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

The US First Circuit Court of Appeals decided a case last week on the absence of an Oxford comma in the US state of Maine’s overtime laws. Something to bear in mind, perhaps, as we discuss three by-elections in very beautiful parts of England, and Blackburn. These are the last three by-elections in March as no polls have been organised for next week (I know! you’ll be getting withdrawal symptoms!). That safe Labour ward in Blackburn is going to the polls for the second time in three months; before then we consider two Tory wards with significant Green votes. One is in the beautiful Welsh Marches, but first it’s off to a very touristy village in Exmoor. Read on…


DUNSTER AND TIMBERSCOMBE

West Somerset council; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Bryan Leaker. A former deputy leader of the Conservative group, Leaker’s resignation statement blamed Government cuts to local government. He had served from 2003 to 2011 for the former Dunster ward, and again since 2015 for this ward; before becoming a councillor he had a 30-year career in business as a senior manager and director for several well-known companies in the railway, hotel, catering and entertainment trades, until recently running Butlin’s at Minehead and a hotel in the town. In the 2004 Birthday Honours Leaker was appointed MBE for services to the community in Minehead.

“The purple-headed mountain,
The river running by,
The sunset and the morning
That brightens up the sky”
-Cecil Frances Alexander, All Things Bright and Beautiful

Even after over five years of writing by-election previews, your columnist does get to go to some new districts every so often. West Somerset, holding today its first by-election since 2009, is worth the wait. This is one of the smallest local government districts in England, with just over 27,000 electors on the December 2016 register; 950 of those live in Dunster and Timberscombe ward, a swathe of the Exmoor National Park to the east and south of Minehead.

Dunster itself is a well-preserved mediaeval village at the mouth of the River Avill, with Dunster Castle and St George’s Priory Church, both of which contain 13th-century work, both being Grade I listed, and the 14th-century Dunster Tithe Barn – one of the polling stations for this by-election – being recorded at the Dissolution in 1535 as having a net annual income of £37 4s 8d. Six centuries of inflation means that the poll clerk today will probably get around twice that. The wool trade was important to Dunster in mediaeval times, but these days tourism is the only game in town, with the above attractions joined by a doll museum and the preserved West Somerset Railway, which passes through on the way to Minehead. Overlooking the village is Grabbist Hill, which before its forestation was covered with heather and said to be the inspiration for the purple-headed mountain in the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful. Further up the Avill valley is Timberscombe, a tiny Exmoor village perhaps best known as the home of J P Martin, whom readers of a certain age might recall as author of the now-almost-forgotten Uncle series of children’s books.

The present ward was created in 2011, Dunster having previously been a ward of its own. In the two previous elections held here it has been safe Tory; the 2015 result saw Leaker win 60-40 in a straight fight with the Green Party. The ward is split between two county council divisions (Dunster, and Dulverton and Exmoor), both of which are safe Conservative.

Defending for the Conservatives is Andy Parbrook, a builder and Minehead town councillor; his wife Jean is the present Mayor of Minehead. The Green candidate is Lucy McQuillan. Completing a longer ballot paper than last time are Peter Pilkington for the Lib Dems and Maureen Smith for Labour.

Parliamentary constituency: Bridgwater and West Somerset
Somerset county council division: Dunster (Dunster parish), Dulverton and Exmoor (Timberscombe parish)

May 2015 result C 424 Grn 288
May 2011 result C 336 Grn 166 Ind 78


LEOMINSTER SOUTH

Herefordshire council; caused by the death of Independent councillor Peter McCaull at the age of 77. McCaull had had a very long career in local government, being first elected to the newly-formed Leominster district council in 1973 at the top of the poll in Leominster Eastern ward, as a Labour candidate; he lost his seat in 1979 but stayed on Leominster town council, serving four times as Mayor of Leominster, and co-founded a charitable trust for the benefit of young people living in the town. McCaull returned to principal local government in 2011 as an independent councillor for Leominster South ward, and at the time of his death was vice-chairman of the council.

From one tourist centre built on wool and maintained on tourism in a beautiful part of England, we move to another: this time to the beautiful Welsh Marches. The Marches specialise in tiny market towns, and Leominster is one of the biggest of them; located on the main road and railway line from Shrewsbury to Hereford, midway between Hereford and Ludlow, the town has a population of around 11,700 and for centuries gave its name to a parliamentary constituency. Oh, and did I say that the Welsh Marches are beautiful?

