Previews: 19 Apr 2018

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

Before we start the week, I have a special announcement to make.

Andrew’s Previews 2017

Last year, I saw fit to publish these Previews as a printed book. Andrew’s Previews 2016 seems to have gone down well. Its Amazon reviewer described it as “one of those books, like the Nuffield Foundation volumes on British general elections, that makes you wonder how we managed before they came along”. Well, I suppose I was taking a risk in publishing something which had literally never been done before in print. Despite my complete lack of self-publicity skills, Andrew’s Previews 2016 has crawled up to my sales target; and the feedback has persuaded me that the exercise is worth doing again.

So, here’s the follow-up that at least some people have been eagerly waiting for. Available now from Amazon, Andrew’s Previews 2017 is another collection of the by-election previews from that volatile political year which was 2017, plus some bonus material.

If you would like to relive the year of the snap general election as it unfolded, while learning a bit about the geography and history of Great Britain, this book is for you. And by buying the book, you will help to support the research required for future previews – while having a permanent and (hopefully) positive reminder of your donation.

To give you a flavour of what’s in the book, have a look at the rest of this post, in which we discuss the three council by-elections on 19th April 2018. These will be the last polls before the ordinary May 2018 elections, and they are all Conservative defences. But by no means are they all the same…


Thatcham West

West Berkshire council; caused by the disqualification of Conservative councillor Nick Goodes, who failed to attend any council meetings in six months. He had served since 2015.

We start this week in the M4 corridor. Thatcham is one of those towns which has been a bit overlooked; its population isn’t that much smaller than Newbury, which adjoins it to the west, but Thatcham is far less well-known. It could have all been so different. This area has been inhabited since prehistoric times – Mesolithic remains dating from the eighth and ninth millennia BC have been found in the area – and as late as the fourteenth century AD Thatcham was a larger and more important town than Newbury. The location was good, on one of the main lines of communication through southern England: the River Kennet and the Berks and Hants railway line form the southern boundary of West ward, the A4 London-Bath road bisects the ward, as did a Roman road; and the M4 motorway is just to the north.

What did for Thatcham was the Black Death, which hit the town hard in 1348 and led to Newbury overtaking it in importance. Nonetheless Thatcham has seen large population growth since the Second World War. It is the location of the Motor Insurance Repair Research Centre, which analyses cars and their security systems for the insurance industry, giving out Thatcham ratings for car alarms, immobilisers and suchlike. Thatcham is also about to go onto the sporting map: the local non-league side Thatcham Town FC, who play against such giants as Olympiakos and PAOK in the Hellenic League Premier Division (note to self: check this), will be going to Wembley next month to play Stockton Town in the final of the FA Vase.

This is not a longstanding Conservative ward. The Newbury constituency was a famous Liberal Democrat by-election win in 1993, and the party held that parliamentary seat until 2005. Thatcham West was a stronger Lib Dem area than the seat as a whole, and it took until 2015 for the Conservatives to gain it: the Tory lead that year was 48-39 over the Lib Dems. West Berkshire is a unitary council so there are no clues to be gained from last year’s county elections. The Lib Dems did get a small swing in their favour in the 2017 general election across the Newbury constituency, from which the party might take some encouragement in their attempt to get this seat back.

Both the Tories and Lib Dems have selected candidates with high local profiles. Defending for the Conservatives is Ellen Crumly, the Mayor of Thatcham. The Lib Dem candidate Jeff Brooks wants his seat back: he was a Lib Dem councillor for this ward from 2003 until losing to the Conservatives in 2015, and his local government career goes all the way back to 1995 when he was elected to the former Newbury district council. Also standing are Louise Coulson for Labour, Gary Johnson for UKIP and Jane Livermore for the Green Party.

Parliamentary constituency: Newbury
ONS Travel to Work Area: Newbury
Postcode districts: RG18, RG19

Jeff Brooks (LD)
Louise Coulson (Lab)
Ellen Crumly (C)
Gary Johnson (UKIP)
Jane Livermore (Grn)

May 2015 result C 1493/1455 LD 1208/1133 Lab 423/251
May 2011 result LD 932/891 C 771/698 Lab 207 Ind 137
May 2007 result LD 960/957 C 837/797
May 2003 result LD 760/758 C 443/441


Lymm South

Warrington council; caused by the death of Conservative councillor Sheila Woodyatt at the age of 80. The Mayor of Warrington in 2000-01, and at one point the only Conservative councillor in the borough, Woodyatt had served on Warrington council since 1983, being elected for Lymm ward until boundary changes in 2016. She also represented Lymm on Cheshire county council from 1989 to 1998. In the 2000 Birthday Honours Woodyatt was appointed MBE for services to the community in Cheshire.

