Chris Game analyses who won and why in this year’s local elections
Long ago, when the secret ballot was in its infancy, I used to be the so-called expert on BBC WM’s Election Results programmes, presented generally by the famous Ed Doolan.
We liked to sign off the lengthy programmes 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 article does the same. The second part focuses on one result in particular.
Before this year's election, I identified those seats that Labour would win, if national trends in the parties’ fortunes, since the same seats or wards were last contested, were translated into local results.
In Birmingham there were two groups of seats. Labour’s best hopes were where the Conservatives (in eight) or Liberal Democrats (in nine) were defending wards they had lost in 2011 and, other things being equal, could have expected to lose again – Labour’s poll ratings having improved significantly in the meantime.
Happily, though, 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 177 in Acocks Green to the young and impressive Mariam Khan’s 5,559 in Washwood Heath – a figure that testifies to the community standing of the previous incumbent, former Coun Tariq Khan, as well as to the volatility of electoral opinion.
Compared with most of these Lib Dem losses, Springfield looked statistically a doddle for Labour, with a majority last year of 2,762 (31.4 per cent).
This time, 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 he retained by a no doubt hard-earned 95 votes. Close, certainly, but far from closest.
Labour’s other hopefuls were wards held by Conservatives or Lib Dems last year, but only by narrow margins.
Reflecting the small rise in the Lib Dems’ overall vote in Birmingham (from 14.7 per cent in 2011 to 16 per cent), 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’ vote fell during the year, from 27 per cent to 24 per cent, suggesting that candidates in their most marginal wards in 2011 would find life tougher still. Some did.
In Northfield, held by Reg Corns last year by just 54 votes, defending Coun Les Lawrence lost by a similarly close 61. Bournville, held by Tim Huxtable with a 276-vote majority last May, was lost now by 307 by defending Coun Nigel Dawkins.
In Weoley, things were tighter still. Defending Coun Eddie Freeman couldn’t retain all of Adrian Delaney’s 2011 micro-majority of 12, but, extraordinarily, 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 raise James Hutchings’ 2011 majority of 21 to a slightly less stressful 241.
Finally, in this short roll call, are the true history-makers: Sutton Vesey voters, who finally elected the endlessly persistent Rob Pocock as their town’s first-ever Labour city councillor.
Coun Pocock has been a Sutton Labour candidate at every election since 2002. In 2010 he was still more than 2,500 votes adrift, but the tide was turning.
In 2011he cut Coun Lyn Collin’s majority to 746, and now, at his tenth attempt, he ousted defending Coun Malcolm Cornish with his own majority of 804.
>> Next page: Rob Pocock's amazing win in Sutton Vesey
Three factors are noteworthy about this remarkable result. First, as elsewhere, Sutton Vesey’s turnout was well down from 2011 – though by less than the 29 per cent drop in Sutton overall, thanks largely 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 effort he puts in to what must regularly have seemed a hopeless cause. He described recently his year-round campaigning:
“The other parties go to sleep between elections. 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 annually voting against him. Third, and perhaps crucially, three eye-catching political issues have entered public discussion in Sutton over the past year – ‘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 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 the Charter needed renewing.
No one much bothered, and the ‘Royal Town’ name continued in use – until an over-zealous researcher discovered it and thought H M 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 see, a “highly complex issue”, on which the Minister for Constitutional Reform “has been working tirelessly throughout the past year” – so that’s alright.
Meanwhile, if not officially Royal, perhaps the town can at least, particularly for planning purposes, be a bit freer of Birmingham – hence 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 would require the council to hold a referendum on the issue.
This petition hotly follows another, from the ‘Keep New Hall in Sutton Coldfield’ campaign. The protest here is against the Boundary Commission’s draft proposal that 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 an outsider, much of the protest – alleging dire impacts on everything from house prices, council tax, and school catchment areas to the prospects for Royal status – seemed ill-informed, alarmist, and self-serving.
There could, though, be no doubting its vehemence, and, with the Conservative Party nationally backing the change, it clearly played its part in the local elections, and Sutton Vesey’s historic vote.
One way and another, Coun Pocock seems set to be even busier than before – if that were possible.
*Chris Game is from the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham