Previews: 25 Jul 2019

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

There are three hugely significant local by-elections on 25th July 2019:


Barnwood

and

Podsmead

Gloucester council; caused respectively by the death of Conservative councillor Lise Noakes and the resignation of Labour councillor Deborah Smith. Noakes had served since 2004,

It’s last weekend as I write this, and it’s shaping up to be the week that everything changed. We have a new leader of the Liberal Democrats, announced on Monday. We have a new leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, announced on Tuesday. We should (assuming all has gone to plan) have a new Prime Minister.

The new party leaders will find themselves thrust straight into the most volatile political situation we have seen for decades. This is looking like an era of party realignment, with the two parties which have dominated Britain’s governments since the 1920s suddenly becoming extremely weak both at the same time in the wake of a referendum which has divided the country.

Mind, that’s not the first time such a thing has happened in this decade. Look back to Scotland in late 2014 and early 2015, when the traditional UK parties were diminished by their opposition to independence in a referendum. Despite being on the losing side in that argument, the Scottish National Party saw a huge upsurge in support and the Scottish Labour Party suffered a collapse which they have yet to recover from. It was the opinion polls that picked the realignment up first, but it was the local by-elections held in late 2014 and early 2015 that confirmed it was real.

Going into this week, all the opinion pollsters in England and Wales were painting a picture of a close four-way contest at UK level between a weak Conservative Party, a weak Labour Party, a resurgent Liberal Democrats and those new kids on the block the Brexit Party. The concept of two-party swing is obsolete or at best meaningless in this political context, and anybody who tries to translate current national polling figures into House of Commons seats is begging to have their work shot down. Faced with such voting figures, England’s first-past-the-post electoral system would output seats ar rate somewhere on the scale between non-monotonic and random. Also, recent nationwide election campaigns have often seen big changes in opinion as polling day approaches; there’s no reason to believe that the next general election will be different in that respect. If our new political leaders can escape the past, they will have the chance to shape the future.

Most of this national picture is being reflected in and confirmed by the local by-elections. Last week’s set, in areas generally more Lib Dem-friendly than average, saw the Conservative vote fall by over 10 percentage points in every local by-election they contested. The loss of Brixworth, in Northamptonshire, was particularly embarrassing, and that embarrassment was entirely predictable. Longtime readers of Andrew’s Previews could have spotted that all the ingredients for a safe seat loss were there: a bad reason for the by-election (previous Tory councillor not turning up to meetings), a bad choice of candidate (teenager from a town miles away from the ward), bad local issues (the insolvency of Northamptonshire county council), bad national issues disproportionately affecting the area (the economy is underpinned by a motor-racing engine factory), bad national polling in the background. And it added up to a bad result: not just for the Tories who lost, but also for Labour whose regular candidate didn’t make any headway. The failure of the Conservatives to recover East Sheen in Richmond (Surrey), a ward which has now swung from Tory to Lib Dem by around 30% in five years, gives another side of the story: the Remain side of the Conservative base would appear to have upped sticks and gone. Trying to get that support back will be a challenge for the new party régime.

So, the Tory weakness is real and the Lib Dem strength is (generally) real. There wasn’t much opportunity for the Labour Party to make an impact in last week’s set, but by-election results in their strong wards over the last month or so have also had some embarrassing losses and poor vote shares. We can take Labour weakness as (generally) real also.

But there’s one important piece of the argument which, thus far, has been missing in action. Is the Brexit Party surge, which we saw in the European Parliament elections two months ago, going to make itself felt at other levels of government? Well, we are now about to find out. Today’s Barnwood and Podsmead by-elections in Gloucester see the first ever local government candidates for the Brexit Party.

Helpfully Barnwood and Podsmead are marginal wards with different political traditions. I’ll start alphabetically with Barnwood ward, which is to the east of the city along the Roman Road towards Cirencester (here called the Barnwood Road). Most of the ward’s population lives to the south of the Barnwood Road, while to the north of that road is a large business park. Electricity has been a major employer here for many years: the Barnwood Business Park was built in the 1970s around a large office development for the Central Electricity Generating Board, which subsequently became the headquarters of Nuclear Electric after privatisation and is now part of the EDF Energy empire. Barclays, and Cheltenham and Gloucester also have large offices in Barnwood providing financial services jobs.

Gloucester city council got new ward boundaries in 2016 at the same time as it moved off the thirds election cycle, so the last ordinary election results from the city are before the EU referendum. Going into these by-elections the Conservatives have a small but secure majority with 21 out of 39 seats plus the Barnwood vacancy; Labour have 9 seats plus the Podsmead vacancy, and the Lib Dems are on 7.

