Previews: 13 Dec 2017

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

There are two unusual Wednesday by-elections on 13th December 2017. We keep the recent south of England theme going, with a Labour defence in Exeter and a Conservative defence in Surrey, both in wards which look rather safe. Read on…

Newtown and St Leonard’s

Exeter council, Devon; caused by the resignation of Labour councillor Roger Spackman, who had served since September 2010 for the former Newtown ward and since 2016 for this ward. His resignation was ostensibly for personal reasons, but it has since been revealed that Spackman is being investigated by police on suspicion of making an indecent photograph of a child.

For the first of our two by-elections on the Wednesday of the week before Christmas, we are in the city of Exeter. The Newtown area lies immediately to the east of Exeter city centre. Always a poor area of town – the main industries here were workhouses and brick-making – Newtown was built-up by 1900, and many of the original houses have survived the Baedeker raids to the present day. Further south is the St Leonard’s area, along the Topsham Road, which has seen extensive redevelopment since 2000. The walk is within walking distance of the city centre and many of its residents walk to work. One intriguing feature of the ward is that one of its census districts has a significant number of British Sign Language speakers: this is associated with the Exeter Royal Academy for Deaf Education, which lies just outside the ward boundary. Within the boundary are the city’s bus station on Paris Street, the St Luke’s Campus of the University of Exeter, the independent Exeter School and Belmont Park. Not surprisingly education is a major employer here.

Newtown and St Leonard’s ward was created in 2016 when Exeter’s wards were significantly reorganised. The pre-2016 Newtown ward had a large student population associated with the University of Exeter – the university’s St Luke’s Campus lies within the ward – while the old St Leonard’s ward was much more upmarket with an urban professional demographic. The merger of the two wards was good news for Labour, who had a lock on Newtown ward; St Leonard’s ward was safe Conservative before the Coalition years but turned marginal from 2012 onwards and was a Labour gain at its last election, in 2015. The 2016 election to the new ward – the only previous result on these boundaries – took its cue from the Newtown half rather than the St Leonard’s half. Labour won the ward that year with 50%, to 23% for the Conservatives and 12% for the Green Party; further down the ballot was a rare local election outing for the UKIP splinter group An Independence from Europe, who came last with 3%. The elections earlier this year showed further good news for Labour, who won both of the county divisions which cover most of the ward (a small corner of the ward is within the safe-Tory division of Wearside and Topsham), and also performed well in June’s general election in the Exeter constituency.

Even with the dubious circumstances of this by-election Labour can be confident here. Their defending candidate is Matthew Vizard, a caseworker for Exeter’s Labour MP Ben Bradshaw; he is hoping to join on the council his wife Natalie who is another councillor for the ward. The Conservatives have selected Lucille Baker, the Conservative election agent for eastern Devon. Returning from the 2016 election is Green Party candidate Tom Milburn, a Unison organiser and long-serving chairman of the Exeter branch of CND. Completing the ballot paper are Alexandra Newcombe for the Liberal Democrats – who have won all three by-elections in Devon since the start of November but will be hard-pressed to keep that streak going here – and Alison Sheridan for UKIP.

Parliamentary constituency: Exeter
Exeter county council division: St David’s and Haven Banks (part: former St Leonard’s ward); St Sidwell’s and St James (part: former Newtown ward); Wearside and Topsham (small part)
ONS Travel to Work Area: Exeter
Postcode districts: EX1, EX2, EX4

Lucille Baker (C)
Tom Milburn (Grn)
Alexandra Newcombe (LD)
Alison Sheridan (UKIP)
Matthew Vizard (Lab)

May 2016 result Lab 1725/1562/1448 C 816/755/676 Grn 416/371/276 LD 244 UKIP 172 An Independence from Europe 104

Godalming Central and Ockford

Waverley council, Surrey; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Simon Thornton.

Our second Wednesday by-election is one of the five wards covering the Surrey town of Godalming. This is a prosperous town whose traditional industry was woollen cloth, later diversifying into papermaking, quarrying and coaching. The town’s location in the North Downs five miles south of Guildford may look slightly out of the way, but it was a popular stopping point on the London to Portsmouth stagecoach run, while the River Wey was canalised in the eighteenth century to further connect Godalming to the outside world. The town was the first place in the world to have a public electricity supply and electric street lighting, but is probably better known for the curious case of Mary Toft, a local maidservant who in 1726 was the subject of a well-known hoax in which she claimed to have given birth to rabbits. The railway came in 1849, and Godalming station lies on the Portsmouth Direct line with two trains each hour to Guildford and Waterloo.

Ian Fleming may have satirised Godalming’s demographic (in For Your Eyes Only) as full of retired colonial civil servants, but in truth Godalming Central and Ockford ward is a middle-class commuter area. The ward is well-described by its name, covering the town centre, the railway station and the suburb of Ockford to the south-west. Included in the ward is the head office of Waverley council (although Godalming is only the second-largest town in the district, after Farnham).

Like much of Waverley district, this ward had a strong Lib Dem vote in 2003 which has since completely fallen apart. The Tories gained Godalming Central and Ockford in 2007, and were easily re-elected in 2015 with 41% of the vote, to 26% for Labour and 17% for an outfit called “Something New” of which your columnist knows nothing. There was no Lib Dem candidate here in 2015, but the 2017 county elections suggest they may have got their act together: the party gained the Godalming North county division, which includes the town centre, from the Conservatives.

Defending for the Conservatives is Stella Andersen-Payne who is seeking to return to Waverley council; under her former name of Stella Payne she was elected unopposed for Frensham, Dockenfield and Tilford ward in 2011 but stood down after one term. Hoping that everything is in the right place for a Labour win is their candidate Richard Ashworth, a feng shui practitioner. Something New are now something old and have not returned, so completing the ballot paper are Paul Follows of the Liberal Democrats and Susan Ryland of the Green Party.

Parliamentary constituency: South West Surrey
Surrey county council division: Godalming North (part: Godalming Central); Godalming South, Milford and Witley (part: Ockford)
ONS Travel to Work Area: Guildford and Aldershot
Postcode districts: GU7, GU8

Stella Andersen-Payne (C)
Richard Ashworth (Lab)
Paul Follows (LD)
Susan Ryland (Grn)

May 2015 result C 1180/1024 Lab 743 Something New 485 UKIP 437
May 2011 result C 829/731 LD 410 Lab 346
May 2007 result C 609/592 LD 522/501 Lab 115
May 2003 result LD 685/623 C 276/286 Lab 252/217 Grn 85

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