Your columnist likes Lymm. This is one of those leafy Cheshire villages where the great, the good and the rich of north-west England tend to live; Lymm’s list of famous residents includes a large number of well-known actors, footballers and entertainers. The village centre is in an attractive sandstone gorge running down from the Bridgewater Canal, which forms the northern boundary of this ward, and it’s full of the sort of shops and cafés which clearly take as their target market the average Cheshire housewife.

The census bears this out. A majority of Lymm’s workforce are in some sort of professional or managerial role, and the proportion of the population with degrees is very high. This is the sort of demographic profile that wouldn’t look out of place in Wilmslow, Prestbury, Hale Barns, Knutsford or other places frequented by the Real Housewives of Cheshire; but by a quirk of boundaries Lymm, unlike the rest of those places, has ended up in the Borough of Warrington and in the parliamentary seat of Warrington South. This is a key marginal which has changed hands between the Tories and Labour three times since it was created for the 1983 election; last year Warrington South was one of those Labour gains which looked so unlikely at the start of the snap election campaign.

Not that the Labour vote comes out of Lymm, however. The present Lymm South ward was created only in 2016; before then there was a single Lymm ward covering the whole of the village. That ward had been split between Woodyatt and two Liberal Democrat councillors continuously since 1995, and as Warrington moved to the thirds electoral system when it became a unitary council that implies that all the councillors had developed personal votes. It wasn’t until 2015, the last election to the old Lymm ward, that the Tories knocked out one of the Lib Dems to make the split 2-1 in their favour.

The two Conservative councillors both successfully sought re-election in the new Lymm South ward in 2016, but the Lib Dems ran them close; shares of the vote were 38% for the Tories, 32% for the Lib Dems and 19% for Labour. Warrington has reverted to whole council elections, with the next borough elections due in 2020.

Defending for the Tories is Stephen Taylor, who is retired after 40 years with the Environment Agency; he has briefly been a Warrington councillor before, representing Stockton Heath ward from 2015 to 2016. Taylor is a member of Walton parish council and lives in Stockton Heath. The Lib Dems have selected Anna Fradgley, deputy chairman of Lymm parish council. The Labour candidate is Trish Cockayne, a local resident who volunteers with the Warrington Foodbank. Also standing are Derek Ashington for UKIP and Michael Wass for the Green Party.

Parliamentary constituency: Warrington South
ONS Travel to Work Area: Warrington and Wigan
Postcode districts: WA4, WA13

Derek Ashington (UKIP)
Trish Cockayne (Lab)
Anna Fradgley (LD)
Stephen Taylor (C)
Michael Wass (Grn)

May 2016 result C 925/879 LD 780/668 Lab 466 UKIP 233


Highland

Perth and Kinross council; caused by the death of the Leader of the Council, Conservative councillor Ian Campbell, at the age of 66. He had served since 2007, and became leader in 2017 at the head of a Conservative, Lib Dem and independent coalition.

Before we come to this one, let me talk about addresses for a moment. Candidate addresses, and the publication thereof, are one of the hot topics of electoral administration right now. Since 1872 they have been required to be published on the nominations list and the ballot paper, whIch has made some candidates rather uncomfortable – particularly those who for whatever reason are concerned about their own safety, privacy and security. So a few years ago, the rules were changed for parliamentary elections to allow candidates to have their address redacted and replaced with an official statement along the lines of “(address in the Bolton South East constituency)”.

In true British administrative style, this change was done piecemeal and doesn’t apply to all levels of elections. So at parliamentary, and police and crime commissioner level candidates can redact their address, and the Scottish Parliament went one better and abolished address publication outright for its own elections; but at local level candidates’ addresses still have to be published in full. The Government is considering whether to change this in future, although any changes won’t have time to come in for the upcoming set of local elections.

As part of that consideration, the Government might wish to look at the example of Perth and Kinross council, whose elections office have found an interesting middle way of protecting candidates’ safety and privacy within the existing law. They produce two versions of the nominations list: an official one with the addresses on it, which is available for inspection at the council offices; and a second one for publication on the internet with the addresses redacted. Not very helpful to the armchair columnist looking at a by-election from a distance of several hundred miles, but I’m not the target market and personal safety is more important in the end.