Throughout this century Barnwood ward has been closely fought between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems won all three seats at the 2002 election, with the Conservatives’ Elizabeth Noakes gaining a seat in 2004 and the party getting a second seat in 2011. The 2016 boundary changes saw the south-western third of the ward hived off to become a new Coney Hill ward, which voted Labour with the Lib Dems close behind; but the boundary changes don’t appear to have had much partisan effect on the rump Barnwood ward. In May 2016 the Conservatives polled 40% and won one seat, the Lib Dems polled 31% and won the other seat, and UKIP came in third with 12%. (I’m still trying to find out whether the Kippers were wrapped in plastic on that occasion.)

Podsmead ward, by contrast, was little changed by the Boundary Commission in 2016. This is a single-member council estate ward in the south of Gloucester, a triangular shape between the Bristol Road and the A38 bypass. The major local feature is the Crypt School, a grammar school which was founded in 1539 by Joan Cooke from money left by her late husband, four-time Mayor of Gloucester John Cooke. The list of Old Cryptians includes the political journalist Robin Day, although his brief time at the school was before it moved to Podsmead in 1943.

Throughout this century Podsmead ward has been closely fought between the Conservatives and Labour. Labour won the 2002 election very easily, but the Conservatives gained the ward in 2010 by 26 votes and increased their majority in 2014. On slightly revised boundaries in 2016, Labour regained Podsmead from the Conservatives in a straight fight by the margin of 52-48, a majority of 28 votes.

Since 2016 we have had the Gloucestershire county council elections, although comparison is difficult as the ward and county division boundaries don’t match up well. Barnwood ward is mostly within the Barnwood and Hucclecote division; this voted Lib Dem in the 2017 county elections but also includes Hucclecote ward, where the Lib Dems are stronger than they are in Barnwood. Podsmead ward is split down the middle between two county divisions (Hempsted and Westgate, and Tuffley) which both voted Conservative in 2017.

So, with these being possibly the most significant local by-elections in years let’s turn to the candidate lists. In Barnwood in 2016 the Tories and Lib Dems both had all-female slates; that is now reversed with an all-male ballot paper for this by-election. Defending for the Conservatives is Fred Ramsey, a retired RAF wing commander and Rotarian. The Lib Dem candidate, who had leadership contender Sir Ed Davey turn up last week to help out with his campaign, is Ashley Bowkett who has travelled the world working in the television industry and won awards for making documentaries. UKIP have selected Matthew Young, who in a case of nominative determinism is not yet 25 but two years ago became chairman of the party’s Tewkesbury branch. Also standing are Chris Clee for Labour, Jonathan Ingleby for the Green Party, and Peter Sheehy – landlord of the Turk’s Head in the city centre – for the Brexit Party.

Podsmead ward is another six-strong ballot paper. This will be a Labour defence and their defending candidate is community volunteer Lisa Jevins. The Tories have made an interesting choice of candidate in Byron Davis; not to be confused with the former Tory MP for Gower with a similar name, Davis is the teenage son of former Barnwood ward councillor David Mockridge, who died in 2000; he had campaigned for Labour in the last general election in Gloucester, but then because disillusioned with Corbynism and joined the Conservatives. It takes all sorts to make a world. Joining the fray are Michael Byfield for the Greens, Simon Collins for UKIP, former Gloucester councillor Sebastian Field for the Lib Dems, and former UKIP candidate Rob McCormick for the Brexit Party.

Barnwood

Parliamentary constituency: Gloucester
Cloucestershire county council result: Barnwood and Hucclecote (most), Coney Hill and Matson (small part), Abbey (small part)
Postcode districts: GL3, GL4

Ashley Bowkett (LD)
Chris Clee (Lab)
Jonathan Ingleby (Grn)
Fred Ramsey (C)
Peter Sheehy (Brexit Party)
Matthew Young (UKIP)

May 2016 result C 875/681 LD 685/594 UKIP 254 Lab 247/223 Grn 117

Podsmead

Parliamentary constituency: Gloucester
Cloucestershire county council result: Hempsted and Westgate (part), Tuffley (part)
Postcode districts: GL1, GL2

Michael Byfield (Grn)
Simon Collins (UKIP)
Byron Davis (C)
Sebastian Field (LD)
Lisa Jevins (Lab)
Rob McCormick (Brexit Party)

May 2016 result Lab 372 C 344


Hart

Hartlepool council, County Durham; caused by the resignation of Jean Robinson on health grounds. A councillor since 2011, she was elected for Labour but was sitting as an independent candidate.

And now for something completely different. Our other by-election this week is in Hartlepool, that strange and much-misunderstood town on the Durham coast. On the main road into town from Durham you bypass Hart Village, a rather nice place with an old history: its church is Anglo-Saxon, and its lords of the manor back in the day – the Norman de Brus family – were very influential. Robert de Brus VII has gone down in history as one of most famous kings of Scotland.

