Previews: 17 May 2018

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

The show may be over, but the game still goes on. There are three by-elections for four seats on Thursday 17th May, as we restart the local by-election cycle after a week off to digest the results and consequences of the 2018 local elections. Later we travel to the east coast for the week’s Conservative defence; but we start this column with three Labour defences in Lancaster. Normally I would do these in the same article, but one of the wards up for election in Lancaster this week is so unusual it demands an extended preview all to itself. Read on, as we start in the UK’s most millennial ward with an Andrew’s Previews Student Special…


University and Scotforth Rural

Lancaster council; a double by-election caused by the resignations of Sam Armstrong and Lucy Atkinson. Both were Labour councillors who had served since 2015, although Armstrong was originally elected for the Green Party.

The rules are as constant as the Northern Star, but I’ll go through them anyway. Starter questions are worth ten points and you may not confer. You may confer on bonus questions which are worth fifteen. And remember that there is a five-point penalty for incorrect interruptions to starter questions. Fingers on the buzzers, here’s your first starter for ten. Located just to the south of its eponymous city, which campus-style university anchors the UK electoral ward with the highest proportion of students?

Before we buzz in and answer that question, let’s start this preview by going back in time sixteen years. (God, that makes me feel old.) In May 2002 I was nineteen years old and coming towards the end of my first year at the University of Warwick. A member of the Russell Group, Warwick is one of the so-called “plate glass” universities, opened in the early 1960s on a self-contained campus site on the outskirts of Coventry. I was attempting to study mathematics and statistics, had been selected for the University Challenge team and had got stuck into the elections committee of the Students’ Union. Having gained experience of running a polling station in the Union’s elections, I applied for and got a casual job as a poll clerk, helping to run the Coventry city council election of 2nd May 2002.

For polling day we took over a room in the University’s Ramphal Building, and the presiding officer and myself were responsible for an electorate of around 4,000: almost all of them first- and third-year students. That covered the majority of the campus, although not all of it – the Warwick campus straddles the border between the city of Coventry and Warwick district, and we did have to turn away a few disappointed students from the wrong side of the county line. 4,000 is a very large electorate for a polling station in the UK, but we were not rushed off our feet: the turnout was 8.4%, around 300-400 people. Then as now Warwick University was part of the Wainbody ward of Coventry: this is a safely Conservative area and it’s clear from that sort of student turnout that the main driver for its election results is the permanent population. The Tory candidate turned up at the polling station to see how we were getting on – he seemed a nice sort.

Yes, university students don’t generally vote in local elections. This may seem like a heretical question for a psephological piece to ask, but: why should they? Most students won’t hang around for a full four-year electoral cycle. Student housing is on lets of one year or less, and it’s common for students to move around on and off halls of residence and find themselves in different wards – or even different council areas – from one academic year to the next. Student residences are exempt from council tax. Many students might never intend to return to the place they studied at; and, especially in a campus-based “bubble” place like Warwick, students might not feel much if any affinity towards the city they’re nominally studying in.

And these days there’s an extra difficulty for the student who wants to become a local election voter. When I was living on the Warwick campus my registration to vote was handled by the University administration, which delivered a list of all the eligible voters to Coventry city council (and Warwick district council) as part of the admissions process without my having to lift a finger. These days Individual Electoral Registration prevents that, and students instead have to fill in forms and send them into the council themselves. The effect of this can rather starkly be seen in the Notice of Poll for the 2018 Coventry city council election: where in 2002 I was responsible for around 4,000 voters, the electoral register reveals that only 167 students on the Warwick campus had sent in the form to register to vote by the qualifying date for the December 2017 roll. Although many students will have registered since, that’s still an enormous drop.

Now imagine this sort of drop in enrolment taking place in a ward whose electorate is almost entirely composed of students. Let me take you to Lancaster University. Like Warwick, Lancaster punches above its weight educationally and politically: two current MPs, Alan Campbell (Lab, Tynemouth) and Cat Smith (Lab, Lancaster and Fleetwood) are alumni, while the former cabinet minister Alan Milburn – another alumnus – is the present Chancellor. Like Warwick, Lancaster is a member of the Russell Group. Like Warwick, it’s one of the 1960s “plate-glass” universities. Like Warwick, it’s set on its own self-contained campus, on a hill just to the south of Lancaster between the West Coast Main Line, the A6 road and the M6 motorway. Like Warwick, it’s on a growth spurt and new buildings have outgrown the original campus – in particular, a new south-west campus has sprung up in recent years.

