Queen Edith’s City Council Election 2012 Guide

For nearly 20 years my wife and I lived in the south-eastern area of Cambridge, Cherry Hinton, which has been a fascinating place to be as a voter. In the local elections, Cherry Hinton has studiously returned Labour (and occasionally Conservative) councillors to a city council which is currently comfortably controlled by the Liberal Democrats. In the parliamentary elections, Cherry Hinton is part of the exciting ‘three way marginal’ of Cambridge, and I suspect that compared to the rest of the city, it hasn’t always gone with the flow there either.

Last summer we moved slightly across town, reluctantly taking ourselves out of Cherry Hinton and into the adjacent council ward, Queen Edith’s. Because of some desperately illogical parliamentary boundary setting, despite now being much closer to the city centre we find ourselves moved outside the Cambridge city parliamentary consituency and into “Cambridgeshire South”. In my voting lifetime, I have voted for candidates from all of the major parties on occasions (I vote strictly for the candidate, never the party), and I have been represented by at least a dozen members of parliament, from all the major parties (including one from the SDP!). I think that Cambridge’s current MP, the Liberal Democrat Julian Huppert, may be the most inspirational I’ve ever had, so it’s been interesting, since the move, to get used to finding ourselves represented by one of the country’s most unpopular MPs, Andrew Lansley. It’s quite a contrast.

One thing which has stayed the same is that we have the same county council as we did in Cherry Hinton, more’s the pity, as it’s a council whose politicians I find quite objectionable. The ruling Conservatives wasted millions of pounds of our money on the appalling misGuided Bus vanity project, but even our local Liberal Democrat county councillor made himself unpopular by trying to push through a massive rise in councillors’ allowances last year.

However, in this week’s elections it’s the city council we’re dealing with, so it’s been time to find out what’s on offer to us here in Queen Edith’s ward.

Unlike Cherry Hinton, this is solid Liberal Democrat territory, with the Conservatives a fairly distant second last time out. The city council has elections three years out of four, with councillors standing for four years at a time. All three of the Queen Edith’s councillors are Liberal Democrats, and standing for re-election this time is Amanda Taylor, who has been a councillor here for 18 years and who has impeccable local credentials. She lives just three roads away from us.

I have been impressed by Ms Taylor. She’s active locally, that’s clear, attends a decent number of council meetings, and appears to be a thoughtful speaker:

Video: Richard Taylor rtaylor.co.uk

What’s more, Ms Taylor has contacted me a couple of times by email, once after one of my rants must have appeared on her Twitter timeline, and it’s impossible not to be impressed by that level of interest in residents’ concerns. She knows what goes down well with the local voters, and reflects this in her main campaign literature, although I strongly object to a thoroughly misleading chart there showing the parties’ share of votes last year. This has had a huge chunk lopped off the top of the Labour bar to make it seem like they had far fewer votes than they really did.

Her Conservative rival is Richard Jeffs, who appears to live just outside Queen Edith’s, which must be a disadvantage, but hey, he’s only from a short walk away. Although there might be no Conservatives on Cambridge’s city council, judging by recent election results he ought to stand an outside chance here, so I’d have expected to have been on the end of some serious campaigning. But we’ve received nothing. I’d seriously like some idea of what Mr Jeffs is offering, but we haven’t even had a leaflet through the door, never mind a visit. I know nothing about him, Google isn’t any help, and the whole thing is quite mystifying.

The Labour party, on the other hand, have made a real effort, and it’s clear that despite their third-place showing last year, they’re seen as the real opposition by the Liberal Democrats. Indeed, Amanda Taylor has issued a slightly confusing leaflet (in that it’s hard to see who it’s from, at first) which tries to tell us that if we vote Labour, it could mean the Conservatives get in, and that in turn would make Andrew Lansley very happy. I think that’s a disappointingly crass assessment of voters’ intelligence. What’s more, Ms Taylor shows a bar chart of the parties’ vote shares in Queen Edith’s which appears to show that Labour stands no chance here, and that a vote for them would be wasted. However, this is a little disingenuous of her, because the chart is from the last time she stood for election, four years ago. If we look at the results of every city council election here in the last five years, we see a trend which illustrates why Ms Taylor may have a fight on her hands for once:

Labour’s candidate is Sue Birtles, who lives a couple of roads away in the other direction. Ms Birtles is certainly saying all the right things, and has some glossy campaign literature. However, even my 11-year-old (who is unusually interested in politics) noticed that her latest leaflet did seem obsessed with one subject, saying: “it’s a bit eco-friendly, isn’t it, Dad?” Everything seemed to be concerned with cycling or, er, recycling. Which is fine – and I do appreciate the limitations of a city councillor’s role – but there are other issues. Her main leaflet covers a wider range of subjects, although not Labour’s strange (and slightly worrying) “anti-house-sharing” initiative, which Ms Taylor spoke out against (above) when it was defeated in council recently.

