“All the right votes, but not necessarily in the right order”
So, it looks like we’re having a general election in June. Election punditry always tends to throw up results and events which take you by surprise but are completely explicable in retrospect, and this is one of them. Before the June poll we’re going to be having local elections on 4th May in Scotland, Wales and much of England, and 20th April sees the last set of local by-elections before then with two Labour defences, helpfully both in marginal seats, which will provide an early opportunity to test the water. Read on…
Cheshire West and Chester council; caused by the resignation of Labour councillor Reggie Jones after 27 years in office, originally on the now-abolished Chester city council. He became a foster parent last year and is resigning to spend more time with his family.
We start this week with a crucial by-election in a marginal seat that could result in a change in council control. This is Cheshire West and Chester council, one of the unitary councils created by the Brown government in 2009 and electorally possibly the most interesting one. While the council does have a lot of true-blue Cheshire countryside, it also includes the strongly Labour town of Ellesmere Port, the former salt-mining centre of Northwich and the Liverpool overspill estates of Winsford, together with the city of Chester which has pockets of support for all the main parties – or at least it did before the Coalition years. This produces a marginal council in which Labour won a majority in the 2015 election despite polling two percent behind the Conservatives across the district: the Labour majority is on the narrowest of margins with the party holding 38 seats (including this vacancy) to 36 for the Conservatives and one independent – who represents the normally-Tory village of Parkgate on the Dee estuary. As can be seen, with Labour defending this by-election, if this seat is lost their majority disappears and the independent councillor will hold the balance of power.
Crucial, then. So, what’s Blacon like? It’s a postwar council estate on the north-western edge of Chester along the Sealand Road, hugging the Welsh border which here bisects the Deva Stadium, home of Chester FC. On the English side of the stadium is the Sealand Industrial Estate – an apt name as it’s built on land reclaimed from the Dee estuary – which provides much of the ward’s employment. The ward has a relatively young age profile with high levels of social housing and low levels of qualifications; over half the workforce are in working-class occupations and part-time working levels are very high.
With those demographics, you’d expect a safe Labour ward and that’s exactly what the previous election results suggest. The two Blacon wards on the old Chester city council were consistently the safest Labour wards in that district, and since Blacon took on its current boundaries in 2011 (gaining the Sealand industrial estate) that hasn’t changed: in the 2015 election Labour led the Tories here by 58-18, some of that being a personal vote for Reggie Jones who beat the alphabet to top the poll. Not promising for the Tories at first sight, but the current dire poll ratings for Labour have been reflected in a series of embarrassing by-election losses for Labour in recent months in wards like this; and in addition, the ward is located within the City of Chester constituency, the most marginal Labour seat in the UK and number 1 on the Conservative target list. So both parties will be looking for a good result.
Both Labour and the Tories have selected candidates in their twenties. Defending for Labour is Ben Powell, a former Cheshire West and Chester councillor (for St Paul’s ward in Ellesmere Port, 2011-15) who now lives in Chester and is seeking to return to the chamber after standing down in 2015 to pursue stand-up comedy in London. The Tories have reselected 25-year-old Jack Jackson who fought the ward in 2015. (Their leaflet is going hard on council tax rises pointing out that Cheshire West and Chester council put Band D council tax up by �52.91 this year; given that the average property in Blacon goes for only around �120,000 one wonders how much of the ward is actually in Band D.) Steve Ingram is standing as an independent: he was top of the UKIP slate here in 2015 and is the only candidate to give an address in the ward. Completing the ballot paper is Lizzie Jewkes, not cheap jewellery from Argos but the ward’s first Lib Dem candidate since 2008 – a former magistrate from Whitby near Ellesmere Port who has stood for parliament several times, most recently in Wirral South in 2015, she claims to have originated the Coalition government’s policy of raising the income tax threshold to �10,000.
Parliamentary constituency: City of Chester
May 2015 result Lab 3579/3349/3119 C 1109/979/941 UKIP 1054/1037/805 Grn 482/303/227
May 2011 result Lab 2103/1906/1725 C 850/772/735 UKIP 302/297
Harrow council; caused by the death of Labour councillor Mitzi Green. First elected in 1998 for the former Centenary ward and transferring to West Harrow ward in 2002, Green had represented this ward since 2006. A governor at Kenton Park infant and primary school, she had served in the council cabinet from 2012 to 2013, holding the children’s services portfolio.
