Two parliamentary by-elections and twelve local by-elections on 20th October 2016:


WITNEY

House of Commons; caused by the resignation of Conservative MP David Cameron. First elected in 2001, Cameron had served as leader of the Conservative Party from 2005 and as Prime Minister from 2010 until earlier this year.

“I was the future once”.
– David Cameron, 13th July 2016

We’re starting to get towards the time of year when awards are doled out; when we look back at the events of recent months with fresh eyes; when the first draft of history is written. One of the more tiresome awards that comes around every year is the Oxford Dictionaries gong for “word of the year”, which attempts to sum up everything that has happened in a single word. It’s a trite idea; the historian of the future looking back at the year of our Lord, two thousand and sixteen could write reams on the rise and rise of Donald Trump; the civil war in Syria and its associated fallout; Islamic State and all the atrocities associated with it; the attempted coup in Turkey; the Rio Olympics; the Zika virus; the spectacularly high body-count of well-known actors and singers; Bob Dylan winning a Nobel Prize; Leicester City winning the Premier League. To try to reduce all that to the single word “Brexit” is a fool’s errand, yet many people who should probably know better will be doing just that as they try to nominate the Word of the Year. In the spirit of the enterprise, your columnist has put all of the last ten Oxford Dictionaries Words of the Year into this preview: see if you can spot them.

Yes, Brexit is going to be the Word of the Year for 2016.  It’s the obvious choice.  It’s also the boring choice.  Here’s a more interesting Word of 2016: zugzwang. This is a German word from the game of chess, denoting a position in which a player is forced to move, but any move they are able to make will lose the game. Why do I nominate this word? Let’s look at the political situation. The Labour party has saddled itself with a leader who is incapable of leading or commanding the support of his colleagues, never mind the country. The third party in British politics, the Scottish National party, finds itself impotent at Westminster and has lost its majority in Holyrood. The Liberal Democrats were checkmated by five years as a junior coalition partner and are desperately trying to find someone with whom they can start a new game. UKIP, having achieved its primary objective 😂, has descended into the sort of farcical infighting that only UKIP can do and still be believed. The Conservatives now have the difficult task of delivering Britain’s exit from the European Union in a way that would not deliver omnishambles – a job that has the potential to go very wrong very quickly. The recent fall in the value of the pound suggests that the omens for this are not good, and has also annoyed your columnist who has a long-planned trip to Athens next month and has found that the pound in his pocket is worth less – much less – than it was when the trip was booked at the start of June.

In retrospect, David Cameron was in zugzwang from the moment he agreed to a referendum on EU membership. The loss of the referendum cost him his job as prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party, after six and ten years in office respectively. With two parliamentary by-elections this week together with no fewer than twelve local by-elections, this is the biggest electoral event since the referendum which destroyed Cameron’s premiership, and probably (hopefully) the busiest week remaining for this column this year.

The Witney constituency has been around since February 1974 when a fifth parliamentary seat was granted to Oxfordshire. Initially it was called “Mid Oxfordshire” and mostly came out of the former Banbury constituency; the seat was renamed Witney in 1983 and since 2010 has had the same boundaries as the West Oxfordshire local government district. The Boundary Commission has provisionally recommended no change to the Witney seat for the 2020 general election.

The creation of Mid Oxfordshire in 1974 gave a leg-up into Parliament to Douglas Hurd, an Old Etonian, former Cambridge Union president and political thriller writer who had given up a 14-year career in the Diplomatic Service to enter politics. Douglas was the third generation of Hurds to serve in parliament, after his father Sir Anthony, later Lord Hurd (Newbury, 1945-64) and his grandfather Sir Percy Hurd (Frome, 1918-23; Devizes, 1924-45); his uncle, Robert Hurd, was a noted architect specialising in conservation who had recently rebuilt much of the lower frontage of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. In 2005 Douglas’ son Nick became the fourth Hurd to enter the Commons, for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner.

In office Douglas Hurd became PPS to leader of the opposition Edward Heath, and with the Conservative victory in the 1979 election entered government as a junior Foreign Office minister. He was promoted to Cabinet in 1984 as Northern Ireland secretary, negotiating much of what became the Anglo-Irish Agreement; but shortly before the Agreement was signed Hurd was reshuffled to the Home Office. He was seen as a safe pair of hands, and his four years as Home Secretary proved to be uncontroversial, before in 1989 he succeeded a young rising star called John Major as Foreign Secretary.

Upon Margaret Thatcher’s resignation Hurd entered the Tory leadership contest in the second round, coming third as John Major became party leader and Prime Minister. Major kept Hurd in the Foreign Office during a turbulent time in world politics: as well has having to deal with the Gulf War, the fall of Communism and the slide of Yugoslavia into civil war, Hurd also had the difficult job of repairing Britain’s relationships with other EEC member states after the Euroscepticism of Thatcher’s final years and Britain’s ERM exit. The Major government was never short of political scandal, and Hurd’s contribution involved allocating money from the UK’s foreign aid budget (then under the control of the Foreign Office) to build a dam on the Pergau river in Malaysia in order to secure an arms deal; a decision which was eventually declared unlawful by the High Court.

Hurd retired as foreign secretary in 1995 and left the Commons at the 1997 general election. He had been appointed CBE in 1974 for his work in the Diplomatic Service; before leaving the Commons he became a Companion of Honour, and under Major’s dissolution honours he ascended to the Lords as Lord Hurd of Westwell. After leaving the Commons he chaired the Booker Prize panel in 1998 and served as High Sheriff of Westminster Abbey, reflecting his long Church of England membership; he retired from the House of Lords this year at the age of 86.

