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Horntye hall, usually the scene for indoor sports, became the venue for the election count on Friday (photo: Chris Connelley).

Countdown to no overall control

HOT’s Chris Connelley spent Friday at this year’s election count and reports on the reaction from the floor as the results emerged which eventually moved Hastings Borough Council into no overall control.

If election day is an adrenaline-driven race to the line, and all about turning out the voters to secure that hoped-for win, the count is a more sober affair; the moment when the effect of months of hard work on the doorstep becomes apparent for our political class.

Counts used to happen overnight, just after the polls closed, but more recently, the trend has moved to next day activity. Which, for many candidates, especially those in marginal seats, means a restless night.

Here in Hastings, the count happens at the Horntye Centre, a 1980s sports complex where the badminton nets are taken down for one day and replaced by an architecture of fold-up tables and screens behind which a small army of officials sort, batch and tally votes in each of the borough’s 16 wards, closely observed by candidates and party activists.

Last Thursday saw a set of elections for half the seats making up Hastings Borough Council, following covid-delayed contests last year for the other half. That election produced a set of choppy results in a town that has been solidly Labour for the last decade, with Conservatives picking up four seats and the Greens gaining their first, amping up the speculation about what this year might bring.

Uncertainties

Candidates started arriving early, often in groups, with the Conservatives first in. Given the grim overnight news from London, where Wandsworth and Westminster, both totemic Tory councils for as long as anyone can remember, turned red, they looked remarkably unworried, calm even. Their group leader, Andy Patmore, defending his Maze Hill seat, acknowledged it was a difficult year for them, and summed up the general feeling when he said this was the most uncertain count he could remember.

That said, he went on to claim that, “There’s everything to play for,” and predicted his team would retain all their seats and that the Council would move to a situation of no overall control. He also identified the Greens as the great unknown this time round, echoing many in the hall who were wondering whether that party’s landslide Old Hastings win a year ago was a one-off or the start of something bigger.

By mid morning, as the sorting of votes got under way, the numbers in the hall grew. Labour’s campaign co-ordinator, Andy Batsford, up for re-election in St Helens ward, was one of the new arrivals. Buoyed by the overnight returns from the capital, he expressed confidence that this set of elections would be “really strong”, that there was “a  good vibe” and that “we are feeling confident”. He also claimed to be unconcerned about any Green threat, arguing that the “general voter considers their material lightweight,” before lamenting what he saw as the challenger party’s targeting of Labour rather than Conservative seats. “I haven’t enjoyed their campaign to be honest.”

Green activists were equally uncompromising, taking issue with Labour for issuing spoiler leaflets in one of their key target seats, Central St Leonards, insinuating that a Green vote would allow a Tory win. One activist retorted that the ward has never been blue and that “There’s more chance of Elvis coming back to play Vegas than a Conservative winning Central St Leonards”. For parties sharing much common ground, relations were tense.

Liberal Democrats, never really in serious contention anywhere, were noticeably thin on the ground, though stalwarts Bob Lloyd and Stewart Rayment put in appearances. The sole British Communist Party candidate, Nicholas Davies, who we have been trying to contact for a while, was present too. He confirmed that he was one of just 27 people standing under the CP banner nationwide, and hoped his campaign would raise awareness of this alternative option.

Quizzed as to why he was standing in Braybrooke, he admitted that it was the first ward to generate the 10 signatures required to achieve nomination as a candidate. Asked why he was standing, he said that “We need to have a left-wing challenge to Labour as the party drifts to the right”, dismissing the Greens, often cast in this role, as being “actually quite right-wing and reactionary” on policy areas other than the environment.

Hotspots

As the morning progressed, the identity of likely hotspots became clearer. Old Hastings, predicted to be a close call after last year’s Green landslide, showed a whopping win for the incumbent councillor and current mayor, James Bacon, one of the borough’s most visible and assiduous politicians.

Likewise St Helens, Silverhill, Ore and Baird, which generated Labour defeats just a year ago, were all comfortably held. Simon Willis, the victor in Ore, and a late selection, becomes one of a number of new faces on the council, along with Labour’s John Cannan, the victor in Wishing Tree. Cannan replaced veteran councillor Phil Scott, who was standing down from the council after almost 30 years’ service.

Recounting the Central St Leonards votes.

A number of traditionally safe seats, however, proved nightmarish for Labour. Central St Leonards, where some of the most fashionable galleries and eateries sit cheek by jowl  with enduring disadvantage, saw deputy mayor Ruby Cox felled by Green newcomer, literary agent Tony Collins, by 34 votes, after two recounts. Central St Leonards was the site of the most muscular campaigning, with both sides issuing squeeze leaflets in the final few days.

Neighbouring Gensing ward, where Kim Forward, council leader until just a few weeks ago when she stood down at the start of the campaign, had a formidable majority of 600 votes in the last election, was another casualty, as community activist Amanda Jobson, for the Greens, one of the instigators of independent sea water testing and another first-time candidate, swept to a comfortable 100-vote victory.

Excitement levels were ramped up still further around lunchtime with the announcement that Castle ward, taking in Hastings town centre and the modish West Hill, was recounting. It transpired that Labour’s candidate, Judy Rogers, a former mayor and high-profile public figure, was under pressure from another Green newcomer, Becca Horn, fighting her first election campaign. In the end, Labour just held on, by a wafer-thin margin of five votes.

