Previews: 23 May 2019

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

It’s time to go outside this column’s comfort zone of Great Britain and talk about politics over the seas, as our three previews for 23rd May 2019 compare and contrast the largest and smallest elected bodies with remits in the British Isles. Read on…


St Mary’s

Isles of Scilly council; caused by the resignation of independent councillor Ted Moulson.

We’ll rant and we’ll roar, like true British sailors,
We’ll rant and we’ll roar across the salt seas;
Until we strike soundings in the Channel of old England,
From Ushant to Scilly ’tis thirty-five leagues.
– Traditional, Spanish Ladies

Welcome to the second-biggest democratic festival of 2019, only the Indian general election being larger in electorate terms. The ninth European Parliament election takes place this week, staggered over four days across the twenty-eight member states of the European Union. The Netherlands and the UK kick things off today; the Republic of Ireland will poll tomorrow; Saturday is polling day in Latvia, Malta, Slovakia and certain French overseas territories; the Czech Republic will hold two days of voting on Friday and Saturday; and the rest of the continent will take to the polling stations on Sunday. Hundreds of millions of people will be eligible to vote, and their efforts will return 751 members of the European Parliament. Delegations range from six MEPs for the smallest EU member states, to 96 for the largest (Germany).

The UK and Gibraltar, for the moment, gets 73 of these MEPs in an election which has been hastily put together at the last possible moment. And it shows. This is not to mean any disrespect to those hard-working returning officers and administrators who have toiled hard to put this on for your benefit and will do their usual fantastic job; instead the disrespect is aimed at those politicians (on both sides of the Remain-Leave divide) whose failure to reach agreement means that these elections are going ahead in such a rushed fashion.

Mind, this isn’t the first year that there have been shenanigans in Parliament affecting European Parliament elections. The Act which brought in proportional representation for the 1999 election was one of only seven pieces of legislation ever passed under the Parliament Acts, in which the Commons overrode the Lords’ objections. That 1999 election introduced the system of twelve regional constituencies whose boundaries remain unmodified today. The UK’s delegation of MEPs has shrunk over the years as a result of EU enlargement, but this has been achieved by simply changing the number of seats elected by each region rather than by having a disruptive boundary review. The North East and Northern Ireland are the smallest constituencies, electing three MEPs each; the South East is the largest, with ten seats up for election.

The 1999 election was also marked by low voter turnout which rather worried the Labour government of the day. Its response for the following election in 2004 was to improve turnout by delaying the local elections to June so that they took place on Euro-election day, and also to introduce all-postal voting in several English regions in a pilot scheme that was not repeated. The 2009 and 2014 local elections were also delayed to coincide with European Parliament elections, but this year’s local elections were not; and that’s because of the last-minute nature of the organisation of this poll. By the time it became clear that the European elections would be going ahead, preparations for the local elections were too far advanced to allow a general postponement.

We can also see the effects of this procrastination in the list of local by-elections today. Local by-elections cost money and money is something which local government doesn’t have an awful lot of, so piggybacking a local by-election onto a general or European election is normally an opportunity that’s too good to miss. A combined poll helps the returning officer keep costs down, and helps the local parties by driving up turnout for the by-election. In ordinary times a big nationwide poll would have dozens of local by-elections combined with it; but not this one. There were just four local elections organised today. One of those is not a by-election at all but is our first piece of unfinished business from the ordinary local elections three weeks ago, and another is not taking place because only candidate stood. Llongyfarchiadau and congratulations to Gareth Tudor Morris Jones, newly elected unopposed to Gwynedd council as Plaid Cymru councillor for Morfa Nefyn, a tiny beach resort on the Llŷn.

That leaves just three polls on the undercard of the 2019 European elections, and a word is in order about how we’re going to get the results this week. The local by-elections will come through on Thursday night or Friday morning in the usual fashion, and they will have a very different complexion to the European results by dint of having a shorter ballot paper. We are yet to see an official Brexit Party or Change UK candidate in a local government election. The European result declarations can’t start until the rest of the continent has finished voting on Sunday evening (although the Netherlands usually ignores that rule and counts straight away…), and so counting in Great Britain and Gibraltar will start early on Sunday evening with two exceptions. One is the Western Isles, because the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar isn’t interested in breaking the Sabbath for something as important as an election count; they will phone their votes in to the returning officer for Scotland on Monday morning and allow Scotland to declare its result then. The other is Northern Ireland, which will start counting at 8am on Bank Holiday Monday morning and finish when it finishes. (I wonder if the Chief Electoral Officer will be paying bank holiday rates to the count staff?) Otherwise, as usual, the European results will come in bit by bit from the UK’s 400 or so local government districts.