Douglas Hurd had a very safe seat – at his last re-election in 1992 he had beaten the Labour candidate James Plaskitt (who would go on to represent Warwick and Leamington from 1997 to 2010) by the large margin of 56-21. Even in the Labour landslide in 1997 this was sufficient for the Witney seat to be safe for Hurd’s successor, Shaun Woodward. A Kennedy Scholar at Harvard and English graduate from Cambridge, Woodward had started his career in television as a producer on the BBC programmes Panorama and Newsnight, before becoming the Conservative Party’s director of communications in 1991. He had joined the ranks of high society by marrying one of the daughters of the Sainsbury family, and Woodward quickly ascended to the frontbench following his election, as Conservative spokesman on London, until 1999 when he was sacked for supporting the repeal of Section 28. After that Woodward became a high-profile defector to Labour, resisting calls from his former Tory association to stand down and seek re-election under his new colours. Despite being reported to be the only Labour MP with a butler, Woodward transferred seamlessly (if noisily) in the 2001 election to a safe Labour berth in St Helens, Merseyside.

This created a vacancy for the post of Tory PPC for Witney, and there were no shortage of candidates for what promised to be a very safe berth in Parliament when the selection came up in April 2000. One of them was a promising 33-year-old who had been showing his face at various functions within the constituency for much of the last year, as well as pleasing the members by attacking Woodward for his views on foxhunting. He was an Old Etonian who had graduated from Oxford with a first-class PPE degree in 1988 and then joined the Conservative Research Department; he had worked as a special advisor to Norman Lamont in the Treasury, and in those pre-YouTube days not many people would have remembered his young face in the background as an ashen Lamont announced Britain’s exit from the ERM in Downing Street. He had been encouraged to stand as the Tory candidate for the Newbury by-election in 1993, and after leaving Whitehall in 1994 to become the chief PR man for the ITV weekday franchise Carlton TV, he had started to do the rounds of selection meetings in Conservative seats, reportedly missing out on the Ashford selection after his train to the selection meeting was delayed. In 1996 he had been selected as Tory candidate for Stafford, vacated by strident Eurosceptic Bill Cash who had done the chicken run to the new safe seat of Stone, but lost a notional Conservative constituency in the first Blair landslide. He had applied for the vacancy in the Kensington and Chelsea by-election after Alan Clark died, and just a few weeks earlier had narrowly lost the Tory selection for the safe Sussex seat of Wealden. Time was running out for him to get a nice berth for the next general election, widely expected in 2001, but the Conservative members of Witney liked what they saw in the selection meeting. He won, and fourteen months later was a member of Parliament. His name was David Cameron.

Cameron was pitched straight into the turbulent Duncan Smith years, and had to wait until the leadership of Michael Howard (for whom he had worked as a Home Office special advisor) for promotion to the Shadow Cabinet, initially as head of policy co-ordination, then as shadow Education secretary. He stood for the Conservative leadership after Howard resigned in the wake of Blair’s third election win, and wowed the Conservative party conference of 2005 with a forward-looking speech, delivered without notes. He won the leadership, and the rest is history. With Cameron’s political career having been terminated by the loss of the EU referendum, it remains to be seen what he will do next – he turned 50 this month and still has a large amount of his career to come. One post-politics job has already been announced: Cameron has become patron of the National Citizen Service, a social development programme for 15- to 17-year-olds which grew out of one of his flagship policies in office, the Big Society.

While Cameron may have lost the EU referendum nationally, he did manage to carry his constituency with him: West Oxfordshire voted 54% Remain in June. Remain polled 35,236 votes in the district, only 35 more than Cameron himself got in the 2015 general election in which he beat Labour 60-17. Some of that will have come from the bonus which incumbent party leaders normally get at general election time, but there’s little in the social or political makeup of the constituency to suggest that this is anything other than a true blue area. Witney town itself was traditionally a blanket-making town and is now home to the Wychwood brewery, which exports beer such as Hobgoblin to the UK and beyond. However, Witney town only forms around a quarter of the electorate; the second largest town is the fast-growing Carterton, whose economy is based on its proximity to the large RAF base at Brize Norton. The constituency’s other two towns are Chipping Norton, an ancient market town which the Industrial Revolution passed by, and the tourist centre of Woodstock next to the World Heritage site of Blenheim Palace. The demographic of the seat is generally middle-class and quite well off with a large number of people commuting to Oxford – there aren’t all that many people here who would identify as part of the squeezed middle or were affected by the credit crunch, but the carbon footprint might be a different matter.

Local elections in West Oxfordshire are a little difficult to interpret, as the district uses the thirds electoral system and in any given year only 16 or 17 of its 27 wards are up for election. The general theme is that Labour do well in Witney town and Chipping Norton, Woodstock votes Lib Dem and the Tory majority comes from Carterton and (most of) the villages. In the 2016 district elections, in which all five wards in Witney town were up and Carterton had an off year – so, probably the most favourable configuration for the opposition – the Conservatives polled 46% across the district to 26% for Labour and 16% for the Lib Dems. However, the whole district did vote in May for Oxfordshire’s police and crime commissioner, in which election the Tories had 47% in the first round to 30% for Labour and 13% for the Lib Dems, and beat Labour 59-41 in the runoff. The Conservatives hold eight of the district’s nine seats on Oxfordshire county council, with Labour gaining Witney South and Central in the 2013 election; that loss was particularly costly for the Tories because with it went overall control of the county council.

Not like I’m trying to make it sound like there’s everything to play for, because there isn’t really. The Tory candidate Robert Courts shouldn’t be too bovvered about losing – simples. A barrister, Courts was elected to West Oxfordshire council in 2014 representing The Bartons ward and is deputy leader of the Tory group; his only other previous electoral experience appears to be in 2007 when he contested the St Paul ward in Winchester – then a safe Lib Dem area.

Labour have reselected their 2015 candidate Duncan Enright, who is a district councillor for Witney East ward and leads the Labour group on the district council; he was narrowly re-elected in May and tweeted from the count that he had lost before finding out that there were 70 missing Labour votes under a Tory pile. He works as a medical publisher, and is hoping to follow his father Derek into Parliament – Derek Enright won the Hemsworth by-election in November 1991 and served until his death four years later, and had previously been MEP for Leeds from 1979 to 1984.