Unlike Warwick, the Lancaster University campus was from 2003 to 2015 its own electoral ward. The 2011 census makes the point that this was a unique ward, quite unlike any other in the UK. 94% of the population were aged between 18 and 29, 94% were full-time students, 68% were educated to A-level but not (yet) further – all of those statistics were the highest for any ward in England and Wales by a very large margin. University ward also made the top 100 in England and Wales for households living rent-free, although this may be a side-effect of the fact that the census only recognised sixty-two households here. (Perhaps the colleges count as one household each?)

In recent years oceans of ink, acres of pixels and man-years of debate have been consumed by the analysis of how millennials vote and behave. Readers may be relieved to hear that I have nothing substantive to add to that argument. However, anybody who has taken a cursory look at the subject will have little trouble guessing that the UK’s most millennial ward was politically left-wing. And given that Lancaster’s campus has an almost completely new electorate from one year to the next, it shouldn’t be surprising that University ward’s election results were volatile. It voted Lib Dem on its creation in 2003, Green in 2007, Labour in 2011 and Green in a 2014 by-election.

The building and expansion of Lancaster University has made a mess of the administrative boundaries in the area, which have struggled to keep up with the changed times. A boundary review tried to sort this out for the 2015 election, expanding University ward to take in the south-west campus and the two parts of the non-student parish of Scotforth, which covers some lovely but sparsely-populated countryside. It might not be sparsely populated for long, though, as the city council is consulting on plans for Bailrigg Garden Village: a new settlement of 3,500 homes to be built within this ward.

The new University and Scotforth Rural ward had three councillors rather than two, and split them politically: in the 2015 election Labour polled 35% and won two seats, the Greens polled 32% and won one seat, and the Tory slate (one of whom rejoiced in the name of Ice Dong) were third with 24%. Further boundary changes for the 2017 county election brought all of the ward within the Lancaster South East county division, which was safe Labour last year but whose political tone is set by non-students in Lancaster itself.

After the 2015 election Individual Electoral Registration came in, and this affected University and Scotforth Rural possibly more than any other ward in the UK. The ward suffered an enormous drop in enrolment for the first affected register, in December 2015; and that prompted the University administration to get creative for the 2016-17 academic year. The University’s solution to boost registration was to bring it back in-house, with an opt-out available for students who for whatever reason don’t want to be registered to vote. That has got the student electorate back up near where it was before – the Notice of Poll for this by-election shows an electorate of 3,789, of which the two parts of Scotforth parish contribute 257 – but it does introduce a delay because the applications can’t go to Lancaster electoral services until after term has started.

A problem for Matt Mann, a Labour councillor for University and Scotforth Rural, who had started a job outside Lancaster in September 2016 and wanted to resign to allow a new councillor to be elected in his place. Councillor Mann ended up having to delay his resignation in an attempt to ensure that the campus register was as complete as possible. The by-election was eventually held in December 2016, and featured a campaign visit from no less a figure than Jeremy Corbyn. Labour held the seat with 98, to 79 for the Greens and 68 for the Conservatives. Those figures are not percentages but votes, and new Labour councillor Nathan Burns holds the dubious distinction of being the only English district councillor this century (outside the City of London and the Isles of Scilly) to be elected with fewer than 100 votes in a contested election. Turnout was reportedly around 7%. Remember what I was saying about students not voting in local elections?

The other two councillors elected in 2015 have now resigned in their turn. Lucy Atkinson, who topped the poll for Labour in the 2015 election, was just 18 at the time and became the youngest ever Lancaster city councillor. She is stepping down from the council on health grounds, and her resignation statement (https://twitter.com/LucyAtkinson_/status/975994510806306816) gives a rare insight into the difficulties which face councillors elected at a very young age. Despite those difficulties Atkinson was clearly a very effective councillor: the University’s Conservative and Liberal Democrat societies put their partisan differences aside to pay generous tribute to her service and wish her well for the future. Labour are defending both seats up in this rare double by-election, as Green councillor Sam Armstrong had defected to the party since his election; Armstrong intends to leave the city in order to pursue his intended career.

The cliché is that student politics are vicious because the stakes are so small, but this by-election is unusually serious business for Labour. They are the majority party on Lancaster city council, holding 28 out of 60 seats, plus these two vacancies, plus a further vacancy in Skerton West ward which will be covered in the next section. The Conservatives are in second with 18 seats, the Green Party have seven and the other four are held by independents of various stripes. If Labour lose any of the three Lancaster city council seats they are defending today, their majority is gone – and this ward is definitely not safe.

