Previews: 22 Mar 2018

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

In the last big week of by-elections before the ordinary May elections, there are eight polls on 22nd March 2018. The Conservatives defend three, Labour defend two, two are defended by independents and there is a free-for-all. Read on, as we travel towards London from Midlothian…


Penicuik

Midlothian council; caused by the death of the Provost of Midlothian, Labour councillor Adam Montgomery, at the age of 67. From a mining family – his grandfather worked down the pits for 58 years, while his father was an NUM safety inspector who investigated more than 150 fatal mining accidents – Montgomery started his career with the National Coal Board and later worked for Edinburgh council as a housing officer and NALGO shop steward. That gave Montgomery a leg up into politics, and in 1986 he gained the Penicuik seat on the Lothian regional council. Transferring to Midlothian council in the 1990s reorganisation, Montgomery was leader of the council from 2003 to 2007; more recently he had been working on a study to reopen the rail link to Penicuik.

We start this week with our only Scottish by-election. We’re on the eastern slopes of the Pentland Hills here to visit a town named after the Hill of the Cuckoo, Peighinn na Cuthaig in Gaelic, and consequently pronounced “Pennycook”. On the A701 road halfway between Edinburgh and Peebles, Penicuik started off in 1770 as a planned village to house workers at Cowan’s paper mills, and was modelled on the Edinburgh New Town while being much less architecturally distinguished. The town’s population boomed in the 1810s thanks to French prisoners captured in the Peninsular War, and during the cold winter of January 1847 the first Grand Match in curling took place here with the north of Scotland taking on the south. The paper mills have gone now, but Edinburgh commuters and the Royal Highland Fusiliers, 2nd Battn Royal Regt of Scotland, whose garrison is in Penicuik, provide major contributions to the town’s economy.

In the 2003 election to Midlothian council, the last held under first-past-the-post, the Liberal Democrats dominated Penicuik: they won Penicuik North and Penicuik South East wards and were only 20 votes behind Labour in Penicuik South West. However, the present ward has been carried by the SNP at each poll since PR was introduced in 2007. In that year Penicuik’s three seats went one each to the SNP, the Lib Dems and Labour; the Nationalists gained the Lib Dem seat in 2012 but lost their second seat to the Conservatives in 2017. Shares of the vote in 2017 were 35% for the SNP and 26% each for the Conservatives and Labour. However, the Nationalists lost the Midlothian constituency to Labour in the general election a few weeks later, a gain which will give Labour confidence that they can hold this seat despite starting from third place.

Both Labour and the SNP are appealing to Scottish patriotism by selecting candidates called Wallace. The defending Labour candidate Vivienne Wallace has had the big guns out in support of her, with Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s Scottish leader Richard Leonard both in town last week and Baroness Chakrabarti turning up in the snow over the weekend. The SNP candidate is Joe Wallace, a retired electrician and Montgomery’s predecessor as Provost of Midlothian; he was councillor for this ward from 2012 to 2017 but lost his seat to the Conservatives last year. Standing for the Conservaives is Murdo Macdonald, who has recently retired from a career in the defence industry. Completing the ballot paper is Scottish Green candidate Helen Armstrong.

Parliamentary constituency: Midlothian
Scottish Parliament constituency: Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale
ONS Travel to Work Area: Edinburgh
Postcode districts: EH25, EH26, EH46

Helen Armstrong (Grn)
Murdo Macdonald (C)
Joe Wallace (SNP)
Vivienne Wallace (Lab)

May 2017 result SNP 2040 C 1517 Lab 1482 LD 425 Grn 329
May 2012 result SNP 2133 Lab 1363 LD 562 C 474 Grn 237
May 2007 result SNP 2307 LD 1975 Lab 1554 C 694 Solidarity 64 SSP 62


Bunbury

Cheshire East council; caused by the disqualification of Conservative councillor Michael Jones, who failed to attend any meetings of the council in six months. He had served since 2011.

We move to England, where the seven by-elections today fall into two trios – one trio in the Home Counties and a second in the debateable lands between the Midlands and the North – with an odd one out which we shall come to at the end. Starting with the North or Midlands trio we are in Cheshire, in a rural ward of fourteen parishes covering the rolling countryside between Crewe and Nantwich to the south-east and Tarporley to the north-west. The largest of those parishes, with 1,121 electors, is Bunbury. A name which might be better known as a city in Western Australia, a supergroup with Eric Clapton and the Bee Gees or an unseen character in The Importance of Being Earnest, Bunbury lies on the A49 Warrington-Whitchurch road and the Shropshire Union Canal which has a staircase of locks here. At the southern end of the ward is Dorfold Hall near Nantwich, described by Pevsner as one of the finest Jacobean houses in Cheshire. Bunbury ward makes the top 100 wards in England and Wales for 16- and 17-year-olds, although there doesn’t appear to be an obvious reason why this should be. (Perhaps someone can enlighten me in the comments?)

