Previews: 15 Nov 2018

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

Before we start this week there are a couple of entries for Correction Corner. Firstly, this column would like to apologise to Jodi Dunne, the winning Labour candidate in the Harlow, Bush Fair by-election last Thursday; Councillor Dunne is in fact a man (“Jodi” being short for “Joseph”) and not, as I had incorrectly assumed and wrote in last week’s column, a woman. Also, the Dormers Wells by-election last week was not in fact the first by-election in Ealing for ten years; there was a poll in Northfield ward on general election day in 2015 which I had overlooked. Unfortunately this lack of basic research also fed through into my performance in the European Quiz Championships over the weekend in Venice, with my Wales team finishing tenth out of fifteen nations. My apologies for the mistakes; must do better in future.

The four by-elections on 15th November 2018 have something for everyone in partisan terms with two Labour defences and one each for the Conservatives and Lib Dems. Appropriately for these volatile political times three of the by-elections are in marginal wards and the other may not be as safe as it looks. We travel to two areas which were Labour gains in the snap general election, one area which swung strongly to the Conservatives at the same time, and an area which the Conservatives will be hoping to take off the Liberal Democrats after many years of trying. Read on…

Canterbury North

Kent county council; caused by the death of Conservative councillor John Simmonds. A long-serving member of Kent county council, Simmonds had entered politics in 2001 after retiring from a career in banking and finance: he put that experience to good use by serving for eight years as Kent’s cabinet member for finance, only stepping down shortly before his death. He also served for twelve years on the council of the University of Kent, and in the 2014 New Year Honours was appointed MBE for services to local government. He had represented Canterbury North since its creation in 2017, before then sitting for the predecessor division of Canterbury West.

“Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there was a little girl and her name was Emily, and she had a shop.”

For our first by-election we are in a division whose name may be misleading at first sight. This is not the northern division of the ancient Kent city of Canterbury; the city does have a northern county division, but that is called Canterbury City North. The Canterbury North division, by contrast, is almost entirely outside the city and rather diverse.

This division is based on three wards of the Canterbury district. At the northern end is Chestfield ward, based on a village of the same name and also including part of the town of Whitstable. To the west of Canterbury lie the villages of Rough Common and Chartham, which are within the Chartham and Stone Street ward and are satellite villages for the city; Chartham is in the Stour valley and has a railway station on the Canterbury-Ashford line. Between them can be found a thickly-wooded area, the Blean Forest ward, within which is the village of Blean on the Canterbury-Whitstable road; this was the home of Smallfilms, the production company which gave us such classics of children’s television as Ivor the Engine, the Clangers and, of course, Bagpuss.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a bucolic true-blue ward, even if the 2017 county election result – 55% for the Conservatives, 16% each for Labour and the Lib Dems – might give that impression. Not all the electors here are old enough to remember Bagpuss – indeed, a sizeable number won’t have parents who are old enough to remember Bagpuss. Canterbury North division contains most of the main campus of the University of Kent. One of the plate-glass universities of the 1960s, Kent houses over 6,000 students at its campus on the northern edge of Canterbury. An early Kent student was a young lad called Gavin Esler, who graduated in 1974 with a BA in English and American literature; Esler subsequently worked for forty years as a BBC journalist, and is now the chancellor of the university he once studied at. His predecessor as chancellor was one of the UK’s most eminent psephologists, the opinion pollster and founder of MORI Sir Robert Worcester.

The university certainly has a large impact on the electoral roll here. Both county and district ward boundaries have changed here since the 2011 census, but at the time Blean Forest ward (which covers the campus together with Blean) was 70% student, the eighth-highest figure for any ward in England and Wales; in consequence it was in the top fifteen wards in the country for the 18-29 age group and for those educated to A-level but no further. It would appear that the students generally didn’t turn out for the Kent county council election in May 2017, but they must have turned out for the snap general election five weeks later; the Labour gain of the Canterbury constituency, which had returned Conservatives or Independent Conservatives continuously since 1857, was one of the most surprising results of last year. In order for Labour to have won Canterbury last year they would have most likely carried this county division. Suddenly that 55-16 Tory lead in May 2017 doesn’t look all that safe, does it? However, it will be difficult for Labour to repeat that trick for a local election: firstly, there appear to be issues within the local Labour party with talk that their MP Rosie Duffield could be deselected; secondly, the campus electoral roll has turned over twice since the general election and very few of the 2017 students will still be living within the division boundaries.