You need eight people to contest an episode of University Challenge, and that’s what we have here as Lancaster take on Lancaster in this by-election. The defending Labour slate is Amara Betts-Patel and Oliver Robinson, both of whom live on the campus. The Greens have indulged in their occasional practice in multi-seat First Past the Post elections of nominating “first choice” and “second choice” candidates: their first choice, according to the ballot paper, is Martin Paley who is reading Earth and Environmental Science, while relegated to second is Jan Maskell who is the only non-student on the candidate list. A part-time lecturer at the University’s Management School, Maskell came within two votes of winning a by-election to Lancaster city council last year in her home ward of Halton-with-Aughton.

The University’s Conservative Society have nominated their general secretary Callum Furner (who is reading economics) together with Guy Watts (management). Some of the points in their five-point manifesto – such as improved bus frequencies for the campus and “protecting and enhancing the night-time economy” might not sound like traditional Tory policies, but then again a ward which is over 90% student needs bespoke policies wherever you are on the political spectrum. (I still fondly remember the Official Monster Raving Loony Party candidate for Warwick SU president, who understood this point perfectly. He wanted to improve student health by among other things (a) converting the Union’s fruit machines to pay out in real fruit, and (b) installing central heating at the bus stop. Sensible stuff. I wonder what he’s doing now.) Completing the ballot paper are the Lib Dem slate of Iain Embrey (studying for a PhD in economics) and Jade Sullivan (reading History and Politics). Let’s hope for a better turnout than in the 2016 by-election. As Jeremy Paxman so rightly says, “come on!”

Parliamentary constituency: Lancaster and Fleetwood
Lancashire county council division: Lancaster South East
ONS Travel to Work Area: Lancaster and Morecambe
Postcode districts: LA1, LA2

Amara Betts-Patel (Lab)
Iain Embrey (LD)
Callum Furner (C)
Janet Maskell (Grn)
Martin Paley (Grn)
Oliver Robinson (Lab)
Jade Sullivan (LD)
Guy Watts (C)

December 2016 by-election Lab 96 Grn 79 C 68 LD 36
May 2015 result Lab 605/500/480 Grn 555/440/417 C 405/391/339 LD 143/79/66


Skerton West

Lancaster council; caused by the death of Labour councillor Roger Sherlock at the age of 79. One of Lancaster’s longest-serving councillors, Sherlock was first elected in 1995 and was Mayor of Lancaster in 2009-10. An engineer during his working life, he had lived in Lancaster since 1978; he leaves behind three grandchildren, a daughter and his wife Ethel, to whom he was married for 59 years.

For our other by-election in Lancaster we cross to the north bank of the River Lune. This is Skerton, the part of the Lancaster-Morecambe conurbation where one ends and the other begins: the Torrisholme Road and the Morecambe Road link the two centres. The last time I drove along the Morecambe Road the congestion on it had to be seen to be believed: it was then the main access road for both Morecambe and Heysham Port, and plugged straight into Lancaster city centre at the eastern end. The recent opening of the Lancaster Northern Bypass – the Bay Gateway road on the map – has hopefully provided some much-needed relief for the area; on the other hand, Lancaster council have taken the opportunity to close the Greyhound Bridge, one of the two road bridges across the Lune, for most of this year to allow for major repair work. The ward has high levels of social renting and in 2011 was in the top 100 wards in England and Wales for part-time employment.

This is generally a safe Labour ward which has returned a full slate of Labour councillors every year since 2003 with the exception of 2011, when Roger Sherlock was re-elected as an independent without Labour opposition. He was back in the Labour fold for his last re-election in 2015, in which the Labour slate won with 37% to 26% for the Conservatives and 20% for UKIP. That was also the year that the ward took on its present boundaries, gaining a small part of Torrisholme ward in Morecambe. There’s a high councillor attrition rate here: this is the fifth Skerton West by-election in the last twelve years, and the previous one was only last September. Labour improved their position in that poll, defeating the Conservatives 61-35. That by-election was won by Hilda Parr, who four months earlier had been elected as county councillor for the safe-Labour Skerton division.

Hoping to hold this Labour seat in Skerton West is Peter Rivet, an independent architecture and planning professional who spent twenty years working for Lancaster city council, and now has the chance to sit on it. In 2015 Rivet fought the city’s Bulk ward. Tory candidate Andy Kay returns from September’s by-election; since there is already a Lancaster Labour councillor called Andrew Kay expect lots of scope for entertaining confusion if the Tories manage to gain this one. Also returning from September is the Lib Dems’ Derek Kaye, who completes the ballot paper along with Cait Sinclair of the Green Party.

