Will Labour Keep Control?
Sixteen out of 32 seats on Hastings Borough Council are up for re-election on 6 May – one each per ward. Most of Kim Forward’s acting Labour cabinet are among the candidates seeking another four-year term, including new leader Paul Barnett, though another former leader, Peter Chowney, will be retiring from the council; opposing Conservative leader, Andy Patmore, is also up for re-election.
Labour, Conservative and Green candidates have been nominated to contest all 16 seats at issue; Liberal Democrats have candidates in 11; there is one British Communist, Nicholas Davies (in Braybrooke ward); there are no independents.
Four years ago, 12 of these seats were won by Labour and four by Conservatives. But of the other 16 seats on the council, which were contested last year and therefore not up for contest this time, six
are held by Labour, eight by Conservatives and two by Greens. The electoral arithmetic is therefore quite plain. Labour will lose overall control of the council unless they can win at least 11 this time round – which means performing substantially better than in 2021.
There was general consensus that Labour fought a lacklustre campaign a year ago. The national party seemed mired at the time in continued infighting between former Corbynistas and Sir Keir Starmer’s adherents. With Covid social distancing and other restrictions in place, local candidates avoided traditional house-to-house campaigning, and in the aftermath party organisers squabbled about who had failed to do what.
A year on, Labour are ahead of the Tories in the national polls. ‘Partygate’ revelations and other political errors and contortions seem to have rendered prime minister Boris Johnson a liability rather than an asset. Rising inflation and cost of living pressures are casting an economic pall. At local level Labour canvassers have been back on the streets, outwardly confident that they can repeat their successes of 2018.
There are reasons, however, to be sceptical. First, the fact is that three of the seats at issue where Conservatives are seeking re-election are in wards where they have dominated over a long period: it would be a major upset if any of Ashdown, Conquest or Maze Hill wards returned a Labour victor. A fourth, West St Leonards, is one in which Conservatives can call Labour to account for promoting locally unpopular developments at Bulverhythe and West
Several of the seats which Labour won in 2018, on the other hand, are in wards they lost in 2021 – Ore and St Helens look particularly vulnerable.
There is also the challenge of the Greens, who in recent elections have clearly overtaken the Liberal Democrats as the principal third party alternative – see the graph of historical party voting patterns on this page. They will retain the two seats they hold, and aim to build on them in the same or other wards. Their best hopes of further success – in Castle, Central St Leonards, Gensing and Old Hastings – are all seats held by Labour. And no longer can their votes be dismissed as wasted. If the outcome of the election leaves them holding a balance of power between Labour and the Conservatives they will claim that they can steer the council towards a more environmentally engaged policy outlook.
Labour campaigners are well aware of the threat posed by the Greens. Last month they issued an election leaflet headed “VOTE GREEN, GET TORY”. It complained that the two existing Green councillors have voted four times with the Conservatives this year, including in particular opposition to the council taking back its in-house cleaning contract which offered better pay and working conditions for council office cleaners.
Cllr Andy Batsford, launching Labour’s campaign, pressed his party’s attack: “The Greens talk a good progressive politics game, but you lift the bonnet and you see a dark middle-class distrust of working-class people who they feel clearly don’t understand climate change.”
Julia Hilton, Green leader, accused Labour of a misleading smear. On the cleaning contract issue she pointed out that a Conservative amendment, which she and her Green colleague Cllr Claire Carr had supported, would have ensured that cleaners receive the Living Wage while saving the council many thousands of pounds a year. She also defended her party’s refusal to approve two of the council’s major projects – building of a hotel rather than housing on the Cornwallis Street car park site and of a restaurant at Harold Place, both for development by national chains “which means all the profit would leave the town”. She said: “I and all our candidates will be running a positive and honest election campaign, focussing on the skills and energy of our candidates and our ideas for change toward improving the lives of local residents. Voters have had enough of politicians sniping at each other. “
How will these arguments play out? It’s hard to predict. The real determinant of outcome in all local elections is the level of turn-out. At general elections, both nationally and in Hastings, one can expect around two-thirds of registered voters to cast their ballots. In local elections that aren’t timed to coincide with the former, both nationally and in Hastings, it’s unlikely to be much more than a third. For that reason, opinion polls, which by their nature can’t measure actual voting propensity, are poor predictors of outcome. We will have to wait until Friday 6 May, the day of the count, to find out.
• Voting takes place on Thursday 5 May. The deadline to apply for a postal vote was last Tuesday 19 April.
• Applications for a proxy vote may be made up to 5pm next Tuesday 19 April.
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