Like Ms Taylor, one of Ms Birtles’ leaflets insults the voters’ intelligence slightly with a reference to irrelevant national politics, as if we all believe that the Liberal Democrats are the government, rather than a moderating influence. A picture showing David Cameron and Nick Clegg with their hands raised and a caption saying “Hands up if Cambridge Lib Dem councillors are backing your policies.” Hell, we all know that even Cambridge’s Liberal Democrat MP isn’t backing most of their policies!

Finally, we have Martin Lawson, for the Green Party, who – it should be remembered – have two councillors in Cambridge, which is two more than the Conservatives. Mr Lawson lives on the far side of Cherry Hinton, out of the ward but not that far away; however, we’ve not seen any evidence that he’s standing: no literature, no canvassing and no posters or hoardings on local houses. With Ms Birtles clearly aiming at the green vote, it’s hard to see how he’s going to make any impact.

The Verdict

My mind isn’t yet made up, but I’m confident that there are at least two decent candidates amongst those standing, so I shall certainly be wandering around the corner to cast my vote on Thursday. The media seems to be focusing on Cambridge as a possible landmark council gain for Labour, but that would be a massive swing, and I’d refer them to the excellent blog by Phil Rodgers first. And if you want to catch up on what the LibDem council has been up to over the past few years, the best place to start is the extraordinary blog by Richard Taylor which has been holding the council to account, impartially, for a long time now.

I’ve had some correspondence with Ms Taylor, eloquently defending her claim that “a vote for Labour could let the Tories in”. Here’s why I don’t think there’s any chance of this happening. With her warning, Ms Taylor is presumably addressing the possibility of Lib Dem voters switching to Labour and dividing those two parties’ share of the vote, dragging them both below a presumably stagnant Tory vote. But over the years, Labour and the Lib Dems have consistently got a total of 60-65% of the vote in this ward, and I can’t see that falling. That means that at least one of them must get at least 30%. The Tories would have to find considerable gains from somewhere to reach that level, and I can’t find any betting people currently putting money on the Tories gaining votes anywhere, not least in a council ward where they appear to have disappeared without trace this time around.

(If Ms Taylor is also addressing the possibility of Green voters switching to Labour, that would make the combined Labour/Lib Dem vote even higher, and would require even greater gains by the Tories.)

My bet is that the combined Labour and Lib Dem vote will actually increase, thanks to the two parties’ efforts (perhaps past the 67% point where no other party could win), and they will both beat the Tories by a distance. Ms Taylor may not agree, but I think her claim does not stand up.

The morning after: Well, Queen Edith’s delivered the shock of the night, with Ms Birtles thoroughly disproving the “Labour can’t win here” claim by coming from a distant third to win the ward quite clearly. Here are the results:

Sue Birtles (Labour and Co-operative) 1084 (40%)
Amanda Taylor (Liberal Democrat) 963 (35%)
Richard Jeffs (Conservative) 513 (19%)
Martin Lawson (Green Party) 172 (6%)

Was it such a surprise?

A remarkable achievement by the winner, for sure, but not that impossible when plotted on a graph. All the falls are quite predictable, and there’s no reason why those votes shouldn’t cascade down to the one party which is on the up. As I mentioned above, the Tory vote was always likely to fall, especially with the low profile of the party’s candidate, and the Green Party was never going to make an impression with its even smaller presence during the campaign. My figure of a possible 67% of votes being up for grabs between the Lib Dems and Labour candidates, which would make a Tory win impossible, turned out to be very conservative. In the end, the share of votes between the two active parties soared to 75%, with Labour getting the majority. There’s some good coverage of the wider trends in the city on Phil Rodgers’ blog.

Congratulations to Ms Birtles (and, it should be said, many committed local supporters) for demonstrating the effectiveness of a lot of good old-fashioned house-to-house campaigning. I hope she makes a good impression as the first Labour councillor in Queen Edith’s for many years (if not ever – anyone know?). Commiserations to Ms Taylor who has clearly put in a lot of hard work here over the last 18 years, and that deserves acknowledgement.

For further coverage of Queen Edith’s issues, may I direct readers to the Queen Edith’s Online blog which I have since launched. This will cover local development and planning issues, and of course electoral ones.