Defending for the Conservatives is a latter-day Thomas of Canterbury: Robert Thomas is an accountant who since 2011 has been a Canterbury city councillor, representing Chartham and Stone Street ward. Labour have reselected Dr Ben Hickman who, as a senior lecturer in poetry at the University of Kent, is somebody with excellent connections to the party’s core electorate in the division. The Lib Dems, who were just one vote behind Hickman at the 2017 county elections, have selected Alex Lister who works in digital communications and is a governor of the local NHS hospital trust: he is campaigning strongly for a new hospital for Canterbury. Also standing are teacher Henry Stanton for the Greens (who was their parliamentary candidate here last year), University of Kent student Joe Simons for UKIP and independent candidate Joe Egerton, who was a Conservative candidate for Canterbury City South in last year’s county elections.

Parliamentary constituency: Canterbury
Canterbury council wards: Blean Forest (part), Chestfield, Chartham and Stone Street (part)

Joe Egerton (Ind)
Ben Hickman (Lab)
Alex Lister (LD)
Joe Simons (UKIP)
Henry Stanton (Grn)
Robert Thomas (C)

May 2017 result C 2321 Lab 700 LD 699 Grn 287 UKIP 240

Grove and Wantage

Oxfordshire county council; caused by the resignation of Liberal Democrat councillor Zoé Patrick who had served since 2001. She was a former chairman of Oxfordshire County Council, and also served from 2007 to 2011 on Vale of White Horse district council.

From the modernity of the University of Kent we travel west and back in time, to the ancient town of Wantage. The birthplace of Alfred the Great, Wantage was a Berkshire town until 1974 and benefited from its location, at the foot of the Berkshire Downs within the Vale of White Horse. The Ridgway, by some metrics England’s oldest road, ran along the escarpment above the town; however, the Industrial Revolution rather passed Wantage by, and it is poorly served by rail and road. It took until the Second World War for major development to come, with the RAF opening Grove Airfield to the north of the town in 1942. The airfield subsequently became a USAAF base before passing into the hands of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, which ran a laboratory here for a time and built a large housing estate to provide accommodation for its employees. That turned Grove into a very large village, although it is still just about separate from Wantage.

Since 2005 Grove and Wantage have jointly elected two Oxfordshire county councillors. Throughout that period both of them have been Liberal Democrats, although the Conservatives have always been close behind – particularly so in 2005 and a 2008 by-election. The 2017 result had an eight-point lead for the Lib Dems which represented very little change from four years previously: the winning Lib Dem slate polled 43% to 35% for the Conservatives and 13% for Labour. Mind, there is something strange going on with the Labour result as recorded here in 2017, which had 745 votes for their regular candidate Jean Nunn-Price and just 127 for her running-mate George Etherington despite his being top of the ballot paper. One wonders whether something has gone wrong there. The Conservatives performed better in the last Vale of White Horse district council election in 2015, winning five of the division’s six district council seats to the Lib Dems’ one.

There is extra impetus for the Tories here: they presently hold 30 of Oxfordshire county council’s 63 seats, and this is the first of two county council seats the Lib Dems are defending in by-elections this month. If the Tories can gain this seat and the Wheatley by-election in two weeks’ time, they will have an overall majority on the county council.

Defending for the Lib Dems is Jane Hanna, a qualified barrister who was the first female Fellow of Keble College, Oxford and taught at Oxford University for twenty years. Hanna is the founding chief executive of a charity providing advice and bereavement support to families of those who fall victim to Sudden Unexpected Death of Epilepsy, and in 2010 was appointed OBE for her contribution to health services. She was a Vale of White Horse councillor from 2003 to 2013, representing Marcham and Shippon ward. The Tories have selected Ben Mabbett, a district councillor for Grove North ward within the division and Wantage town councillor. The Labour candidate is Dave Gernon, an Oxford University IT professional who also does computer repairs. Completing the ballot paper is Kevin Harris for the Green Party.

Parliamentary constituency: Wantage
Vale of White Horse council wards: Grove North, Wantage and Grove Brook, Wantage Charlton

Dave Gernon (Lab)
Jane Hanna (LD)
Kevin Harris (Grn)
Ben Mabbett (C)

May 2017 result LD 2403/2153 C 1958/1738 Lab 745/127 Grn 436
May 2013 result LD 1700/1651 C 1309/1106 Lab 610/464 UKIP 599/593 Grn 346
June 2009 result LD 2340/2143 C 1664/1619 UKIP 614 Grn 551/447 Lab 494/339
March 2008 by-election LD 1901 C 1786 Lab 372
May 2005 result LD 3414/3317 C 3152/3148 Lab 2270/2044 Grn 742/393


Stroud council, Gloucestershire; caused by the resignation of Labour councillor Alison Hayward, who has moved away from the district. She had served since 2016.

Henry BOLINGBROKE: How far is it, my lord, to Berkeley now?
NORTHUMBERLAND: Believe me, noble lord,
I am a stranger here in Gloucestershire:
These high wild hills and rough uneven ways
Draws out our miles, and makes them wearisome,
And yet your fair discourse hath been as sugar,
Making the hard way sweet and delectable.
-William Shakespeare, Richard II, II, iii.