From one council where Labour won a majority in the last election despite being second in votes, we move to another – one of the many maddening features of England’s first-past-the-post electoral system being that it can throw up dubious results like that in some circumstances. To be fair, Labour are slightly better placed in Harrow than in Cheshire West, and at the last election in 2014 polled only 119 votes behind the Conservatives across the borough with a breakaway Independent Labour slate polling 6,617 votes (or 8.3%), and the Labour majority is not in jeopardy at this election: they control 33 seats plus this vacancy to 26 Conservatives, two independents and a single Lib Dem.
The Kenton East ward lies on Harrow’s southern boundary to the north of Kenton Road, and is entirely built-up apart from the open space of Queensbury Park. This is classic Metroland with almost all the housing stock dating from the 1930s, when the Stanmore branch of what’s now the Jubilee line was built to the east of the ward; there are no Underground stations within the boundary but parts of the ward are convenient for both Kingsbury and Queensbury stations. Did somebody mention Queensbury?
(checks notes) Not that Queensbury, sorry. Anyway, there has been a ward on approximately these boundaries since 1949 in the days of the old Harrow Municipal Borough, although until 1978 it was called Queensbury ward. Since 1949 it has only been lost by Labour twice: in the disaster year of 1968 when the Conservatives won the ward, and in an October 1981 by-election which went to the SDP. From 1994 to 2014 one of the local councillors was Navin Shah, who was leader of the council from 2004 to 2006 and has represented Harrow in the London Assembly since 2008. At the last borough elections in 2014 there was a slght swing to the Conservatives, Labour polling 42% to 33% for the Tories and 13% for the Independent Labour slate, and the 2016 London Mayoral elections suggest Labour may be in some trouble here: in the ward’s ballot boxes Sadiq Khan beat Zac Goldsmith by only 43-41, a lead of 59 votes, and Goldsmith may have carried the ward once postal votes (which are not broken down to ward level) are taken into account. Not a good sign in a constituency – Harrow East – which Labour need to gain in order to form a majority government.
On the other hand, there are factors which would suggest a Labour underperformance here in both 2014 and the 2016 Mayoral contest. The 2014 factor is obvious – the intervention of the Independent Labour slate, which had broken away in 2013 and briefly tried to run Harrow council with something like 8 councillors; this lasted a few weeks until their administration fell apart through force of numbers and let the Tories in for the pre-election period. The 2016 underperformance can be explained somewhat by the ward’s ethnic and religious makeup: this is the fourth most Hindu ward in England and Wales (45% of the population) and makes the top 50 for those of “other” religions (3.0%), those born outside the EU (46%) and Asian ethncity (61%). As a Muslim, Sadiq Khan was not best-placed to overperform in Hindu areas even before some rather dubious messages from the Goldsmith campaign that year are taken into account. This is neatly illustrated by the simultaneous London Members ballot from the 2016 election, in which the Labour lead over the Conservatives was a much healthier 47-35.
Make of all that what you will. The defending Labour candidate is Nish Patel, the chairman of the Harrow East branch of Labour who fought Belmont ward in 2014. The Tories have selected Nitesh Hirani who is the only candidate to live in the ward. With the Independent Labour slate having given up, the ballot paper is completed by Herbert Crossman for UKIP and Charis Croft for the Lib Dems.
Parliamentary constituency: Harrow East
May 2014 result Lab 1695/1561/1550 C 1310/1200/1167 Ind Lab 534/459/377 UKIP 453
May 2010 result Lab 2672/2442/2236 C 2031/1995/1756 LD 1002
May 2006 result Lab 1623/1477/1433 C 1231/1066/1009 LD 371/340/228 People’s Independent Party 118
May 2002 result Lab 1338/1299/1229 C 911/809/794
2016 GLA results (excludes postal voters)
Mayor: Lab 1111 C 1052 LD 75 Grn 69 UKIP 67 Britain First 46 Respect 44 Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol 37 One Love 26 BNP 23 Women’s Equality 22 Ind 13
London Member: Lab 1242 C 924 UKIP 122 LD 73 Grn 70 Women’s Equality 53 Respect 48 Britain First 47 CPA 31 BNP 21 Animal Welfare 19 House Party 11