“All the right votes, but not necessarily in the right order”
The year is yet young, but we have already reached a decisive point with two parliamentary by-elections, one in a safe Labour seat, one in a marginal. Read on for the Andrew’s Previews take on Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central, together with three local by-elections in safe Tory wards in Northamptonshire, Essex and Devon…
House of Commons; caused by the resignation of Labour MP Jamie Reed to take up a new job as a lobbyist in the nuclear industry. He had served since 2010.
Welcome to the Lake District for the first week of parliamentary by-elections in 2017. If you’re looking for a viewpoint (and if you’re reading this column, you probably are), you’ve come to the right place: Copeland includes the two highest points in England, Scafell Pike and Scafell, together with a large chunk of the western Lake District National Park. It’s beautiful. You must go.
What the Lake District guidebooks probably don’t tell you is what you can see from the top of Scafell Pike if you look to the west. Ignore the Irish Sea and the Isle of Man, suspended in the middle of the sea like a jewel; instead focus your eyes further down on the coastline, where there is an ugly-looking assemblage of large buildings (the cooling towers have been demolished since the photograph was taken). This is Sellafield, the nuclear decommissioning and reprocessing site which incorporates Calder Hall, the world’s first commercial nuclear power station, and Windscale, a plutonium production plant which was damaged by fire in 1957. Originally developed in the Second World War as an ordnance factory, since the late 1940s Sellafield has been the centre of the UK’s nuclear industry, processing spent nuclear fuel from the UK and abroad and serving as the testbed for the Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor, the UK’s second generation of nuclear plants which are now approaching the end of their useful lives. There are proposals to build a new nuclear power station at Moorside near the Sellafield site, but these have been thrown into some doubt by the recent financial troubles of Toshiba, one of the major investors. The Irish, Manx and Norwegian governments aren’t particularly happy with having Sellafield located where it is, given its record of releasing nuclear waste (21 such incidents were reported between 1950 and 2000), but Sellafield literally underpins the economy of West Cumbria – 10,000 people are employed on the site, the vast majority of them living in this constituency.
Of course, West Cumbria was here a long time before Sellafield was. The Romans came here in the second century, when there was a Roman road over the impossibly-steep Hardknott Pass (possibly England’s most challenging road to drive); Walls Castle at Ravenglass is one of the largest remaining Roman structures in England outside Hadrian’s Wall and part of a World Heritage Site. Ravenglass itself was a Roman port cited variously as Glannoventa or Tunnocellum and is the lower terminus of the narrow-gauge Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, first opened in 1875 to serve iron ore mines in Eskdale. One of your columnist’s ancestors once worked on the “Ratty”.
However, the district first started to seriously develop in the seventeenth century as the Cumberland Coalfield started to get going, and the Lowther family founded the town of Whitehaven – one of the first post-mediaeval towns in England – to serve as a port for the coalfield. This was a major success and Whitehaven also attracted transatlantic trade from the American and West Indian colonies to become the second most important port in England. By 1700 10% of England’s tobacco was traded through Whitehaven, but the Act of Union led to that business diverting to Glasgow. Instead Whitehaven concentrated on exporting coal and was still sufficiently important for the American naval captain John Paul Jones to raid it in 1778 during the War of Independence – by some metrics the last invasion of England. Whitehaven remains a handsome town, the most complete example of planned Georgian architecture in Europe; the port may now have ceased commercial operations but is still the focus of an annual maritime festival which brings thousands of people to the town. Whitehaven has another claim to fame: in November 2007 it was the first town in the UK to make the switch to digital television.
It’s rather difficult to understate just how remote Whitehaven is. Even from your columnist’s home in Bolton it’s a two-and-a-half hour drive; the railway connection along the Cumbrian Coast line is even more indirect, involving a change of train in Carlisle forty miles away. This is a bit of a problem given that the West Cumberland Hospital in Whitehaven is run by the same NHS trust that runs the PFI Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle, forcing the NHS to propose closing services at West Cumberland – including the more difficult maternity services – to meet the PFI payments. Bad news for the area going forward.
Copeland’s second town is Millom, once the southernmost town in Cumberland, which is of surprisingly recent vintage: it was developed in the late nineteenth century as a centre for iron ore mining but its largest employer is now Haverigg prison. Millom also has some commuting to Sellafield to the north or to Barrow-in-Furness to the south.
Added to the constituency in 2010 was the town of Keswick in the centre of the Lake District. Traditionally an agricultural and mining centre (copper, graphite and slate being the minerals here), Keswick grew in the nineteenth century as a pencil-making and tourist centre, with tourism starting off here at a very early stage thanks to a combination of the Lake Poets and the Napoleonic Wars, which rendered the traditional aristocratic Grand Tour impossible. In recent years Keswick has suffered badly from winter storms: Desmond in late 2015 flooded the town and washed away the road to Ambleside over the Dunmail Raise pass, which was closed for some months.
