Previews: 01 Aug 2019

 

Three by-elections on Thursday 1st August 2019. Later we cover two Liberal Democrat defences in local government, but first it’s a Parliamentary Special:


Brecon and Radnorshire

House of Commons; caused by a recall petition against Conservative MP Christopher Davies, who had served since 2015.

O, let me think on Hastings and be gone
To Brecknock, while my fearful head is on!
– William Shakespeare, Richard III

A picture, so they say, tells a thousand words. Some pictures are, of course, more beautiful than others. This column has long maintained – sometimes multiple times in the same sentence – that the Welsh Marches rank among the most beautiful places in the world, and with pictures like these it’s hard to argue against that proposition.

One person who clearly agrees with me is a man called Chris Davies, who got himself a new job in 2015 and needed a new office to go with it. He set his office up in Builth Wells, a small town on the Breconshire side of the River Wye, which in days of olden time formed the county boundary between Breconshire and Radnorshire. Builth isn’t much more than a village but it’s a major point of convergence, with the bridge over the Wye in the picture above being part of the A470 – the main north-south highway in Wales, meandering from Cardiff all the way to Llandudno through some of the most gorgeous scenery imaginable. All the normal things needed to be done to get the office going – buy furniture, kit the place out with a telephone line and computers, hire staff, all that jazz – but there was something missing. Some nice pictures of the local area for the walls. That’ll make things complete for the staff and the visitors. Suitable pictures were found, prints were ordered and delivered, frames were hung and the office was complete. A snip at £700. And in the normal course of events that would have been that.

This, of course, is not the normal course of events. (Why do you think I’m writing this?) Chris Davies’ new job was as Member of Parliament for Brecon and Radnorshire, and as such the House of Commons authorities gave him a pair of budgets: one to get his office established, and another to keep it running. All you have to do is keep an account of your expenses and make sure all the receipts and invoices are in order.

Which is where the problem came in. Instead of one invoice for £700 for the pretty pictures, two invoices totalling £700 were submitted to the parliamentary office which pays MPs’ expenses. It became apparent that those invoices had been forged. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority called in the police, and Davies was charged. In March 2019 the case was heard by Westminster magistrates, with Davies pleading guilty to one charge of providing false or misleading information for an allowance claim, and a second charge of attempting to do so. The magistrates referred Davies to Southwark Crown Court for sentencing, and in the final reckoning he was fined £1,500 and ordered to undertake 50 hours of unpaid community service.

This is nowhere near the sentence level which would disqualify you from public office, although having that sort of criminal record is not exactly a good look for a Member of Parliament. However, the offence which Davies was prosecuted for triggered the Recall of MPs Act into action, and a petition was set up in the Brecon and Radnorshire constituency. Over six weeks, 10,005 of his electors – 19% of the total – signed the petition to recall Christopher Davies. As this was over 10% of the electorate, Davies was unseated and we are having this by-election.

It’s rather a feat to get so many electors to sign on the line, for this is the largest constituency by area in England and Wales. The seat includes nearly all of the Brecon Beacons National Park together with many other upland areas. Agriculture is the major industry, and if sheep had the vote this seat would be an awful lot smaller in area. This is a constituency with no large towns.

Indeed, the largest centre of population here is a place whose name few people will recognise and even fewer will have any idea how to pronounce. Ystradgynlais is nestled in the south-west corner of Breconshire and isn’t too far from Swansea down the Tawe valley; it’s a town of around 8,000 souls which was called into being by heavy engineering, specifically the Ynyscedwyn Ironworks and the coal needed to run them. To this day Ystradgynlais is atypical of Brecon and Radnorshire as a whole: most of the seat’s Labour voters and more than half of its Welsh speakers live here.

Rather older is Brecon, which goes back to the Roman days when there was a fort called Cicucium guarding a ford on the River Usk. The Normans also fortified the place, and the military men have never left. There is an infantry training centre in Brecon and the surrounding moorland, and the town’s St Mary ward ranked 14th in England and Wales for Buddhism in the 2011 census: not because Brecon is a New Age type of place (it isn’t), but because there are Gurkhas stationed here. Brecon is home to the regimental museum of the South Wales Borderers, seven of whose Victoria Crosses came at the battle of Rorke’s Drift in the 1879 Zulu War.

After Ystradgynlais and Brecon you’re starting to struggle for towns in Breconshire, but there’s one place here that gets international prominence. Just on the Welsh side of the border lies Hay-on-Wye, a tiny town a long way from anywhere (Hereford, nearly twenty miles away, is the nearest railhead) which has become known as the “town of books” because of its extremely large number of second-hand bookshops. If you’re looking for a book, you’ll probably find it in Hay (although it might take a bit of finding); who knows, an edition of the Andrew’s Previews books may even be lurking on the shelves there. A few years back your columnist went to Hay with a budget of £20 and a mission to buy election-related books: I came away with the 1939 (and almost certainly final) edition of The Constitutional Year Book, an almanac published by the Conservative Party up to the Second World War; and British Parliamentary Constituencies: A Statistical Compendium by Ivor Crewe and Antony Fox, which went into great detail on the results of the 1983 general election. Both of these have been useful in drafting this preview. Richard Booth, whose bookshop I got those tomes from, appeared in the latter book: he was an independent candidate in the 1983 election, coming last with 0.7% in the Brecon and Radnor constituency. Booth may have retired now, but his legacy lives on with an annual literature festival taking over Hay-on-Wye every May and June and bringing visitors to Hay from all over the world.

Half-an-hour’s walk from Hay over the river Wye you come to Clyro, a sleepy village off the Hereford-Brecon road. For seven years from 1865 to 1872 Francis Kilvert was curate of Clyro’s parish church, and his diaries give a great impression of what the area was like back then. Particularly so as the village is very little changed from his day: you can still see Kilvert’s vicarage and toast his legacy in the village pub, then called the Swan, now the Baskerville Arms. Your columnist has stayed in the Baskerville Arms and can recommend it: tell them I sent you.

The River Wye forms the border between Breonshire and Radnoshire, but it’s the Wye valley which links the centre of this constituency together, from Hay up to Rhayader. A tiny market town where the A470 comes to a stop sign at the town centre crossroads, Rhayader lies at the junction of the Wye with the Elan Valley, which was drowned in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries underneath five reservoirs which provide drinking water for the city of Birmingham. Birmingham’s wastewater drains into the River Trent, so some of the water from these reservoirs ends up in the faraway North Sea.

Wales is, of course, known for its wet weather; but it was water that actually brought people to Radnorshire back in the day. The Happiest Place in Wales according to a survey last year by Rightmove, Llandrindod Wells is a Victorian spa town, the largest centre of population in Radnorshire, and the railhead for the Brecon and Radnorshire constituency. A Victorian Festival, celebrating its 34th year in 2019, brings tourists to Llandrindod each August; but it’s administration which underpins the town’s economy. Powys county council was established here in 1974, leading to a mini economic boom thanks to a mismatch between national local government payscales and the relatively low cost of living in mid-Wales. As well as all the usual stuff you expect from local government, Powys council has a surprising national role: it is the regulator for estate agents in the UK.

But the major single contributor to the economy of Brecon and Radnorshire is one event held every year in July at Llanelwedd, the Radnorshire village on the opposite side of the Wye from Builth Wells. Celebrating its 100th edition last week, the Royal Welsh Show is one of the largest agricultural shows in the world: it runs for four days and attracts 200,000 visitors, some of whom arrive on special trains laid on from Cardiff by Transport for Wales. The BBC film it. The Prince of Wales is a regular visitor. Speaking at the Show last week, the president of the Farmers Union of Wales warned of the possibility of civil unrest in rural areas like this constituency in the event of a no-deal Brexit; we wait to see what effect that warning had on the then-Environment Secretary and now-Brexit Supremo Michael Gove, who was also in attendance. The Royal Welsh Show is a huge affair, and is the reason this by-election wasn’t held last week. Apart from the traffic chaos the event brings and the fact that many of the electors will have been at the show, the exhibition centres on the Royal Welsh Showground are the only location in the constituency which can comfortably accommodate the count.

Like the rest of Wales, Breconshire and Radnorshire were enfranchised by Henry VIII and have sent members to Parliament since 1536. Radnorshire has always been one of the poorest, most remote and most depopulated parts of England and Wales, and in the late nineteenth century – once the Liberals started contesting the county – that manifested itself in a close Tory versus Liberal contest. The 1885 election, on an expanded franchise, returned Arthur Walsh by a majority of just 67 votes over the Liberal candidate, marking a Conservative gain. Walsh, who was re-elected for a second term the following year, was an Old Etonian who at the time was a lieutenant in the Life Guards; he followed his father and grandfather in becoming MP for Radnorshire. Also like his father and grandfather, Walsh ended up in the Lords as the 3rd Lord Ormathwaite; once his Commons career was over he entered royal service, and from 1907 to 1920 he was the last Master of the Ceremonies in the Royal Household. Now there’s a job title. (Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps is the modern equivalent.)

Walsh retired from the Commons in 1892 and the Conservatives lost his Radnorshire seat to the Liberal Frank Edwards. A solicitor by trade, Edwards was a major supporter of disestablishment for the Church in Wales, going so far as to resign the Liberal whip in 1894 (along with a very young David Lloyd George) in protest after the Liberal government failed to introduce a disestablishment measure.

The following year Edwards lost his seat for the first time, as the Conservative candidate Powlett Millbank defeated him by 79 votes. Sir Powlett, as he became after inheriting a baronetcy, didn’t seek re-election in 1900 and Frank Edwards got back as MP for Radnorshire on a virulently anti-Boer War ticket in the first of four contests against the Conservatives’ Charles Dillwyn-Venables-Llewellyn. The score in contests was 3-1 in Edwards’ favour, Llewellyn’s sole win coming by just 14 votes in January 1910. A keen agriculturist and local JP, Llewellyn was one of 22 MPs who served only between the two 1910 elections, as Sir Frank Edwards (as he had now become) won the December 1910 contest in Radnorshire by 42 votes.

Things were different in Breconshire, which had twice the electorate of Radnorshire and some industry – ironworking in Ystradgynlais, coalmining in Brynmawr. Breconshire was gained by the Liberals in an 1875 by-election after the previous Tory MP succeeded to a peerage, and was continuously Liberal-held from then until 1918. The winner of the 1875 by-election was William Fuller-Maitland, who had entered politics after a distinguished cricket career, bowling for Oxford University and the MCC to devastating effect: he took 123 first-class wickets at an average of 15.72, with his best analysis (8 for 48) coming for Oxford University against Surrey in 1864. Fuller-Maitland retired from the Commons in 1895 and passed his seat on to Charles Morley, older brother of Arnold Morley who had been Postmaster-General in the Liberal government of 1892-95. Morley retired in 1906, the year of the Liberal landslide, and passed his seat on without trouble to Sidney Robinson, a former Cardiff councillor and timber merchant.

At the December 1910 general election Radnorshire had under 6,000 electors (all male in those days) and Breconshire just over 13,000. This was too low to sustain two MPs, and the redistribution of 1918 resulted in the two constituencies being merged into one. Radnorshire’s Liberal MP Sir Frank Edwards retired, and Breconshire’s Liberal MP Sidney Robinson won the 1918 election unopposed for his final parliamentary term.

In 1922 Robinson retired and there was a new face as MP for Brecon and Radnor, with William Jenkins elected as a National Liberal. A merchant from Swansea in the coal and shipbroking business, Jenkins defeated the seat’s first Labour candidate very comfortably and no-one opposed him in the 1923 general election. However, the 1924 poll saw both Labour and the Conservatives intervene, and a close three-way contest was won by Walter Hall for the Conservatives.

The first Conservative MP for Breconshire for almost half a century, Hall had come into politics from the military where he had served with distinction in the Great War – winning an MC and Bar. He served two terms as MP for Brecon and Radnor, but they were not consecutive. The 1929 general election here had a remarkable result: Liberal candidate Wynne Cemlyn-Jones came in third with 14,182 votes, Hall lost his seat by finishing second on 14,324 votes, and Peter Freeman polled 14,551 votes to become the first Labour MP for Brecon and Radnor. With just 0.7% of the vote separating first from last, and Freeman winning with 33.7%, that is one of the closest three-way splits you will ever see in an election. On the other hand… with the opinion polls as they are at the moment, a snap election held in the next few months might turn up a lot of constituency results looking similar to that. Fragmentation may be the new norm.

Fragmentation didn’t help Peter Freeman much. The 1929 general election brought to power the short-lived Labour government of Ramsay Macdonald, which fell apart two years later and crashed and burned in the 1931 election. Walter Hall returned as MP for Brecon and Radnor, and Freeman – a former Welsh lawn tennis champion – went back to running his family’s Cardiff tobacco factory. Peter Freeman did eventually return to politics, serving as MP for Newport from 1945 until his death in 1956.

Hall retired at the 1935 general election, in which Brecon and Radnor was contested for Labour by Leslie Haden-Guest, who had been MP for Southwark North from 1923 until 1927, when he resigned to (unsuccessfully) seek re-election as a Constitutionalist candidate. Now back in the Labour fold, Haden-Guest lost to his near namesake Ivor Guest, elected as a supporter of the National Government with endorsement from both the Conservative and Liberal local parties. Guest was a scion of a wealthy industrial family – the Guests were the G in GKN, which is still in business as an aerospace company.

Ivor Guest succeeded to the title of Viscount Wimborne and entered the Lords in 1939, resulting in the first Brecon and Radnorshire by-election. This time the Tories and Liberals couldn’t agree a joint candidate, and the local Conservatives selected Richard Hanning Phillips – second son of Lord Milford – while the Liberals stood down. By now Haden-Guest was back in the Commons, having won a by-election in Islington North, and Labour needed a new candidate: they selected William Jackson, a Herefordshire fruit farmer and former Liberal figure. In an interesting echo of this by-election, polling day was 1st August – eighty years ago today – making this the last parliamentary by-election to be held before the Second World War. Labour’s candidate selection made all the difference in this agricultural seat, particularly as Hanning Phillips knew nothing about farming and admitted as such on the campaign trail. Jackson won the by-election with a majority of 2,636.

After serving through the war years, William Jackson retired to the Lords in 1945, and Labour held the seat easily. The new Labour MP was Tudor Watkins who was Breconshire born and bred. A former miner from a village near Ystradgynlais, Watkins was general secretary of the Breconshire Association of Friendly Societies. In office Watkins saved the lesser whitebeam Sorbus minima from extinction, after his Parliamentary questions prompted the Army to stop using its only known habitat for mortar practice. Watkins was also a strong supporter of CND and the Parliament for Wales campaign.

In 1945 Tudor Watkins very easily defeated Tory candidate Oscar Guest, uncle of Ivor; Oscar had started his parliamentary career in 1918 as Liberal MP for Loughborough, and in the 1935-45 Parliament had been the Conservative MP for the unlikely Tory seat of Camberwell North West. For the 1950 and 1951 elections the Conservatives had stronger opposition in the form of David Gibson-Watt, a farmer and forester who came from a noted Radnorshire family and had won an MC and two bars in the North African and Italy campaigns during the Second World War. Gibson-Watt did eventually get into Parliament, winning the Hereford by-election in 1956 and serving until October 1974.

From 1955 onwards Tudor Watkins had safe majorities in Brecon and Radnorshire, and on his retirement in 1970 he had no trouble passing the seat on to the new Labour candidate Caerwyn Roderick. Like Watkins, Roderick had been born in Ystradgynlais; before entering Parliament he had been a teacher. In office he campaigned against future rail closures for the area and opposed a new reservoir that would have flooded the Senni valley.

But in February 1974 Brecon and Radnorshire swung to the Conservatives, against the national trend, and became marginal. Roderick could not withstand the swing to Thatcher’s party in 1979, and he lost his seat. The new Tory MP was Tom Hooson, cousin of the Liberal MP Emlyn Hooson who had lost the neighbouring seat of Montgomeryshire at the same election.

Hooson’s position was boosted by boundary changes that came in for the 1983 election. Not all of Breconshire had ended up in Powys at the 1974 reorganisation: two villages at the heads of the Valleys had transferred to Mid Glamorgan, and two areas became part of Gwent. One of those areas was Brynmawr, a largish mining town and significant source of Labour votes, which consequently transferred into a Gwent constituency (specifically, Michael Foot’s seat of Blaenau Gwent). The effect was to reduce the electorate of Brecon and Radnorshire by around 10,000, with a big fall in the Labour vote.

That was reflected in the 1983 general election, the first contest on the current boundaries, at which the Labour vote fell by 16 points and Hooson made his seat safe. The Labour candidate David Morris (who would later serve as an MEP for Wales from 1984 to 1999) was nearly overtaken for second place by a young Liberal called Richard Livsey.

Tom Hooson died suddenly in May 1985, having suffered a heart attack, at the early age of 52. This prompted the second Brecon and Radnor by-election, held on 4th July 1985. As in the 1939 by-election the Conservative candidate was a poor fit for the constituency: Chris Butler was a former Downing Street staffer who at this point was a special adviser to the Welsh secretary Nicholas Edwards. He would later serve one term as MP for Warrington South from 1897 to 1992. Labour selected Richard Willey, a Radnor councillor whose father was the long-serving former Sunderland MP Fred Willey. The Lib Dem candidate was again Richard Livsey, a smallholder and former lecturer at the Welsh Agricultural College; Livsey was fighting his fourth parliamentary election, having contested Perth and East Perthshire in 1970 and Pembroke in 1979.

The result of the by-election was a victory for Livsey, who polled 36% of the vote against 34% for Labour and just 28% for the Conservatives. Livsey’s majority was 559 votes, and this was the start of a series of very close election results in Brecon and Radnor. He held his seat in the 1987 general election with a majority of just 56 votes over the new Tory candidate, Jonathan Evans; it was the closet result of that election.

Jonathan Evans was reselected for the 1992 general election, and defeated Richard Livsey by 130 votes on an extremely high turnout (85.9%) in one of only three Conservative gains at that election. A solicitor by trade, Evans only served five years as MP for Brecon and Radnor but had a long political career nonetheless: he fought Michael Foot in Ebbw Vale in both 1974 elections and stood in Wolverhampton North East in 1979. After losing Brecon and Radnor he was an MEP for Wales from 1999 to 2009, then returned to the Commons as MP for Cardiff North during the Coalition years.

A majority of 130 votes was never going to withstand the landslide of 1997, and Richard Livsey returned as Lib Dem MP for Brecon and Radnor with a large majority. He retired to the Lords in 2001 and passed the seat on to new Lib Dem candidate Roger Williams. A livestock farmer and former chairman of the local NFU branch, Williams was a long-serving Powys councillor who had fought Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire in the first Welsh Assembly election in 1999, finishing fifth. Williams was run close in 2001 by new Conservative candidate Felix Aubel, but prevailed with a majority of 751. In 2005 he made the seat safe (the Tory candidate that year was Andrew R T Davies, who would later serve as leader of the Welsh Conservatives) and there was almost no swing in 2010.

That changed in 2015, when Roger Williams suffered an eighteen-point drop in his vote and lost his seat to Christopher Davies of the Conservatives. A rural auctioneer and former estate agent who ran a veterinary practice in Hay-on-Wye, Davies had fought the seat in the 2011 Welsh Assembly election before being elected to Powys county council in 2012. He resigned from Powys council after his election to Parliament, and the resulting by-election in Glasbury division (which includes Clyro) was gained for the Lib Dems by James Gibson-Watt (yes, of the Radnorshire Gibson-Watts). Davies increased his majority in 2017 with Gibson-Watt as his Lib Dem opponent, polling 49% to 29% for Gibson-Watt and 18% for Labour candidate Dan Lodge. Turnout, as usual for this constituency, was high: almost 77% of electors cast a vote. Just before the dissolution Davies had sent a survey to his electors in House of Commons envelopes, which was seen as political campaigning in breach of Commons rules; he was forced to apologise and pay for the cost of the envelopes. Christopher Davies was a member of the European Research Group of Tory MPs, although he had come around to supporting the Withdrawal Agreement by the end of the Brexit debates earlier this year; perhaps wise given the effect that no-deal EU tariffs would have on the sheep farming which underpins his constituency’s economy.

The large swing from Lib Dem to Conservative has not, to date, been seen when Brecon and Radnorshire goes to the polls for the Welsh Assembly. Since the establishment of the Assembly in 1999 the seat has been represented in Cardiff Bay by just one person: Kirsty Williams of the Liberal Democrats, whose majority has only fallen below ten points once (in 2011). The most recent Senedd election was in May 2016, when Williams defeated Conservative candidate Gary Price 53-25; that left her as the only Liberal Democrat member of the Assembly. With Labour holding 29 out of 60 seats and short of a majority, Williams joined the Welsh Government after the 2016 election as minister for education and skills in a coalition executive.

This constituency covers slightly more than half of Powys county council, which had a majority of independent councillors until the most recent Welsh local government election in 2017. Within this constituency in May 2017 independents won 15 seats, the Lib Dems won 10 (including former MP Roger Williams, who gained Felin-fâch from the independents), Labour won 7 (including all four seats in Ystradgynlais and two of the three Brecon seats), the Conservatives won 5 and the Green Party 1 (Llangors, on an almost perfect three-way split: 173 votes for the Greens, 157 for the Conservatives, 155 for the outgoing independent councillor). Llagors may be a very unlikely-looking Green area, but it’s the first Welsh division ever to elect a Green Party councillor. No candidates applied for Yscir division; in consequence nominations there had to be reopened, and the Conservatives won the re-run. The contestation pattern and the large number of unopposed seats (five of the 7 Labour divisions were won without a contest) mean that vote shares are pretty meaningless.

Which brings us up to date in a by-election that could have some impact on the Parliamentary arithmetic, which I shall put down in detail here because it’s a bit difficult to keep track of what’s going on. There are 650 MPs, of whom the 7 Sinn Féiners don’t turn up, while the Speaker and his three deputies don’t vote in any division. That gives 639 participating members meaning that 320 votes are an effective majority. The Conservatives are on 310 (excluding the Speaker and the Tory deputy speaker) and they have confidence and supply from the 10 DUP members which gives the 320 votes necessary. The opposition are 245 Labour MPs (excluding two deputy speakers), 35 from the Scottish National Party, 12 Liberal Democrats, 5 Change UK MPs, 5 “The Independents”, 4 Plaid Cymru, 1 Green and 11 independents (6 elected as Labour, 3 elected as Conservatives, 1 elected as Lib Dem, and Lady Hermon) which is a total of 318 and gives the government a majority of two seats. Were the Conservatives to lose this by-election, that majority would go down to one.