This is an area which is politically true blue. Created on its current boundaries in 2011, Bunbury re-elected Michael Jones with a 70-18 margin over Labour in 2015. That was despite the fact that Jones had been council leader since 2012 and his administration had presided over a string of well-publicised controversies, from the council spending public money on a stall at a local Conservative Party conference to Jones announcing that plans for a Macclesfield supermarket would be refused before the planning committee had even considered the application.

Jones resigned as council leader in December 2015 after it was revealed that his council had repeatedly waived its own rules to award contracts to a company run by Jones’ personal physiotherapist, a move which sparked a police investigation. He also resigned from the council’s Conservative group and repeatedly announced that he was going to resign from the council once the police investigation was over. As a result, this by-election has been on your columnist’s pending list for nearly two years. In fact, Jones never did submit his resignation letter to the Cheshire East chief executive; this by-election has instead come about under the six-month non-attendance rule. Controversial to the last.

The Cheshire East Tories will no doubt be hoping that with Jones off the scene they can finally put these embarrassing episodes behind them. Their defending candidate is Chris Green, a public speaking coach, Bunbury parish councillor and office-holder in the Eddisbury branch of the Conservative party. The Labour candidate is Jake Lomax, who works in financial services specialising in communications and transaction monitoring. Also standing are Mark Sharkey for the Green Party – who fought this ward in 2015 – and Liberal Democrat Mark Jones. Some of the electors for this by-election may be pleased to note that their polling station is a pub – the Tollemache Arms in Alpraham.

Parliamentary constituency: Eddisbury
ONS Travel to Work Area: Crewe
Postcode districts: CW1, CW5, CW6, CW7, CW10

Chris Green (C)
Mark Jones (LD)
Jake Lomax (Lab)
Mark Sharkey (Grn)

May 2015 result C 1864 Lab 470 Grn 320
May 2011 result C 1173 Lab 380


Leek West

Staffordshire Moorlands council; caused by the death of Conservative councillor Robert Plant at the age of 79. Three times Mayor of Leek, Plant was first elected to the district council in 1987 for Leek North West ward; he lost his seat in 1991 but returned in 1999, lost his seat again in 2003 in the present Leek North ward, and had continuous service since 2003. Plant was chairman of the district council in 2001-02.

We move eastwards and upwards to Leek, the main town in the Staffordshire Moorlands district but not typical of Staffordshire as a whole. Leek is an upland town on the edge of the Peak District, and economically it was the southernmost of the Pennine textile towns, specialising in silkworking like the towns nearest to it in Cheshire. In more recent years the largest local employer was the Britannia building society, which was based in Leek until merging with the Co-op in 2009. Many of the building society workers will have lived in Leek West ward, which covers the Westwood area and is the newest and least-deprived of the town’s four wards; much of West ward’s housing dates from the 1970s.

Leek is a politically interesting town which can return councillors for pretty much any party under the right conditions. Unfortunately for present purposes Leek West is one of the town’s more boring wards: it voted Liberal Democrat in 2003 but the Conservatives gained two of the ward’s seats in 2007 and the other one in 2015. That was quite a comfortable win: shares of the vote in 2015 were 35% for the Conservatives, 21% for Labour, 15% for the localist Moorlands Democratic Alliance slate and 12% for the Greens. At county level this is part of the Leek South division, which voted UKIP in 2009 and Conservative in a 2012 by-election but has been held by Labour since 2013: Charlotte Atkins, the former Staffordshire Moorlands MP, was re-elected as county councillor in 2017 with an increased majority.

The Conservatives have taken no chances in securing the prized spot at the top of the ballot paper: their defending candidate is James Abberley who is the only candidate not to give an address in Leek (he lies in Kingsley on the Stoke-Ashbourne road). The Labour candidate is Bill Cawley, who fought Leek East ward on their ticket in 2015; he was a Stoke-on-Trent councillor from 1982 to 1990 (Lab, Hartshill ward), and contested some Leek elections earlier in this decade as a Green Party or independent figure. There is no Moorlands Democratic Alliance or official Green candidate this time, so completing the ballot paper are Liberal Democrat candidate George Herbert and Leek town councillor Stephen Wales, standing as an independent.