However, it’s the coalfield that set the political tone for the seat. Regularly described as one of Britain’s worst places to live, Cleator Moor was an iron- and coalmining town a few miles outside Whitehaven which from 1938 to 2009 was the site of the major factory for the hat and beret manufacturers Kangol (a contraction of “knitting Angora wool”, since you didn’t ask). The mining ended up leaving large parts of the town uninhabitable due to subsidence, while the large influx of Irishmen working on the mines led to short-lived sectarian troubles and the nickname “Little Ireland”. Walkers passing through on Wainwright’s Coast-to-Coast Walk, please take note.
By contrast, the Coast-to-Coast Walk’s origin at St Bees was rated in 2014 as one of England’s most attractive postcode areas to live; a religious village home to a Norman priory from the twelfth century and to an Anglican theological college in the nineteenth century, from 1583 to 2015 St Bees was the home of a boarding school founded on his deathbed by Archbishop Edmund Grindal of Canterbury, who was born here. St Bees Head, a series of cliffs which forms the westernmost point of northern England, is home to the largest seabird colony in north-west England. In between Cleator Moor and St Bees lies Egremont, another ex-mining centre probably best known for the annual Crab Fair, home to the infamous World Gurning Championships and other events including a greasy-pole climbing competition.
Greasy-pole climbing is a pursuit which will be familiar to many politicians, and it’s time to discuss those politicians whom the winner of this by-election will be standing in the footsteps of. Whitehaven town was a parliamentary borough enfranchised by the 1832 Reform Acts and unaffected by the 1885 redistribution. At the time of that redistribution its MP was the Conservative George Cavendish-Bentinck, grandson of the 3rd Duke of Portland (a former Prime Minister) who played nine first-class cricket matches for the MCC in the 1840s and once for Cambridge University before settling down to the life of a barrister. He was first elected to Parliament in an August 1859 by-election for Taunton, but transferred to Whitehaven in the 1865 election and served in Disraeli’s second administration as Judge Advocate General for five years.
Cavendish-Bentinck didn’t have a safe seat; his majorities over the Liberals were 211 votes (8.6%) in 1885 and 106 votes (4.6%) at his final re-election in 1886. He died in 1891 and the by-election was held for the Tories by Sir James Bain, a former Lord Provost of Glasgow who founded an ironworks in Whitehaven, but Bain lost his seat to the Liberals’ Thomas Little in the following year’s general election. The Tories’ Augustus Helder recovered the seat in 1895, but Whitehaven was one of the seats swept away by the Liberal landslide of 1906; the new MP was William Burnyeat, a barrister who served only one term.
The Tories recovered Whitehaven in January 1910 in an election which saw the seat’s first Labour candidate, who finished third close behind the defending Liberals. The new MP Arthur Jackson was a local worthy: timber merchant, Cumberland county councillor, member of the Whitehaven harbour board, directorships of several mining companies and the Furness Railway; but he had a very short tenure in office. In the December 1910 election the Liberals stood down and Whitehaven returned its first Labour MP: Thomas Richardson, a Durham county councillor and checkweighman at Washington Colliery in County Durham.
During this time the Whitehaven constituency consisted only of the town, with the rural area forming the county constituency of Egremont. This had a similar political profile to Whitehaven, being a Tory-inclined marginal, and in the 1885-1918 period Egremont had a high turnover of MPs. Its first MP was an Irish peer from another family of local worthies: Josslyn Pennington, 5th Lord Muncaster, who was returning to the Commons having previously been one of the members for the two-seat Cumberland West constituency from a by-election in 1872 until losing his seat to the Liberals’ David Ainsworth in 1880. Muncaster got his revenge on Ainsworth in 1885, defeating him by 537 votes, but Ainsworth had the last laugh, winning the last of the four contests between them in 1892. The Tories defeated Ainsworth again in 1895 with their new candidate Hubert Duncombe, who was succeeded in 1900 (in Ainsworth’s last contest) by James Bain – this was a different James Bain to the one who was MP for Whitehaven in 1891-2. Stop talking at the back, this is important. Egremont was gained by the Liberals in their 1906 landslide by Hugh Fullerton, a merchant on the radical wing of the party who was defeated in January 1910 by the Tories’ James Grant.
The 1918 redistribution merged the Whitehaven and Egremont seats into a single constituency called Whitehaven whose boundaries remained unchanged for many years thereafter. In the inter-war years it was a key Tory-Labour marginal and often hard-fought. Outgoing Egremont MP James Grant sought re-election for the enlarged seat against the new Labour candidate Thomas Gavan-Duffy; Grant received the coupon and won by 1,720 votes, but Gavan-Duffy had the last laugh, defeating Grant in 1922 by 1,979 votes. That wasn’t the end of Grant’s political career; he later served as MP for South Derbyshire from 1924 to 1929 and was made a baronet.
