The Blenheim Park analysis

BlenheimparkThis graphic shows the percentage of votes gained by the parties in Blenheim Park ward from 1996 to 2012. (Note that boundary changes in 2001 created the modern Blenheim Park ward; prior to this there was a bigger Blenheim ward.)

All elections in this period have seen the Tories and Lib Dems occupy the top two slots. Of the fourteen contests the Liberal Democrats have won a dozen, although there has been a number of very close contests. Recent years has seen declining support for these two with the Labour and UKIP trending upwards. It will be interesting to see whether this continues this May, and whether the gap narrows enough to be able to declare Blenheim Park a three or four-way marginal.

Dean Trotter for Blenheim Park

p1000714cDean Trotter was, earlier this week, selected as the Labour candidate for Blenheim Park ward for this May’s local elections. What follows are some words from Dean:

I’m standing for Labour because I believe in Labour Party values of Equality and Social Justice and I strive for a community where all have the opportunity to contribute. I believe in a community that offers help to those that need it and one that is compassionate and fair.

It appears to me that these values are not the values of the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats, I have seen little compassion during their tenure and we have endured cuts on a national and local level that have hit those that need them the hardest…..that is not the Labour way and it is not my way.

I’m from Lancashire and moved to Westcliff 15 years ago and during my time I have served my local community in various ways, I managed the YMCA for eight years and was with the Homeless Action Resource project for a shorter time. I’m currently a specialist foster carer and in addition I vice chair foster panels for Essex County Council and have recently accepted the Chair position for a local Fostering Agency. I also work closely with the Fostering Network and Chair their East of England Regional Meetings. I’m a freelance trainer and have delivered training to teachers, social workers, foster carers and health professionals.

Churn

The following Conservative councillors will not be seeking re-election in May:

Richard Brown – Chalkwell
Louise Burdett – Kursaal
Maria Caunce – Milton
Brian Kelly – Southchurch
Nigel Holdcroft – West Leigh

A mix of reasons for their retirement has been given, such as ill health, work commitments and motherhood. I have no reason to doubt any of these.

In addition Gwen Horrigan (West Leigh) retired in January, and Fay Evans is moving wards (from Belfairs to West Leigh).

Barry Godwin (Liberal Democrat, Leigh) has been de-selected, and Martin Terry (Independent) is resigning his Westborough seat in order to stand in Thorpe.

Notwithstanding the reasons given, I cannot help but believe that the realisation that re-election in some of these instances is problematical to say least has made their decisions a lot easier to take.

A total of nine councillors going or moving this year without a vote having been cast (I know there was a West Leigh by-election, but Mrs Horrigan stood down) seems quite a high attrition rate to me. Do I detect retreat?

Full council, the view from my chair

Last night’s budget debate had its moments. I have already written about the leader, Cllr Holdcroft, and his confessing to having sold a scrutiny chair to Cllr Woodley a couple of years ago in exchange for his support of the budget. I should add that Ron Woodley strenuously denies this.

Cllr Nigel Holdcroft was rather self-satisfied, it appeared to me, in his opening and closing speeches. He will feel pleased that he has again cheated defeat in the chamber. As he pointed out, the arithmetic could have meant Tory defeat, yet despite the huffing and puffing by the Independent Group enough of them voted with the Tories to secure victory for Nigel.

In the end the Tories won a comfortable 29 to 19 votes, with one abstention. All of the Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors opposed the budget. The Independent councillors were split. Cllr Anne Chalk, the sole Independent to oppose the budget last year, voted for it this year. Cllr Velmurugan spoke against the budget, said he would oppose it, and then voted for it. (In the break after the budget debate he decided to berate me whilst I was in conversation about an unrelated matter with a Southend Echo reporter. He repeatedly called me a liar – what I was supposed to have lied about is beyond me, but his contribution to the budget debate can be viewed online. It will be noted that he concludes with “I will not vote for this budget”.)

For the record here is a list of those who spoke in the budget debate: Holdcroft, Longley, Terry, Gilbert, Flewitt, Ware-Lane, Norman, Borton, Morgan, Anne Jones, Lamb, McMahon, Courtenay, Aylen, Woodley, Wexham, Holland, Velmurugan, David Garston, Holdcroft.