The smallest of those European election counts, with comfortably under 2,000 electors on the roll, will be that taking place on the Isles of Scilly. Yes, I promised you politics over the seas, didn’t I? There are certainly worse places to be: the Isles are the warmest part of the UK with a climate bordering on the subtropical. Agriculture – particularly cut flowers, which bloom earlier in the season here than in the rest of the British Isles – was a traditional mainstay of the local economy, but there is now a hard dependence on tourism and administration; a tenth of the islands’ adult population are either Scilly councillors or employed by the council, and most of the rest cater to tourists. If the Scilly Isles were a ward, they would make the top 40 wards in England and Wales for self-employment. There is a lot here for the tourists: the weather as already mentioned, some outstanding birdwatching, and for the politically-inclined the chance to pay your respects at the grave of the former Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Wilson liked the Scilly Isles; he had a holiday home on St Mary’s and is buried in the Old Town churchyard. Following the death of his widow Mary last year, Wilson’s Scilly home went on the market a couple of months back; if you have £425,000 in your back pocket, it could be yours (link).

The islands have a unique and rather complicated legal status, perhaps best illustrated by the only slightly tongue-in-cheek Three Hundred and Thirty Five Years’ War. This goes back to the middle of the seventeenth century, when Cornwall was a stronghold of the Royalist side in the Civil War. The Royalist fleet had based itself in the archipelago after being driven out of the Cornish ports, and was having a good time raiding the Dutch navy (which was in alliance with the Roundheads); eventually the Dutch Lt-Admiral Maarten Tromp lost patience with this and turned up in the Scilly Isles in 1651 demanding reparations. Not getting the answer he wanted, Tromp emulated his modern-day near-namesake by declaring war – specifically on the Isles of Scilly. This war was essentially resolved within a month without a shot being fired thanks to the Royalist Navy’s surrender to the Parliamentarians; but no treaty was signed at the time, and it was not until 1986 that the Dutch ambassador turned up on the islands to formally declare peace between Holland and Scillonia.

However, the Scilly Isles were the scene of a serious loss for the Royal Navy in 1707, during the War of the Spanish Succession, when a fleet on its way home from raiding Toulon was wrecked after mistaking Scilly for Ushant. Only 35 leagues wrong, but that error led to the loss of four ships and at least 1,400 sailors. Numbered among the dead was Sir Cloudesley Shovell, the MP for Rochester and one of the most senior commanders in the Royal Navy. The Scilly naval disaster was cited a few years later in the Parliamentary debates on the Longitude Act, which offered large financial rewards for an answer to the problem of determining longitude at sea.

The Three Hundred and Thirty Five Years’ War is not the only legal or administrative oddity arising from the archipelago’s remoteness and small population. Income tax did not apply here until 1954; road tax was first levied in 1971; the island’s vehicles are still exempt from the MoT test. Although there are no full-time firefighters, the Isles have their own independent fire brigade staffed entirely by retained firefighters. The local sixth-form pupils get free travel to and a grant towards accommodation on the mainland, there being no sixth-form college here; presumably this is by special arrangement with the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company, which has held a monopoly on travel to the islands since the helicopter link to Penzance was withdrawn in 2012. The Steamship Company’s passenger ferry, Scillonian III, is one of only three ships in the world which still carry the title of Royal Mail ship; the other two are the Segwun, a nineteenth-century steamship navigating the lakes of northern Ontario in Canada, and the modern ocean liner Queen Mary 2.

The Isles of Scilly Council is an oddity in itself, a democratic body like no other within the remit of Andrew’s Previews. It was created in 1890 as the Isles of Scilly Rural District Council, but despite that name has always had a sui generis unitary status independent of Cornwall county council. The council was left untouched by the Heath local government reforms and the 2009 Cornish local government reorganisation, and has never had a ward boundary change. In fact the Isles of Scilly doesn’t have wards at all: instead its five parishes (corresponding to the five inhabited islands) serve as its electoral districts. As of 2013 St Mary’s elected thirteen councillors and Bryher, St Agnes, St Martin’s and Tresco returned two each. At least, that was the theory; however in the 2013 election only one candidate stood for Bryher, and nobody ever called a by-election to fill the vacant second seat. The Local Government Boundary Commission for England took a look at the Isles in advance of the 2017 election, and cut the council’s membership from 21 to 16 councillors; the island/parish of St Mary’s continues to form a single electoral district, electing 12 councillors. Given that the LGBCE never ordinarily draws wards with more than three councillors, you can see that the islands are very much an exceptional case.

The 2014 European elections saw UKIP carry the Isles of Scilly with 150 votes, equating to 28% of the total; the Conservatives had 26%, the Green Party 16% and the Lib Dems 15%. However, this won’t have much bearing on the council by-election as Scilly local elections are non-partisan. It’s rather fitting that a district with the population of a medium-sized parish should have politics to match those of a medium-sized parish.