Thomas Gavan-Duffy was an Irish trade unionist who for many years served as general secretary of the Cumberland Iron Ore Miners’ Association. With the 1920s being a turbulent time in politics his tenure in the Commons was brief; he was re-elected in 1923 but lost the 1924 election to the Tories’ Robert Hudson, heir to the Hudson soap fortune who before entering politics had been in the Diplomatic Service. Hudson lost his seat back to Labour in 1929 but re-entered the Commons in 1931 as MP for Southport and had a high-profile cabinet position in Churchill’s wartime administration as minister for agriculture and fisheries. He finished his career in the Lords, having been elevated to Viscount Hudson in 1952.
The new Labour MP for Whitehaven in 1929 was M Philips Price, a journalist who had covered the Eastern Front and the Russian Revolution for the Manchester Guardian. He had previously stood for Parliament three times in Gloucester, and after his defeat in the 1931 Tory landslide returned to Parliament in 1935 with a safer berth in the Forest of Dean and later West Gloucestershire, from which he retired in 1959.
As stated, in 1931 the pendulum swing back to the Tories with William Nunn, a diplomat who was the final British Ambassador to Siam. Nunn served only one term before losing his seat to Labour; he subsequently returned to the Commons as MP for Newcastle upon Tyne West, winning an unopposed wartime by-election in 1940 and losing his seat in the 1945 Attlee landslide.
The 1935 election saw Labour’s Frank Anderson become the fifth MP for Whitehaven in as many elections, and with the closest majority yet – 352 votes over William Nunn, with the candidacy of ILP candidate Tom Stephenson almost saving Nunn’s bacon. However, Anderson broke the mould and turned Whitehaven into a safe Labour seat, eventually serving for 24 years until his retirement in 1959. In 1950 he faced off against William Nunn again, winning by the much more comfortable majority of 7,617.
Anderson passed the Whitehaven seat on in 1959 to a man whose socialist credentials were impeccable: Joseph Symonds was the first person to sign the petition presented to Parliament by the Jarrow March and served as Mayor of Jarrow and chairman of the National Housing Committee. He was appointed OBE for services to the disabled and his legacy today is the Tyne Tunnel, first opened in 1951 as a pedestrian and cycle tunnel; Symonds had lobbied for the building of a tunnel rather than a bridge, which would have necessitated the demolition of large amounts of council housing.
Symonds retired in 1970 and passed the seat on to Jack Cunningham, another Jarrow figure who was a Chester-le-Street rural district councillor and officer with the General and Municipal Workers’ Union; he was the son of Andy Cunningham, who had been a major figure in the Labour Party in north-east England until being sent to prison in 1974 for his role in the Poulson scandal. Jack Cunningham proved to be even more influential within Labour and served for many years on the party’s frontbench; he was elected to the Shadow Cabinet in 1983 and ran the Labour general election campaign in 1992. With Labour in power after 1997 Cunningham joined the Cabinet as Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, establishing the Food Standards Agency and attempting to lift the EU ban on British beef exports. He was moved in 1998 to become Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and effective cabinet enforcer, before retiring from the frontbenches in 1999. Cunningham was translated to the Lords in 2005 – as Lord Cunningham of Felling – and still sits there today.
During this time Cunningham didn’t always have a safe seat as he trod the fine line between being MP for Sellafield and Michael Foot’s anti-nuclear policies. In 1983, the first election at which this seat was renamed Copeland, Cunningham’s majority was cut to 4.3%; there was no swing in the 1987 election and in 1992 the Labour majority was only 5.3%. Had the present boundaries been in force then the Tories would have likely won both the 1980s contests.
Cunningham passed on a safe seat in 2005 to Jamieson “Jamie” Reed, a Copeland councillor and press officer at Sellafield. Reed also served on the Labour frontbench as a shadow environment and shadow health minister under Ed Miliband, but resigned from the frontbench in 2015 during Jeremy Corbyn’s acceptance speech as Labour leader, citing Corbyn’s opposition to nuclear energy. Outside Parliament Reed is going back to work for Sellafield, this time as the company’s head of development and community relations.
Reed has left behind a marginal seat. The 2010 boundary changes which brought Keswick into the seat have improved the Tory position, and in 2015 Reed polled 42% to 36% for the Conservatives and 16% for UKIP. With the present dire poll ratings registered by Labour at the moment, the record of Mitcham and Morden 1982 as the last by-election seat gained by a governing party is under serious threat.
