Friday, 18 September 2015

By-election Previews: 10 September 2015

The summer is over, the kids are back at school, the nights are drawing in and it's time for us to enter the autumn.  Autumn is peak by-election season, as with no local elections due until May 2016 there is no reason to defer polling until then; and a bit of a backlog of vacancies has built up over the summer.

We start this autumn with six polls on 10th September 2015 for seven vacancies.  In England the Tories defend two seats in Kent, while Labour have a tricky defence in Essex and a safer one in the Black Country.  In Scotland, over on the Scottish Elections blog, the SNP defend seats in Edinburgh and Midlothian where their councillors have moved on to Westminster, while the Edinburgh vacancy is combined with a Green Party defence in Scotland's first double by-election for at least forty years.

Sandwell metropolitan borough council, West Midlands
Caused by the death of Labour councillor Malcolm Bridges at the age of 70.  Bridges was first elected to Sandwell council in August 1999, in a by-election for Bristnall ward; while he lost that seat to the Conservatives in 2008, he returned to the council in 2010 by gaining Blackheath ward from the Tories.  He was the chair of the council's Smethwick and Oldbury Town committee, and an active member of Unite.

One of the Black Country's more obscure towns, Blackheath can be found at the southern end of Sandwell, just off the M5 motorway.  It's a classic mid-Victorian industrial town whose major focus was on manufacturing: the British Thomson-Houston electrical engineering works are still in operation under a successor company.  The Blackheath ward also includes the southern part of Rowley Regis, including Rowley Regis railway station from which there are very frequent trains to Birmingham and Stourbridge.

Blackheath is a ward which often produces interesting results.  The first election on these boundaries (in 2004) was a virtual tie between Labour and the Conservatives, with the Tories topping the poll by one vote but Labour winning the seat split 2-1.  In 2006 the Conservatives gained a second seat from Labour by 65 votes.  Labour gained the Tory seats in 2010 (by 330 votes on a general election turnout) and easily in 2012, but the intervention of UKIP has made the ward interesting again: UKIP came within 87 votes of Labour at the 2014 election, and were still polling well in May when Labour won with 44% to 31% for the Conservatives and 25% for UKIP.

Defending for Labour is Danny Millard.  The Conservatives have nominated Shirley Ching, a councillor for this ward from 2006 to 2010; she would appear to be back in the Tory fold after standing for the ward as a Sandwell Traditional Independent candidate in 2012.  UKIP's Ian Keeling returns to the campaign trail after his strong third place in May.  Also standing is Ben Groom for the Green Party.

Parliamentary constituency: Halesowen and Rowley Regis
ONS Travel to Work Area: Dudley and Sandwell

May 2015 result Lab 2418 C 1696 UKIP 1336
May 2014 result Lab 1090 UKIP 1003 C 573 Grn 111
May 2012 result Lab 1324 C 860 Sandwell Traditional Independent 305
May 2011 result Lab 1880 C 1326
May 2010 result Lab 2272 C 1942 LD 726 BNP 555
May 2008 result C 1497 Lab 1016 LD 258
May 2007 result Lab 1341 C 1027 BNP 633 Grn 132
May 2006 result C 1330 Lab 1265 LD 267
June 2004 result C 1369/1237/1166 Lab 1368/1346/1310

Tunbridge Wells borough council
Caused by the death of Conservative councillor Mike Rusbridge, who had served on Tunbridge Wells council for seventeen years.  Rusbridge had held many positions on the council, including as cabinet member for finance and governance, and was Mayor of Tunbridge Wells in 2008/9.  Away from politics he ran the family firm, the Rusbridge Family Bakery.

For the first of this week's two Kent by-elections we travel to the south of the county to the Tunbridge Wells suburb of Southborough which, confusingly, is to the north of the town on the A26, the main road to Tonbridge.  This confusion can be resolved by recalling that the name of Southborough dates from a time long before Tunbridge Wells was established; it is a Norman name, identifying the town as the South Borough within the purview of Tonbridge Castle.  The ward was forest until the sixteenth century, when an ironworking industry grew up.  Other industries in the area included gunpowder manufacture, cricket ball manufacture and brickmaking - the industry which caused the town to start to grow as the High Brooms Brick and Tile Company built houses for its employees during the late nineteenth century.  As well as the northern half of Southborough, the ward also includes the village of Bidborough on the road to Tonbridge.