Cllr Longley was opposed to the loss of jobs. Cllr Terry talked about debt (£63million when this administration took over, £271million today). Cllr Flewitt moaned about people being political. My speech is reproduced elsewhere in this blog. Cllr Borton spoke of attacks on the poor. Tory Leader-in-waiting, Cllr John Lamb, referred to a Lib Dem/Conservative government – clearly attempting to shift blame.

At the start of the meeting I asked a question: When is the likely start date for the local Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL)?

The reply was April 2015. My supplementary concerned any potential gap between the ending of Section 106 agreements and the start of the CIL – I was assured there would be no gap, although the answer was a little indecisive. I will chase up with officers.

I spoke about the Counter Fraud Update Report; this item introduces the concept of Council Cops. I also spoke about Hackney Carriage Fares. I had also submitted a motion about Fixed Odds Betting terminals (seconded by Cllr Anne Jones), and this will be discussed at Cabinet.

Coming home to roost

So there we have it, Chicken-run Terry thinks that his best chances of remaining a councillor lie in an escape from Westborough to the comfort of Thorpe ward. This somewhat underlines a few points that I have made over the years.

Martin obviously cares more about his status than the residents of Westborough. He may think that his work there has been somewhat undermined by Cllr Velmurugan, but he must admit to being at least partly at fault. It is also on his watch that the warring amongst the residents’ groups has occurred.

Martin, a Thorpe resident who in reality had little affinity with Westborough, has exposed his shallow pretensions. He is moving to avoid an almost inevitable 2015 defeat, and thus has shown that the accoutrements of office subsume any real desire to fight for Westborough. Moving after defeat is one thing, moving to avoid defeat is political cowardice.

His move to Thorpe further undermines claims that his merry band is not a party. The Thorpe trio pictured in today’s local newspaper is a giveaway – you are either independent or part of a team. What irks is that Cllr Terry wants to have it both ways.

What is really quite interesting is that we are seeing a picture developing where the Independents are gradually replacing the Tories in the east of the borough, whilst becoming shrinking band in the West. I think Cllr Velmurugan (if he stands again) will lose his Westborough seat in 2016, leaving Cllr Aylen somewhat isolated over in Belfairs.

What will Thorpe voters make of all this? I expect Martin will secure a comfortable victory in May, and this once super-safe Conservative ward continues to show what complacency leads to.

It does make you wonder whether a decent UKIP campaign here in 2015 will see the under-performing James Duddridge removed from the green benches, especially if the Tories fail to hold a single ward this year in his constituency. A local election wipe-out was once unthinkable, whereas now it is a distinct possibility.

Lamb and Holland, Southend Tories leadership team for post-May

Earlier this week the Conservative group on Southend-on-Sea Borough Council chose its new leader and deputy leader for after the May 22nd elections. The results can be filed under ‘unsurprising’, but there are one or two things worthy of comment.

The baton of group leader has passed to another West Leigh councillor. John Lamb, currently deputy leader, was always the most likely winner. Doubtless he will be hoping to take on the role of Leader of the Council in May too, although he may have to be content with an opposition role. His tenure may be characterised by the shrinking numbers in his group.

Wakering resident Ann Holland has secured the deputy leadership. I have no idea if the role was contested, but I wonder what it says to those actually resident within the borough to have yet another stranger foisted upon them by the Tories. The Conservatives in Southend-on-Sea seem to believe that the town should be run by people who do not live here.

I find the timing of this election a bit odd. These roles take effect after the May elections, when there will be change in the personnel that make up the Tories group. It is possible that Cllr Lamb and Holland’s support could come from those either about to retire or be defeated. The Labour group elects its leader after the election, when all those affected have a say.

A quite unsatisfactory affair

And so, back to politics ….

Last night’s Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee had its interesting moments. Cllr Ron Woodley (Thorpe, Independent) used this as an opportunity to re-ask questions about the level of borrowing by the council. Whilst I do not entirely agree with his line of reasoning, it is a reasonable question to ask. The Leader (Cllr Nigel Holdcroft) may find it exasperating, but I do not think statements like “well, if members do not understand it” are particularly helpful. I am fairly relaxed about the repayment regime, but I confess to not being a financial expert. Even if it is tedious to repeat previous statements, since we are talking about millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money it is only right that this be subject to rigorous examination.