Turning to the constituency’s demographic mix, it’s a very interesting one. The influence of Sellafield can be seen by the fact that fourteen of the constituency’s twenty-eight wards appear in the top 100 in England and Wales for the ONS “lower supervisory and technical occupations” category, including three of the top 10: Kells ward in Whitehaven comes in at number 2 with 13.65% of the workforce, Hillcrest ward in Whitehaven appears at number 4 and Egremont South ward at number 8. The Irish Catholic influence can be seen in very high census scores for Christianity – in north-west England high scores for Christianity are correlated with Catholicism – with Copeland containing seven of the top 100 wards and two of the top 10, Hillcrest coming in at number 1 with 84.9% Christian and Cleator Moor North at number 4. Hillcrest also ranks in the top 10 for owner-occupation, coming in at number 4 with 98.4% of households. Takeup of Apprenticeship qualifications is strong across the constituency with four wards in the top 100, topped by Gosforth at 7.5%. The constituency’s age profile is also interesting: the tiny Ennerdale ward, one of only twelve wards in England to have fewer than 1,000 parliamentary electors, comes in at number 1 for the 45-64 age bracket (41.4%) with the equally rural Millom Without ward in at number 5; while the boarding school at St Bees propels (or more accurately propelled) that ward into the top 100 for the 16-17 age bracket. A couple of wards in Whitehaven creep into the top 100 for working-class occupations: Mirehouse in the semi-routine category, Sandwith (the DW is silent) in the routine category. Even Haverigg Prison puts in an appearance: Haverigg ward in Millom ranks number 5 in England and Wales in the “inactive: other” economic category. Completing this demographic profile, the constituency has an extremely low non-white population, with two of its wards making the top 100 for White Britons and two other wards making the top 100 for those born in the UK.
Copeland council had been Labour-controlled for many years up until 2015, when the council went over to the elected mayoral system. This proved to be a bad move for Labour, whose candidate Steve Gibbons led on first preferences but was overtaken in the runoff by independent candidate Mike Starkie, a local businessman who got into the top two just ahead of the Conservative candidate Chris Whiteside (who had been the parliamentary candidate in 2005 and 2010) and got the bulk of the Tory second preferences. Had Gibbons not suddenly died a few months later he would have been a strong favourite for the Labour nomination in this by-election. As can be seen from the 2015 map above the political profile of the seat is pretty much what you’d expect, with Labour dominating Whitehaven and the coalfield towns and the Tories strong in the rural areas (including the areas of Allerdale district transferred into the seat in 2010) and Millom. The pattern wasn’t significantly different in the 2013 Cumbria county elections (shown below).
Looking forward, if Labour hold this seat the boundary review is likely to give their new MP severe problems in future because it screws Labour in Cumbria. Cumbria is going down from six seats to five, and the draft proposals (which have secured cross-party support and are likely to go through unamended) abolish the neighbouring seat of Workington, so if Labour hold this by-election Workington’s Labour MP Sue Hayman is likely to have to choose between retirement or challenging the new Copeland MP for the nomination in the new Workington and Whitehaven constituency, which would be safe Labour. Compounding Labour’s problems in Cumbria, the knock-on effects of the boundary changes transfer Millom and its hinterland into the Barrow and Furness seat, which would have been Tory on those boundaries in 2015, and make the marginal Carlisle seat safer for the Tories – so from three seats out of six Labour are likely to be reduced to one out of five in Cumbria by the new boundaries.
So a tough ask for the Labour candidate Gillian Troughton, a Copeland borough councillor for Distington ward since May 2015 and a Cumbria borough councillor for Howgate division since winning a by-election in October 2015 – that seat was vacated by Sue Hayman after her election to Parliament. Troughton defeated a strong field for the nomination including the former Dunfermline MP Thomas Docherty. A former St John’s Ambulance driver and former hospital doctor who lives in Whitehaven, her campaign is – not surprisingly given that background – focusing on the threat to services at West Cumberland Hospital.
The Tory candidate is Trudy Harrison, who lives in the village of Bootle near Millom and formerly worked at Sellafield – her husband still does. She is 40 years old and has four daughters.
UKIP have selected Fiona Mills, who lives in Carlisle and fought the Carlisle seat in the 2015 general election. She is an accountant who sits on the UKIP NEC.
Copeland had the distinction of having the lowest Alliance score in England in the 1987 general election, so not much should be expected of the Lib Dems. Their candidate Rebecca Hanson completes an all-female lineup from the four main parties; she lives in Cockermouth and was elected to Cockermouth town council in a by-election last year. The Green candidate is Jack Lenox, a software engineer from Keswick. Two independent candidates complete the ballot paper: Michael Guest is an independent borough councillor for Kells ward and was the first chairman of the newly-established Whitehaven town council in 2015-16; while Roy Ivinson, a farmer from Silloth who fought his home Workington seat at the last general election, is standing on a “stop global warming” ticket.
Any half-competent opposition would have no trouble holding a seat like this in a by-election, and the fact that a loss to the government is being seriously mooted – never mind the fact that this by-election is happening in the first place – says a lot about the lack of competence within today’s Labour party from the top down. We’ve seen from the history above that an anti-nuclear Labour leadership creates severe problems for the Labour MP for Sellafield. Jack Cunningham successfully walked that tightrope in the 1980s without falling off; we’ll know on Friday morning whether Gillian Troughton has repeated that trick.
May 2015 result Lab 16750 C 14186 UKIP 6148 LD 1368 Grn 1179
May 2010 result Lab 19699 C 15866 LD 4365 BNP 1474 UKIP 994 Grn 389
House of Commons; caused by the resignation of Labour MP Tristram Hunt to take up a new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. He had served since 2010.