Act II, scene III of Shakespeare’s Richard II is set in the “Wilds in Gloucestershire” which is a fair description of the setting of Dursley. Shakespeare may have known it well: there is a local tradition that he spent some years in Dursley working as a schoolteacher. The Berkeley which Bolingbroke and Northumberland were travelling to was Berkeley Castle on the banks of the Severn, where some decades earlier Richard II’s great-grandfather Edward II had met his end, most likely through foul play although the bit about the red-hot poker is probably apocryphal; but Dursley had a castle as well, built in 1153 during the last days of the Anarchy by Roger de Berkeley. The location was good, guarding a valley in the Cotswold hills; and it’s the proximity of the Cotswolds which is proving a boon to the estate agents of southern Gloucestershire.

The scenery is certainly nice by all accounts; but despite its setting Dursley was a surprisingly industrial town. That was mainly thanks to R A Lister and Company, whose engine factory was based here and which until quite recently employed many of the local residents. Inevitably, most of the factory site is now houses. Lister’s brought to Dursley the Danish inventor Mikael Pedersen, who invented his eponymous bicycle here; Pedersen bikes are still in production, although they’re not made in Dursley any longer. The exit of most of Dursley’s industry, despite the best efforts of Labour-led Stroud council which is apparently keen to keep some heavy industry going here, has left a post-industrial town which is slightly too far away from the M5 motorway to be attractive to commuters to Gloucester and Bristol.

Stroud council elected by thirds until 2016 when it moved onto the whole council elections cycle, but unusually Stroud holds its whole council elections in leap years (the only other councils with that electoral arrangement are Gloucester and Warrington). Dursley ward has unchanged boundaries since the modern Stroud council held its first election in 1973. Despite its industrial recent past it has been for most of its existence a closely-fought three-way marginal ward, although since the Coalition was formed Labour have risen somewhat at the expense of the Liberal Democrats. Since 2014 Labour have held all the ward’s councillors; at the most recent election in 2016 the Labour slate led here with 37% to 25% for the Conservatives and 24% for the single Lib Dem candidate. The Dursley division of Gloucestershire county council has some more genuine Cotswold rural territory making it more Conservative-inclined, and the Tories gained it from Labour in the 2017 county elections. Nonetheless, Labour did bounce back from that to gain the Stroud constituency at the snap general election five weeks later.

Defending for Labour is Trevor Hall, a retired trade union official who had been a shop steward at the Lister’s factory. Living on the same road as Hall is the Conservative candidate Loraine Patrick, who has been a Stroud councillor for this ward twice before (2002-03 and 2007-11), was runner-up here in 2016 and since 2017 has been the town’s county councillor. The Lib Dems have selected Richard Blackwell-Whitehead who is an engineer working with lasers. Completing the ballot paper is Stroud resident Yvon Dignon, representing the Green Party.

My thanks to local Labour and Liberal Democrat campaigners for their help with this preview.

Parliamentary constituency: Stroud
Gloucestershire county council division: Dursley

Richard Blackwell-Whitehead (LD)
Yvon Dignon (Grn)
Trevor Hall (Lab)
Loraine Patrick (C)

May 2016 result Lab 932/851/757 C 623/583/565 LD 606 Grn 359
May 2015 result Lab 1679 C 1282 LD 632
May 2014 result Lab 598 C 484 LD 386 UKIP 329 Grn 175 TUSC 20
May 2012 result Lab 880 C 543 LD 277
May 2011 result Lab 1026 C 679 LD 416 Grn 112
May 2010 result LD 1136 C 1120 Lab 1026 Grn 163
May 2008 result C 647 LD 608 Lab 531 Grn 97
May 2007 result C 653 Lab 639 LD 603
May 2006 result C 816 Lab 639 LD 462
June 2004 result Lab 667 C 614 LD 473 UKIP 137 Grn 83 EDP 64
May 2003 result LD 727 C 582 Lab 364 UKIP 37
November 2002 by-election C 652 LD 609 Lab 382
May 2002 result C 723/600/499 Lab 683/548/525 LD 573/528/497
May 2000 result C 605 Lab 537 LD 330
May 1999 result Lab 698 LD 457 C 349
May 1998 result LD 616 Lab 526 C 402
May 1996 result Lab 686 LD 515 C 447 Residents 200
May 1995 result Lab 642 LD 494 C 374 Ind 310
May 1994 result LD 806 Lab 654 C 531
May 1992 result C 781 LD 511/384 Grn 508 Lab 436/415
May 1991 result LD 978 Lab 697 C 599
May 1990 result Lab 1447 C 840
May 1988 result Lab 1086 C 876/752 SLD 823
May 1987 result C 933 Lab 818 All 614
May 1986 result All 1087 C 801
May 1984 result C 775 All 589 Lab 526
May 1983 result Lab 1009/714 C 988/988/924 All 759/654
May 1979 result C 1833/1714 Lab 1533/1327/1107
May 1976 result C 936/787 Lab 828/669/484 Ind 822/596
May 1973 result Ind 808/695/403/312 Lab 725/676/390 C 631 Lib 483

