Previews: 07 Jun 2018

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

We are one year on from the snap general election, and there are three by-elections on Thursday 7th June 2018. All of them are Conservative defences contested only by the three main parties. Read on…

Cranmore

Mid Devon council; caused by the death of Conservative councillor Clarissa Slade who had served since 2015.

It’s now eleven years since the age of candidacy in the UK was cut from 21 to 18, and there are regular calls for this age to be cut further as an offshoot of the Votes at 16 debate. The arguments are familiar. The usual argument against extremely young councillors is that they might not be experienced enough to handle elected office; but the experience of under-21 councillors over the last decade doesn’t seem to this observer to bear out that criticism. This column discussed an extreme example a few weeks ago for the ward covering the University of Lancaster campus, which is over 90% university students and quite naturally elected three university students to office in 2015; none of them finished their term, but that’s more to do with the unique nature of the ward than the pressures of elected office per se. There are some truly outstanding young councillors out there. Let me point to Jack Brereton, the youngest member of the Conservative intake at the 2017 election: first stood for election at 18, elected to Stoke-on-Trent council at 19, a member of the city council cabinet at 23, a parliamentary by-election candidate at 25, an MP at 26. The former SNP MP Callum McCaig was elected to Aberdeen council at 22 and became leader of the city council at 26.

In the end, if you’re good enough you’re old enough, and the Mid Devon branch of the Conservatives clearly subscribed to that view when they selected Clarissa Slade for the 2015 local elections. Born on 25th February 1997, she was elected to Mid Devon district council and Tiverton town council on 7th May 2015 at the age of 18 years and 71 days. It’s always difficult to keep track of these things, but she was reported at the time to be the UK’s youngest councillor. The following September Clarissa accepted a place reading Classics at the University of Winchester, and combined her studies and life in Winchester with her democratic duties in Devon and with starting to follow the traditional career path for someone who wants to get noticed and climb the greasy pole. The local MP, Neil Parish, talked of her drive, ambition and hard work, commenting that politics ran in her blood and veins – appropriate given that Clarissa’s parents are both councillors themselves. Councillor Colin Slade, her father, said that her long-term ambition was to be Prime Minister. By all accounts, she was going the right way about it.

On 26th March 2018, councillor Clarissa Slade was found dead at her university home in Winchester. She was 21 years old and in the third year of her degree, and reportedly had been awaiting the results of heart tests. Her death was widely reported at the time because of her age – she is, by a very long way, the youngest councillor whose death has been marked by this column. Reading those press reports it’s clear that we lost a bright young prospect who was well thought-of and could have gone very far indeed. Quite how far can forever be only conjecture; to quote her father Colin, to whom I’ll give the last word, “who knows what she could have achieved”?

Clarissa Slade’s ward was Cranmore, the south-eastern of the four wards covering the town of Tiverton, running from the banks of the Exe along the Grand Western Canal. The ward name recalls Cranmore Castle, an Iron Age earthwork which overlooks the town. The 2011 census picked up a significant Polish community close to the town centre, while manufacturing and administration are important industries. A local issue reported here recently is a militant swan living on the canal, which attacks canoeists and has apparently sunk a kayak.

Located about fifteen miles north of Exeter, Tiverton grew thanks to textiles, and one of Cranmore ward’s thoroughfares – Heathcoat Way – recalls the industrialist John Heathcoat. Heathcoat came to Tiverton to escape Luddite attacks on his previous Derbyshire base, and brought with him a lace-making industry. That local influence enabled Heathcoat to become one of the Whig MPs for Tiverton, which even after the 1832 Reform Act was a notorious rotten borough. A flavour of this can be found in the 1847 election here, in which Heathcoat’s running-mate was none other than Lord Palmerston, then foreign secretary. Palmerston’s re-election was challenged by the Chartist leader George Julian Harney, who according to Friedrich Engels won the hustings on a show of hands. But Palmerston called for a ballot; Harney, knowing he had no chance of winning a poll among the borough’s electorate, was forced to withdraw.

Things are a bit different here these days, of course. Cranmore ward is traditionally a Lib Dem-Tory fight: the Lib Dems won all three seats here in 2007, but lost one to the Conservatives in 2011. One of the remaining Lib Dem councillors, Kevin Wilson, was then found guilty of benefit fraud and ended up with a 10-week suspended prison sentence – not long enough to disqualify him from office and he stood for re-election in 2015 as an independent. The Lib Dems didn’t defend their remaining seat in the ward and the way was clear for the Conservatives to pick up all three seats in the 2015 election. The Tory slate had 47% of the vote, but a lot of that was a personal vote for their outgoing councillor Sue Griggs who topped the poll; Slade was elected in third place with a majority of just 35 votes over independent candidate Leslie Cruwys who had 31%. Wilson finished fifth, ahead of the Labour slate which polled 23%. It would appear that Wilson is back in the Lib Dem fold now, not that that did him much good – he was their defending candidate for the local Tiverton East division in the 2017 Devon county elections, but the Tories’ Colin Slade gained the seat from the Lib Dems by the margin of 42-30.