Now here’s a contrast with Copeland. Whereas Copeland is rural, remote but much-visited, Stoke is urban, accessible and yet little-known. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that Stoke is a city like no other; it’s not one town, but an agglomeration of the six towns of Burslem, Fenton, Hanley, Longton, Stoke-upon-Trent and Tunstall, which were fused together in the pottery kiln of local government to form a single borough in 1910.
It’s appropriate that the first mayor of the united Stoke was Cecil Wedgwood, for Stoke’s prosperity was built on pottery. Much of that was down to one man, the great potter Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) who was a major promoter of the Trent and Mersey Canal and built and named the village of Etruria on the canal as a home for workers at his new factory. (The name Etruria comes from a district of Italy where much Etruscan pottery was being excavated at the time.) The canal enabled the easy import of raw materials (such as china clay from Cornwall) and export of the finished products, while Stoke had lots of clay for pottery production and lots of coal to fire it with. It was a winning combination, and virtually everybody of note in the pottery business set up in Stoke – Josiah Spode, Thomas Minton, Royal Doulton, and later names like Clarice Cliff. Stoke’s coalmining industry was just as successful, setting a number of national and international production records, while other heavy industry in the city included steelworking in Shelton and a large Michelin plant. Nearly all of this heavy industry disappeared in the late 1980s and 1990s, although some of the potteries are still going. In their place distribution and services have sprung up, such as a large Premier Foods factory in the constituency making cake slices; a 2004 report by KPMG rated Stoke as the most cost-effective place in the UK to set up a business thanks to its low business property prices and excellent communication links.
The Stoke-on-Trent Central constituency is based on Stoke-upon-Trent and Hanley, the middle two of the Six Towns. Stoke-upon-Trent is the oldest of the towns, home to the Potteries’ first church, traversed by the Trent and Mersey Canal and A500 road and home to the mainline railway station, the city council and Staffordshire University. Hanley, on the other hand, is Stoke’s commercial centre, home to the main shopping district for the city, as well as having a larger population than Stoke-upon-Trent.
In various forms the constituency dates back to 1885 when the two-seat parliamentary borough of Stoke-upon-Trent was divided into two seats called Stoke-upon-Trent and Hanley. Hanley’s first MP as a single constituency was the Liberals’ William Woodall, a gasworks manager who married into the pottery business; he was elected to the Stoke-upon-Trent two-seat borough in 1880 and represented Hanley until 1900.
Woodall was replaced in 1900 by the Tories’ Arthur Smith, who was from a mineowning family and had been a talented sportsman in his younger days, playing rugby for Oxford University and England and cricket for the University and Middlesex. Smith had fought the seat twice before, but lost it back to the Liberals in the 1906 landslide.
The new MP was Enoch Edwards, a Staffordshire county councillor and president of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain. He was initially elected on a joint Liberal-Labour ticket, but left the Liberals in 1909, at the behest of his union, and became solely a Labour member. He was easily re-elected in both 1910 elections and served until his death in 1912 at the age of 60.
The 1912 Hanley by-election saw a huge Liberal gain; their candidate Robert Outhwaite, a Tasmanian who had fought Birmingham West in 1906 and Horsham in January 1910, campaigned on a “Single Tax” land tax reform ticket and was also endorsed by the Irish Parliamentary Party. Outhwaite beat the Conservatives 46-42, with Labour crashing to just 12%.
Outhwaite’s pacifist views spelt bad news when the Great War broke out two years later, and in the December 1918 election he was deselected by the Liberals and stood for re-election as an Independent Liberal. By this point the Hanley constituency had become greatly oversized and for the 1918 election was split into two seats, with Burslem walking off to become a constituency of its own. The rump Hanley saw four candidates: Outhwaite as an independent Liberal, Leonard Grimwade as an official Liberal, Myles Parker for Labour and former Labour MP and TUC president James Seddon (Newton, Lancashire, 1906-December 1910) for the National Democratic and Labour Party. Seddon got the Coalition government’s coupon and beat Labour by 335 votes.
Seddon’s tenure as MP for Hanley was short-lived. He stood for re-election in 1922 under the National Liberal label but lost his seat to Labour’s Myles Parker by 49-29; the Liberal candidate that year was John Whitehouse who had been MP for Mid-Lanarkshire from January 1910 to 1918. A second rematch between Parker and Seddon, who by now had the Conservative nomination, the following year produced a bigger Labour majority.
Parker didn’t seek re-election in 1924 and was replaced by Samuel Clowes, who won relatively narrowly over the Tories’ Frank Collis (53-47) as the Liberals stood down. Clowes died four years later at the age of 63, prompting a by-election in 1928.
This Hanley by-election had three candidates. The Liberals’ Walter Meakin had a large number of unsuccessful candidacies, coming closest at Stone in 1923 when he was 314 votes behind the Conservatives. The Tory candidate was Alfred Denville, an actor who would later be a very right-wing Tory MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central. However, the Labour candidate was local councillor and general secretary of the Potters Union Arthur Hollins, and with a pedigree like that he walked the by-election. Hollins was easily re-elected in 1929 against two future MPs, the Tories’ Eric Errington (Bootle 1935-45, Aldershot from an October 1954 by-election to 1970) and the Liberals’ Charles Frederick White junior (who was later Labour MP for West Derbyshire from 1944 to 1950).
