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Councillor Sambrook: getting there the hard way

Councillor Sambrook: getting there the hard way

🕔26.Feb 2014

It’s well over a week now since Gary Sambrook’s exceptional by-election win for the Conservatives in Kingstanding forced what Labour’s press office probably announced as a ‘late recalibration’ of Ed Miliband’s Valentine’s Day visit to Birmingham.

A meeting with the party faithful about Labour’s organisational reform plans, even in the rather splendid Quaker meeting house, doesn’t grab headlines in quite the way parading a newly elected Labour councillor might have done.

Indeed, the headlines had already been made overnight – as in Paul Dale’s blog; ‘Tory triumph sends shockwaves through Labour establishment’; ‘ward gets its first Tory councillor since 1968’.

Characteristically, Paul covered pretty well everything that needed saying. But, with local elections being one of the things my university used to pay me to know about, I rather wanted to add my two penn’orth – and the only thing I could think of was to draw a picture, or more precisely a graph, that would show in a slightly different way the kind of victory it was.

Game Graph










Gary Sambrook is typically described, as in a recent by-election preview, as a ‘regular Conservative candidate, who has fought the ward in the last four elections but still qualifies for a Young Person’s Railcard.’

Yes, he’s young, very well known in Kingstanding, both personally and politically, and a highly experienced campaigner. But had he really ‘been getting closer and closer to winning in recent years’, as Paul’s blog suggested? Well, yes and no.

As shown by the solid blue and red lines – for Sambrook and his successive Labour opponents – in terms of actual votes, the closest he’d previously come to winning was at his very first attempt, in 2008. On one of that year’s lowest turnouts in Birmingham, he came within 80 votes of unseating Labour councillor, Cath Grundy, whose resignation prompted this February’s by-election.

Councillor Grundy, who went on to contest the deputy leadership of the Labour Group, would herself have had a personal vote in the ward, and Sambrook might reasonably have hoped after that first almost knife-edge result that, with an electorate of over 17,000 and against a less well known Labour opponent, he could bridge that 80-vote gap and snatch the seat.

He did, of course, but it was to take him no fewer than four more attempts, at the first three of which he had to see his Labour opponents’ majorities increase to, in 2010 and 2012, over 500.

It may have seemed during those years – to others, if not perhaps to Sambrook himself – as if he were treading water. The graph, however, clearly shows otherwise, when the two main candidates’ percentage votes are compared with the performance of their respective parties across the rest of the city, shown in the broken blue and red lines.

Labour’s lead over the Conservatives was growing rapidly year by year: from 0.1% in 2008, to 9% in 2010, 21% in 2011, to a massive 27% in 2012. In Kingstanding, though, Sambrook was consistently bucking this trend.

His Conservative share of the vote was gradually solidifying and increasing, so that by 2011, instead of Labour in Kingstanding polling better than the party’s performance across the city as a whole, it started lagging behind. And in that sense Paul Dale was absolutely right in talking of Sambrook’s building up his personal vote and getting closer and closer to winning. It may have lessened the surprise when it eventually happened, but, if anything, it amplifies the achievement.

We’re used to everything about Birmingham local government being big – too big, some would say. Naturally, the size of the city’s 40 electoral wards is massive too – their average electorates of nearly 19,000 dwarfing the roughly 4,000 in Coventry, 3,000 in Sandwell or Solihull, and fewer still in shire district councils like Tamworth and Rugby.

Turning around the politics of a long-term one-party Birmingham ward like Kingstanding is like changing the course of the proverbial oil tanker, and anyone who takes the job on more or less single-handed deserves, once they’ve had their sanity confirmed, considerable respect.

We’ve been privileged to see two outstanding examples in the past couple of years, coincidentally in neighbouring wards. Rob Pocock in Sutton Vesey is, of course, the other case and in both statistical and temporal terms, his 2012 achievement – becoming Sutton’s first-ever Labour City Councillor – has to be rated even more exceptional than Sambrook’s.

The two aren’t easy to compare graphically, but, with Pocock’s victory taking ten attempts against Sambrook’s five and roughly twice the length of time, it’s possible to cheat a little and plot them on the same chart. Each Sambrook year is in effect two Pocock years, but with only the results of alternate Pocock elections actually depicted.

The trajectories of their respective results have a broad similarity, both flatlining initially before starting to see the rewards of their hard graft and then finishing with a flourish. The big difference is obviously scale – the way Rob Pocock’s lilac line almost slashes the graph in two, like the ladder of Snakes and Ladders players’ dreams.

Pocock’s first election in 2002 put him 41% or over 3,300 votes adrift of his Conservative opponent. In 2012 he not only won, but did so with 53% of the votes cast, and a majority over a sitting Tory member of 13% or over 800. It wasn’t even close.

There’s an almost irresistible temptation to end pieces like this with some tortuous reference to Robert Louis Stevenson’s quotation about travelling hopefully being a better thing than to arrive.

I won’t resist, even though it has to be said that there have certainly been better times at which to embark on a local government career. I would however, advise Councillor Sambrook in particular to give Stevenson the widest possible berth, for the rarely used full quotation goes as follows: “”Little do ye know your own blessedness; for to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.”

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