In some ways, the only way for the Tories in Tunbridge Wells is down - they won every available seat on the council in May's local elections - but there's not much evidence of that happening here any time soon.  The ward's two seats split between the Tories and Lib Dems at its first election in 2002, but the Tories gained the Lib Dem seat in 2007 and since then it has been plain sailing: they polled 58% here in May, with Labour's 16% just beating the Lib Dems for second place.  The ward is within the Tunbridge Wells North county division which consistently votes Conservative against badly split opposition.

Defending for the Conservatives is Joe Simmons, who from 2004 to 2012 was councillor for the neighbouring ward of Southborough and High Brooms; that ward is a Tory/Labour marginal and Simmons should have an easier time here.  Despite their second place in May Labour are not standing, so the opposition comes from the Lib Dems' Trevor Poile, councillor for this ward from 2002 until losing his seat in 2007, and UKIP's William O'Shea.

Parliamentary constituency: Tunbridge Wells
Kent county council division: Tunbridge Wells North
ONS Travel to Work Area: Tunbridge Wells

May 2015 result C 1343 Lab 372 LD 357 UKIP 256
May 2014 result C 790 Lab 233 UKIP 219 LD 181
May 2011 result C 829 LD 395 Lab 220 UKIP 139
May 2010 result C 1335 LD 927
May 2007 result C 748 LD 544 Lab 80
May 2006 result C 797 LD 474 Lab 107
May 2003 result LD 577 C 553 Grn 61
May 2002 result C 618/531 LD 545/475

Maidstone borough council, Kent
Caused by the death of Conservative councillor Alistair Black at the age of 79.  Originally from Glasgow and Ayrshire, after National Service in the RAF and a spell in the British Transport Police Black had spent his working life in Africa, running a management consultancy business for 25 years.  He was first elected to Maidstone council in 2011 and his death came two months into his second term of office.

Some miles north-east along the A26 from Southborough is Maidstone.  The Fant ward is south-western Maidstone on the west bank of the River Medway, between the A26 and the river.  At the eastern end of the ward is Maidstone West railway station, at the halfway point of the Medway Valley line between Strood and Tonbridge, while East Farleigh station (on that line) lies just outside the ward boundary.

Fant ward's election results have developed into an enormous mess with significant support for all five of the UK's major political parties.  Not that you'd have guessed that from the 2002 result, where Labour won all three seats quite narrowly and none of the other parties put up full slates; the Labour majorities were 126, 44 and 21 over the Lib Dems.  In 2003 the Lib Dems gained their first seat in the ward, defeating Labour by 131 votes.  Labour held on in 2004 by 74 votes over the Lib Dems.

Fast forward to Labour's third term and support for the party in the ward collapsed.  They lost a second seat in 2006 to the Lib Dems, Labour finishing a poor third and the Lib Dems now looking safe, and the 2007 result was an even safer Lib Dem hold.  But the Lib Dems couldn't get a full house, as the last Labour seat in 2008 fell to the Tories, who had a majority of 117 over the Lib Dems.  The ward remained marginal in 2010 as the Lib Dems held on with 43.6% of the vote - remarkably, the highest winning score in the ward on its current boundaries - and had a majority of 360 over the Tories on a general election turnout.

Then the Coalition happened and things suddenly got messy.  The 2011 result was a four-way marginal, resulting in a second gain for the Conservatives with majorities of 66 over the Lib Dems, 185 over Labour and 251 over the Green Party.  Labour then suddenly found a way to eat into the Lib Dem vote and ran the Tories close in 2012, the Tory majority being 62 over Labour and 168 over the Greens.  The nadir, in terms of winning vote share, came in 2014 when the intervention of UKIP turned Fant ward into a five-way marginal; it was Labour who gained the Lib Dem seat but with less than 24% of the vote, and only seven percentage points separated the winning Labour candidate and the last-placed Lib Dem.  Despite finishing fourth and fifth in 2014, the Tories and Lib Dems bounced back in 2015 to take first and second place; the winning Tory share was 30%, with 22% for the Lib Dems, 20% for Labour and 18% for UKIP, and the Tory majorities (bearing in mind this was a general election turnout) were 325 over the Lib Dems and 395 over Labour.  Just to confuse matters, at county level this ward is part of the large and (since 2009) safe Lib Dem division of Maidstone Central.