Arthur Hollins was swept away in the 1931 Tory landslide by Harold Hales, an eccentric shipping magnate who might have appeared in an Arnold Bennett story. In fact, he claimed to have been the inspiration for an Arnold Bennett story, The Card. In office he was probably best known for gesturing with a dead herring in the Commons chamber during a debate on the herring industry, and for founding the Hales Trophy for the fastest transatlantic crossing by ship. Hales was the last Conservative MP for this seat; the 1935 election was a rematch between Hales and Hollins, and Hollins returned to the Commons by a majority of 1,331.
Hollins retired in 1945 and passed his seat on to Barnett Stross, who had been born to a Jewish family in Poland and came to Britain at the age of three; he was a doctor and medical adviser to the Pottery Workers’ Society, and had been elected to Stoke-on-Trent city council in 1937. Before entering Parliament he had led campaigns for compensation schemes for pneumoconiosis and silicosis, and for the rebuilding of Lidice, the village in Czechoslovakia which had been destroyed by the Nazis in revenge for the assassination of Reynhard Heydrich.
Stoke’s three constituencies were reorganised in 1950 with Hanley becoming Stoke-on-Trent Central. Barnett Stross developed a safe seat whose majorities didn’t change much in the 1950s and 1960s; he was knighted in 1964 for his contributions to the UK-Czechoslovakia relationship and later that year became a junior health minister in the first Wilson administration.
Sir Barnett retired in 1966 on health grounds (he died the following year) and was replaced by Robert Cant, a university lecturer and city councillor who had contested Shrewsbury in 1950 and 1951. Cant spent seventeen undistinguished years in the Commons before passing the seat on to Mark Fisher in 1983. Fisher, who that year defeated future Tory MP Keith Mans (Wyre 1987-97) was an unusual Labour figure: an Old Etonian, he was the son of Tory MP Sir Nigel Fisher (Hitchin 1950-55, Surbiton 1955-83), the stepson of Ulster Unionist MP Patricia Ford (North Down, 15 April 1953-55) and the brother-in-law of Tory MP Sir Michael Grylls (Chertsey 1970-February 1974, North West Surrey February 1974-97 and father of Bear Grylls). Despite this pedigree Fisher had had a series of jobs before entering Parliament: film producer, screenwriter, carpet factory worker, waiter, kitchen porter, golf course caddy, roofer, fairground worker, folk singer, Staffordshire county councillor, principal of an education centre. He had contested Leek in the 1979 election. In the Commons Fisher served as a Labour whip and as opposition spokesman on arts and media, the Citizen’s Charter and national heritage; in Blair’s first government he was a junior minister responsible for the arts before being sacked from the frontbench in 1998. Before then Fisher had seen off another future Tory MP – in 1992 their candidate was Nick Gibb, who won Bognor Regis and Littlehampton in 1997 and is now a junior minister responsible for schools.
Fisher announced his retirement just before the 2010 election, and a controversial Labour selection produced Tristram Hunt, another unlikely Labour figure. A former member of the Cambridge Footlights, where he trod the boards with Mitchell and Webb, Hunt made his name as a historian, writing books on the English Civil War, Victorian urban history (Building Jerusalem), a biography of Engels (The Frock-Coated Communist) and most recently Ten Cities That Made an Empire as well as presenting TV history documentaries on the Civil War and on Protestantism’s influence on British attitudes to work and leisure. His selection prompted the resignation of the constituency party secretary Gary Elsby who stood against him as an independent to no discernible effect. However, Hunt saw the Labour share nosedive in 2010 to just 39%, only the second time since 1950 that Labour had failed to poll a majority of the votes in Stoke Central. Nor was the 2015 election particularly good for Hunt; by now in the Shadow Cabinet as shadow education minister, he again polled 39% to 23% each for UKIP and the Conservatives. A word also needs to be said about the turnout – this was the only constituency in the UK where turnout in the 2015 general election was below 50%. It might seem from this that if Hunt had a personal vote, it was a negative one.
Stoke council got new ward boundaries in 2011, and thereby hangs a tale. Since the start of this century Stoke has possibly been the most politically volatile council in England. In the 1996 election, the first to Stoke as a unitary council, Labour won every seat; but in 2002 on new ward boundaries they lost control to an independent group. A referendum on the same day approved a change in the council’s governance to a “mayor and council manager system”, which was never adopted anywhere else and led to all power being concentrated in the hands of the mayor with very little for the council to do except bicker among themselves. And they did, with a galaxy of independent groups continually forming, dissolving and re-forming; at one point it seemed like there was a defection in Stoke every other week. This continued even after a second referendum in 2008 abolished the mayoral system. The council’s election results were equally volatile:
All good things must come to an end, and central government applied the usual medicine for basket-case councils: reduce the number of councillors and change to whole council elections, that change coming in from 2011. This medicine has succeeded in stopping the merry-go-round of independent groups, but it hasn’t wiped out the independent councillors who have consolidated into a fairly well-organised party called the City Independents. Having gained overall control of Stoke in 2010, Labour lost it again in 2015 and the council is now run by a coalition of the City Independents, Conservatives and UKIP.