The UKIP candidate is Dickie Bird…

…no, not that one. Kenrick Bird, to give him his proper name, fought Banbury in the last general election; he served 20 years in the Royal Green Jackets and later 3 years as head porter at Oriel College, Oxford. He starts from third place with UKIP having polled 9% in 2015.

The Lib Dems are noisily trying to get their fearsome by-election machine back in full working order following the lean times of Coalition and are hoping for a major improvement on their fourth-place 7% result last time. Their candidate is Elizabeth Leffman, who was re-elected in May as a West Oxfordshire councillor for Charlbury and Finstock ward; this is her second go at the constituency after she fought Cameron in 2005.

The Green candidate is Larry Sanders…

…no, not that one. One of the leading American candidates for Word of the Year is Berniebro, defined by Wikipedia as “a pejorative label that has been applied to male supporters of 2016 US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders”. Larry, the Green Party’s health spokesman and a former Oxfordshire county councillor (East Oxford, 2005-13) was a Berniebro before the word existed – he literally is Bernie Sanders’ older brother, and came to the UK in the late 1960s. In the last general election he stood in the Oxford West and Abingdon constituency. In 2015 the Greens just saved their deposit here with 5.1% and Sanders will be hoping to do the same.

Because it was the Prime Minister’s seat Witney attracted more than its fair share of fringe and joke candidates in 2015, and such is the case again this time with the electors of Witney having fourteen candidates to choose from. National Health Action, who were the most successful fringe party last time with 1.1%, are trying again with Helen Salisbury, a GP from Oxford. The One Love Party don’t appear to have learned from their last-place finish in the London mayoral election and are standing Luxembourg-born Emilia Arno, proving that they have at least three members. The joke vote is likely to be divided between perennial by-election candidate David Bishop of his “Bus-Pass Elvis Party”, Mad Hatter of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party and UKIP leadership candidate Lord Toby Jug for the Eccentric Party, a Loony splinter group (yes, such things exist). There are three independent candidates on the ballot paper, although one of them, London-based venture capitalist Adam Knight, has since stopped campaigning and endorsed the Lib Dem candidate; the other two are Daniel Skidmore, a fitness instructor campaigning for the restoration of Witney’s derelict football stadium; and Nicholas Ward who is standing on an anti-High Speed 2 ticket. Completing the ballot paper is former professional boxer and Celebrity Big Brother contestant Winston McKenzie, standing for the English Democrats. Polling is open from 7am to 10pm; the electors of Witney are reminded not to take a selfie in the polling station; and if you’re going to bring your portable vaporizer and intend to use it while voting, it may be wise to check that’s OK with the presiding officer first.

June 2016 EU referendum Remain 35236 Leave 30435
May 2016 PCC election C 11504 Lab 7391 LD 3108 UKIP 2664; runoff C 13524 Lab 9302
May 2015 result C 35201 Lab 10046 UKIP 5352 LD 3953 Grn 2970 National Health Action 616 Wessex Regionalist 110 Ind 94 Reduce VAT in Sport 56 Give Me Back Elmo 37 Land Party 35 Ind 12
May 2010 result C 33973 LD 11233 Lab 7511 Grn 2385 UKIP 2001 Loony 234 Ind 166 Ind 151 Wessex Regionalist 62 Ind 53

Oh, and did you spot all the Words of the Year?  In reverse chronological order from 2015 to 2006: 😂, vape, selfie, omnishambles, squeezed middle, Big Society, simples, credit crunch, carbon footprint, bovvered.


BATLEY AND SPEN

House of Commons; caused by the death of Labour MP Jo Cox at the age of 41.

“We are far more united and have far more in common than the things that divide us”.
– Jo Cox, 3rd June 2015

For the week’s second Parliamentary by-election we are in Yorkshire, in tragic circumstances. Cast your mind back to 16th June, one week before the referendum. In this frenzied political atmosphere, Jo Cox, MP for Batley and Spen, turned up at Birstall library to do a constituency surgery. She never went home. A constituent, Thomas Mair, is awaiting trial charged with four offences in relation to her death. Cox leaves behind her husband Brendan and two children, aged five and three.

Constituency surgeries shouldn’t be like this. Ask Stephen Timms, the Labour MP for East Ham who was nearly murdered at a surgery in 2010. Ask Nigel Jones, the former Lib Dem MP for Cheltenham, attacked at a surgery in 2000 at which his election agent was killed. Those were near-misses, but Cox’ death was the first murder of a sitting Member of Parliament since Ian Gow was killed by the IRA in 1990.

The Batley and Spen constituency was created in 1983 from parts of the former Brighouse and Spenborough, and Batley and Morley constituencies. A notional Labour seat in 1979, it was defended by the former Batley and Morley MP Kenneth Woolmer in the 1983 election, but Woolmer narrowly lost his seat to the Tories’ Elizabeth Peacock, a North Yorkshire county councillor, who won with a majority of 870 votes. A rematch between Peacock and Woolmer in 1987 resulted in Peacock increasing her majority to 1,365, and there was no swing in the 1992 election at which Peacock’s majority was 1,408. Batley and Spen grew a reputation for being a seat with relatively low swings – even when Peacock was one of the MPs to fall in the Labour landslide of 1997, the swing to Labour was relatively low at 7.7% allowing for boundary changes, and a rematch in 2001 between Peacock and the new Labour MP resulted in almost no swing.

That new Labour MP, Mike Wood, was a former deputy leader of the local Kirklees council who had represented Cleckheaton as a councillor; he had fought the safe Tory seat of Hexham in 1987 and had worked as a probation officer and social worker. On the left of the party, he managed John McDonnell’s abortive campaign for the Labour leadership in 2007 but never got off the Labour backbenches.

Wood stood down in 2015 and passed his seat on to Jo Cox, the head of policy for Oxfam GB and a campaigner for Syrian refugees. In an election with a relatively high swing of 1.7% to Labour, Cox won with 43% to 31% for the Conservatives and 18% for UKIP. In office Cox continued her campaigning and founded the all-party Parliamentary Friends of Syria group. She was on the Remain side in the referendum. One wonders what Cox would have made of the current political situation had she lived.