East Retford West

Bassetlaw council, Nottinghamshire; caused by the disqualification of Alan Chambers, who failed to attend any meetings of the council in six months. Twice Mayor of Retford, Chambers had served since 2012; he was elected for Labour but had been sitting as an independent councillor since May 2017.

We finish the week in a town within the debatable lands where the Midlands end and the North begins. It’s certainly been fought over for a long time: the Venerable Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, described the AD 617 Battle of the River Idle in which Raedwald, king of East Anglia, defeated and killed Aethelfrith, king of Northumbria. According to local legend, the Idle ran red with blood afterwards giving a name to a local crossing point: the red ford, or Retford.

A nice folk story there, but it doesn’t quite stack up: although the name Retford clearly relates to a ford on the River Idle, there’s all sorts of debate among toponymists as to the actual meaning of the name. It’s certainly a town whose name can be rather confusing even now. Bill Bryson, in his Notes from a Small Island, which less than 25 years after its publication is now worryingly dated, visited Retford and noted that the place was so obscure that it didn’t feature in the AA Book of British Towns. Let the record state that Retford is in that book, but it appears there under the name of East Retford which is still the town’s official name. The compass point comes from the fact that the town was originally founded on the western side of the ford (“West Retford”), but the eastern side (“East Retford”) eventually became more important and developed into the town centre with lots of nice Georgian buildings.

(East) Retford is in fact another old town, having been given a borough charter by Henry I in 1105; that status gave the town independence from the sheriffs of Nottingham, and Retford still guards that independence today by generally looking north, over the Yorkshire boundary. Bassetlaw council is associated with the Sheffield City Region, although it doesn’t (yet) get a vote for the city region’s mayor; and Retford is the only Nottinghamshire town to have Doncaster (DN) postcodes. Today it remains a rural market town with some passing trade: the Great North Road once ran through the town, and the East Coast Main Line and Sheffield-Lincoln railway lines still stop here. The railway station is at the heart of the East Retford West ward, which is based on the old West Retford but also extends over the Idle to take in part of the town centre.

In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries East Retford was a notorious rotten borough, generally held to be in the pocket of the Duke of Newcastle. An attempt was made in 1830, before the Great Reform Act, to disenfranchise Retford for corruption; that was eventually fended off by extending the boundaries of the East Retford constituency to take in the whole of the Wapentake of Bassetlaw, including the town of Worksop. With some boundary tweaks and a name change to Bassetlaw, the constituency has been roughly the same ever since. Since 2001 it has returned to Parliament the Labour MP John Mann, whose politics may not be to the taste of everyone within the Labour movement but are clearly a good fit for the area.

As with much of the Midlands Bassetlaw is swinging towards the right at parliamentary level; in June 2017 Mann’s lead was down to 9.3 percentage points. However, but that hasn’t yet been reflected on Bassetlaw council which returned a large Labour majority at its last election in 2015. Poor organisation from the Conservatives will have helped in that: although the Tories topped the poll in East Retford West in every election from 2002 to 2008, there was only one Conservative candidate here for the ward’s two seats in the 2015 election. In that poll Labour held both of those seats with 37%, to 29% for the Conservative candidate and 21% for UKIP. The Tories did gain the local county division of Retford West from Labour in May 2017¸ but only by 54 votes; it seems clear that favourable boundary changes, which brought the rural and Conservative-inclined Sutton ward into the division, made the difference there.

Defending for Labour is local resident Matthew Callingham. The Conservatives will be hoping to show they have the momentum in what is now a marginal parliamentary seat: they have selected Emma Auckland, who works in a local supermarket having previously run her own business. Completing the ballot paper is Helen Tamblyn-Saville of the Liberal Democrats.

Parliamentary constituency: Bassetlaw
Nottinghamshire county council division: Retford West

Emma Auckland (C)
Matthew Callingham (Lab)
Helen Tamblyn-Saville (LD)

May 2015 result Lab 1011/889 C 778 UKIP 576 LD 348
May 2014 result Lab 544 UKIP 292 C 232 LD 53
May 2012 result Lab 707 C 353
May 2010 result Lab 782 C 767 LD 515
May 2008 result C 570 Lab 324
May 2006 result C 602 Lab 317
June 2004 result C 575 Lab 399 LD 276
May 2002 result C 412/378 Lab 396/332