakes are high. North ward is normally a safe Liberal Democrat area, although the Conservatives came close in 2011 and UKIP were not far off winning a seat in 2014. Since the current ward boundaries were introduced in 1979 the Conservatives have won only four seats here: two in that initial 1979 election, one in 1992 and Michael Hemsley’s seat in 2015 which came with a majority of just 25 votes over the Lib Dems. Local elections since 2015 do not give much cause for optimism that the Conservatives can hold this one: in the 2016 election the Liberal Democrats won here with 43%, to 24% for the Conservatives and 17% for UKIP; and the Lib Dem had a similar lead in May’s Kent county elections in the local Maidstone North East division. To add to that, this by-election will determine who is the largest party on the hung Maidstone council: going into this poll the Lib Dems (who run the council as a minority administration) and Conservatives were tied on 22 seats each, with four independents, four Kippers and two Labour councillors holding the balance of power.

Defending for the Conservatives is Cheryl Taylor-Maggio, chairman of Langley parish council (located a few miles south-east of Maidstone); she fought the county seat here in May. Hoping to return to the borough council is Liberal Democrat candidate Rob Field, who was councillor for Park Wood ward from a November 2006 by-election until standing down in 2012; he works in the health sector. UKIP have not returned to the fray, so the ballot paper is completed by Labour’s Maureen Cleator who fought this ward in 2016, and the Greens’ Derek Eagle who has stood here on several previous occasions.

Parliamentary constituency: Maidstone and the Weald
Kent county council division: Maidstone North East
ONS Travel to Work Area: Medway
Postcode districts: ME14, ME99

Maureen Cleator (Lab)
Derek Eagle (Grn)
Rob Field (LD)
Cheryl Taylor-Maggio (C)

May 2016 result LD 851 C 473 UKIP 328 Lab 261 Grn 68
May 2015 result C 1255 LD 1230 UKIP 783 Lab 445 Grn 215
May 2014 double vacancy LD 949/597 UKIP 529/479 C 380/334 Lab 206 Grn 199
May 2012 result LD 907 C 381 Lab 206 UKIP 167
May 2011 result LD 871 C 782 Lab 330 UKIP 152 Grn 140
May 2010 result LD 1978 C 1225 Lab 299 UKIP 194 Grn 104
MAy 2008 result LD 1012 C 552 Grn 141
May 2007 result LD 973 C 500 Grn 145 Lab 106 Ind 77
May 2006 result LD 1077 C 530 Grn 141 Lab 129
June 2004 result LD 997 C 486 UKIP 214 Lab 169 Grn 80
May 2003 result LD 849 C 379 Lab 161 UKIP 65
May 2002 result LD 1020/974/841 C 402/390 Lab 226 UKIP 109
May 2000 result LD 762 C 341 Lab 136 Grn 46
May 1999 result LD 844 C 434 Lab 166 Grn 34
May 1998 result LD 684 C 400 Lab 231 Grn 46
May 1996 result LD 839 Lab 393 C 327 Grn 63
May 1995 result LD 655 Lab 580 C 451 Grn 36
May 1994 result LD 967 C 606 Lab 484 Grn 86
May 1992 result C 1165 LD 679 Lab 289
May 1991 result LD 1046 C 797 Lab 351
May 1990 result SLD 1370 C 700 Lab 544
May 1988 double vacancy All 1108/994 C 752/740 Lab 272/251
May 1987 result All 1405 C 1000 Lab 264
May 1986 result All 1067 C 871 Lab 321
May 1984 result All 1206 C 599 Lab 274
May 1983 result All 1681 C 720 Lab 230
May 1982 result All 1203 C 757 Lab 297
May 1980 result Lib 976 C 737 Lab 496 NF 22
May 1979 result Lib 1540/1380/1362 C 1502/1468/1371 Lab 907/867/807


Westway

Tandridge council, Surrey; caused by the resignation of Liberal Democrat councillor Caroline Warner who had served since 2016. She is moving away from the area.

