“Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” is likely to be in the eye of a storm.“Disgusted” not only ended two decades of Conservative majority control but set the stage for an unprecedented year that will be either confrontational or chaotic – possibly both. The recent local government elections have created a split Council. Voters can be sure the Conservative party will want to take back control.
Whilst political commentators said elsewhere in the UK elections any Conservative successes were influenced by a ‘vaccine bounce,’ in Tunbridge Wells local issues seemed to be more important.
The borough is now on a knife-edge after the elections
The result is that control of the borough is now on a knife-edge and all political parties have their eyes firmly on local elections next May when 16 wards have elections. What makes the mix even more volatile is that nearby towns had elections in which the entire council was elected on 6th May but next year they do not – so they can send manpower and money to Tunbridge Wells.
The voters produced a council with 24 Conservatives and 24 opposition councillors. In any deadlock the mayor who chairs council meetings (traditionally a non-partisan role) has the casting vote: the mayor this year is a Conservative and already confirmed by a council meeting in April. Whether he can be removed and replaced by a non-Conservative mayor is a moot point.
Comment on the elections from the Libdems
The leader of the LibDem opposition, Ben Chapelard, has said in a Facebook video,
“As leader of the Liberal Democrats at Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, I want to let you know that we, the Liberal Democrats, will not be entering a coalition with the Conservatives. We will not prop up a failing, incompetent and unpopular administration that has seen the decline of our town and borough for over two decades.”
He said he would talk to opposition councillors about forming an “alternative administration”.
Comment from Tunbridge Wells Alliance (TWA)
However in the comments under the Times of Tunbridge Wells story, the leader of the five councillors of the Tunbridge Wells Alliance (TWA) party, David Hayward, was forthright. He said:
“Ben knows full well the change of leadership of the council is covered by item 11.5 of the Council Procedure Rules. The constitution is clear that Ben would need two thirds of the council members to vote for him. The Alliance is most definitely not in talks to form an ‘alternative administration’ with anybody. This is the first I have heard of it and needs to be withdrawn. The Alliance does not support or endorse this self-serving agenda. Alliance councillors represent their residents not a national party and will work with any good ideas for the benefit of the residents of the Borough. Please correct the cynical insinuations that we play any part in LibDem ‘initiatives’. We do not.”
Comment from the Labour Party
Hugo Pound, who leads the Labour councillors, wants his group of five to have equal standing with the group of 13 LibDem councillors. He said,
“Just to be clear, all the opposition parties are always talking to each other but the Labour Group of 5 councillors have not yet entered any formal debate about an ‘alternative administration’ and, if it does, it will be as an equal partner, not propping up a LibDem administration which alone will not be able to function!”
The Borough Council is now split
“Today, we didn’t have such a successful day but we were defending 16 seats. The split is 24-24. As it stands at the moment we could just keep stopping each other.”
Immediately after the election all councillors have been very quiet on social media. Even those previously most vociferous have now hardly made a comment.
Meanwhile, analysis of the results continues. As Oscar Wilde said, “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.” All parties will learn from this: Labour perhaps more than the others because among the results one stands out.
It could all have been so different in the election.
The ward of Sherwood, which Labour’s Hugo Pound won in the last elections in May 2019, even with Jeremy Corbyn as Labour’s national leader, went to the Conservative
Lance Goodship with 960 votes. However, had just 118 of those voters switched to Labour, the Conservatives would now be in a minority on the council.
In Sherwood, Labour’s Shadi Rogers, who had a strong story to tell the voters and is a local candidate and a NHS junior doctor amid the pandemic with a young family, was second with 724 votes, after a campaign in which the LibDem candidate was out of the race because he was in hospital. Had Labour made an effort here it may well have taken the ward and tipped the balance of power. However, its decision instead to put resources into a hard fight in the ward of Rusthall against a candidate married to the victorious LibDem candidate of May 2019, resulted in a Labour win. Had just 69 voters not switched to Labour but stayed with the LibDems the result would have been different. This was the only seat Labour won and it made no difference to the number of Conservative councillors.
Elsewhere, voters indicated electoral trouble brewing for the Johnson government’s plans to make building on open land easier for developers to push through the planning system. As a sign of local opposition to the plans to build 5,000 houses in Capel, turnout was the highest of the borough’s election at 53.4% of the ward’s electorate. The sitting Conservative was thoroughly beaten by local parish councillor Hugh Patterson, the LibDem candidate, who won 717 votes – 75% of the turnout – against 187 for the Conservative, with Labour scoring 16, the same as the UKIP candidate and one fewer than the Green at 17 votes.
Other results showed a variety of electoral swings. In Goudhurst & Lamberhurst the local party, the Tunbridge Wells Alliance (TWA), beat the Conservative incumbent by 28 votes, but in neighbouring Benenden and Cranbrook, Conservative Sean Holden retained his seat. Whilst in Park ward, won easily by the TWA in 2019, the party selected to stand in the only area in Kent to vote Remain in the EU referendum, a candidate who had twice nominated UKIP candidates and she lost by 255 votes.
The Conservatives are increasingly fragile
Finally, Conservative Party mandarins are likely to throw resources to take back control of the borough next year because amid all the clamour and confusion of ward-by-ward results one chilling statistic stands out. Whilst the vote for opposition parties seemed to remain steady, loyalty to the Conservatives would appear to be increasingly fragile. While in the 2019 general election the Labour vote was 14 per cent and in these elections steady at 15 per cent, and the LibDems came second in the 2019 general election with 28 per cent of the vote, similar to the 27 per cent of the vote in these elections, the Conservative vote was 55 per cent in 2019: on May 6 it was 37 per cent, a fall of a third. Maybe Westminster is still heading for a kick in the Pantiles.”