In defending this by-election the Tories have turned from youth to experience. Their candidate Lance Kennedy is a former police officer who served four times as Mayor of Bodmin in Cornwall; he was a Cornwall councillor for Bodmin East division from 2009 to 2013 and sat on the council’s cabinet. Even more experienced is Leslie Cruwys, who was first elected in 1972 to the former Tiverton urban district council; he was runner-up here in the 2015 election, has since been co-opted to Tiverton town council and this time is standing with the Lib Dem nomination. Another town councillor and independent candidate returning is Steve Bush, who finished last here in 2015 and this time is the Labour candidate.

Parliamentary constituency: Tiverton and Honiton
Devon county council division: Tiverton East (most), Tiverton West (part)
ONS Travel to Work Area: Exeter
Postcode district: EX16

Steve Bush (Lab)
Les Cruwys (LD)
Lance Kennedy (C)

May 2015 result C 1102/848/766 Ind 731/625/481 Lab 533/503
May 2011 result C 728/611/589 LD 675/647/575
May 2007 result LD 663/635/622 C 520/510 UKIP 453
May 2003 result C 519/456 LD 440/285/281 UKIP 351 Lab 295/230/187


Benson and Crowmarsh

South Oxfordshire council; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Richard Pullen who had served since 2015. He resigned due to political differences with Jane Murphy, who has recently taken over as leader of the council’s Conservative group.

For our south-eastern by-election we are in rural Oxfordshire on the left bank of the River Thames, opposite the town of Wallingford on the far bank. Benson is a village with a lot of history: there are prehistoric remains here, and in 573 the West Saxons established here a royal vill – an administrative centre for the local area. The vill was surrendered to Offa of Mercia in the 770s, and by the time of the 1086 Domesday survey Benson was the richest royal manor in Oxfordshire. Charles I held court here during the Civil War, and in the eighteenth century Benson was an important staging post on the route from London to Oxford. The coming of the railway, which bypassed the area, led to economic and population decline; but Benson these days is a commuter village for the Oxfordshire towns, with professional and scientific occupations being strongly represented.

However, that’s not the main industry here. Included within the ward is RAF Benson, opened in 1939 shortly before the outbreak of war and still very much in Air Force use today. The airfield saw much action in the war, and Polish and Czechoslovak airmen who were based here are buried in the village churchyard. That church has a clock tower with a clockface that shows two number 11s (the number 9 was mispainted as “XI”) and during the war the broadcaster and noted passport fraudster William “Lord Haw Haw” Joyce promised an airraid on “an airfield near the village whose clock had two elevens”. RAF Benson was duly bombed shortly afterwards. Away from military use, Benson is in a frost hollow and regularly records unusually low temperatures.

This ward was created in 2015, being based on the former two-seat Benson ward which had rather different boundaries. The 2015 result showed large personal votes for Conservative councillor Felix Bloomfield, who topped the poll, and Lib Dem Susan Cooper who is a former district councillor for Benson ward; both ran a long way ahead of their respective running-mates. The vote shares – 47% for the Conservatives, 30% for the Lib Dems, 13% for the Greens – should probably be seen in that context. Not that the Tories have it all their own way here: at Oxfordshire county level most of the ward is within the Benson and Cholsey division, which elected an independent county councillor in 2017.

Defending or the Conservatives is Domenic Papa, from Benson. The Lib Dem candidate is the aforementioned Sue Cooper who was runner-up here in 2015. There is no Green candidate this time, so completing the ballot paper is Labour’s William Sorenson.

Parliamentary constituency: Henley
Oxfordshire county council division: Benson and Cholsey (Benson and Crowmarsh parishes), Berinsfield and Garsington (Shillingford parish), Chalgrove and Watlington (Ewelme parish)
ONS Travel to Work Area: Oxford (Benson, Ewelme and Shillingford parishes), Reading (Crowmarsh parish)
Postcode districts: OX10, OX49

Sue Cooper (LD)
Domenic Papa (C)
William Sorenson (Lab)

May 2015 result C 2247/1770 LD 1457/618 Grn 606 Lab 513/480


Crown

East Staffordshire council; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Stephen Smith who had served since 2015.

Our final poll of the week is another rural ward in the lower Dove valley. Crown ward lies on the Staffordshire side of the valley, roughly halfway between Burton-on-Trent and Uttoxeter. This is a ward of three parishes: in population terms the largest is Marchington, but the census return here is affected by the presence of the private Dovegate prison which can hold up to 1,060 inmates and is the ward’s largest employer. The Notice of Poll shows that the largest village in electorate terms is Draycott in the Clay, which clings to the valley side along the A515 Lichfield-Ashbourne road.

Don’t bet against a Tory hold here. In 2015 the Conservatives polled 79% in Crown ward against only Labour opposition; at Staffordshire county level most of the ward is in the Uttoxeter Rural division which also voted 79% Conservative in 2017.

Defending for the Conseratives is Gordon Marjoram, a chartered accountant and Marchington parish councillor. He is opposed by Labour’s William Walker and the ward’s first Lib Dem candidate this century, Michael Pettingale.

Parliamentary constituency: Burton
Staffordshire county council division: Uttoxeter Rural (Draycott in the Clay and Marchington parishes), Dove (Hanbury parish)
ONS Travel to Work Area: Burton upon Trent
Postcode districts: DE6, DE13, ST14

Gordon Marjoram (C)
Michael Pettingale (LD)
William Walker (Lab)

May 2015 result C 1249 Lab 325
May 2011 result C 901 Lab 238
May 2007 result C 719 Lab 128 BNP 117
May 2003 result C 565 Ind 385 Lab 159