Previews: 06 Dec 2018

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

Four by-elections on Thursday 6th December 2018, with the Lib Dems defending two seats and Labour and the Conservatives one each. Without further ado, let’s start with the big one:


Wester Ross, Strathpeffer and Lochalsh

Highland council; caused by the resignation of Liberal Democrat councillor Kate Stephen. She was first elected in 2012 for Culloden and Ardersier ward, transferring here following boundary changes in 2017; Stephen is standing down due to increased work commitments.

Brace yourselves. Winter is coming. We travel to the sparsely-populated North for a fascinating contest to start off this week’s council by-elections. It’s a land of many political interests, with intrigue aplenty as the various actors seek independence, or control of the levers of power, or both, amid some of the most beautiful scenery and dubious weather imaginable. In the latest eagerly-anticipated episode the Liberal Democrats have abdicated their share of the quadripartite throne, and it’s a fight to the political death for the right to sit uneasily upon it. There’s only place we can possibly be with that introduction. Welcome to Wester Ross.

A phrase which may often be said by the locals, for this area is popular with holidaymakers from all over the world. The mountain scenery is spectacular, with the Ice Age having left behind deep valleys separating steep mountains of over 1,000 metres in height, which attract the camera and test the Munro-bagger. Those mountains are important to science as well. The Torridon Hills in particular are a magnet for geologists as they are made up of some of the oldest rocks in the world: 500-million-year-old pre-Cambrian sandstone sitting on Lewisian gneiss up to 3,000 million years old, which has weathered to create the west coast of the Highlands as we know it today. There are also attractions for the natural sciences as this area is a haven for wildlife, with all sorts of habitats from littoral to moorland to mountaintop; there are very few people living in this area to disturb the natural order, and even fewer roads to disturb the countryside. One of the roads which does exist here is notorious for its steep and treacherous route: but for many years the Bealach ne Bà was the only road connection to the west coast village of Applecross. Until it was built, anybody who wanted to travel to or from Applecross had to board a boat or get walking.

Further to the south is Lochalsh, which is similar in character but more strategically important. A history of Lochalsh really does read like Game of Thrones, with the kings of Dál Riata, Norway, Alba and the Kingdom of the Isles, together with various clan leaders, all fighting to be monarchs of the local glens at some point or another. The picturesque Eilean Donan castle, controlling the main road to the Kyle of Lochalsh and the Isle of Skye, bears witness to some of the more recent squabbles in this vein: it was destroyed in 1715 after the local Clans Mackenzie and Macrae had been leaders of the first Jacobite rebellion, and the modern castle is a twentieth-century reconstruction. That doesn’t stop it being a tourist trap, mind. The main settlement here is Kyle of Lochalsh, from which a bridge leads over the sea to Skye. Kyle is one of the two railheads for Skye, but the railway doesn’t follow the main road: instead it takes a more northerly route towards Easter Ross and Inverness, passing villages such as Plockton and Stromeferry on the shores of Lochcarron.

To the east the mountains ease and the area comes under the economic influence of Inverness, but you still can’t get away from tourists. The town of Strathpeffer owes its very existence to non-locals: it was built in the Victorian era as a spa town, and at one point was the most northerly spa in Europe. Although the ward is known for its severe winter weather, Strathpeffer tends to avoid the worst of this through being sheltered to the west and north.

With all those inhospitable mountains, this is by a huge margin the UK’s largest electoral ward. The Ordnance Survey has measured its area as 494,726 hectares or 1,190 square miles, which is bigger than two EU member states (Luxembourg and Malta) and one US state (Rhode Island). Only six English counties are larger.

The notice of poll reveals that this vast expanse has just 10,014 electors, who will be served by 25 polling stations. Rather an expense for the returning officer, who has already incurred some unbudgeted costs by sending out the polling cards for this by-election late, then sending them out twice, then sending out a letter to every elector apologising for this. The smallest polling station here, with just 47 people on the roll, is at Achnasheen which is a road junction and railway station on the Kyle Line and not much else; while the largest polling station in the ward with 1,543 electors is that at Ullapool. The largest and most important village in Wester Ross, and recognised by the ONS as the centre of its own Travel to Work Area, Ullapool was founded in 1788 by the British Fisheries Society and the sea is still important to its economy. There are regular roll-on roll-off ferries from here to Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides (yes, even on Sundays these days) and some fishing boats and yachts still operate out of this port on Lochbroom.

