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All hail these elections’ local heroes

All hail these elections’ local heroes

🕔11.May 2012

Long ago, shortly after the introduction of the secret ballot, I used to act as the so-called expert on BBC WM’s Election Results programmes, presented generally by the famous Ed Doolan. We would try to sign off the lengthy programmes, not with a straight headline overview – which anyway was the job of the proper news readers – but by name checking a few of those otherwise unsung councillors and candidates whose individual results seemed worthy of at least fleeting recognition.

The first part of this blog will do the same. The second part will focus on one result in particular.

In a Birmingham Post preview of the local elections I identified those seats that Labour could hope to win, if national trends in the parties’ respective fortunes since 2008 and 2011, when the same seats or wards were last contested, were translated into local results.

In Birmingham there were two main groups. Labour’s best hopes were where the Conservatives (in 8) or Liberal Democrats (in 9) were defending wards they had lost in 2011 and, other things being equal, could have expected to lose again, Labour having significantly improved its national poll ratings in the meantime. Happily, though, even in our nationally dominated local elections, other things are never completely equal in two successive elections – most obviously the candidates.

The Conservatives’ eight seats, however, were lost – with Labour majorities ranging from 283 in Kings Norton to 1,383 in Brandwood.  The Lib Dems also lost eight – Labour majorities here ranging from the narrow 177 against Roger Harmer in Acocks Green to the massive 5,559 piled up by the exceptionally, and excitingly, youthful Mariam Khan in Washwood Heath – a figure that testifies to the community standing of the previous incumbent, former Coun Tariq Ayoub Khan, as well as to the volatility of electoral opinion.

Compared with most of these Lib Dem losses, the party’s ninth seat, Springfield, looked statistically a doddle for Labour, who had a 2010 majority of 863, increasing to 2,762 (31.4%) last year. This year, though, the defending Lib Dem was Coun Jerry Evans. Having contested the former Sparkhill ward several times before winning in 2003, then seeing it immediately reshaped into Springfield, he is, to say the least, well known in his patch – which, against all odds, he retained by a no doubt hard-earned 95 votes. Close, certainly, but far from closest.

Labour’s other group of hopefuls were wards in which the Conservatives or Lib Dems had held on last year only by narrow, or even fingertip, margins.

Reflecting the small increase in the Lib Dems’ overall vote in Birmingham (from 14.7% in 2011 to 16%), the defending and again longstanding Lib Dem councillors both fractionally improved their party’s two smallest 2011 majorities: Ray Hassall in Perry Barr from 338 to 533, and Neil Eustace in Stechford/North Yardley from 394 to 894.

By contrast, the Conservatives’ overall vote fell, from 27.3% to 23.9%, suggesting that candidates in their most marginally held wards in 2011 would find life tougher still. Some certainly did. In Northfield, held by Reg Corns last year by just 54 votes, defending Coun Les Lawrence lost this time by a similarly close 61. Bournville, held by Tim Huxtable with a 276-vote majority last May, was lost this year by 307 by defending Coun Nigel Dawkins.

In neighbouring Weoley, things were tighter still. Defending Coun Eddie Freeman couldn’t hold on to all of Adrian Delaney’s 2011 micro-majority of 12, but, extraordinarily, he held the slippage to 10 and was re-elected with a whole vote to spare. Only in Edgbaston, among these marginal wards, was the anti-Conservative swing actually reversed, with Coun Deirdre Alden’s record and reputation presumably helping her to increase James Hutchings’ 2011 majority of 21 to a slightly less stressful 241.

Finally, in this short roll call, we come to the true history-makers: Sutton Vesey voters, who last week elected the endlessly persistent Rob Pocock as their town’s first-ever Labour City Councillor.

Coun Pocock – for the time being he deserves the full title at every available opportunity – has been a Sutton Labour candidate at every election since 2002, when the Conservatives were stacking up majorities of well over 3,000. Even in 2010, he was still over 2,500 votes adrift.  But the tide had turned. In 2011 he cut Coun Lyn Collin’s majority to 746, and this year, at his tenth attempt, he ousted defending Coun Malcolm Cornish with a majority of his own of 804.

At least three factors are noteworthy about this remarkable election-within-an-election. First, as almost everywhere, turnout in Sutton Vesey was well down from last year – though by less than the 29% drop in Sutton overall, thanks in large part to Rob Pocock being the only main party candidate in any Sutton ward actually to increase their vote.

Second, trite as it may sound, part of the reason must lie in the sheer time and effort he puts in to what must regularly have seemed a hopeless and thankless cause. He described recently on the Sutton Coldfield Local website (http://suttoncoldfieldlocal.co.uk/rob-pocock/) his commitment to year-round campaigning:

“The other parties go to sleep between elections, but my aim is to run campaigns 12 months a year, not just in the month before elections. It’s about being out on the streets, rain or shine, summer and winter, delivering leaflets, speaking to residents, holding meetings, being on hand, listening to your views.”

And that was when most of those residents were voting each year against him.

Third, and perhaps crucially, three eye-catching political issues have entered public discussion in Sutton over the past year or so – ‘Royal’ status, town council, and parliamentary boundaries – in the last two of which perennial campaigner Pocock has taken a personal lead, which must also have boosted his candidacy.

With only weeks till the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the ‘Royal’ issue is obviously the most topical. The story in brief is that Sutton’s most famous son, John Harman, became chums with King Henry VIII and, as Bishop John Vesey, his Chaplain – securing thereby a Charter of Incorporation for his home town and its right to be known ‘for ever hereafter’ as ‘The Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield’. Which it was, until the new borough council was created in 1887, and some careless bureaucrat forgot to renew the Charter.

No one much bothered, and the ‘Royal Town’ name continued in use – until an overly zealous researcher discovered it and thought that HM might be displeased. Possibly, or possibly not, but either way Sutton can kiss goodbye to any swift campaign to get its Royal status restored before her Jubilee celebrations.

It is, you must appreciate, and as Sutton MP Andrew Mitchell recently explained, a “highly complex issue”, on which the Minister for Constitutional Reform “has been working tirelessly throughout the past year”. So that’s alright, then; I’m glad he’s not been wasting his time on trivial stuff like Lords reform, a statutory register of lobbyists, or mayoral referendums.

Meanwhile, if not officially Royal, perhaps Sutton can at least be a bit freer of Birmingham, particularly for planning and development purposes – which is the aim of Rob Pocock’s petition for a devolved town council. As with Royal status, the initiative must ultimately come from Birmingham, but a petition signed by 10 per cent of Sutton electors – about 7,600 – would require the Council to hold a referendum on the issue.

This petition follows hot on the heels of another, organized at the end of last year by the ‘Keep New Hall in Sutton Coldfield’ campaign. The protest here is against the Boundary Commission for England’s draft proposal that Sutton New Hall ward should move from Sutton Coldfield parliamentary constituency to form a new constituency with Erdington and Castle Bromwich, while Kingstanding in exchange would  become part of Sutton Coldfield.

To a mere outside observer, much of the protest – alleging dire impacts on everything from house prices, council tax, school catchment areas, and postcodes to the prospects for Royal status – seemed ill-informed, alarmist, and self-serving.  There could, though, be no doubting its strength and sincerity, and, with the Conservative Party nationally seen as backing the proposed change, it clearly played its part in last week’s elections, and the historic vote in Sutton Vesey.

One way and another, Sutton’s new Labour councillor seems set to be even busier than before – if that were possible.

 

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