The Highland ward of Perth and Kinross is an enormous swathe of the southern Highlands, even larger than Caol and Mallaig which we thought was big a couple of weeks back. There are 890 square miles of mostly inhospitable mountains here – an area bigger than many English counties and only slightly smaller than Luxembourg. By acreage this is the sixth largest ward in the UK, and the largest outside the Highland Council area.

The main town in the ward is Pitlochry, on the main road and railway line to Inverness as they climb up to the Pass of Drumochter. The centre of its own Travel to Work Area, Pitlochry is popular as a tourist centre for hillwalkers and pensioners’ coach holidays. The town’s main exports are whisky and power: nearby is the reservoir of Loch Faskally, noted for its salmon ladder which allows fish to bypass the dam. Loch Faskally is just one of nine reservoirs and associated power stations, eight of which are within this ward, which form the Tummel hydroelectric scheme.

The ward’s only other population centres of note are Blair Atholl, up the road towards Inverness, and Aberfeldy in Strathtay. There are Roman remains near Aberfeldy, and there is a persistent local legend that Pontius Pilate was born in the nearby village of Fortingall. That’s as may be, but Fortingall certainly has one visible reminder of the Roman and indeed pre-Roman era, a yew tree thought to be between 2,000 and 3,000 years old. To the west of the ward, Strath Tummel leads up to the isolated station of Rannoch Moor on the West Highland railway line; while to the east is a large chunk of the Cairngorms National Park including Glen Tilt – or “Star Wars alley” as it’s known to RAF fighter pilots who use it for low-altitude training.

Within the ward is the site of the Battle of Killiecrankie, a victory for the nascent Jacobite cause during the Glorious Revolution. Recent electoral contests in the modern Highland ward had also been victories for Scottish nationalism. The Scotttish National Party carried all three predecessor wards (Breadalbane, Pitlochry, and Rannoch and Atholl) in 2003, and when PR was introduced in 2007 very easily won two seats to the Conservatives’ one (Ian Campbell). One of the SNP councillors elected in 2007 died later that year, and the other emigrated to Australia in 2011; both the resulting by-elections were easy SNP holds.

But that Nationalist majority all changed in 2017. The Conservative councillor Ian Campbell was re-elected at the top of the poll with 45% of the vote, and the SNP fell to second place on 37%. That cost the nationalists their second seat, which went to independent candidate Xander McDade; he started in fourth place with 11%, but Conservative and Lib Dem transfers ensured his election. Campbell became leader of the council, and the following month the Conservatives fell just 21 votes short of defeating SNP MP Pete Wishart in the Perth and North Perthshire constituency.

Defending for the Conservatives is John Duff, who has retired to his native Aberfeldy after a 30-year career as a police officer in Glasgow, where he reached the rank of superintendent. The SNP have selected former Perth and Kinross councillor John Kellas, who narrowly lost his seat in the 2017 election in Strathtay ward. There are two independent candidates: Denise Baykal is a solicitor and former UKIP figure, while Avril Taylor is secretary of the Aberfeldy Small Business Association and is campaigning to stop RBS closing the village’s last bank. Also standing are Mary McDougall for the Scottish Green Party, Chris Rennie for the Lib Dems (who will be hoping to improve on the 1% he got here as an independent in the 2011 by-election) and Jayne Ramage for Labour.

Parliamentary constituency: Perth and North Perthshire
Scottish Parliament constituency: Perthshire North
ONS Travel to Work Area: Pitlochry and Aberfeldy
Postcode districts: FK21, PH9, PH15, PH16, PH17, PH18

Denise Baykal (Ind)
John Duff (C)
John Kellas (SNP)
Mary McDougall (Grn)
Jayne Ramage (Lab)
Chris Rennie (LD)
Avril Taylor (Ind)

May 2017 first preferences C 1927 SNP 1549 Ind 449 Grn 168 LD 148
May 2012 first preferences SNP 1668 C 825 Ind 313 Ind 286 LD 215 Lab 141
September 2011 by-election SNP 1449 C 596 LD 321 Ind 269 Ind 27
February 2008 by-election SNP 1891 C 940 LD 229 Lab 97
May 2007 first preferences SNP 2639 C 1158 LD 609 Ind 115


There is one more vacancy to note this week. Tony Boyce had recently resigned as Conservative councillor for Moreton and Fyfield, a village-based ward in the Epping Forest district of Essex. A by-election had been called for 3rd May; but when nominations closed the Tories’ Ian Hadley was the only candidate, and he has therefore been declared elected without a contest. This column sends its congratulations to Councillor Hadley.

There will be no Andrew’s Previews next week as there are no by-elections next week. However, it is intended that there will be a double issue in advance of the 3rd May elections, so stay tuned.