The political picture in Westborough is an interesting one. It is also one that is changing.
The last decade has seen this ward become an Independent homeland, and that looks set to change. The rise and fall of the Independents has largely been of Dr Marithmu Velmurugan’s making, with Martin Terry clinging to his coat-tails.
In 2000, the last year of the old boundaries in Southend (when there were just thirteen wards) Westborough was won by the Liberal Democrats, who took 43.8% of the vote. Labour trailed in in third (and last) place with 24.3%. Labour usually managed a string second in the ward that had become a Liberal stronghold over the years.
(I was born and lived the first sixteen years of my life in this ward. My GP was Dr Lubel, whose wife, Mary, represented the ward for the Liberals for a long time.)
2001, against the backdrop of a General Election and the boundary changes which created seventeen wards and saw all-up elections, saw Dr Velmurugan and Teresa Merrison returned as Labour councillors, together with the Liberal Democrat Jean Sibley.
Martin Terry, in his first stab at the seat, came eleventh (and last), just behind Mark Flewitt (also standing as an Independent). Two years earlier the chameleon-like Flewitt, as a Labour candidate, came within four votes of victory.
Terry’s persistence paid off two years later, when he topped the 2003 poll. He was the first Independent councillor, although it was only twelve months before their number was doubled.
In 2004 Cllr Dr Velmurugan was all set to be the Labour candidate. He completed his nomination papers and submitted them, and these included lavish praise for the Labour Party and Government. Within two weeks he had resigned from the party, and announced his intention to stand as an Independent.
I had been discreetly approached with a view to my challenging Dr Velmurugan for the Westborough nomination. (Labour internal procedures do not allow the automatic re-selection of councillors as candidates next time around, although this, in practise, is what happens in many instances.) I was uncertain whether to challenge Dr Velmurugan, but was persuaded. I then withdrew; whilst I think such challenges are perfectly acceptable I had decided to expend my energies elsewhere (I was already thinking about Parliamentary selections at this point). However, the day after my informing the Westborough Labour Party that I would not be challenging for the selection I was told of Dr Velmurugan desertion and thus was asked to re-consider. To cut a long story short, I stood, came fourth, and soundly thrashed I registered Labour’s second worst result of the last decade.
Since then the Independent’s support has been slowly ebbing away, but they have held on largely because the ward has become a four-way marginal. In 2010 (another general Election backdrop) a mere 4.3% separated the top four candidates. The 2010 result showed the dangers for the Indies – any rise in turnout sees them struggle as they came third here. 2014 and 2015 will see national elections held at the same time as the locals, and they will struggle to make an impact.
Add into the mix the civil war that broke out in the residents’ association, Cllr Dr Velmurugan’s espoused Conservative loyalties, and Cllr Terry suggestion of a chicken run, then it is clear that this ward is no longer a given for the Indies.
The Conservatives, for whom Westborough is their worst Southend ward, came within 0.4% of success in 2010, showing that anything is possible in this most marginal of wards in the Borough. The Liberal Democrats won that year with 23.8% (winning with less than a quarter of the votes is notable enough), yet by 2012, a mere twenty-four months later, they got a mere 5.4% and came sixth and last.
It would be miraculous for Cllr Paul Collins to retain his seat next year, although he will take some comfort from the volatile nature of the ward and the fact that he will have had four years to ingrain himself in the minds of the voters. The official Independent Group (as opposed to the unofficial Independents, which exposes the sham of their set-up) will put up a fight, and Labour will be expecting another strong performance following on from their narrow second-place last year.
I am hoping for a Labour victory, and this is not blind prejudice. The evidence is there, although I am aware that a week is a long time in politics, a year an eternity.