Previews: 10 Jan 2019

There are two local by-elections on 10th January 2019, both in the same town and both being defended by independent candidates. Read on…

Bexhill West

East Sussex county council; and

St Marks

Rother council, East Sussex; both caused by the death of independent councillor Stuart Earl at the age of 72. He had served on East Sussex county council since 2013 and on Rother council since 2011; he was also a Rother councillor from 2003 to 2007 as a Conservative, and was Mayor of Bexhill-on-Sea in 2004-05.

Welcome to 2019. Did you have a pleasant break over Christmas and New Year? Are your batteries suitably refreshed? Well, I hope so, because this is the first electoral act of what promises to be another year of bumpy politics.

Those who were following the political news over Christmas and New Year (such as it is during that time of peace and goodwill) will have noticed a particularly striking display of joined-up government. We saw the Department for Transport making preparations to facilitate people getting across the English Channel in boats, while at the same time the Home Office was making preparations to prevent people getting across the English Channel in boats.

There’s nothing new under the sun, and the fear of people getting across the English Channel – whether in a contemporary context or in a different Britain to that of today – is a subject which film, TV and literature has visited many times. Fast forward to 2027, as depicted in the 2006 film Children of Men, in which Clive Owen plays a civil servant. In that film the UK government had imposed oppressive immigration laws on refugees from outside these islands: a police state is in effect, and the south coast town of Bexhill-on-Sea has been turned into the location for an internment camp for the oppressed and desperate from the rest of the world; those people who by accident of birth had the misfortune not to qualify for British citizenship.

An earlier person who had that same misfortune was a much-loved Indian-born entertainer, who joined the Royal Artillery on the outbreak of the Second World War and was posted to defend Bexhill from another imminent invasion, with rather outdated weaponry…

When the ’14-’18 War ended, Churchill said the 9.2s were to be dismantled, put in grease and stored in case of ‘future eventualities’. There was one drawback. No Ammunition. This didn’t deter Leather Suitcase, he soon had all the gun crews shouting ‘BANG’ in unison. “Helps keep morale up,” he told visiting Alanbrooke.

Gunner Terence Milligan further reported, in his memoir Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall, that a shell for the 9.2 gun was eventually found, ceremoniously fired, and proved to be a dud. Some things in the Army don’t change.

Now, having foreign invading forces come through Bexhill is not exactly fanciful: back in the autumn of 1066 an invasion force led by the Duke of Normandy landed at nearby Pevensey, and things have never been quite the same since. That landing (although not the site of it, the coastline having changed over the last nine and a half centuries) is commemorated by a hamlet and railway station called Normans Bay, in the marshes a few miles west of Bexhill.

Those marshes are covered by Bexhill’s St Marks ward, named after the church serving the village of Little Common; a village which has now became part of Bexhill’s urban sprawl. Now, when you look at the town’s census return you begin to understand why Children of Men, a film set in a world with no young people in it, decided to pick on Bexhill: St Marks ward is in the top 20 wards in England and Wales for the 65+ age bracket and in the top 25 for retired people. It’s also in the top 80 for owner-occupation. Those stats are presumably boosted by the closure in 1992 of a real-life Bexhill internment camp – Northeye prison, which was located in the ward and largely destroyed by a 1986 riot. With serious housebuilding underway at the moment at Barnhorn Green, the 2021 census may well return something different.

Or perhaps not, if you look at the rest of the Bexhill West county division which also takes in parts of the Collington and Kewhurst wards. Collington ward, covering the town’s western seafront, is even older than St Marks: it ranks fifth in England and Wales for adults aged 65 or over, and just 26% of the ward’s residents have yet to reach their 45th birthday. Kewhurst ward, to the north of Collington, also makes the top 25 wards in England and Wales for the 65+ age bracket.

You might think from that age profile alone that this would be a Tory area, and at parliamentary level it is. However, at local level the Conservatives have been under pressure in western Bexhill from a group of independent ex-Tory councillors including Stuart Earl, who had run a bakery in the town. Earl had set as a Conservative councillor for St Marks ward until 2007; he returned to Rother council as an independent councillor for St Marks ward in 2011, gaining his seat from the Conservatives; and he repeated the trick in 2013 at East Sussex county council level.

In 2015 Stuart Earl was re-elected to Rother council at the top of the poll in St Marks ward, polling 39%; his ward colleague Joanne Gadd, who had previously been elected here on the Conservative slate, also sought re-election as an independent but lost her seat to the Tories’ Thomas Graham who had 34%. UKIP trailed in some way behind on 18%. In the same election Collington ward returned an independent slate and Kewhurst voted Conservative; one of the independent councillors for Collington resigned in 2016 and the resulting by-election was very easily won by Stuart Earl’s wife Deirdre Earl-Williams, another ex-Tory councillor standing as an independent candidate. The 2017 county elections in Bexhill saw Stuart Earl easily re-elected in Bexhill West, defeating the Conservatives 50-33.

For the county by-election in Bexhill West the defending independent candidate is Stuart Earl’s widow Deirdre Earl-Williams who, as stated is a Rother councillor for Collington ward. The Tories have reselected their losing candidate from 2017 Martin Kenward, a Rother councillor for Kewhurst ward. Also standing for the county council seat are Jacque Walker for Labour, Richard Thomas for the Liberal Democrats, UKIP’s Geoffrey Bastin (who fought the Bexhill and Battle parliamentary seat in 2015 and 2017, treading in the footsteps of one Nigel Farage) and Polly Gray for the Green Party.

The district by-election winner will have to be back on the campaign trail in short order as they will be due for re-election in just four months’ time. Defending St Marks for the independents is Kathy Harmer, who runs a shop selling wigs and dresses in Little Common. The Conservatives have selected Gino Forte, who runs a development company and a club in the town. The UKIP candidate is John Zipser. With the Lib Dem candidate having withdrawn their nomination, Labour’s John Walker completes the district ballot paper.

January is a slow month for local by-elections and there are just four polls this month. This column will now take a two-week holiday before returning in time for the final two important votes, which will take place on 31st January. Please don’t get withdrawal symptoms.

Andrew Teale

Bexhill West

Parliamentary constituency: Bexhill and Battle
Rother council wards: Collington (part), Kewhurst (part), St Marks

Geoffrey Bastin (UKIP)
Deirdre Earl-Williams (Ind)
Polly Gray (Grn)
Martin Kenward (C)
Richard Thomas (LD)
Jacque Walker (Lab)

May 2017 result Ind 2056 C 1356 Lab 290 LD 227 UKIP 148

St Marks

Parliamentary constituency: Bexhill and Battle
East Sussex county council division: Bexhill West

Gino Forte (C)
Kathy Harmer (Ind)
John Walker (Lab)
John Zipser (UKIP)

May 2015 result Ind 1312/808 C 1148/671 UKIP 608 Lab 318
May 2011 result Ind 1005 C 980/837 LD 494 Lab 213
May 2007 result C 1136/990 LD 605 Lab 133
May 2003 result C 1236/1106 LD 359