The Scottish Highlands is one of the last strongholds of the independent councillor. At election time, it’s a place where the person often matters more than the party, although this isn’t always foolproof – as could be attested by the case of Charles Kennedy, who represented this area in Parliament until 2015 when even he got swept away by the SNP tide. Until 2007 independents were generally in the ascendancy in this area, which was covered by several single-member electoral wards; but two of those wards had in 2003 elected party candidates, the SNP’s Jean Urquhart winning Lochbroom ward (Ullapool and its hinterland) and the Lib Dems’ Isabelle “Biz” Campbell being unopposed in Kinlochshiel ward (Lochalsh except for Kyle).

Urquhart and Campbell were re-elected at the first poll for the current ward in 2007, with two new independent councillors – Richard Greene and Audrey Sinclair – winning the ward’s other two seats. Urquhart stood down in 2012 and was replaced by new SNP councillor Ian Cockburn; Campbell, who was re-elected on the Lib Dem ticket, immediately left the party and went independent. Not that it did her much good initially: an SNP-led coalition was formed to run the council with the independent group shut out, but that coalition fell apart in 2015 with the independents then forming a minority administration. The Independent Group is still in control, but having lost further seats in 2017 now rules in coalition with the Lib Dems and Labour; that coalition controls 39 of the 74 seats on Highland council.

In 2017 the SNP nominated Cockburn for re-election and tried for a second seat with new candidate Alexander MacInnes; independent councillors Biz Campbell and Richard Greene stood for re-election, Audrey Sinclair retired, and the Lib Dems nominated outgoing councillor Kate Stephen who had previously sat for Culloden and Ardersier ward (east of Inverness) but had been displaced by boundary changes. When the votes came out of the ballot boxes it was a complicated picture: 26% for the SNP, 18% for the Conservatives whose candidate Derek MacLeod led on the first count; and a bunfight for the final two seats between Campbell (14%), the Lib Dems (13%), Richard Greene (12%) and the Scottish Green Party (11%). In the count Cockburn was the first candidate to reach the 20% required for election, after his running-mate MacInnes was eliminated. Outgoing independent councillor Richard Greene attracted very few transfers and was overtaken by the Green Party; Greene’s transfers put the Tories and Biz Campbell over the winning line, and the Lib Dems’ Kate Stephen held off the Greens to win the final seat by 1,026 votes to 934.

With that sort of fragmented political picture, and with a very long candidate list for this by-election, the result of this poll looks rather unpredictable. Particularly so given that this is a Scottish local by-election, and so Votes at 16 and the Alternative Vote apply here. Transfers could be crucial. Defending for the Lib Dems, who start from fourth place, is George Scott who gives an address on Skye. The SNP have reselected their losing candidate from last year, Alexander MacInnes. MacInnes is fighting his second by-election of the year having stood in the neighbouring Caol and Mallaig ward in April, but this is his home turf – he lives in Wester Ross, is a native Gaelic speaker and works in the seafood industry. This seat is in the constituency of Ian Blackford, who leads the SNP delegation to Westminster, so the Nationalists will be looking for a good performance.

Three of the candidates give addresses outside the ward in the village of Muir of Ord. One is the Conservative nominee Gavin Berkenheger, a geologist who runs a company looking for gold deposits in Scotland. The other two are the two independent candidates, both of whom are former Highland councillors who lost their seats in 2017: one is Richard Greene who represented this ward from 2007 to 2017, while the other is Jean Davis who won a by-election in 2015 for the neighbouring Aird and Loch Ness ward on the Lib Dem ticket but lost re-election there last year (again as a Lib Dem). The following month Davis stood for Parliament as a Lib Dem, and she came nowhere near recovering the Ross, Skye and Lochaber seat which the late Charles Kennedy lost in 2015.

