Local elections – polling blues or red faces?

Ballot Box1Thursday May 5 is polling day across the country.  In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the devolved administrations will all be up for election with their weird variations of proportional representation.  In London, Boris Johnson’s term ends and Londoners will be electing a new Mayor of London.  Across the country, many local councils will see elections for some or all of their seats and there will be elections for police & crime commissioners.

Here in Adderbury, there should have been three chances to vote, for the Parish Council, for the whole of Cherwell District Council after boundary changes and for the Police & Crime Commissioner for the Thames Valley.  What will local democracy throw up?

For Adderbury Parish Council there will be no votes to cast.  There are eleven places on the parish council and 10 residents have put themselves forward giving Adderbury electors no opportunity to support their chosen representatives.  I have written elsewhere (Parish pump puzzler) about the concentration of six of these ten candidates in a single part of the village and expressed my concern that representative democracy may be the loser in the village for the next four years.  Nothing we can do about it except, perhaps, sit in the public gallery at monthly meetings and observe the behaviour of the ten.

For Cherwell District Council, all 48 seats are up for election following boundary changes imposed by the Local Government Boundary Commission which has forced villages to be joined together into three-member wards.  I think this is a daft idea, clouding accountability and adding hugely to the workloads of councillors.  Future elections will revert to thirds with a third of the seats – one in each three-member ward – up for election in a year.

The Conservative and Labour Parties have fielded three candidates in each of the 16 wards.  The other political parties have done less well.  The Green Party is fielding 20 candidates; 1 in each of the 5 Banbury wards; 1 in each of the 4 Bicester wards; 3 in the 2 Kidlington wards and 8 in the 5 village wards, including a full quota of 3 in the Adderbury, Bloxham & Bodicote Ward.  The Liberals show the extent of their national collapse here in the villages where there was a time when they would field a full slate of candidates.  They have 4 candidates in Banbury contesting in 3 out of 5 wards; they have none in Bicester  which has traditionally been a two-horse race between Conservative and Labour; however, they have a full slate of 3 in each of the 2 Kidlington Wards which has always shown more of a three-way split between the parties; in the villages where they were once moderately strong, they are contesting only 2 wards with a single candidate in each. UKIP has done almost as well as the Liberals with 11 candidates; 1 in each of the 5 Banbury three-member wards; 1 in each of the 4 Bicester wards; 1 only in one of the 2 Kidlington Wards; in the villages, they are fielding only 4 candidates and with no one in Adderbury, Bloxham & Bodicote Ward.  More on the Green and UKIP prospects in a moment.  Finally, there are 4 Independent candidates, all in Bicester with a full slate of 3 in the Bicester West Ward and 1 in the Bicester South & Ambrosden Ward.

It is worth noting that Cherwell is an urban council now with 33 members from Banbury (15), Bicester (12) and Kidlington (6) while the villages have only 15 members.  There was a time when the villages dominated this council; the position has reversed and is reflected in the perverse decision to group the villages together into three-member wards.

What are the electoral prospects for the political parties in Cherwell?  Today’s Daily Telegraph is full of gloom for the Labour Party, predicting significant losses across the country.  I suspect this is true, given the dire performance of Jeremy Corbyn and the sight of his MPs in open opposition to their leadership.  However, there is a strong Labour representation in the urban parts of Cherwell, strongly supported by a wealthy ex-Euro bureaucrat in Adderbury and mainly representing old-Labour with a leaning to the Corbynite wing. I suspect they will put up a good fight in Banbury, Bicester and Kidlington distributing scruffy and cheaply printed leaflets full of quite extraordinary propaganda. Their troops will be knocking on doors throughout the campaign.

I suspect the Conservative Party should not be feeling particularly confident.  The majority of grass roots Conservatives resent same-sex marriage, regret the publicity given to gay rights, resent Cameron’s stance on Europe and his clear contempt for Party members.  Obama’s outburst is likely to pour petrol on the flames simmering among traditionalist members who will be heavily voting LEAVE on 23 June despite their new MP’s decision to support the PM and, perhaps, her own career prospects.  Taken together, simmering discontent among local Conservatives may leave them very uncertain on 5 May and their hands may hover for a long time over the boxes on the Cherwell voting paper.  The Liberals traditionally did well in the villages but their national collapse and their failure to field many candidates in the villages or in Banbury and Bicester gives discontented Conservatives a poser.  Some may flip for the Greens, feeling a touch of environmental conscience and conveniently forgetting that the Green Party has lurched very much to the left under their incoherent and relatively invisible ex-Aussie leader.  I suspect UKIP has missed a trick here.  Their presence in the urban wards would seem to suggest some confidence that they can steal votes from Labour or from working-class Conservatives.  I think they could have seen village residents who normally vote Conservative going for UKIP as a protest against Cameron’s perceived contempt and their failure to field a single candidate in Adderbury, Bloxham & Bodicote Ward must be a real mistake, particularly when you add seething anger at the quantity and quality of housing imposed on these fine old villages to the potent mixture of anger gripping many Conservative members and supporters.

All-in-all, I have little doubt that Cherwell will retain a significant Conservative majority after 5 May but I think it will be less than the present 39 out of 48 and possibly more diverse with, perhaps a Liberal or two, perhaps from Kidlington and a Green from one of the villages and, perhaps a UKIP from Bicester?  Whether these fringe party gains are made at the expense of Conservatives or Labour is the interesting conundrum and I think the answer may be both.  A reduced majority will be good news for democracy and for the Council Leader, Barry Wood.  A large majority feeds complacency and idleness with a lax attitude to attendance and voting.  I should know, I have seen it in Oxfordshire County Council when I was Leader.

Finally, we have the election for the Thames Valley Police & Crime Commissioner.  There are four candidates, standing for the Conservative, Labour, Liberal and UKIP Parties.  The incumbent is Anthony Stansfeld, a 70-year old Conservative and he is standing again.  The Labour candidate is Laetisia Carter, 34 years old, a West Oxfordshire District Councillor and living in Chipping Norton, Cameron territory but a traditionally Labour Co-op town.  The Liberal candidate is Professor John Howson an ex-school master and Oxford academic and currently an Oxfordshire County Councillor.  He does not admit his age but I suspect he is around 70 years old.  The UKIP candidate is Lea Trainer, an ex-Royal Navy leading seaman now running a small local business and living in Slough.  He does not give his age.  Quite frankly, I am off-message as a Conservative on Police & Crime Commissioners.  I thought they were a pretty daft idea and the public supported this view with dreadful turnout for their first elections.  I really do not know if I can persuade myself to put a cross on this ballot paper.  It would be easy to feel loyalty to the Conservative Party and to put a cross against Stansfeld but I have no idea what his existence for the last four years has done for local policing?

About Keith R Mitchell CBE

Qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 1967. Pursued a successful career in financial training and publishing until selling his interests in 1990. Elected a County Councillor for the Bloxham Division in 1989. Leader of Oxfordshire County Council 5 November 2001 to 15 May 2012. Chairman of the South East England Regional Planning Committee July 2002 to July 2005. Chairman of the South East England Regional Assembly July 2005 to July 2008. In HM the Queen’s 2007 Birthday Honours, appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in recognition of services to local government.
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