There were borough elections in only two towns in Kent this May: in Tunbridge Wells and Maidstone. Both these are ‘swing towns’ with the potential to swing away from the Tory blue that dominates government everywhere else in this County.
And swing they did!
In Tunbridge Wells, 16 seats were up for election, ten of which had been Conservative, and nine of those were lost to opposing parties, four to the LibDems, three to Tunbridge Wells Alliance (TWA) and two to Labour. LibDems with 16 seats are now the largest opposition party there. In Maidstone, the council had 29 seats held by Conservatives and 26 held by other parties. But the Conservatives are now 27 and the Opposition parties are 28 (12 LibDem, six Independents, five Labour, four councillors for Maidstone, one Green).
Who will control these local councils?
In Maidstone, the Conservative Council leader, David Burton, anticipates forming an alliance with Independent councillors, which would enable them to retain control of the Council. By contrast, in Tunbridge Wells, the Tory leader Tom Dawlings acknowledged that the Conservatives have now lost control of the council there. The Liberal Democrats plan to form an alliance with Labour and the TWA to take over control, the first time in 22 years that a non-Tory group will be in charge, and the only non-Tory-controlled Borough in Kent.
Elections every year
Both these towns operate an election system that puts only a third of the seats up for election each year, to enable more gradual changes in the composition of the Council. Is this one of the causes of the swinginess of these towns? Or maybe this system is preferred by towns with more hopeful minority parties. It gives them the ability to eke out their election resources across several years, enabling them to contest more wards, rather than the resource intensity (of both money and activists canvassing in the neighbourhoods) of contesting elections in as many wards as possible every four years.
However, Maidstone has decided to stop this system after this year, so it will be back to an all-wards contested system for the next local election. It will be interesting to see whether this makes any difference to their swinginess.
Share of votes
Even if a minority party does not win a seat, they watch the results carefully to see their share of the overall vote, and whether there has been a swing since the last election in that ward. This helps to guide them where to put their resources in the next election. For example in Staplehurst, even though the Conservatives held the seat, there was a swing to Labour of 21 percent which means there is now only a difference of less than 190 votes, worth putting greater effort in this ward next time. In Headcorn, next station down the SE railway line, although the Conservative held the seat, there was a 20 percent swing to the Greens, which means this is a good target seat for them next time.
The Greens are particularly proud that Stuart Jeffrey won Bridge ward with a 29 percent swing from Conservatives. This is the 24th election that Stuart has contested according to KentOnline. He is indeed a persistent political animal!
What are the issues in the manifestos?
But it is not only the numbers that need our political attention. What are the actual issues that these councillors are concerned about and put in their manifestos? Independents tend to campaign on very local issues, such as Janetta Sams’ opposition to the Heathlands Garden new housing scheme in Harrietsham and Lenham and she was rewarded by an 18 percent swing.
The TWA, who fielded nine candidates in Tunbridge Wells, winning three, boast on their website that they are free from the control of any national party. It is debatable whether this position is advantageous in that it supposes ‘freedom’, or disadvantageous in that as so many local issues are connected with national policy decisions and finance, it is better to be connected to a party with a national voice. The national parties also have more resources of finance and training for the selection and training of their candidates, who still have to be local by residence or other strong ties.
In Tunbridge Wells, the LibDems website proclaims:
“We believe that with consultation, positive town centre plans and a concerted focus we can make a difference and reverse the decline in fortunes of Tunbridge Wells.”
Their manifesto of ‘Six to Fix’ consists of
- A vibrant Town Centre (including Farmers’ market and reviving the Assembly rooms theatre)
- Safer Streets (countering traffic congestion with active travel provision)
- Environment (rewilding, reducing carbon footprint, waste reduction etc)
- Affordable Housing (more mixed and balanced communities)
- Open decision-making (of scrutiny committees, contracts etc)
- Local democracy (devolve more powers to parish councils).
The TWA website proclaims:
“[We] support a healthy and well cared for community that can be proud of its carefully maintained and cherished environment.
We will ensure that a proper balance is struck between conservation and development, so that the borough remains an excellent place to live, work and visit, whilst keeping pace with the changing requirements of new generations.”
First on their manifesto list is ‘democracy’
“Create a council that reflects the views of its residents, rather than imposing its own views on them.”
Then it lists the various topics:
“Climate Change” mentions the building regulations and the Air Quality Plan.
“Buying” states it does not want only price leading the decision but refers to the Local Government guidelines.
“Planning and Housing” is firstly about the Green belt and the High Weald Area of Outstanding National Beauty (AONB): basically, better to control housing development.
“Waste” about waste recycling and single use plastics.
“Roads and Traffic” wants to take back control from KCC. Also suggests a free first hour of parking.
“Health and Wellbeing” mentions providing for active travel by cyclists and pedestrians and reducing air-borne pollution.
“Community” mentions community grants and also regeneration of civic buildings.
The Green Party
Compare these two manifestos from Tunbridge Wells with the Green Party of Maidstone, which secured Stuart Jeffrey’s win:
“Across Maidstone we are standing a record number of candidates with a distinct and powerful voice.
What we all want:
- An end to the rampant overpriced house building on our greenfield sites, while promoting affordable homes on existing brownfield sites.
- 20mph speed limits on all residential roads in Maidstone and the surrounding villages
- Real action to tackle air pollution that is responsible for the death of around 100 people in Maidstone each year
- An integrated transport plan that puts people at its heart and lets us get to where we need to go cheaply and in the greenest way
- Real action on waste and litter
- A climate and ecological plan for the Borough that will ensure a future for our children and their children.”
The Maidstone and Weald Conservative party website does not project its manifesto, but in the news items one can gauge the concerns:
Fly-tipping, air-quality, improving the junction at the Tonbridge road, preserving the Hazlitt theatre, free parking for electric vehicles.
So several issues, particularly on climate matters, pop up in all the parties. Even though elections are a time of contest, it looks as if there is plenty to agree with! The big problem as ever is prioritising, and whether there will be enough money for all of these manifesto promises.