If you want to vote for a politician with convictions, here’s your chance. Convicted expense fraudster Christopher Davies is standing for re-election as the Conservative candidate. It should be noted that that the previous two Brecon and Radnor by-elections, in 1939 and 1985, both saw the Conservatives lose a seat they previously held partly as a result of poor candidate selections. Davies will be hoping to buck that trend.

The Liberal Democrats have been installed as runaway bookies’ favourites for this by-election, although the bookies have been known to be wrong before (see Peterborough, last month). The Lib Dem candidate is their Welsh party leader Jane Dodds, a trained social worker and former Richmond upon Thames councillor who fought Montgomeryshire (where she lives) in the 2015 general election, 2016 Senedd election and 2017 general election. Plaid Cymru and the Green Party have stood down in her favour.

The Labour candidate is Tomos Davies, a Brecon town councillor, qualified barrister and litigation officer.

Three candidates complete a gender-balanced ballot paper of three men and three women (there has never previously been a female MP for Brecon and Radnorshire). Liz Phillips is standing for UKIP; although she now lives in Kent she has fought this seat several times before on the UKIP ticket, and before then in 1997 she stood here for the Referendum Party. The Brexit Party have nominated Des Parkinson, a retired police officer who was the UKIP candidate for Montgomeryshire in 2015 ad 2016 and for Dyfed-Powys Police and Crime Commissioner in 2016. Last alphabetically is local resident and saviour of the human race Lady Lily the Pink, standing for the Official Monster Raving Loony Party.

Constituency opinion polling isn’t tried much in the UK these days; it’s difficult to get a sample with such a small electorate, and when it was tried on a large scale in advance of the 2015 election it fell victim to the same polling failures that beset that election. One amusing factoid from the 1985 by-election here is that a lot of commentators at the time expected a Labour victory because most of their vox pops had been done in Ystradgynlais. Nonetheless Number Cruncher Politics, the political blog run by Matt Singh, has done an online poll of 509 electors in Brecon and Radnorshire (link) which had Dodds with a big lead: she was put on 43%, with Davies on 28% and Parkinson on 20%. Fieldwork was from 10th to 18th July, which was before the election of Johnson and Swinson as leaders of their respective parties. Singh deserves a lot of thanks (at the very least) for paying for this poll and contributing to the debate, and it’s disappointing that a lot of media outlets (including the by-election article in Tuesday’s edition of The Times, I notice) have reported the poll without seeing fit to even credit its source.

Things might have changed since the poll was taken, you never know. This may not be the biggest by-election of the year so far in electorate, but it’s certainly the most anticipated. The returning officer is going for an overnight count, although given the size of the constituency don’t expect a quick result. We’ll know by breakfast time whether the Conservatives have pulled off their first by-election win (parliamentary or otherwise) of the Johnson premiership, whether the Liberal Democrats have achieved a baker’s dozen of MPs, or whether something even more dramatic has happened. Whoever wins in the third Brecon and Radnorshire by-election, there will be lots to pore over in the result.

Oh, and just one more thing: have I mentioned that the Welsh Marches are beautiful?

All pictures used in this preview are from Wikipedia or Geograph and published under a Creative Commons licence. I shall supply my invoice in due course…

If you enjoyed this preview, there are many more like it in the paperback collection Andrew’s Previews 2018, which is now available to order from Amazon (link). By buying the book you will support future previews like this.

Powys electoral divisions: Aber-craf, Beguildy, Bronllys, Builth, Bwlch, Crickhowell, Cwm-twrch, Disserth and Trecoed, Felin-fâch, Glasbury, Gwernyfed, Hay, Knighton, Llanafanfawr, Llandrindod East/Llandrindod West, Llandrindod North, Llandrindod South, Llanelwedd, Llangattock, Llangors, Llangynidr, Llanwrtyd Wells, Llanyre, Maescar/Llywel, Nantmel, Old Radnor, Presteigne, Rhayader, St David Within, St John, St Mary, Talgarth, Talybont-on-Usk, Tawe-Uchaf, Ynyscedwyn, Yscir, Ystradgynlais
ONS Travel to Work Areas: Brecon, Llandrindod Wells and Builth Wells, Swansea
Postcode districts: CF44, CF48, HR3, HR5, LD1, LD2, LD3, LD4, LD5, LD6, LD7, LD8, NP7, NP8, SA9, SA10, SA11, SY18, SY23

