Once a month we are going to hand over to Alan Collins from Medway Elects who is going to dig into the Medway electoral data, and try to tell us what it all means..
Short of 30 pieces of silver, what does it take to influence a vote?
Three years ago, the authors of this blog shone a spotlight on Mike Franklin, the Conservative councillor for Luton & Wayfield, for sharing unseemly tweets. Last month, following the intervention of Baroness Sayeda Warsi, he was finally suspended as a Conservative councillor and member of the party pending an internal investigation.
Of course, one does not wish to prejudge the outcome of such an investigation, but it is likely the local Conservatives will not wait for its results, and instead select a new candidate for the ward – as despite these claims being brought to their attention what feels like a lifetime ago, he continued to sit as a Conservative councillor and was slated to stand for re-election in May.
Everyone enjoys reading about a good scandal (what, just me?), but do they have any effect on the outcome of subsequent elections? And are there any other major events happening which could also impact the result this May?
Today I am going to be looking at scandals and farces during the 2007-2011 council term, all with their own hints of scandal, and also trying to guess (emphasis on the word “guess”, as data alone is insufficient for this purpose) whether Brexit will have any effect on this year’s elections.
The “sterilise benefit spongers” councillor
John Ward was the Conservative councillor for Rochester South & Horsted from 2003 until 2008. Prior to that, he represented Horsted under the old boundaries. An early political blogger, his time on the council was brought to a premature end after he made national headlines for suggesting benefit claimants should be sterilised, saying:
“I think there is an increasingly strong case for compulsory sterilisation of all those who have had a second child (or third, or whatever) while living off state hand-outs. It would clearly take a lot of social pressures off all concerned, thus protecting the youngsters themselves to some degree, and remove the incentive to breed for greed, i.e. for more public subsidy.”
Ward’s inevitable resignation was followed by a five-way by-election contest which seemed to prove that the voters of that ward were not unduly concerned by his comments. The Conservatives not only held the seat, they increased their vote share from 41.5% in 2007 to 48.7% in 2008.
The “kerb-crawling” councillor
If the residents of Rochester South & Horsted were hoping for a break from controversy, they were sadly let down by Nick Brice. Elected alongside Ward in 2003 and 2007, also as a Conservative, Brice’s vice was not sterilising the poor but somewhat more intimate entertainment.
In November 2009, Brice was given a police caution for kerb-crawling (driving around trying to pick up a prostitute, for any readers not aware of the term) in Rochester. Despite being suspended by the Conservatives as soon as the incident came to light, he did not resign – even after councillors almost universally voted to call on him to resign, in a rare act of cross-party unity.
Despite campaigning with a blue rosette in the 2011 local election, he was not a candidate. His influence clearly was not felt in Rochester South & Horsted, either, as the Conservatives held all three seats in 2011, with a strong 45.9% of the vote.
The “benefit fraud” councillor
Labour are not immune from controversy, as Dennis McFarlane showed in 2009. As if to prove controversies in wards come in pairs, McFarlane represented Luton & Wayfield from 2007 until 2009, when he resigned ahead of court proceedings for almost £4,000 of wrongly-claimed benefits.
Although he would later plead guilty to falsely claiming £173.63 in housing benefit, £51.91 in council tax benefit and £3,544.71 in Job Seekers’ Allowance, few people thought Labour would lose the subsequent by-election, given they had won in 2007 with 49% of the vote against the Conservatives’ 26%. In the event, the by-election came down to the wire, with both Labour and the Conservatives polling 37% when rounded. Just 4 votes separated the two, with the Conservatives ultimately claiming the seat.
Given the demographics of the ward and its past (and subsequent) polling history, one must question whether one dodgy councillor could have really caused such a dramatic shift in the vote. And the simple response to that question is no, probably not.
There were a number of problems bubbling away under the surface. McFarlane’s fellow ward councillors, Tony and Val Goulden, resignedfrom the Labour Party in the middle of the by-election campaign. Tony, at the time the Whip in charge of keeping his party’s councillors in line, and his wife Val had previously raised concerns about McFarlane’s selection. They were equally as disappointed to have had no input in the selection of the by-election candidate Sam Whittington (now Sam Craven), who had been a member of the party for a matter of weeks before her selection. Whilst originally planning to announce their resignation after the by-election, comments Whittington had posted on social media which were, apparently, less than friendly about councillors and then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown provoked them into acting faster.
These events created a considerable storm, becoming one of the biggest stories I covered on my blog that year. The controversy surrounding events, coupled with the additional Liberal Democrat and Green Party candidates in the by-election, are more likely to have influenced the result than McFarlane’s original indiscretions.