As Cox noted in her maiden speech to Parliament, which went viral in the immediate aftermath of her death, Batley is the home of the seat’s Labour vote. One of its MPs, Sir Alfred Broughton who represented the seat from a 1949 by-election, had the distinction of bringing down a government: he was on his deathbed and unable to take part in the 1979 no confidence vote which terminated the Callaghan government. Batley has come a long way since the days of the Batley Ladies Townswomen’s Guild; it’s a classic Pennine textile town, but the textiles here weren’t wool or cotton but shoddy – that is, recycled rags and clothes. In order to staff the textile mills Batley saw large amounts of immigration from the subcontinent in the 1950s and 1960s, mostly from Gujarat and the Punjab. Batley East ward is majority Asian (54%) and majority Muslim (52%), and makes the top 30 wards in England and Wales for those looking after home or family (11.3% of the workforce); 17% of the workforce have never worked or are long-term unemployed. There are also significant Asian populations in Batley East and Heckmondwike. With the demise of the textile industry, the major contributions to Batley’s economy come from the Fox’s Biscuits factory and The Mill, a factory outlet in a renovated textile mill.

The Spen Valley towns, on the other hand, have a low non-white population and in places a commuter demographic, being within easy reach of both Leeds and Bradford (if the M62 is playing nicely, and this is a notoriously congested stretch of it); while Leeds and Bradford come here to shop at the West Yorkshire IKEA store in Birstall. This was the Spenborough urban district, which after the war anchored a key marginal parliamentary seat. Brighouse and Spenborough has entered political folklore for a 1960 by-election, at the height of the Macmillan government’s powers, which remains one of the very few occasions in modern times where the government have taken a seat off the opposition in a by-election.

At local election time the six wards which make up the constituency are stuck in a rut. This is part of the area of the perennially-hung Kirklees council (illustrated above), and in every election since 2007 Labour have won the two Batley wards; the Conservatives have won Birstall and Birkenshaw, and Liversedge and Gomersal; and the Lib Dems have a lock on Cleckheaton. Heckmondwike ward was a BNP hotspot in the mid-Noughties but is now solidly Labour. The only exception to this pattern came in a 2013 by-election in which Labour won Liversedge and Gomersal. In the May 2016 local elections across the constituency Labour polled 42%, the Conservatives 24%, UKIP (who didn’t stand in Batley East) 16% and the Lib Dems 13% (nearly all of which was from Cleckheaton).

Looking forward, this seat is unlikely to survive the forthcoming boundary changes; if they go through it will be back to the future, with Batley moving out into a recreated seat of Batley and Morley, and the rest forming the core of a new Spen constituency. The Spen constituency takes some territory from Bradford South, which is to be abolished, and if Labour hold this by-election their new MP could find themselves fighting the Bradford South MP Judith Cummins for the Spen nomination.

In the immediate aftermath of Cox’ death the major parties opposing Labour announced that they would not stand candidates in the by-election. This gives the ballot paper a very strange look. The defending Labour candidate is Tracy Brabin, a Batley-born actress and TV screenwriter who played Tricia Armstrong in Coronation Street for three years in the 1990s.

Brabin is opposed by a large number of far-right candidates, most of whom seem to give addresses in London. At the top of the ballot paper is Neil Humphrey, who fought Berwick-upon-Tweed for the English Democrats in 2015, under the pseudonym of “Corbyn Anti” (yes, that way round); he has registered the party name “English Independence” with the Electoral Commission and is standing in the by-election with the label “By Election Protest” after having a series of other descriptions rejected on the grounds of being offensive. Jack Buckby appears on the ballot paper with the label “No to terrorism, yes to Britain” which is a registered description of Liberty GB, one of the political wings of the EDL. The National Front candidate is Richard Edmonds, a long-standing far-right activist. The BNP candidate is David Furness, who fought the London mayoral election in May. The official English Democrats candidate is Therese Hirst, a former figure in Robert Kilroy-Silk’s Veritas party. Three candidates are on the ballot paper as independents: they are Waqas Ali Khan, who was the UKIP candidate in Shipley in 2015; Garry Kitchin, who was the Green Party candidate in Batley West in May and is the only candidate to live in the constituency; and Henry Mayhew, who was the UKIP candidate for East Ham in the 2005 general election and is the son of the former Northern Ireland secretary Patrick Mayhew. Completing the ballot paper is Ankit Love of the One Love Party, who finished last in May’s London Mayor election and will be hoping for more than the 32 votes he got in the Tooting by-election, on the day Jo Cox died.

May 2015 result Lab 21926 C 15769 UKIP 9080 LD 2396 Grn 1232 TUSC 123 Patriotic Socialist 53
May 2010 result Lab 21565 C 17159 LD 8925 BNP 3685 Grn 605


WEY VALLEY

Weymouth and Portland council, Dorset; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Cory Russell, who had served since 2014.

Turning to the twelve (!) local by-elections this week, we start on the south coast on the outskirts of Weymouth. The Wey Valley ward is based on the northern edge of Weymouth town on the Dorchester Road and the new Weymouth Relief Road, built to improve access to the town for the 2012 Olympics; it also includes the Wey Valley school on the Dorchester Road and the village of Nottington. The ward has a large retired population (22% of the workforce) and high levels of owner-occupation.

Weymouth’s politics are rather fragmented with seats often being won on low shares of the vote, but Wey Valley is the strongest Conservative ward in the borough; it was last fought in 2015 when the Tories led Labour here 62-22. It was, however, marginal in the 2014 election in which the Tories polled 55% in a straight fight with the Green Party – a ballot paper that’s unlikely to be repeated in the near future. Interestingly the local county council seat (Broadwey) was narrowly gained by Labour in the 2013 county elections.

Defending for the Tories is Tony Ferrari, who failed to gain a Lib Dem seat in the neighbouring Radipole ward in May; this ward should be safer for him. The wonderfully-named Grafton Straker is the Labour candidate; he is a Ministry of Defence engineer, a Unite activist and a keen cricketer. Completing the ballot paper are James Askew for the Green Party and Robin Vaughan for the Lib Dems.

