Wednesday, 14 August 2013

By-Election Preview: 15 August 2013

Four by-elections again this week.  Later this column will discuss three Tory defences in the suburban West Midlands, rural Devon and a Hampshire market town, but first I hope you will forgive an extended trip down memory lane as Labour try and defend the ward in Hartlepool where your columnist's father and grandparents lived.


Hartlepool Council; caused by the resignation of Labour councillor Angie Wilcox as the result of a scandal, which will be described below.
Wynyard Road Primary Care Centre in Hartlepool
  © Copyright Peter Robinson and licensed for reuse
under this 
Creative Commons Licence.

It's a long time since your columnist has been here, but this is a place with fond memories.  When I was a lad, my grandma and grandad lived on Glamis Walk in the Owton Manor estate in Hartlepool; we would travel up there a few times a year to meet them, particularly at Christmas and other holiday times, and I used to get packed off up there for a week every summer to see all the sights that Hartlepool and Teesside has to offer: the beach at Seaton Carew, the town centre, the quayside (in the days when redevelopment was just starting, although we did get to see quite a lot of the ironclad HMS Warrior which was being restored there at the time), the museums, the headland of Old Hartlepool (an insular place which has never psychologically recovered from being merged with West Hartlepool), the calm of Rossmere Park and the festival of litter that we went past to get there.  Regular trips to Durham and to the Sunday car boot sale at Sedgefield racecourse.  Standing in the middle of the back of the car looking at the forward view while my dad barrelled along the A19 in the days before backseat seatbelts became compulsory - ah, memories.  Ticking off the landmarks on the journey: the house in the middle of the M62, Elland Road stadium, the many tunnels on the road through Leeds city centre, turn left at the Halifax offices, through Roundhay and into the open countryside, the signpost for Shadwell, the A1 from Wetherby before it became a motorway, the airfield at Dishforth, the Happy Eater at Topcliffe, the white horse on the hillside near Thirsk, Mount Grace Priory at Easter with the daffodils in full bloom, the high viaduct over the Tees at Middlesbrough.  And no trip, of course, was complete without a ride on the Transporter Bridge.

Hartlepool was all very different from Prestwich where I was growing up at the time; the salty sea air, the call of the seagulls, the roar of the crowd at West Hartlepool rugby club's ground nearby, the different material of the buildings, the fact that my grandma and grandad's house was the wrong way round with the back door opening onto the street.  In fact, that wasn't the only strange thing about the house: my grandad joined the fire brigade, not wanting to go back to an office job after serving in the North Africa campaign with the Royal Marines, and by the time he retired he was in a very high-up position in Cleveland Fire Brigade.  (My grandma, as a fireman's widow, always got a Christmas hamper from the Firefighters Charity.)  With the huge ICI complex at Billingham and all the Teesside industry within Grandad's bailiwick, he saw some huge fires and had some individualistic views on fire prevention, the main one of which from a domestic point of view was that he'd seen too many explosions to allow gas in his house.  The result of this was that well into the 1990s the living room had a well-used coal fire, around which me and my sister would annoy Susie the cat, who was not afraid to bite back.

The street running around the back of Glamis Walk forms a rather narrow loop off Wynyard Road.  At the time I was there half of the space within the loop was filled by lock-up garages (although grandad had his own garage, which appeared to be made predominantly out of asbestos) and the rest (apart from a petrol station and a bookmakers') was mostly open space.  While the garages are still there the open space has been filled by the medical centre shown in the photograph, and the buildings which were on the west side of the loop, to the right of the photographer, have gone and been replaced by a supported living complex run by the Manor Residents Association.

