Wednesday, 18 November 2015

By-election Previews: 19 November 2015

There are seven by-elections on 19th November 2015, of which four are in England and three in Wales, covered over on the Welsh Elections blog.  In England Labour have a seat to defend in Ashford, Kent, while the Lib Dems face an uphill struggle in Epsom, Surrey.  But we start this week with two crucial by-elections in Norfolk.

Norfolk county council
Caused respectively by the resignations of Liberal Democrat councillor David Thomas and UKIP councillor Stan Hebborn.  Thomas' resignation is due to work commitments, while Hebborn, who was deputy leader of the UKIP group, is disillusioned with politics.

Norfolk county council is having a glut of by-elections at the moment: these are the fifth and sixth by-elections to the county council this year, and possibly the most important.  We start in the west of the county at Watton, about 25 miles west of Norwich.  This is a small market town probably best known for the former RAF Watton, a Bomber Command and USAF base during the Second World War which has now been mostly developed for housing.  The county division also includes four parishes to the east of the town which formerly formed Templar ward on the district council.

South Smallburgh, on the other hand, is a rural division in the north-east of the county with no large town, running from the coast at Waxham inland to the Broads.  The name refers not to Smallburgh itself - which is not in the division - but to the Smallburgh Rural District which existed before 1974.  The largest polling station, with just over 1,000 electors, is in Ludham.

The reason these by-elections are crucial is the makeup of Norfolk county council.  The Conservatives lost control in the 2013 election and the council is now run by a coalition of everybody else.  Going into these by-elections, the ruling coalition controls 42 seats plus these two vacancies, to 40 seats for the Conservatives, so if the Tories can gain both by-elections they will hold half the seats and might challenge for the council leadership.

Let's see how likely that is.  Turning first to South Smallburgh, which is that rarest of things - a council by-election in a Lib Dem-held constituency, in this case North Norfolk.  This will be a hard fight: South Smallburgh has voted Lib Dem in the last two elections but is not safe.  The Lib Dems gained the division from the Conservatives in 2009 with a majority of 139 votes, but the Lib Dem councillor then defected to the Tories and stood for re-election in 2013 as a Conservative.  The 2013 result turned into a close three-way marginal, with the Lib Dems reversing the defection to win with just 31% of the vote, 45 vote ahead of the Tories (who had 29%) and 111 ahead of UKIP (27%).  The division is made up of three whole district council wards, which in May returned three Tories and one Lib Dem - a Tory gain of one seat from the Lib Dems.

In 2009 Watton was one of the safest Tory divisions in the country, the Tories winning 76-24 in a straight fight with Labour, so it was remarkable that UKIP could turn that around four years later.  UKIP's gain came with 34% of the vote, 146 votes ahead of the Tories (27%) and 239 ahead of independent candidate Keith Gilbert (24%), a district councillor for Watton ward.  Breckland got new ward boundaries in May which makes comparison a little difficult, but there was no change in the division's council representation: the unchanged Watton ward continued to elect Gilbert (who topped the poll) and two Tories, while the former Tory Templar ward was split between two new Tory wards.

Turning to the candidate lists, the big surprise is that there is no defending UKIP candidate in Watton.  Instead of running a candidate of their own UKIP have endorsed Keith Gilbert, who is again standing as an independent candidate.  Gilbert is up against Tory candidate Claire Bowes, one of his colleagues as district councillor for Watton.  Also standing are Joe Sisto for Labour and Timothy Birt for the Green Party.

In South Smallburgh the defending Lib Dem candidate is Allison Bradnock, a graphic designer from Neatishead.  Potter Heigham resident Paul Rice, the Lib Dem turned Tory county councillor from 2009 to 2013, stands again for the Conservatives.  UKIP's candidate is Barry Whitehouse, from Ludham, while Labour (David Spencer) and Green (Anne Filgate) candidates complete the ballot paper.

South Smallburgh
Parliamentary constituency: North Norfolk
North Norfolk district council wards: St Benet, Waterside, Waxham
ONS Travel to Work Area: Norfolk (part); Great Yarmouth (part)

May 2013 result LD 879 C 844 UKIP 768 Lab 274 Grn 107
June 2009 result LD 1283 C 1144 UKIP 693 Lab 198
May 2005 result C 2414 LD 2019 Lab 738

Parliamentary constituency: Mid Norfolk
Breckland district council wards: Watton; All Saints and Wayland (part: Caston and Griston parishes); Saham Toney (part: Carbrooke and Ovington parishes)
ONS Travel to Work Area: Thetford and Mildenhall

May 2013 result UKIP 808 C 662 Ind 569 Lab 270 Grn 102
June 2009 result C 1843 Lab 562
May 2005 result C 1975 Lab 1127 LD 964

Ashford borough council, Kent
Caused by the resignation of Labour councillor Kate Hooker for family reasons.  She had represented the ward since May.