Christopher Davies (C)
Tomos Davies (Lab)
Jane Dodds (LD)
Des Parkinson (Brexit Party)
Liz Phillips (UKIP)
Lady Lily the Pink (Loony)

June 2017 result C 20081 LD 12043 Lab 7335 PC 1290 UKIP 576
May 2016 Welsh Assembly election LD 15998 C 7728 Lab 2703 UKIP 2161 PC 1180 Grn 697
May 2015 result C 16453 LD 11351 Lab 5904 UKIP 3338 PC 1767 Grn 1261
May 2011 Welsh Assembly election LD 12201 C 9444 Lab 4797 PC 1906
May 2010 result LD 17529 C 14182 Lab 4096 PC 989 UKIP 876 Grn 341 Chr 222 Loony 210
May 2007 Welsh Assembly election LD 15006 C 9652 Lab 2524 PC 1576
May 2005 result LD 17182 C 13277 Lab 5755 PC 1404 UKIP 723
May 2003 Welsh Assembly election LD 13325 C 8017 Lab 3130 PC 1329 UKIP 1042
June 2001 result LD 13824 C 13073 Lab 8024 PC 1301 Ind 762 UKIP 452 Ind 80
May 1999 Welsh Assembly election LD 13022 C 7170 Lab 5165 PC 2356 Ind 1502
May 1997 result LD 17516 C 12419 Lab 11424 Referendum Party 900 PC 622
May 1992 result C 15977 LD 15847 Lab 11634 PC 418 Grn 393
May 1987 result Lib 14509 C 14453 Lab 1210 PC 535
July 1985 by-election Lib 13753 Lab 13194 C 10631 PC 435 Loony 202 One Nation C 154 Ind 43
May 1983 result C 18255 Lab 9471 Lib 9226 PC 840 Ind 278


Hazel Grove

Stockport council, Greater Manchester; caused by the resignation of Liberal Democrat councillor Jon Twigge who had served since 2016. He is standing down to concentrate on running his business.

Our two local by-elections today are both defences for the Liberal Democrats. We start on the southern edge of Greater Manchester with a posh Stockport suburb. Hazel Grove is a rather diffuse area where the built-up area ends on the main roads from Manchester towards Buxton and Macclesfield, which meet at a triangular junction in the village centre. This was a busy junction in your columnist’s experience, but may be a little less so now with the recent completion of the Manchester Airport Eastern Link Road, which runs along the southern boundary of Hazel Grove ward to terminate on a realigned Buxton Road.

This area was originally covered by the townships of Norbury and Torkington but by the eighteenth century had acquired the name “Bullocks Smithy” after a local inn. When a church was built in the 1830s to serve the area (which had previously been a nonconformist stronghold) the village elders had got tired of the jokes surrounding that name, and chose the new name “Hazel Grove” in an attempt to stop the rot. The name stuck.

The name stuck so well that Hazel Grove has given its name to a parliamentary seat since 1974. This has elected Liberals or Liberal Democrats on several occasions; the present seat, which also includes affluent towns like Marple to the east of Stockport, was Lib Dem in the Blair, Brown and Coalition years but was gained for the Conservatives in 2015 by William Wragg. Wragg is only 31 but is already in his second term as an MP, which shows just how fast-paced politics is these days. His first electoral contest came in 2010 in Hazel Grove ward, which was then safely Liberal Democrat, and Wragg built on that experience to gain the ward the following year.

The Tories gained a second seat in the 2014 election, but since the end of Coalition they have been on the defensive in Stockport. The Liberal Democrats recovered the Conservative seats in Hazel Grove in 2018 and May this year to restore their full slate; May’s result was pretty decisive with 48% for the Lib Dems, 29% for the Conservatives (their worst performance since the current boundaries were introduced in 2004) and 11% for Labour.

Stockport council has been hung for many years and is presently on a bit of a knife-edge. Following May’s elections Labour, who have run a minority administration for some years, and the Liberal Democrats were tied on 26 seats each, with the Conservatives (who are down to eight councillors after losing five seats in May) and the three Heald Green Ratepayers holding the balance of power. The Labour minority will continue until at least the next polls in May 2020, and the Lib Dems will want to hold this seat to give themselves the best chance of taking over the council following next year’s elections.

Defending for the Lib Dems is Charles Gibson, a PR manager and brass bandsman with the Marple Band – which gives me an excuse to throw in the video above. The Tory candidate is Oliver Johnstone – “banker by trade, historian by vocation” according to his Twitter – who is not yet 30 but is already a former councillor for this ward, having served from 2014 to 2018. Labour have reselected their regular candidate Julie Wharton who is fighting Hazel Grove for the fifth time. Completing the ballot paper is Michael Padfield for the Green Party.