The Scottish Greens, who were runners-up here last year, have selected Irene Brandt who lives in a village near Ullapool and is described as a community campaigner. Completing the nine-strong ballot paper are Labour’s Christopher Birt, who finished last here in 2017; Harry Christian for the Libertarian Party; and Les Durance for UKIP. Don’t wait up all night for the result because the count won’t start until Friday morning.

I cannot resist finishing this preview with one of my favourite pieces of music. The brass band composer Philip Sparke wrote a suite some years ago for brass band called Hymn of the Highlands, many of whose movements are named after locations in this ward – including the final movement “Dundonnell”, which in the video below is paired with a series of beautiful photographs of the Highlands. Hopefully this will help to set the scene – and maybe even provoke a yearning to be another of those tourists that come here?

Parliamentary constituency: Ross, Skye and Lochaber
Scottish Parliament constituency: Caithness, Sutherland and Ross (Wester Ross and Strathpeffer); Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch (Lochalsh)
ONS Travel to Work Areas: Broadford and Kyle of Lochalsh, Inverness, Ullapool
Postcode districts: IV6, IV14, IV21, IV22, IV23, IV26, IV40, IV45, IV52, IV53, IV54, IV63, PH35

Gavin Berkenheger (C)
Christopher Birt (Lab)
Irene Brandt (Grn)
Harry Christian (Libertarian)
Jean Davis (Ind)
Les Durance (UKIP)
Richard Greene (Ind)
Alexander MacInnes (SNP)
George Scott (LD)

May 2017 result SNP 1467 C 1036 Ind 796 LD 752 Ind 656 Grn 628 Lab 285
May 2012 result LD 1162 SNP 1010 Ind 872 Ind 677 C 257 Ind 234
May 2007 result SNP 1486 LD 1242 Ind 792 Ind 608 C 451 Lab 354 Ind 328 Ind 232 Ind 199


Belgrave

Leicester council; caused by the death of Labour councillor Mansukhlal “Mo” Chohan at the age of 65. Chohan was first elected in 1999, and had continuous service since 2015.

Things change, things stay the same. Something to reflect on as we examine the week’s Labour defence, in the city of Leicester: a city whose very motto is Semper Eadem – “always the same”. We’re on the Fosse Way about a mile or three to the north of Leicester city centre, an area which in days of olden time was the village of Belgrave. The city of Leicester has thrived for many years, and in 1709 one of its prominent businessmen – a hosiery merchant called Edmund Cradock – had built a mansion for his family from which he could commute into the city. Belgrave Hall still stands today: now in the hands of Leicester city council, it’s used as a heritage centre and is a magnet for ghost hunters.

The area between Belgrave and the city was built up by 1900 with rows of Victorian terraces perpendicular to the Fosse Way – now known here as the Belgrave Road. The area to the east of these terraces was demolished in the 1960s and redeveloped as the St Marks council estate, rehousing families from slums elsewhere in the city. An electoral ward was drawn to cover the St Marks estate and the Belgrave Road terraces, and it was named after the sixteenth-century bishop Hugh Latimer. A Leicestershire man, Latimer was one of the leading figures of the Protestant Reformation in England, and for his efforts was burned at the stake in Oxford during the reign of Mary I.

But it’s not Christianity for which the Belgrave area is now known. Leicester saw enormous immigration from the Indian subcontinent (particularly from Gujarat) commencing in the 1960s onwards, and this was boosted in 1972 when Idi Amin expelled the Asian community from Uganda. Around a quarter of the initially displaced Ugandan Asians ended up in Leicester, including many of the country’s prominent businessmen. The effects of this can be seen today on the Belgrave Road, which is locally nicknamed the “Golden Mile” because of the large number of jewellery shops on it; the road is the centre of what are claimed to be the largest Diwali celebrations outside of the subcontinent. On the last Sunday in October this year, the Diwali lights on the road were dimmed as a mark of respect to the late Councillor Chohan.