The Manor Residents Association is run by Angie Wilcox who has been involved in voluntary work for many years.  Unfortunately, the Association appears to be falling apart in a very public way.  Since the start of the year Wilcox has been arrested twice (once on suspicion of theft, once on suspicion of perverting the course of justice); the Association has lost four separate employment tribunals which upheld various allegations of unfair dismissal and payment below the minimum wage, the result of which is aggregated compensation awards running well into five figures and Wilcox being branded a liar by a judge; HMRC are investigating allegations that the Association has failed to pass on tax and NI deductions from wages; and the Charity Commission appears to be looking into the management of the Association as well.  After a damning audit report by the council and the resignation of two other Hartlepool Labour councillors from the board of trustees, Wilcox finally resigned as a Hartlepool councillor.

Grandad was a lifelong Labour man who knew and respected the town's Labour MP for most of the late twentieth century, Ted Leadbitter, who gained the two Hartlepools (as they were then) for Labour in 1964 following the retirement of one-term Tory MP Commander John "Yangtse Incident" Kerans.  Grandad would give people lifts to the polling station on election day.  ("Do you know you're going to vote for?"  "No, I've not made my mind up", a surprising number of people would say.  "There's a good guy called Ted Leadbitter...")   He never liked Leadbitter's successor Peter Mandelson all that much, and neither did my grandma, who would often say that the people of Hartlepool would vote for a monkey if it had a red rosette.  Grandad died in 1997, and so never saw the decline of Hartlepool Labour during the early Blair years.  The rot started to set in in 2000 when Labour lost overall control of the council, helped by an apparent electoral pact between the Lib Dems and Conservatives, but it was with the town's first mayoral election in May 2002 that politics in the Pool took a turn for the weird.  The mayoralty was won in a shock result by the joke candidate Stuart Drummond, who was just 28 years old and was standing as a publicity stunt for the town's football club, for which he played the club mascot "H'Angus the Monkey".  Turns out my grandma was half-right - but the monkey didn't even need a red rosette!  In office, Drummond turned out to be a rather more sober and professional mayor than his previous reputation might have suggested, and despite failing to implement his only election pledge - free bananas for Hartlepool's schoolchildren - he was twice re-elected and led the town for eleven years, until his office was abolished in May this year following a referendum, control passing back to Labour who by now had recovered their council majority. 

The wackiness continued into the Hartlepool by-election in the summer of 2004 after the translation of Peter Mandelson to the European Commission.  Today we are accustomed to seeing good UKIP performances in parliamentary by-elections, but back in 2004 10% of the vote and third place for UKIP in a by-election was a notable result.  UKIP followed up by winning seats on Hartlepool council, although none of them were from Owton ward, the main predecessor to the current Manor House ward; not a very well-off area at all, Owton remained Labour throughout the Noughties except for a narrow Lib Dem gain in 2007.

Hartlepool had been re-warded at the 2004 council elections, a call by newly-elected Mayor Drummond to greatly reduce the size of the council to reflect the Mayoral structure coming just too late to influence the Electoral Commission's thinking.  Drummond did eventually get his way on this and the town was again re-warded in 2012 with fewer and much larger wards than hitherto, making it very difficult to compare results before 2012.  There has only been one election in this ward so far on the current boundaries, Labour easily winning all three seats in May last year.

This by-election has rather more choice for the electorate than my dad had at his first vote, in the predecessor to this ward at one of the last elections to Hartlepool county borough council: his choice then was between Labour and Independent Labour.  This time round the defending Labour candidate is Hartlepool Citizens Advice Bureau director Allan Barclay, who lost out on election in the neighbouring Fens and Rossmere ward last year.  The runner-up in this ward last year, retired bus driver Mick Stevens who has served in Northern Ireland with the Royal Engineers, tries again for the localist group Putting Hartlepool First, which won a by-election in Seaton Carew last October to add to four other seats on the council.  Hartlepool people like being put first.  Tom Hind, chairman of the local UKIP branch, also stands as does the Conservative candidate Mandy Loynes.