In the 2017 Isles of Scilly election eighteen candidates contested the twelve seats on St Mary’s (a nineteenth candidate withdrew). Robert Francis topped the poll with 576 votes; Ted Moulson was elected in sixth place with 481 votes; and Stephen Sims (who had topped the poll in the 2013 election) won the twelfth and final seat on 376 votes, ahead of Amanda Martin who polled 321 and lost her seat. There wasn’t much love for Thomas Mitchell who finished last by a very long way after giving a home address in Northolt, west London; one wonders what his qualification for office would have been. Moulson became chairman of the council following the 2017 election, but was challenged for the position a year later and lost to Francis. Ted Moulson is standing down for personal reasons which have left him struggling to get to council meetings.

So we have this by-election, in which three-quarters of the Isles of Scilly’s electors will be eligible to vote. There are four candidates whom I shall take in alphabetical order. Former councillor Andrew Coombes was the only candidate in this by-election who contested the 2017 Scilly elections; he finished seventeenth in St Mary’s, polling 250 votes. Tim Dean is a shuttle bus driver. Jeanette Ware is a manager at the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company. Completing the ballot paper is another former Isles of Scilly councillor, Steve Whomersley.

Parliamentary constituency: St Ives
ONS Travel to Work Area: Penzance
Postcode district: TR21

Andrew Coombes (Ind)
Tim Dean (Ind)
Jennifer Ware (Ind)
Steve Whomersley (Ind)


St Osyth

Tendring council, Essex; postponed from 2nd May due to the death of Anita Bailey, who had been nominated as a Conservative candidate.

We now come to our first piece of unfinished business from the 2nd May 2019 local elections. There were seven wards in England this year where a candidate died between close of nominations and polling day. In this situation what happens is that the poll is called off, nominations are reopened (previously-nominated candidates don’t have to fill in a new form) and a new polling day is set by the returning officer.

St Osyth is an Essex village to the west of Clacton with an old history. The name refers to a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon saint called Osgyth, who was married to King Sighere of Essex against her wishes before separating from him and establishing a convent at a village then called Chich. Legend has it that St Osgyth was beheaded by some pirates raiding the area, and she is normally depicted carrying her own head. The nunnery fell into disuse, but in the early twelfth century an Augustinian priory was founded on its site and some of its buildings still exist today. Channel 4’s Time Team were here in the summer of 2004 investigating the early history of the village, but didn’t find much that was ritual, ceremonial or sacrificial.

If the Scilly Isles have the warmest climate in the UK, St Osyth claims to be the country’s driest location with average rainfall of around 20 inches per year. Despite that there’s plenty of water around, as the parish lies on a peninsula to the west of Clacton-on-Sea. Here can be found the villages of Point Clear and Lee-over-Sands together with a very large number of static caravans and a couple of preserved Martello towers. Those towers could have provided some inspiration for Somerset de Chair, the father-in-law of Jacob Rees-Mogg and a Tory MP during the Second World War; after leaving Parliament de Chair owned St Osyth’s Priory for four decades until he died in 1995, and edited the English translations of Napoleon’s memoirs.

Somerset de Chair might look at the modern election results for this area with some bemusement. This ward is part of the Clacton parliamentary seat which until a couple of years ago was the political home of Douglas Carswell, the only MP ever to be elected and re-elected as a UK candidate. Carswell’s UKIP had done very well on his coat-tails to become the second-largest party on the local Tendring council in 2015 before the inevitable split, and this column was expecting the retreat of the UKIP tide to result in a reasserted Tendring Conservative majority in May. That didn’t happen; the May 2019 local elections were instead marked by big gains for independents and localist parties, and Tendring has often had large caucuses for both of these groups in the past. The 2019 Tendring election ha so far returned 16 Conservative councillors, 9 independents, seven localists from two different parties, 6 Labour councillors, 5 UKIPpers, two Lib Dems and one seat for the Foundation Party (no, me neither). This poll will complete the picture by electing the final two councillors. With 25 seats needed for a majority, there is clearly a lot of work to do to put an administration together before the council’s AGM next week.

There were boundary changes for the 2019 Tendring election which created this ward, but it is essentially the former ward of St Osyth and Point Clear plus a small part of Clacton to the north of St John’s Road; this was added to make up the numbers, the ward being rather undersized. The old St Osyth and Point Clear ward went back all the way to the founding electoral arrangements of Tendring district in 1974, and its previous election results were all over the place: over the years it elected members of all three main parties, although not that many Conservatives. The Liberal/SDP Alliance won the two St Osyth seats in 1983, before losing one seat in 1987 to Conservative candidate Carlo de Chair, son of Somerset. (Carlo de Chair subsequently fought a European Parliament election, turning up in 2009 in fourth place on the Eastern list of Libertas, a short-lived pro-EU party which polled 0.6% of the vote in the Eastern region; he wasn’t elected.) The Liberal Democrats (as they were by now) regained de Chair’s seat in 1991, but then lost the ward to Labour in 1995.

