Previews: 12 Dec 2018

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

This column does indeed cover all the important votes, and local by-elections, unlike those votes held in the Palace of Westminster, tend not to be called off at the last moment. We already know the winner of one of this week’s six polls, the election for Alderman of Broad Street ward in the City of London: nobody challenged the incumbent Alderman Michael Mainelli, and he will be formally declared re-elected at the Wardmote tonight. This column sends its congratulations to Alderman Mainelli. That’s not the only piece of electoral news taking place today, as we go to Nottinghamshire for an unusual Wednesday by-election…

Sutton Junction and Harlow Wood

Ashfield council, Nottinghamshire; caused by the resignation of Steven Carroll, who had been elected for Labour but had defected to the Ashfield Independents group. He was first elected in 2011, sitting for the predecessor ward of Sutton in Ashfield East until 2015; and had also been a long-serving Nottinghamshire county councillor until losing his seat in 2017.

We have come to Sutton-in-Ashfield, a town of around 45,000 souls some miles to the north of Nottingham. Although there is (or was) coal down below, Sutton-in-Ashfield was traditionally more of a textile town specialising in hosiery. The town’s main park, Sutton Lawns, was once the grounds of a stately home built by a hosiery merchant, whose mill still stands on the edge of the park; and the tights and stockings brand Pretty Polly started life in Sutton-in-Ashfield in 1919. (In case you’re wondering, the name comes from a racehorse which won the Fillies’ Triple Crown in 1904; a local bookmaker made a lot of money from that, and his daughter lifted the name for the company.) Pretty Polly was still manufacturing here until 2005, but then crossed the border into Derbyshire where its products are now made in Belper.

This ward covers the eastern end of Sutton-in-Ashfield together with the village of Harlow Wood, located to the south of Mansfield in one of the few remaining parts of Sherwood Forest. Harlow Wood specialises in help for the infirm and disabled: there was once an orthopaedic hospital here, while still going is Portland College which provides vocational training for the disabled. Its original intake in 1949 was made up of Second World War veterans and former miners.

Sherwood Forest was of course the home of that noted criminal Robin Hood, whose speciality was in income redistribution in favour of the poor. This is similar to the sort of thing the Labour Party might like to get the chance to do, but the modern residents of what was Sherwood Forest don’t always agree with that policy. Ashfield’s politics has never been quite the same since the political rise of Jason Zadrozny, who became leader of the council in 2007 at the age of just 27 as leader of the Liberal Democrat group: three years later he was less than 200 votes away from becoming the first Lib Dem MP for Ashfield. Despite Labour regaining an overall majority on the council in 2011, the Ashfield Lib Dems didn’t give up and were very confident of getting Zadrozny over the line and into Parliament in the 2015 general election – until just before the close of nominations when he was arrested on child sax allegations.

The case didn’t come to trial until November 2017, at which point the prosecution offered no evidence and Zadrozny was acquitted of all charges. In the meantime he had been re-elected to Ashfield council and Nottinghamshire county council as an independent, having been dropped by the Lib Dems, as well as contesting the 2016 election for Nottinghamshire Police and Crime Commissioner.

With his political career free to resume, Zadrozny has wasted no time in getting back to the levers of power, helped by an almighty split in the Ashfield Labour party which in the 2015 election had won 22 out of 35 seats, with 5 Lib Dems, 4 Conservatives and 4 Independents forming the opposition. There was a sign of things to come in the last Ashfield by-election, held in Hucknall in October 2017 to replace Tory councillor Ben Bradley who had been elected as Tory MP for Mansfield. Let that sink in for the moment: a Tory MP for Mansfield. The Conservatives resoundingly lost that council by-election to the Zadroznyite independents. Six months later, Jason Zadrozny was back as council leader after several Labour councillors defected: his Ashfield Independents group runs a minority administration with 10 councillors, against 14 Labour, 5 Conservatives, 5 other independents, zero Liberal Democrats and this vacancy.

Which is suitably complicated, for Steven Carroll was one of the Labour councillors who had defected to the Zadrozynite banner. This ward was created only in 2015 when the Boundary Commission split up the former Sutton in Ashfield East ward into several smaller areas: and Carroll was elected very narrowly in that year. His winning score was 661 votes with the Liberal Democrats just six votes behind on 655; both parties had 38% of the vote, with the Conservatives taking the remaining 25%. With the turnaround in the district’s political scene since then, a better guide may be the Nottinghamshire county council elections in May last year: all three Sutton-in-Ashfield divisions returned Zadroznyite candidates with over 60% of the vote, Labour’s Steve Carroll losing his seat in Sutton Central and East (which includes this ward) by the score of 60-32. And no doubt watching closely will be the shadow justice secretary and Labour MP for Ashfield Gloria de Piero, who was re-elected in June last year with a 9% swing against her and a majority of just 441 votes over the Conservatives.

So this by-election looks more consequential than most, as it will give an important indication of where the electoral momentum (as opposed the political momentum, or even the political Momentum) is in this corner of Nottinghamshire. The Ashfield Independents will be hoping to defend their defection gain, and have selected Matthew Relf who works in IT. Labour will want their seat back, and their candidate is Kevin Hall. The Lib Dems will be hoping to prove that there is life after Zadrozny with Martin Howes, a business analyst. You can’t really blame the Conservatives for running a Self-centred campaign, because Christine Self is their candidate. Also standing are two candidates who in this time of Brexit will be hoping to appeal to the town’s Leave majority: Stephen Crosby for the Democrats and Veterans Party and Moira Sansom for UKIP.

Parliamentary constituency: Ashfield
Nottinghamshire county council division: Sutton Central and East
Postcode districts: NG17, NG18

Stephen Crosby (Democrats and Veterans)
Kevin Hall (Lab)
Martin Howes (LD)
Matthew Relf (Ashfield Ind)
Moira Sansom (UKIP)
Christine Self (C)

May 2015 result Lab 661 LD 655 C 430