Parliamentary constituency: South Dorset
Dorset county council division: Broadwey

May 2015 result C 1326 Lab 480 Grn 339
May 2014 result C 630 Grn 523
May 2011 result C 1038 Lab 316 Grn 149
May 2010 result C 1139 Lab 693 Grn 275
May 2007 result C 799 Lab 391 Grn 98
May 2006 result C 664 Lab 418 Grn 154
Oct 2004 by-election C 497 Lab 408 LD 299
June 2004 result C 658/656 Lab 500/469 LD 365


STROOD SOUTH

Medway council, Kent; caused by the resignation of UKIP councillor Catriona Brown-Reckless, who had served since 2015. Her husband, the former Rochester and Strood MP Mark Reckless, has been elected to the Welsh Assembly.

Moving into Kent, we arrive in Strood South, one of the five Medway council wards on the Kentish side of the river. This ward is simply described as the triangle between the M2, the A2 Watling Street and the River Medway; its economic profile is solidly working-class with low qualification rates. The ward covers part of Strood town centre, including the Morrison’s supermarket.

Mark Reckless became the second elected UKIP MP at a by-election in November 2014, but lost his seat to the Conservatives at the following general election. UKIP were similarly underwhelming in the simultaneous Medway council election, winning seats in only two wards: this one and the rural Peninsula ward. Strood South had been the best Labour prospect on the Strood side of the river, the party winning one out of three seats in 2003 and 2011, but in the 2015 election UKIP gained a seat from both major parties to split the seats 2-1 with the Tories, Brown-Reckless topping the poll. Shares of the vote in 2015 were 39% for UKIP, 35% for the Conservatives and 24% for Labour. It’s unclear whether Labour’s chances were kaiboshed by this notorious tweet of a house in Strood by once and future shadow minister Emily Thornberry:

Defending for UKIP is Karl Weller, a chef and local resident. The Conservatives and Labour have both selected the councillors who lost their seats in 2015: on the Tory side, former Mayor of Medway Josie Iles, on the Labour side Isaac Igwe. Also standing are Isabelle Cherry for the Lib Dems, Stephen Dyke for the Green Party and Mike Russell for the English Democrats.

Parliamentary constituency: Rochester and Strood

May 2015 result UKIP 2527/2203/1898 C 2289/2085/1734 Lab 1583/1576/1411 TUSC 141
May 2011 result C 1576/1412/1332 Lab 1459/1395/1388 EDP 513 LD 207/175/170
May 2007 result C 1578/1487/1484 Lab 1395/1391/1338
May 2003 result Lab 1094/992/964 C 1070/1033/1020 LD 305/265/216 UKIP 135


CENTRAL SANDHURST

Bracknell Forest council, Berkshire; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Philip King, who had served since 2015.

Sandhurst is known the world over for its military academy, at which the cream of British and foreign army officers learn their craft. The town of Sandhurst was a small farming village until the Academy came here in 1812, and much of the housing in Central Sandhurst ward is post-war commuter territory, with high levels of full-time employment, although Sandhurst station has no London service (it is on the Reading-Guildford line). Anybody entering the town will be informed by signposts that Sandhurst is home to a three-time world champion team in that sport of kings, tug of war.

The Tories have the strongest team in the tug-of-war for Sandhurst’s electors, and have not been seriously challenged in recent years. At the last election in 2015 the Conservative lead was 63-20 over Labour.

This by-election is a straight fight. Defending in the blue corner is Sandhurst parish councillor Gaby Kennedy. Challenging in the red corner is Anne Brunton, a carer and criminologist.

Parliamentary constituency: Bracknell

May 2015 result C 1717/1585 Lab 552/321 LD 456
May 2011 result C 1131/1083 Lab 415/412
May 2007 result C 862/839 Grn 340 Lab 260 UKIP 169
May 2003 result C 631/548 LD 335 Lab 270 UKIP 190 Grn 177


CLARENCE

St Albans council, Hertfordshire; caused by the resignation of Liberal Democrat councillor Samuel Rowlands, who had served since 2015.

Moving to the north of London we are in Hertfordshire’s only city, St Albans, for the first of this week’s four polls in the Eastern region. Located east of the city centre, Clarence ward is named after Clarence Park, which was opened in 1894 by the then Duke of Cambridge and is largely unchanged since; it is home to the non-league football team St Albans City and the St Albans cricket club.

With its proximity to St Albans City railway station and its fast trains to London, Clarence ward has the middle-class commuter profile to end all middle-class commuter profiles. The ward is in the top 100 in England and Wales for the “higher management” (27%) and the “lower management” (32%) census categories, and in the top 25 wards for population with a degree (63% of the workforce). Over 30% of the population travel to work by train. The part of the ward west of the railway line, next to the city centre, appears to have been extensively redeveloped since 2010, so the 2021 census might well show something different here.

As is often the case with wards that are so highly educated, Clarence ward votes Lib Dem; it was close between the Lib Dems and Tories in the latter Coalition years, but the 2016 result – 51% for the Lib Dems, 21% for the Conservatives, 17% for Labour – suggests that the Lib Dems have put those troubles behind them for the time being. Clarence ward also supplies the Lib Dem majority in the St Albans Central county division, as that division includes the city-centre St Peters ward which has bizarre voting patterns (it has voted for all three main parties and the Greens since 2000).

Defending for the Lib Dems is Ellie Hudspith, who describes herself on Twitter as a “University of Leeds graduate, Lib Dem and crazy cat lady”; she is a PR woman for the Campaign for Real Ale and fought the Labour Batchwood ward in May. The Tory candidate Michael Roth, a house-husband, fought Park Street ward in May. Labour have reselected their candidate from May Liz Mills, and completing the ballot paper are Keith Cotton for the Greens and David Dickson for UKIP.