In the 2011 census Latimer ward held several records for England and Wales. It was the number 1 ward for Hinduism (71%), number 1 for those born outside the EU (63%), number 2 for Asian ethnicity (86%) and in top 30 for “other” qualifications (17%). It also had a very working-class economic profile. Boundary changes for the 2015 election expanded Latimer ward to take in the Belgrave village area from the former Belgrave ward, which was broken up; however, just to confuse matters the “Latimer” name was dropped and the name “Belgrave” applied to the expanded ward. The abolished Belgrave ward had very similar demographics (including being number 2 in England and Wales for Hinduism), so this didn’t make much of a difference to the political profile.

Which is strongly Labour. Latimer ward was 81% Labour in 2011 in a straight fight with the Conservatives; from the Labour point of view that was a big improvement on 2007 when Chohan had stood for re-election as an independent (presumably there had been some sort of falling out between him and Labour) and wasn’t far off winning. The new Belgrave ward had a 70-18 lead for Labour over the Conservatives in 2015. There have been no local elections in the city since then; the 2017 snap election saw a swing to Labour in the local Leicester East constituency and an eighth term of office for the local MP Keith Vaz. (Apologies to any readers who may have been playing the Keith Vaz game.)

Defending for Labour is Padmini Chamund, who fought Latimer ward as an independent candidate in 2007. The Conservative candidate is Khandubhai Patel, and completing the ballot paper are Ursula Bilson for the Green Party and Hash Chandarana for the Liberal Democrats. Whoever wins this by-election is going to have to get straight back on the campaign trail to seek re-election in May next year.

Parliamentary constituency: Leicester East
ONS Travel to Work Area: Leicester
Postcode districts: LE1, LE4

Ursula Bilson (Grn)
Padmini Chamund (Lab)
Hash Chandarana (LD)
Khandubhai Patel (C)

May 2015 result Lab 5705/5593/4653 C 1509/1485/1273 Grn 466 UKIP 318/270/263 TUSC 199


Wolvercote

Oxford council; caused by the death of Liberal Democrat councillor Angie Goff who had served since 2016.

We move south-west from Leicester to conclude our recent mini-series of Liberal Democrat defences in Oxfordshire. Wolvercote is the first part of Oxford that people see if, like your columnist, they arrive from the north. All the main communication links – the Oxford Canal, the railways, the River Thames, the park and ride buses – between Oxford and the North pass through here. The Thames was traditionally the source of the village’s economy: there was a large paper mill here which until 1998 supplied the Oxford University Press, and the University has plans to redevelop its site for housing. There are certainly a lot of its staff already here: in 2011 Wolvercote ward was in the top 70 wards in England and Wales for “higher management” occupational groups and in the top 80 for degree-level qualifications (58% of the workforce). One noted Oxonian who is permanently here is the noted philologist and Lancashire Fusilier J R R Tolkein, who is buried in Wolvercote Cemetery.

The living electors of Wolvercote tend towards the Liberal Democrat side. In May the ward gave the Lib Dems a 61-24 lead over the Conservatives, which was a big advance for the party on two years previously (when the result was 45% for the Liberal Democrats, 30% for the Tories and 14% for the Green Party) and may reflect a personal vote for long-serving councillor Steve Goddard. The Liberal Democrats also safely hold the local Oxfordshire county council division, Wolvercote and Summertown, and Wolvercote is within the Oxford West and Abingdon parliamentary seat which the Lib Dems gained in the 2017 general election.

Defending for the Lib Dems is Liz Wade, an author and former city councillor for her home St Margaret’s ward (2014 until standing down in May this year). The Conservative candidate is Jenny Jackson. Also standing are Ibrahim el-Hendi for Labour and Sarah Edwards for the Green Party.