We move west along the North Downs and inside the M25 motorway, although just outside the Greater London boundary, to the town of Caterham. Administratively Caterham is not one town, but two: Westway lies within the western half, known as Caterham on the Hill for obvious reasons. We retain a link with the Army: much of Westway ward was formerly occupied by Caterham Barracks, which closed in the 1990s with the site having been redeveloped for housing in the 1990s and 2000s.

Westway is the most deprived of the five wards covering Caterham on the Hill and Caterham Valley, and despite high employment levels has relatively large amounts of social housing. This enabled the ward to vote Labour at the height of Tony Blair’s powers, and as recently as 2002 Labour polled 36% of the vote here. The Lib Dems got ahead of Labour in the 2004 election, and then the Labour vote collapsed in their favour to create a Lib Dem/Tory marginal. Since 2008 the ward’s two seats have been split between the Conservatives and Lib Dems; the Liberal Democrats held their seat last year on a rather low share of the vote, 36% to 29% for the Conservatives and 19% for UKIP. In May’s Surrey county elections the local Caterham Hill division produced a photo-finish, the Liberal Democrats holding their seat by just 12 votes.

Defending for the Liberal Democrats is Helen Rujbally, a local resident who works supporting people with learnings disabilities: she was a victim of flash-flooding in 2016. Alex Standen is standing for the Conservatives; he was a UKIP candidate in the 2016 local elections. The official UKIP candidate is Helena Windsor, a former Surrey county councillor (Godstone, 2013-17). Completing the ballot paper is Labour candidate Lucy McNally.

Parliamentary constituency: East Surrey
Surrey county council division: Caterham Hill
ONS Travel to Work Area: London (part); Crawley (part)
Postcode district: CR3

Lucy McNally (Lab)
Helen Rujbally (LD)
Alex Standen (C)
Helena Windsor (UKIP)

May 2016 result LD 416 C 335 UKIP 220 Lab 183
May 2014 result C 358 LD 265 UKIP 243 Lab 155
May 2012 result LD 496 C 204 Lab 120 UKIP 79
May 2010 result C 828 LD 799 Lab 158 UKIP 106
May 2008 result LD 573 C 485 Lab 70
May 2006 result C 584 LD 414 Lab 97
June 2004 result C 521 LD 232 Lab 181
May 2002 result C 477 Lab 344 LD 127
May 2000 result C 447/440 Lab 327/320 LD 181/138


Bridgemary North

Gosport council, Hampshire; caused by the death of Labour councillor Jill Wright at the age of 69. The Mayoress of Gosport in 2001-02, Wright was first elected to Gosport council in 1997 for Rowner ward, transferring to Bridgemary South ward in 2002. She lost her seat in 2008 but returned to the council in 2012 for Bridgemary North ward. Away from the council, Wright worked for 26 years as practice manager at the Bridgemary medical centre.

We travel south-west from Caterham to the Solent conurbation. This is a badly-planned area of large towns and associated housing estates, with Bridgemary being one of the largest estates. Almost entirely developed since the Second World War, this is the northern end of the town of Gosport hard up against the border with Fareham. Gosport is of course a naval town, and within the boundaries of Bridgemary North ward is Fleetlands Heliport, opened during the war as a naval air yard and now used as a maintenance base for both military and civil helicopters. Also within the ward is the misleadingly-named Fareham Business Park, home to the book printers Ashford Colour Press and the pharmaceutical testing company Wickham Laboratories. So, despite the ward’s low qualification levels (it is just outside the top 100 in the UK for those with between 1 and 5 GCSE passes or equivalent) there are plenty of jobs here.

The ward was created in 2002 as part of a major reorganisation of Gosport’s wards, in which the town became one of the handful of English districts to introduce the system of election by halves. Bridgemary North’s working-class economic profile normally creates a safe Labour ward, although the Conservatives did win here in 2008 with a majority of just 50 votes. Jill Wright recovered that loss for Labour in 2012 to rejoin on the council her husband Dennis, who is the ward’s other councillor. In 2016 Jill was re-elected for the last time, beating the Conservatives 72-28 in a straight fight. However, Labour did very badly here in May’s county elections, losing their seat in the Bridgemary division and actually falling to third place behind the Tories and Lib Dems.