Parliamentary constituency: St Albans
Hertfordshire county council division: St Albans Central

May 2016 result LD 1178 C 490 Lab 397 Grn 226 TUSC 23
May 2015 result LD 1606 C 1375 Lab 683 Grn 399 TUSC 28
May 2014 result LD 764 C 579 Lab 483 Grn 367 UKIP 145 TUSC 14
May 2012 result LD 880 C 494 Lab 383 Grn 312
May 2011 result LD 1021 C 899 Lab 551 Grn 267
May 2010 result LD 1807 C 1115 Lab 556 Grn 297
May 2008 result LD 979 C 629 Grn 237 Lab 211
May 2007 result LD 1070 C 433 Grn 255 Lab 229
May 2006 result LD 918 C 596 Lab 339 Grn 298
June 2004 result LD 985 C 514 Lab 416 Grn 180
May 2003 result LD 1315 Lab 356 C 343
May 2002 result LD 1095 Lab 423 C 331
May 2000 result LD 790 Lab 478 C 403
May 1999 result LD 1089/1018/1006 Lab 619/605/581 C 356/350/340


BUMPSTEAD
WITHAM NORTH

Braintree council, Essex; caused by the resignations of Robert Bolton and Christopher Bailey respectively. Bolton is retiring from the council after 25 years’ service, having first been elected in 1991; Bailey is devoting his time to starting a new business. Both were Conservative councillors.

Moving into Essex, we have two by-elections at opposite ends of the rural Braintree district. At the southern end is Witham North ward, based on the town of Witham (the H is silent) which runs from the town’s railway station on the Great Eastern main line along the road and railway line towards Braintree. At the northern end is Bumpstead ward, a rural ward based on four parishes on the Suffolk border, the largest of which is Steeple Bumpstead, and including a small part of the Suffolk town of Haverhill which has spilled over the county boundary. Both wards were expanded in boundary changes last year, Witham North gaining the Chipping Hill area from the former Witham Chipping Hill and Central ward, and Bumpstead gaining the Birdbrook parish from the abolished Upper Colne ward (and also, as it turned out, the former Upper Colne councillor).

Bumpstead is a true blue ward, the party beating UKIP here 62-20 in 2015; it is part of the equally true blue Hedingham county division. Witham North was safely Labour on its old boundaries but the addition of Chipping Hall appears to have flipped it into the Conservative column; last year the new ward voted 39% for the Tories, 31% for Labour and 20% for the Green Party, who in 2013 gained the county council seat covering this ward in a very close four-way result.

Defending for the Tories in Witham North is Lorne Campbell, who runs the local Boys’ Brigade and was elected to Witham town council in a by-election in May. Labour’s Phil Barlow wants to make a quick return to the council; he was Labour councillor for the former Witham North from 2011 and lost his seat last year. The Greens have selected Michelle Weeks, a therapist and reiki practitioner, and the ballot paper is completed by Lib Dem Mark Scott.

There is a relatively wide choice in the Bumpstead by-election. The defending Tory candidate is Diana Garrod, a parish councillor for Sturmer, one of the parishes within the ward. The UKIP candidate is Debbie Shore, who gives an address in Steeple Bumpstead. Labour have selected Bill Edwards, who was parliamentary candidate for Braintree in 2010; Jenny Bishop stands for the Greens and Steve Bolter for the Liberal Democrats.

Bumpstead

Parliamentary constituency: Braintree
Essex county council division: Hedingham

May 2015 result C 1082 UKIP 343 Lab 325

Witham North

Parliamentary constituency: Witham
Essex county council division: Witham Northern

May 2015 result C 1227/1140 Lab 992/756 Grn 645 LD 295/198


HEACHAM

King’s Lynn and West Norfolk council; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Peter Colvin. He had served since 2015.

Moving north, we come to the west coast of Norfolk on the shores of the Wash. Heacham is an old village which turned into a seaside resort in Victorian times, and there are still extensive caravan parks in the village for visitors. Demographically Heacham is an elephant’s graveyard: it is in the top 30 wards in England and Wales for retired population (33% of the workforce) and just outside the top 50 for those aged 65 and over (38% of the populaton), and those people within the ward who are still young enough to work aren’t earning a lot of money, with tourism and lavender cultivation the main games in town.

Created on its present boundaries in 2003, Heacham returned two independent candidates in that election, but the Tories gained one seat in a February 2004 by-election and the other in 2007 and now have an iron grip on its election results: in 2015 the Tory slate beat Labour 71-29 in a straight fight. The Conservatives also hold the local county seat (Docking), although this was close between them and an independent in the 2013 county elections.

Defending for the Tories is Simon Eyre, from Dersingham. The Labour candidate is Edward Robb, from Great Massingham, who was runner-up in the last King’s Lynn and West Norfolk by-election in Valley Hill ward (his home ward, based on Sandringham) in July. Also on a much more extensive ballot paper than last year are Rob Colwell for the Lib Dems, Debbie le May for UKIP and independent candidates Terry Parish and Michael Press (who are the only candidates to give addresses in Heacham).

Parliamentary constituency: North West Norfolk
Norfolk county council division: Docking

May 2015 result C 1817/1313 Lab 736/679
May 2011 result C 1181/1007 Lab 550/538
May 2007 result C 1042/993 Ind 516 Lab 397
Feb 2004 by-election C 852 Lab 590 Ind 487
May 2003 result Ind 1379/1365 C 474/379 Lab 421/387


ROTHWELL

Kettering council, Northamptonshire; caused by the death of Labour councillor Alan Mills at the age of 61. A master stonemason, he was a founder member of the band Coast to Coast, which had a Top 10 hit in 1981 with (Do) The Hucklebuck, and served last year as bailiff of the town’s Rowell Fair. Mills had served on Rothwell town council since 2007 and on Kettering council since 2011.