Anyway, as I was saying Stoke council got new ward boundaries in 2011 which, as can be seen from the constituency map above, don’t match up with the constituency boundaries. Taking the wards which are predominantly in the new seat, Bentilee and Ubberley is the standout ward: it is number 3 in England and Wales for routine employment (28.7% of the workforce) and also makes the top 25 for no qualifications (47.2% of the workforce) and social renting (58.0% of households). Abbey Hulton and Townsend ward also makes the top 60 on routine employment and no qualifications. Hanley Park and Shelton ward, which covers the Staffordshire University campus next to Stoke railway station, is 57% full-time students and (consequently) 51% of households are private rented. Etruria and Hanley ward in particular has a significant Pakistani Muslim population, but the seat as a whole is not dominated by the ethnic minority vote.
So to the campaign, which has been an entertaining if not particularly edifying one. The Labour candidate is Gareth Snell, who was described in this column six months ago as a former leader of Newcastle-under-Lyme council who lost his seat in 2014; he got back on that council last August in a by-election to Silverdale and Parksite ward. Snell has been criticised for his stance on the EU referendum (he supported Remain, but Stoke as a whole voted Leave) and for historical Twitter posts by him seen as offensive to women. In this social media age, no doubt we will see a fair bit of this in future. More worryingly, the campaign has seen allegations that Muslim residents in the constituency are being targeted to vote Labour by text messages which may breach laws on undue spiritual influence.
The UKIP candidate is the party leader Paul Nuttall, an MEP for North-West England since 2009 who fought Bootle in the last three general elections and also stood in the 2011 Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election. He was present at the 1989 Hillsborough disaster and lost close personal friends that day. In 2009 he was invited to join the board of the North West Training Council, a charity focusing on vocational training. A rather intriguing series of claims; this column has a deep antipathy to fake news, so it’s rather disappointing that at the time of writing Nuttall’s website is offline so none of this can be checked. Nuttall’s election campaign got off on the wrong foot even before all of this became an issue thanks to his nomination papers, which revealed that he had rented a property in Stoke – a city he had no connection to before this by-election.
The Tories have gone for youth in selecting Jack Brereton, city councillor for Baddeley, Milton and Norton ward since 2011 and a school governor; at 25 he is the council’s cabinet member for regeneration, and if elected he will become the youngest member of the Commons’ Conservative group.
In 2015 fourth place in Stoke-on-Trent Central was taken by independent candidate Mark Breeze, who saved his deposit. Breeze isn’t standing again but there are two new independent candidates this time: Mohammed Akram is a community leader in the constituency, while Barbara Fielding, leader of the Abolish Magna Carta party, is on the Government’s official list of vexatious litigants who have banned from launching court proceedings – and given that she was arrested during the campaign over distinctly dubious stuff written on her website, perhaps that’s a good thing from Staffordshire Police’s point of view.
The Lib Dems will be hoping to improve on their fifth place in 2015: they have reselected their candidate from that election Zulfiqar Ali, a doctor. The Green Party candidate is Adam Colclough. Completing the ballot paper are Nick “The Incredible Flying Brick” Delves of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party, Godfrey Davies of the Christian Peoples Alliance and David Furness of the BNP, which was once a major force in Stoke local politics – peaking with nine councillors – but can no longer find a local candidate.
If Gareth Snell holds the by-election, the future may not be all that bright for him. In a similar situation to what’s happening in the Cumbria boundary changes the proposed Staffordshire boundary changes, if they go through as they are, will effectively merge this seat with Stoke-on-Trent South (South is the seat which gets abolished, but Central is the name which disappears), which means that unless there is a retirement Snell will have to face off against Stoke South’s Rob Flello for the nomination in the new seat. This campaign has already been full of smoke and fury, and no doubt further fireworks lie in store in the future.
May 2015 result Lab 12220 UKIP 7041 C 7008 Ind 2120 LD 1296 Grn 1123 Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol 244 Ubuntu Party 32
May 2010 result Lab 12605 LD 7039 C 6833 BNP 2502 UKIP 1402 Ind 959 Ind 399 City Independents 303 Ind 295 TUSC 133
Kettering council, Northamptonshire; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Stephen Bellamy, who had left the party. He had served since 2015.
Turning to the three local by-elections today, we start in Northamptonshire in the village of Barton Seagrave. About to be swallowed up by the growth of Kettering, Barton Seagrave lies just south-east of the town next to the A6-A14 junction; it’s an affluent suburb just past the River Ise and Wicksteed Park with high levels of owner-occupation.