Cllr Holdcroft used the opportunity to deliver a long list of things that had been done because of borrowing. Whilst there are things that I think should not have had money spent on them I agree with Nigel in the respect that it is important to borrow to finance big projects. It is an argument I would also make about central Government, although there are many of his persuasion who would disagree with me. I think new schools, improvements to transport infrastructure, etc are necessary, and saving up to do this flies in the face of common sense. Borrowing is sensible if done prudently.

I did find it odd that Ron used his position as chair to ask rhetorical questions, to deliver a lecture of sorts, and to expound his world view on finance. I also find it odd that he votes from the chair – something that chairs normally resort to only in the event of a tie. His style that effectively leads debate rather than umpires it is not to my liking.

Nigel did refer to bad financial decisions made by previous administrations. I must ask what these were. It should prove to be an illuminating list.

We had a vote on the setting of council rents, that is, what rise should be made. This was handled badly, and I find it disturbing that a clear decision made by a show of hands can be reversed by ordering a new vote on a tweaked question. Re-asking a question until you get the answer you want is not how democracy should work. In my view a clear steer was given when the committee voted for the lowest rise for council rents on offer.

This was subsequently overturned, and here the Independent Group showed their true colours. Ron Woodley voted for the larger rise, and Cllrs Brian Ayling (St Luke’s) and Mike Stafford (Thorpe) abstained, thus delivering victory to the Tories. The Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors voted against the higher rise, but were outnumbered.

Brian Ayling will have to answer to his residents. Thorpe councillors do not encounter many council tenants, but St Luke’s ones do. It is a kick in the teeth to his residents to have allowed this to happen. Brian has a track record of voting against his residents best interests.

The quote of the night belongs to Ron Woodley. He stated “I’ve been responsible in the past for making a lot of people redundant”. Frankly, that is not something I would boast about it.

By-election fever grips West Leigh

Julian Ware-Lane and Stephen George, campaigning in West Leigh

Julian Ware-Lane and Stephen George, campaigning in West Leigh

It was tempting to write about campaigning in the tower-blocks of West Leigh – after all some of them have as many as three storeys! As it was, I spent a part of the weekend organising and taking part in Labour’s bid for success on January 23rd. The weather was helpful, for despite it being chilly it was dry, and the sun shone for long periods.

It feels to me like it is going to be a close contest. To be honest, Labour’s chances here are slim, although the electorate may opt for a complete change. From where I stand it looks like Labour versus three shades of Conservatism: there is the Real Conservatives, the disgruntled Conservatives (UKIP), and the Conservative Human Shield (Lib Dems). Not quite fifty shades of grey, but certainly many shades of blue.

Council by-elections rarely attract large turnouts, and those in mid-winter often threaten single digit percentages. That there is a lot at stake may provoke interest; there is the possibility of a no overall control at the Civic Centre. In reality, even a Tory defeat will not see real change – there are enough sympathisers in the opposition ranks to see Cllr Holdcroft retain his Leader’s allowance for a few months yet.

What a Tory defeat will signal is that the change many of us expect in May could be seismic. We already see a Conservative retreat in the east of the Borough, losing in West Leigh will be evidence that the Tory malaise has spread. The victors in ten days’ time will be the best organised and most able to persuade their supporters to make that trek to the polling station. This should be the Tories. The blues could have made this banana skin far less precarious had they chosen to force the issue and made this by-election take place during the autumn. If they are undone on the 23rd in large measure this will be their own fault. In the meantime, my colleagues and I will be looking to maximise the Labour vote, and perhaps privately dreaming of a red surprise.

Blowing in the wind

Whatever the outcome of May’s local elections there will be some changes in Southend-on-Sea Borough Council. We will see a new leader of the Conservative Group and a new leader of the Council, and this could be one and the same person. I strongly suspect, though, that the Leader of the Council post May 22nd will not be a member of the Conservative Group (although they could be Tory by nature).