Parliamentary constituency: Staffordshire Moorlands
Staffordshire county council division: Leek South
ONS Travel to Work Area: Stoke-on-Trent
Postcode district: ST13

James Abberley (C)
Bill Cawley (Lab)
George Herbert (LD)
Stephen Wales (Ind)

May 2015 result C 1157/994/921 Lab 697 Moorlands Democratic Alliance 506/490 Grn 400 LD 380 Ind 293/184
May 2011 result C 678/612/527 LD 576/364/322 Moorlands Democratic Alliance 474/457/274
May 2007 result C 813/802/717 LD 724/625/478 UKIP 482 Lab 176
May 2003 result LD 1016/858/677 C 554/441/352 Ratepayers (Staffs Moorlands) 294 Lab 225


Worksop South-East

Bassetlaw council, Nottinghamshire; caused by the resignation of Labour councillor Deirdre Foley who had served since 2014.

We come to the last of this week’s polls in the debatable lands, but this is a very different area to rural Cheshire and suburban Leek. Worksop South-East ward is based on Manton, which has now been swallowed up by the growth of Worksop but was originally a pit village built in the 1900s to serve Manton Colliery. One of the most productive pits in the UK – over a million tonnes of coal were extracted in the year 1979 – Manton was the location of the some of the ugliest scenes in the 1984 miners’ strike, with Manton miner Bob Taylor successfully bringing a court action to have the strike declared unlawful.

The closure of the colliery in 1994 brought all the usual problems, but the pit site has been redeveloped as a business park which has insulated the ward from economic collapse. Part of that business park is a Greencore food factory which claims to be the largest sandwich factory in the world. In the 2011 census Worksop South-East came in at number 12 in England and Wales for routine occupations and just outside the top 100 for semi-routine occupations: those two workng-class categories account for almost 50% of the workforce, while the ward is also in the top 30 in England and Wales for adults with no qualifications (45%). It should not come as a surprise to learn that Worksop South-East ward includes some of Nottinghamshire’s most deprived census districts.

It should also not come as a surprise to learn that this is a very safe Labour ward. At the party’s recent high point in 2012 they polled over 87% here in a straight fight with the Conservatives; in the most recent district election in 2015 Labour beat UKIP here 56-25. In May last year the ward was split between two county divisions which were both safe Labour. The good Tory performance in the Bassetlaw constituency in the 2017 general election clearly didn’t come out of this ward.

Defending for Labour is the wonderfully-named Clayton Tindle, who works for Wilko and is a GMB rep. With UKIP not returning, Tindle is up against Lib Dem Leon Duveen (who fought the Bassetlaw constituency last year) and Conservative Lewis Stanniland.

Parliamentary constituency: Bassetlaw
Nottinghamshire county council division: Worksop East (part), Worksop South (part)
ONS Travel to Work Area: Worksop and Retford
Postcode district: S80

Leon Duveen (LD)
Lewis Stanniland (C)
Clayton Tindle (Lab)

May 2015 result Lab 1798/1632/1494 UKIP 807 Grn 330 Ind 264
May 2014 result Lab 1071 UKIP 393 C 94 LD 50
May 2012 result Lab 1232 C 179
May 2011 result Lab 1624 C 277
May 2010 result Lab 2024 LD 386 C 319
May 2008 result Lab 858 C 321
May 2007 result Lab 917 C 326
May 2006 result Lab 809 C 353
June 2004 result Lab 1281 C 502
May 2003 result Lab 744 C 210
May 2002 result Lab 784/659/610 C 196


Central and Walton

Aylesbury Vale council, Buckinghamshire; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Edward Sims who has been transferred away from the area by his employer. He had served since 2015.

As we move into the home counties for our second English trio, it’s time for a new nomination in the occasional Andrew’s Previews awards for Appalling Council Websites. A few weeks ago Bolton council were the latest to feel your columnist’s wrath by completely failing to publish the notices for the recent Farnworth by-election online. (It’s my council tax you’re wasting.) Aylesbury Vale council have taken a novel and rather unusual approach to publishing the election notices for this by-election: they did put the notices on their website, but made them inaccessible to anybody who hasn’t registered for an online account with the council. Your columnist spent a very painful hour trying to register before eventually giving up and resorting to a trawl of Google to find out who the candidates were. That’s an hour of my life I’m not going to get back. So, as a shining example of how not to publish electoral information, I am pleased to announce that Aylesbury Vale have achieved the sought-after rating of Appalling Council Website. Please get in contact so that I can post your certificate to you.