Not to be confused with the town of the same name just outside Leeds, Rothwell is a market town immediately to the north-west of Kettering, on the old A6 London-Leicester road. Thanks to its market, which received its first charter from King John, Rothwell became one of the largest towns in Northamptonshire in mediaeval times, and the town centre has many old and unusual buildings, including the county’s longest church, dedicated to the Holy Trinity and one of only two churches in England with an ossuary; and the Elizabethan Market House, designed by the eccentric Thomas Tresham who was lord of the manor of Rothwell and left the town a very strange building full of heraldic and Catholic symbolism – you see Mills in front of the Market House in the picture below. Out of shot is Rothwell Conservative Club, which hosted the British Quiz Championships in 2014. The Industrial Revolution passed the town by, leaving a picture-postcard place which is now functionally a Kettering satellite.

Interestingly, the town is very closely fought between the Conservatives and Labour at district council level. In 2003 it formed two wards: Tresham ward, forming the town’s eastern half, split its two seats between the Tories and Labour, while Trinity ward elected two Tories; in both wards the Tories had 52% and Labour 48%. This was also the score in the 2005 Northamptonshire county council election, in which Rothwell formed a single division. Boundary changes for the district council in 2007 united the town into a single three-member ward, which elected the Tory slate 56-44; the nadir for the Labour vote came in the 2009 county elections in which the Tories won Rothwell 50-29.

In the 2011 district elections Labour made a recovery, Alan Mills gaining a seat from dissident Conservative councillor Alan Pote who stood for re-election as an independent; Pote polled 20% to 37% for the Tories and 36% for Labour. Pote then joined UKIP and stood as the UKIP candidate in the 2015 district election, but died during the campaign forcing the poll to be postponed to June; the postponed poll delivered no change in terms of party strengths but Mills topped the poll (with 40%, to 38% for the Tories and 16% for the replacement UKIP candidate) while one of the Tory councillors, Ian Jelley, lost out to his running-mate (he has since returned to the council in a by-election for a different ward).

Defending for Labour, who will have to cope without Mills’ personal vote, is Margaret Harris, who under her former name of Margaret Draper is a former Mayor of High Wycombe. The Tories’ Cedwein Brown is seeking to return to the council after she stood down in 2011. UKIP have selected Sam Watts, who stood in May for Northamptonshire police and crime commissioner. Completing the ballot paper are Stevie Jones of the Green Party and Liberal Democrat Malcolm Adcock.

Parliamentary constituency: Kettering
Northamptonshire county council division: Rothwell and Mawsley

June 2015 postponed poll Lab 951/623/614 C 873/777/771 UKIP 370 Grn 119/89/82
May 2011 result C 1103/1079/1052 Lab 1077/847/778 Ind 616 LD 230
June 2009 county council election C 1130 Lab 649 Ind 259 LD 231
May 2007 result C 1293/1257/1173 Lab 1010/950/886
May 2005 county council election C 1944 Lab 1825


BLAENGWRACH

Neath Port Talbot council, Glamorgan; caused by the death of Labour councillor Alf Siddley. A former supervisor at the Cam Gears factory in Resolven, he had served since 2008 and had also played for the West Glamorgan senior bowls team.

There are two Welsh by-elections this week, one south and one north. The south by-election is in Blaengwrach (the W is silent), a village on the south side of the Vale of Neath. This is an upland area and the division contains the highest point of Glamorgan, Craig-y-Llyn at 1970 feet; the main industry here is opencast coalmining. 98.8% of Blaengwrach’s population was born in the UK, the ninth highest figure for any ward in England and Wales, and the division also makes the top 100 for White British ethnicity (98.5%).

The Blaengwrach ward which existed on the now-abolished Neath district council was not contested in that council’s history (1973-1995), but since the creation of Neath Port Talbot district Blaengwrach has been closely fought between Labour and Plaid Cymru. Plaid won in 1999 (narrowly) and 2004 (convincingly); Alf Siddley regained the division for Labour in 2008 and was more comfortably re-elected in 2012, beating Plaid 56-44.

Defending for Labour is Sarah Price. Plaid Cymru have selected Carolyn Edwards, who represented the division from 1999 to 2008 and is seeking to return to the council. Also standing are Peter Crocker-Jacques for the Conservatives, independent candidate Thomas Evans and Richard Pritchard of UKIP.

Parliamentary and Assembly constituency: Neath

May 2012 result Lab 363 PC 290
May 2008 result Lab 432 PC 380
June 2004 result PC 436 Lab 237
May 1999 result PC 397 Lab 369
May 1995 result Lab 510 PC 388
Neath district council results
May 1991 result Lab unopposed
May 1987 result Lab unopposed
May 1983 result Lab unopposed
May 1976 result Lab unopposed
May 1973 result Lab unopposed


ABERGELE PENSARN

Conwy council, North Wales; caused by the resignation of Labour councillor Rick Stubbs.

Our north Welsh poll this week is a coastal division, covering the part of the town of Abergele to the east of the A55, the main road through North Wales. The double-barrelled name is partly to reflect the name of the ward’s railway station (Abergele and Pensarn, on the North Wales Coast line) and partly because Conwy county borough has another Pensarn division, in Llandudno Junction. The division has a very high retired population; 28% of the population is retired according to the 2011 census, which also found 45% of the population identifying as English; however, Abergele has a reputation for being rather downmarket compared to other retirement communities on the North Wales Coast.

This is the second by-election for this ward since the 2012 ordinary elections. Rick Stubbs had been elected at the first by-election in Septemnber 2014 to succeed his wife Jean, who had represented Abergele Pensarn since the division was created in 1999 albeit with interrupted service: she lost her seat to the Conservatives in 2008 before getting it back in 2012, in which election the Tories fell to third place behind an independent candidate. In the 2014 by-election Rick Stubbs was elected on a very low share of the vote: 26%, to 22% for independent candidate Michael Smith, 21% for UKIP, 12% for independent Ken Sudlow and 9% for independent Barry Griffiths.

David Hancock has the task of defending Abergele Pensarn for Labour for the second time this term: he is an architectural design consultant and Abergele town councillor. Independent candidate Michael Smith, from Kinmel Bay, is standing again after his near-miss in the first by-election; he is a Towyn and Kinmel Bay community councillor after winning a by-election in June. Another independent candidate on the ballot is Abergele town councillor Alan Hunter. UKIP have not nominated a candidate this time round, so the ballot paper is completed by Tory candidate Bernice McLoughlin.