Parliamentary constituency: Oxford West and Abingdon
Oxfordshire county council division: Wolvercote and Summertown
ONS Travel to Work Area: Oxford
Postcode district: OX2

Sarah Edwards (Grn)
Ibrahim el-Hendi (Lab)
Jenny Jackson (C)
Liz Wade (LD)

May 2018 result LD 1341 C 517 Lab 217 Grn 125
May 2016 result LD 944 C 623 Grn 284 Lab 238
May 2014 result LD 971 C 677 Grn 275 Lab 250
May 2012 result LD 655 C 584 Grn 495 Lab 200
May 2010 result LD 1412 C 1149 Grn 444 Lab 347
May 2008 result LD 623 C 572 Grn 377 Lab 255
May 2006 result LD 911 Grn 478 C 474 Lab 145
June 2004 result LD 828 C 669 Grn 485 Lab 162
May 2002 result LD 801/690 C 616/578 Grn 444/444 Lab 244/238


The Byfleets

Surrey county council; caused by the death of Conservative councillor Richard Wilson at the age of 68. He had served since 2013: in a lifetime of community service he had been a Scout leader for 47 years, and a long-serving school governor. Wilson had also served on Woking council, representing West Byfleet ward from 2007 to 2016.

Byfleet was in a tumult; people packing, and a score of hussars, some of them dismounted, some on horseback, were hunting them about. Three or four black government waggons, with crosses in white circles, and an old omnibus, among other vehicles, were being loaded in the village street. There were scores of people, most of them sufficiently sabbatical to have assumed their best clothes. The soldiers were having the greatest difficulty in making them realise the gravity of their position. We saw one shrivelled old fellow with a huge box and a score or more of flower pots containing orchids, angrily expostulating with the corporal who would leave them behind.

This quote is from H G Wells’ War of the Worlds, in which the borough of Woking was the subject of a Martian invasion. The Martians may not have had a go at destroying Byfleet, but the Germans certainly did: the village is next door to Brooklands, which from 1907 was home to a motor racing circuit and a series of aircraft factories.

Byfleet is within the M25 motorway and rather downmarket by Surrey standards. The same cannot be said of West Byfleet, which is outside the motorway and a bona fide London commuter area: it helps that West Byfleet railway station has a more frequent and better-quality service to Waterloo than Byfleet and New Haw, despite being one stop further out. To the south of West Byfleet is Pyrford which is even more stockbroker-belt: in 2011 the Pyrford ward (not all of which is in this division) was in the top 60 wards in England and Wales for owner-occupation. Both West Byfleet and Pyrford effectively are now part of the built-up area of Woking, a town which has made a good recovery from the predations of the Martians all those years ago.

This should add up to a safe Tory county division, but things are a bit more complicated than that. At Woking council level Byfleet has recently been taken over by an independent group: Woking got new ward boundaries in 2016, and the independents won all three seats in the newly-drawn Byfleet and West Byfleet ward. Independent Woking councillor John Bond challenged Richard Wilson for this county seat in 2017: Wilson was re-elected but only with 41% against 32% for Bond and 18% for the Liberal Democrats. In May’s Woking council elections the independents held Byfleet and West Byfleet ward with a majority of just 53 votes over the Tories; the Conservative majority in this division clearly comes out of Pyrford ward where they had a big lead in May.

This by-election looks set to be another grudge match between the Conservatives and independents. Defending for the Tories is Gary Elson, who was a Woking councillor for West Byfleet from 2008 to 2016 before losing his seat to the independents; he sat on the Woking cabinet during that period. The Independents have this time selected Woking councillor Amanda Boote, who may have a mountain to climb but she’s used to that: Boote scaled Kilimanjaro in February this year. The Lib Dem candidate is Ellen Nicholson who has recently moved to the area from Somerset: she is a course director for a London University programme. Completing the ballot paper is Lyn Sage for the UK Independence Party.

Parliamentary constituency: Woking
Woking council wards: Byfleet and West Byfleet; Pyrford (part)
ONS Travel to Work Area: Guildford and Aldershot
Postcode districts: GU22, GU23, KT14

Amanda Boote (Ind)
Gary Elson (C)
Ellen Nicholson (LD)
Lyn Sage (UKIP)

May 2017 result C 1536 Ind 1203 LD 650 Lab 198 UKIP 122
May 2013 result C 1476 UKIP 597 LD 533 Lab 231 BNP 98


And just a quick reminder that there is still time before Christmas to get hold of your copy of Andrew’s Previews 2017, which contains many more previews like this and would make a delightful Christmas present for the discerning political reader. Click the book title or search on Amazon – and remember that all profits from the book will go towards the research required for future Previews.