A bad way to have to start a preview covering one of the most notoriously awful towns in the South of England. Aylesbury is a rather isolated place in the north-western shadow of the Chiltern hills, which has ended up as the county town of Buckinghamshire thanks to its relatively central location within the county. As the name suggests, this is the town centre ward: here can be found the central shopping district together with the railway station and the famously ugly Buckinghamshire county council offices. The town centre must be doing something right because the old Aylesbury Central ward made the top 100 in England and Wales for full-time employment. Boundary changes for the 2015 election added a second councillor and the Walton area to the south-east, an area dominated by large schools: Aylesbury Grammar, Aylesbury High and The Grange.

The old Aylesbury Central ward was Lib Dem until 2011 when the Conservatives gained it by a majority of one vote. Walton had previously been part of Bedgrove ward which had a similar political trajectory. In the 2015 election the new Central and Walton elected the Conservative slate on a low share of the vote: 33%, to 23% for the Lib Dems, 19% for Labour and 17% for UKIP. In May’s county elections the old Central ward was in Aylesbury North division which was safe Lib Dem, while Walton was in Aylesbury South-East division which was safe Tory.

Defending for the Conservatives is Lou Redding, a chartered engineer and visiting research fellow at Cranfield University. The Lib Dem candidate is taxi firm operator Waheed Raja, who won a by-election to Aylesbury town council last year and is hoping to double up at town and district level. Labour have selected Philip Jacques, chairman of the party’s Aylesbury branch. UKIP have not returned, so the ballot paper is completed by Green candidate Matt Williams and independent Kyle Michael, a businessman and former pub landlord who contested Aylesbury in the last general election: he came sixth out of six candidates with 1.1%.

Parliamentary constituency: Aylesbury
Buckinghamshire county council division: Aylesbury North (part: former Aylesbury Central ward), Aylesbury South-East (part: part of former Bedgrove ward)
ONS Travel to Work Area: High Wycombe and Aylesbury
Postcode districts: HP19, HP20, HP21

Philip Jacques (Lab)
Kyle Michael (Ind)
Waheed Raja (LD)
Lou Redding (C)
Matt Williams (Grn)

May 2015 result C 1075/944 LD 752/570 Lab 625/427 UKIP 567/481 Grn 280/211


Ridgeway

Chiltern council, Buckinghamshire; caused by the death of independent councillor Derek Lacey at the age of 75. Despite having lost a leg to diabetes, Lacey didn’t let that stop him; in his working life before retirement he ran a market stall in Chesham for 20 years, owned two clothing shops in the town and worked for Barclays Bank. Lacey had been a Chesham town councillor since 1987 and a Chiltern district councillor since 1991, representing Pond Park ward until 2003, and served twice as Mayor of Chesham.

Derek Lacey’s ward was Ridgeway in the north of Chesham, a longstanding market town in the Chiltern hills. Named after Ridgeway Road and located in the north of the town, this is Chesham’s council-estate ward. Lacey had dominated the area’s election results for decades, originally as a Residents candidate and since 2007 as an independent; at his final re-election in 2015 he beat the Conservatives 61-21. For clues as to the area’s political orientation without Lacey on the ballot we have to look to county level, where this is part of the safe-Conservative Chesham division.

With no defending independent candidate to replace Lacey it’s time for Britain Elects’ favourite type of by-election, a free-for-all! The Conservative candidate is Nick Southworth, a “coffee zealot, legal beagle and triathlete” according to his Twitter. The Lib Dem candidate is Frances Kneller who stood here in the county elections last year. Completing the ballot paper is Chesham town councillor Mohammad Zafir Bhatti, a former Conservative county and district councillor and former Mayor of Chesham who defected to Labour in 2013; he was appointed MBE in the 2012 New Year Honours for services to local government and the community.

Parliamentary constituency: Chesham and Amersham
Buckinghamshire county council division: Chesham
ONS Travel to Work Area: High Wycombe and Aylesbury
Postcode district: HP5

Mohammad Zafir Bhatti (Lab)
Frances Kneller (LD)
Nick Southworth (C)

May 2015 result Ind 808 C 283 LD 228
May 2011 result Ind 669 C 118 LD 109 UKIP 32
May 2007 result Ind 573 LD 102 C 85
May 2003 result Chesham and District Res Assoc 676 LD 79 C 46


Ockendon

Thurrock council, Essex; caused by the resignation of councillor Kevin Wheeler who had served since 2015.