The present Leominster South ward is rather misnamed: created in 2015, it is only half of the Leominster South which elected McCaull in 2011 and might have been better named as Leominster South West; as well as the south-west quadrant of the town, it includes several villages to the west in Leominster’s hinterland together with the rural Monkland and Stretford parish. McCaull’s win in 2015 is the only previous result on these boundaries; he had 42% of the vote to 31% for the Greens and 27% for the Conservatives. The old Leominster South was Tory-inclined but its last poll – a by-election in July 2014 – resulted in a gain for the Green Party, a win which may owe less to the Greens’ inherent appeal in the ward – the party is notoriously poor at fighting by-elections – and more to the unpopularity of Herefordshire’s Tory administration: the Green candidate in that by-election was endorsed by It’s Our County (Herefordshire), a high-profile localist party which forms the official opposition on Herefordshire council.

One independent candidate has come forward to succeed McCaull: he is Mark Latimer, an internationally-renowned pianist who is passionate about local healthcare – his wife sadly died last month – and wants to continue McCaull’s work championing the town’s young people. The Green candidate is Trish Marsh, a Leominster town councillor who played a key role in saving the Leominster Festival from closure in recent years. The Tory candidate is Connor Egan who is the only candidate to give an address in the ward. Also standing are Jon Stannard for It’s Our County (Herefordshire) and former Straford-on-Avon councillor Clive Thomas for the Liberal Democrats.

Parliamentary constituency: North Herefordshire

May 2015 result Ind 686 Grn 492 C 425


HIGHER CROFT

Blackburn with Darwen council, Lancashire; caused by the death of Labour councillor Don McKinlay at the age of 60. A former retail worker and USDAW official, McKinlay had served as a Blackburn councillor from 1980 to 1997, returning in 2014.

One of the problems with predictions is that they go wrong sometimes. In the 15th December 2016 edition of Andrew’s Previews I wrote that that day’s by-election, caused by the sad death of a Labour councillor in his early 60s, “may be the last election to Higher Croft ward in its current form” as the Boundary Commission is presently working on a radical rewarding of Blackburn with Darwen. Three months later, we’re back, again due to the sad death of a Labour councillor in his early 60s. Local by-elections can be like that sometimes.

As I stated three months ago, this is one of the white working-class wards in Blackburrn, a quite startlingly segregated town by both race and class; Higher Croft is in the south of Blackburn, between the Roman Road and the railway line to Darwen. This is one of Blackburn’s newer wards, with most of the housing stock being post-war; generally the buildings get newer the further out of town you go, with the south end of the ward covering part of a large office and industrial estate which has mostly gone up since 2000. With all those industrial units, manufacturing is still an important employer here.

Higher Croft ward has existed since 1979 and took on its current boundaries in 2004. That 2004 election was the only time since 1979 that Higher Croft returned a councillor other than Labour, the Lib Dems’ Fred Gollop winning one of the three seats; Gollop served a three-year term before losing his seat in 2007, and the Lib Dems haven’t stood here since. (A miss by any standards: with all those holes in Blackburn, Lancashire – and the roads haven’t noticeably improved since John Lennon’s day – you might think there would be a great opportunity here for leaflets showing candidates looking glum and pointing at potholes.) There is a radical right-wing vote in the ward: the BNP ran second here in 2006, the England First Party beat the Tories for third place in 2007 and UKIP polled well in 2015. The 2016 ordinary election was a straight fight between Labour and the Tories with Labour winning by 74-26; in December’s by-election Labour beat UKIP 58-25.

Defending this by-election for Labour is Adam Holden, a business support worker who fought the hopeless Livesey with Pleasington ward last year. UKIP’s Ian Grimshaw, runner-up in the December by-election, is trying again as is the Tories’ Maureen McGarvey, a former Mayor of Blackburn and councillor for Roe Lee ward 1997-2011, who completes the ballot paper.

Parliamentary constituency: Blackburn

December 2016 by-election Lab 435 UKIP 187 C 125
May 2016 result Lab 874 C 309
May 2015 result Lab 1283 UKIP 927 C 570
May 2014 double vacancy Lab 908/877 C 389
May 2012 result Lab 1037 C 275
May 2011 result Lab 980 C 417 BNP 179
May 2010 result Lab 1361 C 885 BNP 551
May 2008 result Lab 723 C 487 BNP 396
May 2007 result Lab 696 LD 535 England First Party 269 C 266
May 2006 result Lab 659 BNP 527 LD 369 C 228
June 2004 result Lab 794/613/574 LD 736 C 469 Ind 434