The Tories have gone for youth in selecting Matt Boughton, who narrowly lost out in May's election in his home Downswood and Otham ward; he is on the staff of Maidstone's Tory MP Tom Tugendhat and is a qualified football referee.  The Lib Dems have reselected their May candidate Rosaline Janko, an author and licensee of the Walnut Tree on Tonbridge Road.  Labour's candidate is Keith Adkinson, who fought the ward in 2010 and 2007.  UKIP have reselected Colin Taylor.  Regular Green Party candidate (although he skipped this May) Stuart Jeffery returns to the fray, and independent candidate Mike Hogg completes the ballot paper.

Parliamentary constituency: Maidstone and the Weald
ONS Travel to Work Area: Maidstone and North Kent
Kent county council division: Maidstone Central

May 2015 result C 1255 LD 930 Lab 860 UKIP 742 Grn 434
May 2014 result Lab 595 UKIP 542 Grn 513 C 451 LD 418
May 2012 result C 610 Lab 548 Grn 442 LD 311
May 2011 result C 727 LD 661 Lab 542 Grn 526
May 2010 result LD 1704 C 1344 Grn 480 Lab 382
May 2008 result C 679 LD 562 Lab 470 Grn 326
May 2007 result LD 773 C 454 Grn 342 Lab 245 Ind 109
May 2006 result LD 656 C 460 Lab 301 Grn 223 Ind 120
June 2004 result Lab 693 LD 619 C 437 UKIP 197 Grn 121
May 2003 result LD 724 Lab 593 C 274 UKIP 68
May 2002 result Lab 726/644/621 LD 600/494 C 336/323 Grn 231/202 UKIP 142

Thurrock council
Caused by the resignation of Labour councillor Terry Brookes, who had served as a councillor for less than a year after winning a by-election in October 2014.  Brookes' time as a councillor was not a success, as he had been sacked as cabinet member for public protection for failing to attend meetings; his resignation as a councillor shortly afterwards was originally described as being for personal reasons, but it has since been revealed that Brookes has been arrested on suspicion of possessing indecent images of children.

This ward lies at the north end of the Dartford Crossing, where four levels of viaduct can be seen intersecting with each other; the Dartford Bridge over the Channel Tunnel Rail Link over the Dartford Tunnel escape road which itself is at a higher level than the Fenchurch Street-Tilbury railway line.  That line has one station within the ward at Purfleet, which forms the western corner of this ward; a town with a military history as a gunpowder magazine, Purfleet these days is known for margarine (the world's largest margarine factory is allegedly here), a recently-opened arts centre focusing on scenery for the Royal Opera House and other theatres, and the sport of darts (one flavour of the darts world championships was held here until a few years ago).  Margarine and chalk (which is quarried here) form the ward's main exports, but by far the largest employer within the ward is the Lakeside shopping centre, the UK's seventh-largest shopping mall.

In terms of councillors, this ward returned three Tories in 2004 but has been won by Labour at every election since then.  That statistic masks the fact that this ward is a stronghold of what might be termed the populist right wing.  During the heyday of the BNP in the mid-noughties this was one of the strongest BNP wards in the country, the far-right vote peaking at 35% - just 16 votes behind Labour - at the 2006 election.  Over the following years Labour saw off the threat from the BNP and then from the Tories to make the ward safe, although the populist vote here certainly hasn't gone away: UKIP polled 34% in May 2014 and 35% at the by-election in October 2014 which Terry Brookes won.  At the most recent Thurrock election in May Labour had 47%, UKIP 29% and the Conservatives 24%.

Following a messy Labour selection their candidate is Cliff Holloway, the father of current ward councillor Veronica Holloway and described as an ardent union man.  UKIP's candidate is Helen Adams, the leader of a campaign against a proposed biomass plant in the ward.  Completing the ballot paper is the Tory candidate Tony Coughlin.

Parliamentary constituency: Thurrock
ONS Travel to Work Area: London

May 2015 result Lab 2009 UKIP 1237 C 1034
Oct 2014 by-election Lab 903 UKIP 621 C 270
May 2014 result Lab 1054 UKIP 760 C 340 LD 73
May 2012 result Lab 815 UKIP 321 C 212 Ind 180 LD 47
May 2011 result Lab 951 C 578 BNP 193 LD 87
May 2010 result Lab 1628 C 1193 BNP 574
May 2008 result Lab 668 C 586 BNP 386
May 2007 result Lab 676 BNP 478 C 459
May 2006 result Lab 608 BNP 592 C 471
June 2004 result C 517/477/469 BNP 404 Lab 404/397/246

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