Brexit may very much be a thing, but UKIP is dead. That’s the message from the candidate list for this week’s local by-elections which doesn’t have a single Kipper on it, and that’s the message which has come out of recent political developments in Thurrock. Thurrock had been one of the rare success stories for UKIP in local government under the charismatic leadership of Tim Aker, who was elected to the European Parliament in 2014 and to Thurrock council in a by-election later that year, and very nearly got into Westminster in 2015. After the 2016 local elections UKIP were the second-largest group on Thurrock council with 17 out of 49 seats, one behind the Conservatives (who form a minority administration) and four ahead of Labour. No longer is that the case: the council’s entire UKIP group seceded from the party in January this year to form a Thurrock Independents group, and their councillor Kevin Wheeler took the opportunity to resign his office altogether.

Three of those now-ex UKIP councillors represented Ockendon ward, which is the northern of two wards covering the town of South Ockendon. Just outside the M25 motorway and the Greater London boundary, South Ockendon’s economy was traditionally underpinned by a Ford Motor plant next to Ockendon railway station and a large psychiatric hospital. Both of these are now gone: the hospital closed in the 1990s and was redeveloped for housing, while the motor plant closed in 2004. Part of the old Ford site is now occupied by a Next distribution centre.

This was traditionally a hard-fought marginal ward between the Conservatives and Labour which often produced tiny majorities. In the 2004 election when the current boundaries were introduced the ward’s three seats split two to the Conservatives and one to Labour. The Tories gained the Labour seat easily in 2010, but Labour got a seat back the following year. However, UKIP came through the middle in 2014 to gain a seat in the ward from the Conservatives, and easily gained the ward’s other two seats in the following years. At the most recent election in 2016 UKIP had 47% to 28% for the Conservatives and 25% for Labour.

This by-election will be the first electoral test for the rechristened Thurrock Independents. Their defending candidate is the party chairman Allen Mayes. The Conservatives have selected local resident Andrew Jefferies. Labour may be regretting their selection of former bus driver Les Strange, who has had to apologise during the campaign for offensive stuff on his Facebook; he completes the ballot paper.

Parliamentary constituency: Thurrock
ONS Travel to Work Area: London
Postcode districts: RM14, RM15

Andrew Jefferies (C)
Allen Mayes (Thurrock Ind)
Les Strange (Lab)

May 2016 result UKIP 1038 C 634 Lab 558
May 2015 result UKIP 1991 C 1297 Lab 1224
May 2014 result UKIP 1203 C 789 Lab 556 LD 67
May 2012 result C 900 Lab 809 UKIP 321 LD 40
May 2011 result Lab 1096 C 1009 BNP 231 UKIP 223 LD 73
May 2010 result C 1723 Lab 1487 BNP 525 UKIP 385
May 2008 result C 1016 Lab 806 BNP 422
May 2007 result C 728 Lab 714 BNP 434 UKIP 218
May 2006 result Lab 916 C 791 Grn 321
June 2004 result C 831/789/735 Lab 743/725/648

Billingsgate

City of London Corporation; caused by the resignation of Common Councilman Michael Welbank.

A quick note to finish this week on the odd poll out. Billingsgate ward lies in the ancient City of London, running from the River Thames up to Fenchurch Street along Idol Lane and Mincing Lane. Billingsgate was the city’s watergate in days of olden time and by the sixteenth century had developed into a fish market. Billingsgate Fish Market was redeveloped in the nineteenth century to become the largest fish market in the world, but is no longer in the City: the market relocated to Poplar in 1982. The old market building on Lower Thames Street is now used as an events venue; opposite it is an office block with the remains of a Roman Bath house in the basement; and opposite that is the Georgian Watermen’s Hall, home to the Company of Watermen and Lightermen which formerly licensed Thames watermen. The ward was severely damaged in the Great Fire of 1666 (its boundaries used to include Pudding Lane, where the fire started), and there are two Christopher Wren churches here, St Margaret Pattens and St Mary-at-Hill.

This is one of the City Corporation’s wards which is dominated by the business vote, and there aren’t many voters here business or otherwise. In the 2013 City elections it was uncontested, and in 2017 Welbank was re-elected at the top of the poll with just 42 votes.

There are four candidates this time, so unusually low vote totals look on the cards. Taking the candidates in alphabetical order, John Allen-Petrie is Rouge Croix Pursuivant at the College of Arms; Timothy Becker is a barrister from Wimbledon; Alpa Raja gives an address in Hatch End and fought Castle Baynard ward in the 2017 City elections; and Dawn Wright is retired from a telecommunications and IT career and is associated with the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists.

Parliamentary constituency: Cities of London and Westminster
ONS Travel to Work Area: London
Postcode districts: EC3M, EC3R

John Allen-Petrie (Ind)
Timothy Becker (Ind)
Alpa Raja (Ind)
Dawn Wright (Ind)