Parliamentary and Assembly constituency: Clwyd West

Sept 2014 by-election Lab 160 Ind 134 UKIP 129 Ind 74 Ind 56 C 54 Ind 10
May 2012 result Lab 407 Ind 186 C 145
May 2008 result C 322 Lab 282 Ind 128
June 2004 result Lab 274 Ind 160 C 152
May 1999 result Lab unopposed


ST MARY’S

East Riding council, East Yorkshire; caused by the death of Conservative councillor Irene Charis.  The first black member of East Riding council, Charis had served since 2011.

Welcome to Beverley, county town of the East Riding and a rather beautiful town to boot. Beverley has been a tourist centre since ancient times as a place of pilgrimage for St John of Beverley, bishop of York in the eighth century who founded the town’s Minster and was said to have performed miracles. Beverley became the tenth largest town in England, but the dissolution of the monasteries destroyed its pilgrimage economic base; today the town functions as a market town and a commuter centre for Hull, with tourism, the council and the town’s racecourse also being important to the local economy. The East Riding’s wards tend to the large side in population terms and Beverley has just two wards for a population of nearly 30,000: this is the northwesterly one, including part of the town centre and the racecourse.

At the first election on these boundaries in 2003 St Mary’s ward returned two independent candidates and a Liberal Democrat. The Tories took one of the independent seats in 2007 (one of the unsuccessful candidates on their slate that year was Walter Sweeney, former MP for the Vale of Glamorgan) and defeated the Lib Dems and the remaining independent councillor to get a full slate in 2011. 2015 saw the Conservatives consolidate their majority but with a rather low share of the vote in a fragmented field: 30%, to 18% for Labour, 14% for UKIP (whose candidate was Walter Sweeney, now in the party), 12% for the Lib Dems and 11% for a localist slate called the Beverley Party.

Defending for the Tories is Roy Begg, a mechanical engineer working in the North Sea gas industry. The Labour candidate is Margaret Pinder, a former Mayor of Beverley who stood for the Beverley and Holderness parliamentary seat last year. UKIP’s John Kitchener wants YOU to vote for him; he was the UKIP candidate for Haltemprice and Howden last year. The Lib Dems have reselected Denis Healy…

…no, not that one; Healy also stood in Beverley and Holderness last year and in May was the Lib Dem candidate for Humberside police and crime commissioner. The Beverley Party candidate is Bea Willar, a former university lecturer, volunteer counsellor and German teacher. Completing the ballot paper is Chris Harrod, who was top of the Beverley Party slate here last year; she is standing as an independent.

Parliamentary constituency: Beverley and Holderness

May 2015 result C 3069/2721/2456 Lab 1910/1669/1560 UKIP 1399 LD 1215/1124/1039 Beverley Party 1179/988/978 Grn 917 Ind 660/393
May 2011 result C 2416/2362/1785 Ind 1741 Lab 1486/1458/1399 LD 1436/870/808 Grn 947
May 2007 result LD 1760/1165/888 C 1668/1546/1369 Ind 1548/1079/656/686 LD 1165/888 Lab 701/693/663 Grn 520
May 2003 result Ind 1904/1764 LD 1496/1117/876 C 1303/1119/1009 Lab 1023/995/918


CENTRAL

Middlesbrough council, North Yorkshire; caused by the resignation of Labour councillor Ansab Shan in order to take up a new job at the Crown Prosecution Service. He had served since 2015.

For our final poll of this busy week, we’re at the other end of what used to be Yorkshire. As the name suggests, this is the town centre ward for Middlesbrough. Middlesbrough was called into being by the Industrial Revolution as a port for the Stockton and Darlington Railway; between 1829 and 1851 its population increased from 40 to 7,600. Then ironstone was discovered in the local hills, and Middlesbrough became the epicentre of the world’s iron and steel trade, with companies such as Dorman Long setting the world’s prices and the town itself becoming known as “Ironopolis”. Shipbuilding and a bridge-building industry grew up; many of the world’s most famous bridges were designed and manufactured in Middlesbrough, such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge (by Dorman Long), the Humber Bridge (at the time it was built the largest in the world) and, closer to home, the Transporter Bridge which is an icon of Middlesbrough.

The town centre has changed a lot even in the last thirty years with extensive redevelopment. There is now a university here, Teesside University, which in its short life has developed a strong reputation in the field of digital animation. The dinosaur sculptures in Teessaurus Park may represent the iron and steel industry, but engineering is still important to the town’s economy. Middlesbrough FC are back in the Premier League from their shiny Riverside stadium, and once you’ve seen the Boro lose to whoever they’re playing this week why not try Middlesbrough’s contribution to the culinary world – the infamous Parmo.

Middlesbrough got new ward boundaries in last year’s election but Central ward is essentially an extension (with an extra councillor) of the Middlehaven ward which existed from 2003 to 2015. Middlehaven’s census statistics are extensively skewed by the presence of Teesside University; it was in the top 100 wards in England and Wales for full-time students (34% of the workforce). Those living within the ward who are not students tend not to have jobs: only 13% of the workforce were in full-time employment in 2011, with unemployment at 9.7% and 18.4% of the workforce having never worked. Owner-occupation is extremely low, and the non-white population is relatively high for a ward in the North East. This creates a reliable Labour ward: in 2015 Labour had 56% to 29% for an independent slate headed by outgoing Labour councillor John McPartland, who had been deselected.

Defending for Labour is Matthew Storey, political assistant to Middlesbrough MP Andy McDonald. He is opposed by independent candidate Dale Clark, a mature student at Teesside University, Conservative candidate Ron Armstrong and Lib Dem candidate Elliott Sabin-Motson.

Parliamentary constituency: Middlesbrough

May 2015 result Lab 1382/946/944 Ind 713/680/678 UKIP 395