Moving south to Ashford, Kent, a late twentieth-century boom town which has benefited from good road and rail links to London and the Continent, thanks to its Eurostar international station.  The Aylesford Green ward covers two distinct parts of south-eastern Ashford bisected by the High Speed 1 line, with only footpaths connecting them: to the east is Aylesford Green itself, an area of postwar London overspill housing named after a small area of open space next to the Old Mill Stream; while to the west lies the New Town area, originally built by the South Eastern Railway in the 1840s as its main locomotive works with adjacent housing for railway staff.  Railway use of the site ended here in the 1980s and the works are now the Old Railway Works Industrial Estate.

The history of the ward is reflected in a distinctly working-class population and high levels of social housing.  Despite that, the ward has a history of close results.  In 2003 it was won by the Ashford Independents, a well-organised localist group who beat Labour by 35 votes.  Labour didn't contest the 2007 election, in which the Ashford Independents lost their seat to the Lib Dems by just ten votes.  However, the Lib Dems didn't defend their seat in 2011 and Labour made the pickup, beating the Ashford Independents by a single vote.  May's election was relatively sedate, Labour winning 55-45 in a straight fight with the Conservatives.  At county level this is part of the Ashford East division, which has been Lib Dem since 2005 but was a three-way marginal in 2013 with UKIP second and the Tories third.

Defending for Labour is Gordon Miller, a Unite member and Salvationist who stood in May's election in the neighbouring Norman ward and lost it to the Conservatives.  The Tories have gone for youth in selecting Alex Howard, chairman of the Ashford branch of Conservative Future.  Also on the ballot paper are a couple of familiar names.  The Lib Dems' Adrian Gee-Turner is a former Hackney councillor and was runner-up in the Mayor of Hackney election in 2010; the Ashford Independents' candidate Christine Kathawick-Smith is a retired nurse hoping to join her husband David on the council; the Green Party have selected Thom Pizzey, a parish councillor for the village of Stanhope which was been swallowed up by Ashford's expansion; last but not least UKIP are represented by Harriet Yeo, a former Labour borough councillor (for the neighbouring Norman ward) and NEC member who fought Folkestone and Hythe for UKIP in the general election.

Parliamentary constituency: Ashford
Kent county council division: Ashford East
ONS Travel to Work Area: Ashford

May 2015 result Lab 725 C 592
May 2011 result Lab 241 Ashford Ind 240 C 183
May 2007 result LD 209 Ashford Ind 199 C 110
May 2003 result Ashford Ind 168 Lab 133 LD 98 C 52 NF 51

Surrey county council
Caused by the resignation of Liberal Democrat councillor Stella Lallement, who has fallen out with her local party.  She had been a Surrey county councillor since 2013.

We're in Surrey commuter territory here, an area lying generally to the north-west of the Sutton-Epsom-Dorking railway line.  Although Epsom, a former spa town which gave its name to a magnesium sulphate compound, lies within the built-up area of London it has never been incorporated within the Greater London area.  The town's location on the North Downs together with its good railway service (five trains per hour to Victoria and four to Waterloo) makes it a very desirable place to live, and Epsom and Ewell council's Stamford ward - covering the west of the town - has all the demographic hallmarks of a middle-class London commuter area.  The Court ward to the north-west of the town centre, on the other hand, rather sticks out with high levels of social housing - and half of it is included within this county division.

Local election results in Epsom are very difficult to read for several reasons.  One is that the borough's county divisions were redrawn at the last election in 2013: Epsom West is based on the former Lib Dem division of Epsom and Ewell South West, but with half of Town ward transferred to Epsom and Ewell South East (which was renamed Epsom Town and Downs).  Another is that this is a stronghold of the Residents Associations, who have controlled the local district council since it was created as a municipal borough in 1937.  The county division contains the whole of Stamford ward and half of Court and Town wards: Court, reflecting its demographics, is a Labour stronghold, while Stamford was Lib Dem from 2003 until May's elections, when it was lost to the Residents who also hold Town ward.  As stated, the only previous result on the current county division boundaries is from 2013, where the Lib Dems won with just 28% to 23% for the Residents, 20% for Labour and 16% for UKIP who pushed the Tories into fifth place.  Not often that happens in Surrey.

The Lib Dems are facing an uphill struggle to hold this one, having lost all their seats on the borough council in May.  Their candidate is former borough councillor Julie Morris.  The Residents' candidate is Neil Dallen, borough councillor for Town ward since 2007.  Labour's candidate is Kate Chinn, borough councillor for Court ward.  UKIP have selected Robert Leach, a former Residents figure who fought Epsom and Ewell in the general election.  Also standing are Karen Persand for the Tories and Chris Crook, who gives an address in Dorking, for the Green Party.

Parliamentary constituency: Epsom and Ewell
Epsom and Ewell borough council wards: Stamford, Court (part), Town (part)
ONS Travel to Work Area: London

May 2013 result LD 854 Residents Associations of Epsom and Ewell 693 Lab 616 UKIP 494 C 389

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