Defending for Labour is local resident James Fox, who is retired after a career spent working for local firms and the MoD. The Conservative candidate Richard Dickson is hoping to make a quick return to the council after losing his seat in Christchurch ward in 2016; he had represented that ward since 2004 and was Mayor of Gosport in 2012-13. Completing the ballot paper is Stephen Hammond, who has been tempted by his second-place performance in May’s county elections to become the ward’s first Liberal Democrat candidate.

Parliamentary constituency: Gosport
Hampshire county council division: Bridgemary
ONS Travel to Work Area: Portsmouth
Postcode district: PO13

Richard Dickson (C)
James Fox (Lab)
Stephen Hammond (LD)

May 2016 result Lab 796 C 310
May 2014 result Lab 829 C 331
May 2012 result Lab 708 C 418
May 2010 result Lab 1002 C 733 EDP 381
May 2008 result C 594 Lab 544
May 2006 result Lab 809 C 384
June 2004 result Lab 643 C 473
May 2002 result Lab 814/795 C 253/235


Torrington

Torridge council, Devon; caused by the resignation of councillor Roger Darch, who had been elected for the UK Independence Party but was sitting as an independent.

For our final poll of the week we enter the West Country. Readers of Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter will have an image in their mind’s eye of the Torridge valley, of which Great Torrington is the major settlement. Williamson’s work has brought some tourists to the town, which still retains a large number of independent shops because it’s too small and remote to interest the national chains. However, the largest employer in the town is glass-making: Dartington Crystal runs the UK’s last remaining crystal factory here.

This market town may be tiny, but in 1958 Torrington gave its name to a parliamentary seat which was gained by the Liberal Party in a famous by-election. More recent results in the town have been fragmented: this is the sort of area where a local independent can build up a high profile, and long-serving independent councillor Margaret Brown has developed a clear personal vote to do just that. In the 2007 election her ward colleagues were a Conservative and a Liberal Democrat; the Lib Dem councillor resigned in 2013 as he was moving to Norfolk, and the party did not defend the resulting by-election which was won by the Green Party’s Cathrine Simmons. Brown and Simmons were re-elected in first and second place in 2015, with the Conservatives losing their seat to UKIP’s Roger Darch; shares of the vote were 25% for Brown, 22% for the Greens, 21% for UKIP and 20% for the Conservatives. The Tories had a big lead in the local county seat (Torrington Rural) in May, with UKIP’s Darch falling to fourth place. On a more sour note, a by-election in August to Great Torrington town council – which has the same boundaries as this ward – created controversy after the (unsuccessful) Liberal Democrat candidate reportedly sent an explicit picture of himself dressed as a mouse to the (unsuccessful) Labour candidate.

Hopefully this by-election will be more decorous, although anyone without local knowledge would be hard-pressed to pick a winner. Defending for UKIP is John Pitts, secretary of Great Torrington bowls club and Darch’s running-mate here in 2015. Standing as an independent candidate is Di Davey, who has recently succeeded Darch as Deputy Mayor of Great Torrington. The Green Party have selected Sue Clarke, who is a teacher. Returning from the 2015 election is the Conservatives’ Harold Martin, who is seeking to return to Torridge council; he represented Two Rivers ward from 2011 to 2015 when he unsuccessfully sought election here. Completing the ballot paper is Liberal Democrat candidate Cheryl Cottle-Hunkin, a teacher and sheep farmer.

Parliamentary constituency: Torridge and West Devon
Devon county council division: Torrington Rural
ONS Travel to Work Area: Bideford
Postcode district: EX38

Sue Clarke (Grn)
Cheryl Cottle-Hunkin (LD)
Di Davey (Ind)
Harold Martin (C)
John Pitts (UKIP)

May 2015 result Ind 986 Grn 901/627 UKIP 841/659 C 786/736 Lab 496
September 2013 by-election Grn 292 UKIP 181 Ind 160 Ind 106 C 88
May 2011 result C 809 Ind 792/480 LD 641/209 Lab 312 UKIP 208
May 2007 result Ind 693/490/476/179 C 620 LD 495 Grn 352
May 2003 result Ind 645/424/254 LD 376/364/243 Grn 212


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