The Labour slate in St Osyth and Point Clear was defeated in 1999 by independent candidates Michael Talbot and John White, who have been re-elected at every election since with the exception of 2007 (when White lost his seat to the Conservatives by one vote). The 2015 election re-elected Talbot and White by a score of 54-29 over the Conservatives. For Essex county council purposes the ward is part of the Brightlingsea county division, which the Tories gained from UKIP in the 2017 county elections.

Talbot and White are both standing for re-election in this slightly redrawn ward. Also seeking re-election, albeit not in his previous ward, is Mick Skeels senior who had previously sat for St Johns ward in Clacton; Skeels was first elected there in a 2014 by-election for the Conservatives, but then defected to UKIP under whose banner he was re-elected in 2015. It would appear that he is back in the Tory fold now, and were he to win this election there would be all sorts of scope for confusion as his son, Mick Skeels junior, is already a Tendring Conservative councillor (for Burrsville ward). Following Anita Bailey’s death the replacement Conservative candidate is Mick senior’s wife Dawn, herself a former Tendring councillor (Little Clacton and Weeley ward, 2011-15, having defeated her husband in the 2011 election). Completing the ballot paper is the ward’s regular Labour candidate, and councillor for this ward from 1995 to 1999, Tracy Osben.

Parliamentary constituency: Clacton
Essex county council division: Brightlingsea
ONS Travel to Work Area: Clacton
Postcode districts: CO7, CO16

Tracy Osben (Lab)
Dawn Skeels (C)
Mick Skeels (C)
Michael Talbot (Ind)
John White (Ind)

No previous results on these boundaries


Resolven

Neath Port Talbot council, Glamorgan; caused by the death of Labour councillor Des Davies. A veteran of local government, Davies had started his career in public office in 1981 when he was elected to West Glamorgan county council, and he had been a member of Neath Port Talbot council continuously since its creation in the 1996 reorganisation. At the time of his death he was Neath Port Talbot’s cabinet member for community safety and public protection.

We finish in the Vale of Neath, one of the industrial South Wales Valleys which will be familiar to many as the western end of the Heads of the Valleys Road. Halfway up the Vale of Neath lies the small village of Resolven, which was one of the many villages in south Wales called into existence by coalmining. The mines are long gone now, but the hills draw visitors; within the division boundary is the beauty spot of Melincourt Falls, an 80-foot high waterfall which was painted by Turner. Also within these wooded hills, on occasion, can be heard the sound of car engines; Resolven was formerly the home of one of the most challenging stages of the Wales Rally GB. The division’s census return sneaks into the top 100 wards in England and Wales for White British population and those born in the UK.

Des Davies had represented this division since the modern Neath Port Talbot council was created in 1996. He had easily defeated both outgoing Neath district councillors for the old ward in the inaugural 1995 election, with Dennis Williams coming a distant second as an Independent Labour candidate and Plaid Cymru’s David Trefor Jones third. Subsequent elections were normally just as easy for Davies, but he was run close for his final re-election in May 2017: in that year Davies polled 41% of the vote against 35% for independent candidate Darren Bromham-Nichols and 24% for Plaid Cymru (David Trefor Jones, again). Labour have not performed impressively in recent by-elections in the Valleys, so this is one to watch.

Defending for Labour is (Mark) Neal Francis, a Resolven community councillor and trustee of Resolven Library. Francis was the subject of a question in Parliament in 2015, after being told he would have to give up his Motability car following a benefits assessment; the car was subsequently reinstated. There is a new independent candidate, Dean Lewis who lives in Resolven asd is a trustee of the local Miners Welfare club. Plaid Cymru have selected Andrew Hippsley, a community councillor from further up the valley in Cwmgwrach. Also standing are Jonathan Jones for the Conservatives and Sheila Kingston-Jones for the Liberal Democrats.

Parliamentary and Assembly constituency: Neath
ONS Travel to Work Area: Swansea
Postcode district: SA11

Neal Francis (Lab)
Jonathan Jones (C)
Sheila Kingston-Jones (LD)
Andrew Hippsley (PC)
Dean Lewis (Ind)

May 2017 result Lab 461 Ind 388 PC 265
May 2012 result Lab 729 PC 278
May 2008 result Lab 611 PC 469
June 2004 result Lab 729 PC 297
May 1999 result Lab 850 PC 411
May 1995 result Lab 874 Ind Lab 334 PC 278
May 1991 Neath council result Lab 877/535 PC 650 Ind 426
May 1987 Neath council result 2 Lab unopposed
May 1983 Neath council result Lab 906/890 SDP 418