Parliamentary constituency: Hartlepool
ONS Travel to Work Area: Hartlepool

Allan Barclay (Lab)
Tom Hind (UKIP)
Mandy Loynes (C)
Mick Stevens (Putting Hartlepool First)

May 2012 result Lab 906/822/808 Putting Hartlepool First 305 UKIP 289 BNP 230 C 105/79/70


Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council, West Midlands; caused by the death of Conservative councillor Tom Ansell at the age of 70.  A former Leader of the Council and the Walsall cabinet member for transport and the environment at his death, he served as Mayor of Walsall in 2008/9.  Ansell had been a Conservative councillor in the ward for more than 25 years, and was an Independent councillor in Blakenall before that.

Aldridge Shopping Centre
  © Copyright John M and licensed for reuse
under this 
Creative Commons Licence.
Now a suburban town east of Walsall, Aldridge is a relatively affluent town which developed in the nineteenth century as a centre for coal-mining and brickmaking; the town's clay creates distinctive blue bricks.  The modern affluence, however, is generally the result of the town being a commuter area for Birmingham and the West Midlands conurbation, and Aldridge is one of the strongest Conservative areas in the Aldridge-Brownhills constituency which has been in Tory hands since 1979.

The Conservatives are not seriously challenged in this ward and the main battle is usually for second place.  Four parties have finished as runners-up here in the last decade: UKIP in 2004 and 2007, the BNP in 2006, the Lib Dems in 2010 and Labour in 2008, 2011 and most recently in 2012.

Walsall council is currently hung, the ruling Conservative/Lib coalition having 28 seats plus this vacancy to 28 for Labour with three independents holding the balance of power.  A (rather unlikely) Labour gain could upset that balance.  Hoping this won't happen is defending Conservative candidate Timothy Wilson, descrived as a popular local resident and campaigner.  He is opposed by Labour candidate Bob Grainger, from Walsall Wood just to the north; UKIP's Liz Hazell from Willenhall, the local party branch treasurer; Roy Sheward from the Liberal Democrats, who fought this ward in the 2008, 2010 and 2011 elections; and English Democrats candidate Chris Newey.

Parliamentary constituency: Aldridge-Brownhills
ONS Travel to Work Area: Walsall and Cannock

Bob Grainger (Lab)
Liz Hazell (UKIP)
Chris Newey (EDP)
Roy Sheward (LD)
Timothy Wilson (C)

May 2012 result C 1602 Lab 735 UKIP 517 LD 358
May 2011 double vacancy C 2719/2553 Lab 976/967 LD 632 UKIP 552/378
May 2010 result C 3827 LD 1446 Lab 1324 UKIP 629 Grn 155
May 2008 result C 2306 Lab 507 UKIP 442 LD 382
May 2007 result C 2310 UKIP 775 Lab 625 LD 436
May 2006 result C 2367 BNP 749 Lab 555 LD 437 Ind 229
June 2004 result C 2238/2207/2065 UKIP 1087 BNP 751 LD 718/680/584 Lab 714/691/536


Torridge District Council, Devon; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor John Lewis.

  © Copyright Andrew Longton and licensed for
reuse under this 
Creative Commons Licence.
This is truly deepest darkest Devon: a ward consisting entirely of a series of tiny villages on the moors between Great Torrington and Holsworthy.  Shebbear, the largest with around 1000 souls despite being about five miles from the nearest A-road, was once the centre of its own hundred and has a stone (the Devil's Stone) in the village square which has to be turned over every 5th November to avoid a disaster falling on the village; the village was also the site of the first Bible Christian chapel, a minor nineteenth-century denomination which is now part of the Methodists.  Langtree, on the Great Torrington-Holsworthy road, attracted attention a few years ago for staging a village pantomime called Snow White and the Seven Asylum Seekers.  The ward also includes the smaller village of Stibb Cross (part of Langtree parish) and the tiny parish of Newton St Petrock.