By the way, Labour did win the seat back in 2011, before losing it again in 2015 to Mike Franklin. Whittington (now Craven) won election in 2011 and was re-elected in 2015, but resigned from the party in November and now sits as an independent.
Esterson was elected as the Member of Parliament for Sefton Central in the 2010 general election and, after allowing enough time for Labour to select a by-election candidate, left Medway for good. So, three months after the general election, voters in River prepared themselves for a second election. What I imagine none of them were expecting was to be asked to vote a third time another three months down the line.
River was split in 2007, with Esterson taking one seat for Labour and Craig Mackinlay (yes, that Craig Mackinlay) taking the other for the Conservatives. However, Labour had topped the poll on 40.1%, with the Conservatives coming a close second on 39%. A close contest beckoned, with the British National Party, Conservatives, English Democrats, Green Party (hello, Keevil!), Labour and Liberal Democrats all standing candidates. Ultimately, David Craggs took the seat for the Conservatives, ready to represent the people of River on Medway Council for the last nine months of the council term.
Except he didn’t. He resigned thirteen days after the election.
With a weary electorate called upon once again to replace Esterson’s replacement, the Conservative candidate, Andrew Mackness, succeeded in increasing the number of people voting for his party, but perhaps as punishment for the farce, Labour’s John Jones took the seat. Proof, maybe, that whilst voters don’t like being asked to vote too often, those voters will use their votes to vote against those who forced those votes in the first place.
Craggs may not have been able to achieve much during his 13 days on the Council, but he still claimed his £291.14 councillor’s allowance. At just seven months, Jones’ tenure on Medway Council was short-lived. By 2011, the voters of River ward had seemingly forgiven the Conservatives’ transgressions and elected Mackness alongside Mackinlay, with the party holding on to both seats ever since.
It is, therefore, I think fair to suggest that Cllr Franklin’s tweets are, while at best questionable and at worst abhorrent, arguably unlikely to have a major impact on the election result in Luton & Wayfield, based on past scandals in Medway.
The people of Medway wanted Britain to leave the EU in 2016’s referendum. Like, really wanted to leave. The nationwide vote might have resulted in a tight result, but Medway was surely a forgone conclusion: 64% voted to leave while just 36% voted to remain. Every single one of Medway’s 22 council wards voted in favour of leave, although the margin varied from 72% to 28% in Peninsula, right down to just 54% to 46% in Rochester West.
One only needed to look at the electoral path to the referendum to see which way the political wind was blowing in Medway. In the election to the European Parliament in 2014, UKIP narrowly beat the Conservatives by 32% to 31% in the South East England constituency which Medway forms part of, but in Medway itself, the pro-Brexit party was miles ahead, receiving almost twice as many votes as the Conservatives with a margin of 42% to 23%.
Later that year, Rochester & Strood MP Mark Reckless rocked the Conservative party by not only announcing he was defecting to UKIP, but calling a by-election to get his constituents’ approval to see out his term donning his new party colours. His office manager Chris Irvine was a Conservative councillor for Peninsula ward, and joined his boss in switching party and calling for a by-election. Both elections were held on the same day and both were won by UKIP. In Rochester & Strood, the margin was 42% to 35%
while in Peninsula it was 48% to 33%.
In the general election in 2015, Mark Reckless lost his seat to the Conservative’s Kelly Tolhurst by 44% to 31%, but across Medway’s three constituencies UKIP gained a combined share of the vote of 24%, pushing Labour into third place on 23%, but falling well behind the Conservatives on 47%. In fact, it was the first time since 1987 that a party other than Labour or the Conservatives had occupied one of the top two places in the polls across Medway’s constituencies as a whole.
The 2015 local elections were held on the same day as that bitterly-fought general election, and there is a school of thought across many people from different parties who suggest that had they been fought on different days, and people not been heading into the polling stations with a mindset of wanting to keep Ed Milliband out of Number 10, the results could have been significantly different. UKIP could have ended up with several more councillors than the four which were ultimately elected, with the potential for beating Labour to become the second party on the council.
In the end, they fell well short. Although their vote share across Medway was 23%, this was slightly behind Labour’s 25% and just over half of the Conservative’s 40%. The election of four councillors (elected in Medway’s two highest leave-voting wards – as an aside, they didn’t stand a candidate in the third highest leave-voting ward, which could potentially have increased both their number of councillors and vote share) was a short-lived success, with one resigning from UKIP almost immediately and another leaving the council just over one year later.