Biggest surprise

The biggest surprise of the day was yet to come though, in Tressell Ward, the long-term political base for Peter Chowney, Labour council leader from 2015 to 2019 and parliamentary candidate in 2017 and 2019. In a seat that has always returned Labour candidates, businessman Glenn Haffenden, for the Greens, achieved one of the largest swings in the whole country of around 26%, taking 635 votes to Labour’s 325 in a seat the party came third in just a year ago. A delighted Haffenden put the result down to sheer hard work, “about putting in the graft,” and promised to repay the trust of the community by being visible and tackling deep-seated issues in social housing.

The win in Tressell had the wider effect of moving the Council into a position of no party majority. With all results declared by mid afternoon, the overall position is that Labour is the largest party on 15 seats, with the Conservatives on 12 and the Greens on five.

Greens savour the moment.

As weary campaigners headed out of Horntye into the sunshine and off to the bars to celebrate, or to catch up on lost sleep, or for a seafront photo-shoot with co-leader Adrian Ramsay in the case of the Greens, each party will take away positives from the campaign.

The Conservatives will have been pleased to have held on to all their seats, albeit with smaller majorities and with a sharply diminished vote share, on a dire night for the party nationally. Labour will take comfort from securing the largest local vote share, but will be stunned by its three losses in heartland wards, while the Greens will rejoice at  their meteoric rise from zero  to five councillors in just a year, and by their epic result in Tressell.

 

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Posted 20:17 Sunday, May 8, 2022 In: Elections 2022

6 Comments

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  1. Kathryn Sargent

    But here in leafy Maze Hill ward, where was our Green candidate, There was no sign of either Maze Hill resident Becca McCrae or her party’s supporters in our area surrounding the Marina allotments – yet a hundred yards away in Central St Leonards ward Green Party posters hung in many windows. We looked out for canvassers but none came our way.

    Apparently the Greens had opted to field what they termed a ‘paper’ candidate, in Maze Hill: a token candidate not expected to win. Their spokesperson actually admitted as much. The cynicism of this is profoundly depressing.

    In the event, despite a less than impressive campaign Becca actually received around 250 votes, a hardly insignificant number given the narrow margins gained by some winners in other local wards.

    Please don’t underestimate us , Greens – and be sure to work a whole harder for us next time around.

    Comment by Kathryn Sargent — Thursday, May 19, 2022 @ 08:00

  2. DAR

    Totally agree with Bryan Fisher: time to ditch the cabinet system at HBC. Too much power in the hands of too few.

    Comment by DAR — Friday, May 13, 2022 @ 14:44

  3. Bryan Fisher

    Well-balanced article that described the tension, the false optimism, and explained the new position for the council. Now the Greens hold the balance of power it will be interesting to see whether they enter into a formal agreement with either the Conservatives or Labour; or decide to use their ‘casting’ vote wisely as independent. Personally, I hope it is the latter! I would also hope Labour are forced to get rid of the ‘cabinet’ where six councillors dictate what comes to pass, rather than the full council or a balanced sub-committee. More democracy please!

    Comment by Bryan Fisher — Monday, May 9, 2022 @ 20:40

  4. Peter Pragnell

    A fair report. Just one thing – the Conservatives held Central St Leonard’s from 2000-2002 after Eve Martin unseated Alan Roberts. She did it by dint of sheer hard work, knocking on every door at least once – being bitten by a ferocious dog at one house – and talking to people.

    Comment by Peter Pragnell — Monday, May 9, 2022 @ 17:20

  5. J B KNIGHT

    We will see how interesting this gets. At least a clamp has been put on Labour spending and passing through planning and projects smoothly and without a blink of objection.

    Or may be a damp squib and blinkered narrow politics for such a diverse town with all its problems, not just environmental but political, economic and social.

    But so glad Labour has been ousted from “Safe Seats” serves them right for treating us as idiots and taking it for granted. The awful flyer stating a vote for Greens was a vote for Tories is very very insulting and treats the electorate as idiots. Many wish to vote for Integrity. Not the Same Damn Fools to be in charge again. and don’t forget all the people Labour insulted defamed and purged.

    We will see what comes next, not easy for anyone in this climate

    Comment by J B KNIGHT — Monday, May 9, 2022 @ 07:27

  6. Mr Blair

    Excellent insight into the count. Great election coverage by HOT, Nick Tedre’s election result story was much appreciated too.

    “Labour’s campaign co-ordinator, Andy Batsford” Well that info does help explain a few things. No wonder Andy Patmore looked “remarkably unworried, calm even”. Why on earth did Labour choose Clr Batsford for that role for such a critical election? He is renowned for his tactless foot in mouth behaviour on social media & as for his You Tube series ‘Opening The Brown Envelope With Clr Andy Batsford’ – it would make Alan Partridge’s toes curl & Alan B’Stard squirm.

    Meanwhile the Greens ran a very strong positive inspiring campaign for their talented candidates – job very well done, wins well deserved, great leadership by Julia Hilton.

    I look forward to viewing this months full council meeting with its new faces. & it is pleasing to see the return of Margi O’Callaghan, Labour need talent like her more than ever. New boy Clr Willis looks interesting too.

    Comment by Mr Blair — Sunday, May 8, 2022 @ 22:02

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