Beyond Hart village is Hartlepool’s northern end, a fast-growing area with lots of new housing and (by Hartlepudlian standards) very high employment. In the 2011 census Hart ward was in the top 70 in England and Wales for Apprenticeship qualifications; however, the boundaries were redrawn in 2012 to bring in Hart village. There are more boundary changes planned for 2020, with an all-out election scheduled next year on the new lines.

Which will no doubt shake things up further in what is already an astonishingly volatile place even for the volatile political times in which we live. This column has long maintained that Hartlepool’s politics was starting to get bizarre even before the Monkey Mayor came on the scene, and the abolition of his post by referendum has not changed the confusing nature of the council. There was a by-election in Hart ward last year, and readers of the paperback collection Andrew’s Previews 2018 – out now for your reading pleasure, get it here from Amazon and support future Previews – will recall a confusing history. In 2012 Hart ward elected two Labour councillors and one independent. The independent lost his seat in 2014 to Putting Hartlepool First, a localist party which has since disbanded. The Putting Hartlepool First councillor retired in 2018 and his seat went to another independent.

And then things got even more complicated in the Pool. As described in this New Statesman article from April (link), there was an almighty row within the Hartlepool Labour party over candidate selection for the 2019 election, with a grassroots revolt (although not a Corbynite one) leading to several councillors being deselected. Councillor Paul Beck of Hart ward, who would have been up for re-election in May, decided to resign last year partly because of this, and Labour lost the resulting by-election to independent candidate James Brewer by the margin of 44-40. The row within Hartlepool Labour then came to a head. A large number of councillors defected, with Labour’s remaining Hart ward councillor Jean Robinson going independent and five other Labour councillors joining Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party in the run-up to the 2019 elections, and the Labour majority on Hartlepool council was gone. One of the Labour councillors who joined the Socialist Labour Party was Christopher Akers-Belcher, the leader of the council. My grandad used to be a Hartlepool Labour supporter; goodness knows what he’d make of this if he were still alive.

The electorate does not look kindly on basket cases like Hartlepool Labour, and delivered a withering assessment in the May 2019 local elections. In 2015 Labour had won 9 seats out of a possible 11; in May that reduced to just 3, with gains for UKIP and the first ever council seats for the Veterans and Peoples Party and that far-right group led by Anne-Marie Waters, the For Britain Movement. Having won the October by-election, James Brewer was re-elected for a full term as councillor for Hart ward in a landslide, defeating Labour 67-33 in a straight fight; he stood in May under the banner of the Independent Union, a new group of independent, localist and ex-UKIP councillors which is now the major party in the coalition running Hartlepool council. That coalition must be one of the most bizarre administrations ever assembled, with eight Independent Union councillors (including Tom Cassidy, elected as an independent for Hart ward in May 2018), four from the Socialist Labour Party, three Conservatives, three Seaton Carew localists and two independents making a total of 20 seats out of a possible 33. Hands up who ever expected to see the Conservatives and Scargillites working together. In opposition are the rump of Labour (9 councillors) and the single councillors representing the For Britain Movement, UKIP and the Veterans and Peoples Party.

Goodness knows what’s going to happen here this time. Labour will want their seat back, and have selected Ann Johnson in an attempt to get their act together after May’s shellacking; she is now a support worker for children with educational needs after finishing a long career in the Navy, and fought Burn Valley ward in May – resoundingly losing to outgoing Labour councillor Ged Hall who was re-elected as an independent. The Independent Union will be hoping to get a full slate of Hart ward councillors, and they have selected Ian Griffiths who runs a print and design company; in May Griffiths stood in the Old Hartlepool-based Headland and Harbour ward for the Democrats and Veterans Party (the “gay donkey” UKIP splinter group), finishing third out of four candidates. Also standing are Graham Craddy for the For Britain Movement, Graham Harrison for UKIP and Michael Ritchie for the Green Party.

Parliamentary constituency: Hartlepool
ONS Travel to Work Area: Hartlepool
Postcode districts: TS26, TS27

Graham Craddy (For Britain Movement)
Ian Griffiths (Ind Union)
Graham Harrison (UKIP)
Ann Johnson (Lab)
Michael Ritchie (Grn)

May 2019 result Ind Union 1325 Lab 647
October 2018 by-election Ind 637 Lab 582 C 200 Grn 27
May 2018 result Ind 778 Lab 685 C 304
May 2016 result Lab 568 UKIP 529 Ind 394 C 383 Grn 70
May 2015 result Lab 1186 UKIP 981 C 798 Putting Hartlepool First 787 Ind 547
May 2014 result Putting Hartlepool First 534 UKIP 446 Ind 435 Lab 376 C 234
May 2012 result Lab 713/571/522 Ind 532/368/333/257 C 417 Putting Hartlepool First 266 UKIP 262

Andrew Teale