In common with many deeply rural areas, previous election results don't tell an awful lot, although it is noticeable that none of the councillors elected for this ward since the millennium have served for more than one term.  The 2003 election saw the Liberal Democrats comfortably beat a "Community Alliance" candidate; the Conservatives contested the ward in 2007 and narrowly gained the ward from the Lib Dems.  The Tory majority increased in 2011.  The ward is split between two Devon county divisions, Holsworthy Rural and Torrington Rural, both of which were Conservative holds in May's election with UKIP in second place.

Defending for the Conservatives is David Hurley, from Langtree.  There is no official Lib Dem candidate this time, but there is an unofficial one: Bob Wootton, a Bideford town councillor who is chairman of the local constituency party.  The Green Party candidate is Colin Jones, a web designer from some miles to the east in Dolton, and UKIP are standing Penny Mills from Highampton, just south of the ward, who runs the Torridge branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England and was the runner-up in Holsworthy Rural in May's Devon county elections.

Devon county council division: Torrington Rural (Langtree parish); Holsworthy Rural (Newton St Petrock and Shebbear parishes)
Parliamentary constituency: Torridge and West Devon
ONS Travel to Work Area: Bideford

David Hurley (C)
Colin Jones (Grn)
Penny Mills (UKIP)
Bob Wootton (Ind)

May 2011 result C 468 LD 273
May 2007 result C 411 LD 373
May 2003 result LD 389 Community Alliance 226


West Berkshire Council; caused by the death of Conservative councillor David Holtby.  After a distinguished military career, Holtby became a successful political agent and had served as a Hungerford ward councillor since 2007; he had recently been appointed as vice-chairman of the council.

Hungerford - Town Hall
  © Copyright Chris Talbot and licensed for reuse
under this 
Creative Commons Licence.
A prosperous market town in the Kennet valley, Hungerford can be found about six miles west of Newbury along several transport routes.  The town benefited from its location on the Kennet and Avon canal, which allowed goods to be easily transported from London to Bristol from 1811 onwards.  The Old Bath Road, now the A4, was the main stagecoach route from London to Bath and Bristol, and with Hungerford almost exactly halfway between London and Bristol it became a major coaching town.  In 1836 five stagecoach companies ran coaches between London and Bristol through Hungerford; seven years later there were none, their business taken by the Great Western Railway which took a more northerly route through the Vale of the White Horse rather than the Kennet Valley.  Nonetheless, the railway did eventually arrive in Hungerford as part of the Berks and Hants line, and today there are regular trains from Hungerford east to Newbury, Reading and London and west to Bedwyn, Westbury, Taunton and Exeter.  William of Orange was offered the British crown here during the Glorious Revolution, but the town is probably best remembered these days for the massacre of 16 people by a gunman in 1987.

Like Shebbear and Langtree above, Hungerford is part of a parliamentary constituency gained by the Conservatives from the Liberal Democrats in 2005, in this case Newbury.  The Hungerford ward has also been trending to the Conservatives over the last few years, the Tories gaining the ward from the Lib Dems in 2007 and increasing their majority in 2011.  All previous contests in the ward since the millennium have been straight C/LD fights.

Defending for the Conservatives is James Podger, who runs an antique shop in the town and is vice-chairman of the local Rotary club; his 20-year-old daughter sits on the town council.  His main opposition will come from the Lib Dem figurehead Denise Gaines, who was one of the two district councillors for the town until her defeat at the 2007 election, and failed to recover her seat in 2011.  Labour's candidate is Gary Puffett, who lives in Newbury and works at the Harwell Nuclear Decommissioning Authority after spending many years as a firefighter.  Completing the ballot paper is Andrew Stott, a parish councillor in the area and leader of his United People's Party.

Parliamentary constituency: Newbury
ONS Travel to Work Area: Newbury

Denise Gaines (LD)
James Podger (C)
Gary Puffett (Lab)
Andrew Stott (United People's Party)

May 2011 result C 1315/1178 LD 840/711
May 2007 result C 1244/1189 LD 924/821
May 2003 result LD 1065/1046 C 885/881

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