Barton’s election results are unremarkable; it’s a safe Tory ward. In 2015 the Conservatives had 49% of the vote to 23% for UKIP and 20% for the Labour slate. Most of the ward is within the safe-Tory Wicksteed division on Northamptonshire county council, although part of it is covered by the Ise county division which was marginal Tory-UKIP in 2013.
Defending for the Conseratives is Dianne Miles-Zanger, the present Deputy Mayoress of Kettering – she is married to Derek Zanger, councillor for Burton Latimer ward. The UKIP candidate is Robert Clements, chairman of the party’s Kettering branch. There is no Labour candidate this time, so the ballot paper is completed by Rob Reeves for the Green Party and Andrew Dutton for the Lib Dems.
Parliamentary constituency: Kettering
Northamptonshire county council division: Wicksteed (part in Barton Seagrave parish); Ise (part outside Barton Seagrave parish)
May 2015 result C 1660/1319 UKIP 791 Lab 683/590 Grn 244
May 2011 result C 1086/1081 Lab 618/543
May 2007 result C 1091/1024 Lab 439/396
Epping Forest council, Essex; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Lesley Wagland. She had served since winning a by-election in June 2005.
The greatest place in the world…Such a delicious old inn opposite the church…such beautiful forest scenery…such an out of the way rural place!”.
Outside the Greater London boundary, but within the M25 and served by the London Underground – specifically the northern side of the Central Line’s Hainault loop. It’s an interesting combination. Traditionally a rural farming community, Chigwell was frequently visited by Charles Dickens who set much of Barnaby Rudge here; it would have been interesting to have found out what Dickens would have thought of more modern media set in Chigwell, Birds of a Feather and Essex Wives. In modern times Chigwell Village is in the top 30 Jewish wards in England and Wales, with 14% of the population having that faith, and there are also significant Muslim and Sikh populations. The M11 motorway runs the length of the ward from north to south, and Chigwell Village was the location for a significant event in British politics: on the ward’s southern boundary, guarding a 50mph section of the motorway, is the Chris Huhne Memorial Speed Camera.
Chigwell Village is a safe Tory ward where the Tories have held both seats since persuading the ward’s other councillor, John Knapman, to join the party – Knapman was elected in 2002 as an independent and in 2004 under the Chigwell Residents banner, both times without Tory opposition. In 2016 the Tories had 75% of the vote against Green and Labour opposition.
Defending for the Tories is Darshan Singh Sunger, a former Waltham Forest councillor (Hale End and Highams Park ward, 2010-14). In a straight fight, he is opposed by Joanne Alexander-Serre for the Lib Dems.
Parliamentary constituency: Epping Forest
Essex county council division: Chigwell and Loughton Broadway
May 2016 result C 743 Grn 124 Lab 123
May 2014 result C 682 UKIP 187 Lab 123 Grn 63 LD 38
May 2012 result C 587 UKIP 173 Lab 93 Grn 46 LD 22
May 2010 result C 1608 LD 442 Grn 180
May 2008 result C 888 Grn 108 LD 86
May 2006 result C 892 LD 217
June 2005 by-election C 363 LD 249
June 2004 result Chigwell Residents 949 LD 178
May 2002 reult C 686 Ind 612 LD 169/163
South Hams council, Devon; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Lindsay Ward. She had served since 2011, originally for Erme Valley ward before transferring to Charterlands in 2015.
We finish this week on the South Devon coast. The Charterlands ward is based on four parishes between the Devon Avon and the Erme, none of which are called Charterlands. Following boundary changes in 2015 the largest population centre in the ward is Modbury, a village on the Plymouth-Kingsbridge road which was the site of two battles in the English Civil War; Modbury’s population has fallen from 1,813 in 1801, when it was a market town concentrating on the wool trade, to 1,454 today. On the coast to the south are the smaller parishes of Bigbury, Kingston and Ringmore. At the 2011 census the 2003-2015 Charterlands ward was ranked number 3 in England and Wales for population in the 45-64 age bracket (38.9% of the population), with self-employment being the largest employment sector.
Before the 2015 boundary changes Charterlands was safe Conservative (it was uncontested in 2003) and the current ward has thus far continued in that vein. In 2015 – the only previous contest on these boundaries – the Tories beat the Greens 64-19. The ward is located within an equally safe Tory county division (Yealmpton).
Defending for the Tories is Jonathan Bell, who gives an address in Kingsbridge and runs the California Country Inn in Modbury. The Greens have reselected Jan Chapman, a retired vet who fought the ward in 2015. The Lib Dem candidate is Elizabeth Huntley, a Bigbury parish councillor who formerly worked on wildlife documentaries with David Attenborough, and Labour voters may require a TRIGGER WARNING: the Labour candidate is David Trigger, a small farmer and former South Hams and Devon county councillor who was appointed MBE in 2006 for his work as Wharfmaster at Devonport dockyard.
Parliamentary constituency: South West Devon
Devon county council division: Yealmpton
May 2015 result C 1092 Grn 330 Ind 274