These changes are made inevitable by Cllr Nigel Holdcroft’s decision to stand down in May. Whilst I find much to disagree with Nigel in his politics he is a fine performer in the chamber and he will be missed.

I am not privy to the internal machinations of the local Conservative Party, but if forced to make a prediction as to who will lead the Group après-Nigel I would suggest Cllr John Lamb. He is, after all, the current Deputy Leader and therefore already almost there. I do not doubt though that there will be a number of contenders for the role, and here will be an opportunity for the backbenchers to sell their votes.

The Leader of the Council will be elected by eliminating ballot. This means that if none of the contenders get enough votes (more than fifty per cent of members voting for them) then whoever is bottom of the poll is eliminated and the vote taken again. This method allows many to put their hats in without fearing that their presence on the ballot paper will split the vote.

I think that no party will have a majority, although the Conservatives (in my opinion) will still be the biggest party. They could retain control by finding a few friends amongst the opposition – Cllr Marimuthu Velmurugan already votes with the Tories on many issues and it will not be a surprise if he supports their candidate. Beyond that, unless a formal coalition agreement is made, I cannot see anyone else being prepared to support them. This presents all sorts of fascinating possibilities.

Being prepared to oust the Tories, and therefore supporting someone else as Leader, does not pre-suppose being prepared to partake in a grand coalition; it does not rule it out either. Post May 22nd I expect to see quite a bit of horse-trading going on. I expect discussions before then, although until the results are in no-one can be sure of what the situation will precisely be.

What is certain is that there will be 14 Conservatives, 10 Independents (including Cllr Vlemurugan), 5 Labour, 4 Liberal Democrat councillors, plus whoever is elected to represent West Leigh later this month. The seventeen who will be elected/re-elected on May 22nd will make the numbers up to fifty-one.

The defenders for those seventeen wards are: 11 Conservatives, 5 Liberal Democrats, 1 Labour.

I am sure many people will be playing guess the results between now and May and working out what this will mean. It would seem that whoever leads the town (and they do not necessarily have to lead their group) will find themselves leading by the narrowest of margins; I cannot see a Conservative wipe-out, but neither do I see them holding all eleven wards. With elections in 2015 it could be a very short tenure for the winner in May, and any new administration will want to make an impact so as to hold onto their gains twelve months after.

I sense a change in the political climate in Southend-on-Sea. Whilst 2014 will be a very interesting political year, proof of the substantiveness of that change will come in 2015. I fear that changes to voter registration rules as well as apathy may be the best weapon that the Tories have. My job is to engage voters enough so as to make them care about the borough and how it is run. This is how we make substantial changes, and make them stick.

Lurching to the right

Cllr Ron Woodley announces he is the only true Conservative in the borough. Cllr Marimuthu Velmurugan announces himself as Conservatively minded. The Independent Group announce an agreement/understanding/pact with UKIP.

One thing is abundantly clear is that the Independents in Southend-on-Sea are lurching to the right. The Southend Echo today has an article, which admittedly is partly speculative, about a concord between Independent Group and UKIP for next May’s local elections. It states things which hardly a secret – the Independent Group in the borough and UKIP are very close, nay allies.

UKIP are to the right of the Conservative Party. Their manifesto could have been cobbled together from the worst headlines found in the Daily Mail and Daily Express. Nigel Farrage has stated that his party will be running on an anti-immigration ticket in the European elections in May.

I cannot predict what will happen in the council chamber after the elections, although some sort of coalition is likely. It will be a black day for politics in Southend if UKIP get any councillors, let alone if they find themselves as part of a rainbow coalition running the town.

One or two in the Independent Group would have once described themselves as socialists. It defies my understanding how they can attach themselves to a party that has a large vein of xenophobia, anti-feminism and homophobia running through it. UKIP are against political correctness, human rights and the welfare state, favour discriminatory education policies and would sink Britain’s economic wellbeing by leaving the EU. They are also largely a party of climate change deniers, and their flag-waving little-Englander pretentions are in defiance of a history that shows Britain is at its best when it is outward looking and internationalist in approach.

The last thing my town needs is to ditch the Tories only to find them replaced with a more extreme version of the Conservative Party.

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