Parliamentary constituency: Hazel Grove
ONS Travel to Work Area: Manchester
Postcode district: SK7

Charles Gibson (LD)
Oliver Johnstone (C)
Michael Padfield (Grn)
Julie Wharton (Lab)

May 2019 result LD 1993 C 1225 Lab 457 UKIP 321 Grn 183
May 2018 result LD 1965 C 1810 Lab 553 Grn 132
May 2016 result LD 1777 C 1494 Lab 634 UKIP 534 Grn 120
May 2015 result C 2944 LD 2145 Lab 1208 UKIP 1027 Grn 294
May 2014 result C 1700 LD 1414 UKIP 692 Lab 488 Grn 208
May 2012 result LD 1736 C 1668 Lab 724
May 2011 result C 1918 LD 1789 Lab 892 UKIP 331
May 2010 result LD 3777 C 2697 Lab 884
May 2008 result LD 2345 C 1668 Lab 262
May 2007 result LD 2265 C 1647 Lab 298
May 2006 result LD 2281 C 1509 Lab 296 Ind 142
June 2004 result LD 2844/2835/2782 C 1919/1904/1709 Lab 592/439/395


Godmanchester and Hemingford Abbots

Huntingdonshire council, Cambridgeshire; caused by the resignation of Liberal Democrat councillor David Underwood. A former mayor of Godmanchester, Underwood was first elected in 2016 for Godmanchester ward and transferred to this ward in 2018. He was one of the country’s few blind people to hold elected office.

From Greater Manchester we move to Godmanchester (stressed on the first syllable only, or pronounced Gumter if you’re old-fashioned or the Leader of the House of Commons). This name has nothing to do with Manchester: it refers to a Roman fort (“chester”) associated with an Anglo-Saxon called Godmund. The Roman fort was in a good location, defending the crossing point of Ermine Street, the Via Devana and the River Great Ouse, and a town grew up close to the southern end of the Old Bridge which connects Godmanchester to Huntingdon over the river. Until the twelfth century, this was the lowest bridge on the Great Ouse; and until 1975, when a new bridge was built as part of the Huntingdon bypass (now part of the A14), it was a major traffic bottleneck. The Huntingdon bypass is now itself a major traffic bottleneck being bypassed, with a motorway under construction to the south of Godmanchester to improve transport links between Cambridge and the west.

After losing its county status, Huntingdonshire has been a district within Cambridgeshire since 1974. It has a secure Conservative majority and a Tory MP (Jonathan Djonogly) to go with it. Godmanchester, on the other hand, is a quite recent Lib Dem hotspot. The old Godmanchester ward was Conservative from 2004 to 2012, but the Lib Dems broke through in 2014 after many years of trying and quickly built a large lead: Underwood was elected in 2016, the last election at which Godmanchester was a ward of its own, by the margin of 61-24.

The present ward has existed only since 2018, when the Tory-voting villages of Hemingford Abbots, Offord Cluny and Offord d’Arcy were added along with a third councillor. If this was an effort to improve the Tory position, it didn’t have the desired effect: the Lib Dem slate won with 52% of the vote against 34% for the Conservatives. Huntingdonshire moved away from election by thirds in 2018, so the next elections in the district will not be until 2022. The three parishes in the ward are all in different Cambridgeshire county council divisions: Godmanchester is the major part of the Godmanchester and Huntingdon South division, which is safely Liberal Democrat, while the Offords are part of the Lib Dem-held marginal of Brampton and Buckden, and Hemingford Abbots is the safe Tory division of The Hemingfords and Fenstanton.

Defending for the Liberal Democrats is Sarah Wilson, a Godmanchester town councillor and wife of the town’s county councillor Graham Wilson. The Conservatives have selected Paula Sparling, who was born and brought up in Rhodesia according to her Twitter and runs a business admin company. Completing the ballot paper is independent candidate and former Huntingdon town councillor Nigel Pauley, who fought the old Godmanchester ward in 2012 and finished in a close third place; in 2018 he stood as a Labour candidate for a ward in St Neots.

Parliamentary constituency: Huntingdon
Cambridgeshire county council division: Godmanchester and Huntingdon South (Godmanchester parish), The Hemingfords and Fenstanton (Hemingford Abbots parish), Brampton and Buckden (Offord Cluny and Offord d’Arcy parish)
ONS Travel to Work Area: Huntingdon
Postcode districts: PE19, PE28, PE29

Nigel Pauley (Ind)
Paula Sparling (C)
Sarah Wilson (LD)

May 2018 result LD 1396/1150/1030 C 911/654/627 Lab 383