Success for UKIP in Medway was not over, however. In May 2016, voters in Medway went to the polls to elect Kent’s Police & Crime Commissioner. Whilst Kent as a whole elected the Conservatives’ Matthew Scott, UKIP’s Henry Bolton received more first and second preference votes in Medway. Although his margin on first preference votes was just 30% to 29%, UKIP’s last electoral success in Medway was, when combined with the significant Eurosceptic element within the Medway Conservatives, a clear sign of which way the people of Medway would vote the following month.
It is clear, then, that there exists within Medway a significant anti-EU, or at least anti-establishment, following. However, examining the effects of Brexit on May’s election is a difficult impossible task, particularly given the fact that no one knows what Brexit looks like. The depressing fact is that we are now less than one month away from the statutory departure date, but we do not yet have a deal passed by Parliament, Parliament looks set to reject leaving without a deal, the powers that be are not keen on extending Article 50 beyond 30 June but there is no majority for a second referendum.
It is, let’s be honest, a mess, and no one knows what will happen tomorrow, let alone by 29 March. So the second conclusion of this article is simply personal conjecture, what I had hoped to avoid in this series, rather than anything backed up by concrete data.
If Britain leaves the EU on 29 March (with or without a deal), any effect on the local elections here in Medway will be dictated by the immediate fall-out. If Article 50 is extended until 30 June, the impact on local elections will be minimal compared to significantly longer delay.
In short, if the government do not get it right over the next couple of weeks, they will be punished at ballot boxes across the country. There may only be small cause for celebration for Labour, however, because if they are seen to be complicit in allowing the UK to extend Article 50 on the one hand, or leave without a deal on the other, their support may also drop. They are already polling at their lowest level since the 2017 general election (a fact which is reflected in my projections below) – and on the basis of the current political scenario, if they manage to take control of Gun Wharf in May, it will be in spite of their national position, not because of it.
But the question remains: who would benefit if support for Labour and the Conservatives dropped as a result of Brexit? Where would those looking to use the local elections as a protest mark their ballots?
The obvious choice for pro-Brexiteers would have been UKIP, but since the heady days of the Rochester & Strood by-election, they have all but collapsed in Medway. Their 2015 candidates have split in various directions, with some going to the Conservatives (such as Richard Thorne, who stood in Strood South for UKIP in 2015, but is standing for the Conservatives this time round), some joining the new Medway People’s Voice movement (currently in the process of registering as a party, although it remains to be seen whether it will be registered in time for the local elections, or indeed how many candidates they will have), and some even heading to the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats (can’t think who that might be…).
UKIP’s support base in Medway has also collapsed since the referendum. From polling at 23% in the 2015 local elections and 30% in the 2016 Police & Crime Commissioner election, their electoral performance has dropped away. In the Strood South by-election in October 2016, a seat they were defending, their vote share dropped from 39% to 26%, and they went from first place to third. In the Rainham Central by-election in November 2016, they kept hold of second place, but with a fall from 22% to 16% of the votes. Their biggest collapse, however, was in the only election to have taken place since Article 50 was triggered. In the Rochester West by-election in March 2018, they fell from third place down to fifth (last), and their vote share collapsed from 20% to 4%.
Their four councillors elected in 2015 have also dropped away, with Mark Joy going independent almost immediately and ultimately joining the Conservatives, Catriona Brown-Reckless resigning from the council in 2016 and Mick Pendergast resigning from the party in November, pledging to stand again as an independent. Roy Freshwater, their sole surviving councillor, has pledged to stand candidates in all 22 wards, but with little sign of activity anywhere in Medway, significant electoral progress may be limited.
In addition to UKIP, the Green Party, Liberal Democrats and upstarts MPV (if registered) may also share in the Brexit fallout spoils, but it remains to be seen just how much success each party can hope for in May.
What is clear, though, is that so far nothing in the Brexit resolution is clear, and if there is to be a fallout after 29 March, the results in May could go almost any way.
2019 Medway Council Election Projection
So now for the update “headline” figures. If you’ve read all the way to here, well done! Once again, I would urge you to note the various caveats in my first article. The projected vote share as at today’s date is:
While it may be difficult to answer hypothetical questions without precedent, examining past election results can provide us with useful clues. Check back next month when I’ll be trying to answer a very simple question: can independent candidates win elections?
Alan Collins is the creator of Medway Elects, which is committed to building a complete electoral history for Medway.
The Political Medway is a non-profit website attempting to cover local politics. We have no funding for this project, and most of our work is done in local coffee shops. If you enjoy our content, please consider supporting us by buying us a hot drink via Ko-fi.