Parliamentary constituency: Morecambe and Lunesdale
Lancashire county council division: Skerton
ONS Travel to Work Area: Lancaster and Morecambe
Postcode districts: LA1, LA2, LA3

Andy Kay (C)
Derek Kaye (LD)
Peter Rivet (Lab)
Cait Sinclair (Grn)

September 2017 by-election Lab 512 C 288 LD 33
May 2015 result Lab 1481/1331/1241 C 1037 UKIP 816 Grn 380/360 Ind 295


Leiston

Suffolk Coastal council; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Ian Pratt who had served since 2015.

We finish the week by moving from the west coast to the east, and to the countryside of Suffolk. Leiston is a rather isolated town with a population of around 5,500, set back a couple of miles from the North Sea coast. Despite that isolation it was a major manufacturing centre in days gone by: the agricultural machinery firm Richard Garrett and Sons set up one of the first ever industrial assembly lines here in the late 19th century, manufacturing traction engines and other steam-powered vehicles. Garrett’s works closed down in 1981, but the assembly line building – known as the “Long Shop” because of its length – survives and is now a museum. It’s one of the polling stations for this by-election.

Leiston has been at the centre of more modern technology as well. Within the ward boundary, overlooking the North Sea, are the nuclear power stations at Sizewell. Sizewell A, a Magnox plant, generated electricity from 1967 to 2006 and is now being decommissioned; Sizewell B, which came online in 1995, is the UK’s only commercial nuclear power plant of the Pressurised Water Reactor type. The UK government and various energy companies have their eyes on the Sizewell site for a third nuclear power station, although construction seems several years off at best.

One consequence of all this industry is that Leiston has a much more working-class demographic profile than its hinterland. That was definitely true for the ward which existed at the time of the 2011 census; there was a redraw for the 2015 election which cut Leiston from three councillors to two on different boundaries, but its unlikely that the class profile changed much as a result of that.

Despite all that Leiston ward had a full slate of Tory councillors from 2003 until 2011, when one of the seats was gained by independent candidate Anthony Cooper. On the new boundaries in 2015 Cooper was re-elected at the top of the poll with 30%, Pratt won the other seat at the top of the Tory slate with 29%, Labour polled 22% and the Green slate had 10% of the vote.

So this looks like an interesting contest. We have an all-female ballot paper of four candidates, three of whom are Leiston town councillors. The Conservatives have selected Susan Geater to hold the seat; her nomination papers have been signed by John Geater, former leader of Suffolk Coastal council and former Conservative councillor for this ward. I have not been able to confirm whether there is a family connection. She may be under threat from independent candidate Sammy Betson, former chair of the Leiston Business Association, who won a by-election to Leiston town council in 2016. The third town councillor on the ballot is Labour candidate Freda Casagrande, who gave up a high-flying career in the City to found a charity for poor Nepali children. In last year’s county elections Casagrande was a rather distant runner-up in the Tory division of Aldeburgh and Leiston, which covers most of this ward. There is no Green candidate in this by-election so it will be interesting to see where the Green vote from 2015 goes. Completing the ballot paper is Jules Ewart of the Liberal Democrats.

This may well (touch wood) be the last Suffolk Coastal by-election discussed in Andrew’s Previews. Last week both Houses of Parliament approved a merger of the council with the neighbouring district of Waveney to create a new East Suffolk district council, which – once all the paperwork is sorted out – should come into being next year. This column looks forward to discussing the first East Suffolk council by-election in due course.

Parliamentary constituency: Suffolk Coastal
Suffolk county council division: Aldeburgh and Leiston (Leiston parish), Blything (Middleton and Theberton parishes)
ONS Travel to Work Area: Ipswich (Leiston and Theberton parishes), Lowestfot (Middleton parish)
Postcode districts: IP15, IP16, IP17

Sammy Betson (Ind)
Freda Casagrande (Lab)
Jules Ewart (LD)
Susan Geater (C)

May 2015 result Ind 918/305 C 887/845 Lab 691/619 Grn 320/309 LD 264/162

If you liked this preview, why not buy the Andrew’s Previews books, which contain much more of the same? Search Amazon for Andrew’s Previews 2016 and Andrew’s Previews 2017.