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Hastings Greens at their launch party with deputy leader Zack Polanski (centre).

Ready, steady, go…parties prepare for May’s local elections

With the political parties under starter’s orders for May’s local elections, HOTs election commentator Chris Connelley previews the field. Following recent developments at Hastings Borough Council, the outcome is unusually hard to call.

March marks the advent of meteorological spring, when we will all be hoping for a gear change from the seemingly never-ending wind and rain experienced over recent months.

It also heralds a new political season with the effective onset of campaigning for Hastings Borough Council elections, in which 16 of the 32 seats – one in each ward – are up for grabs on 2 May.

The Green Party opened the batting with a launch at the Observer Building on 2 March, where their deputy party leader Zack Polanski was the VIP guest.

This event marked the start of full-on campaigning in the immediate run-up to voting, although both Labour and the Greens have been out on the doorstep actively engaging with voters since last autumn.

All change

In recent years, Hastings Borough Council elections have been a two-horse race between the Conservatives and Labour, with the latter generally coming out on top.

Last time these seats were contested, in 2021 (the election was delayed a year due to Covid), Labour did badly, losing five seats, four to the Conservatives and one to the Greens, who won Old Hastings Ward to take their first seat on the Council.

Three years on, much has changed.

Labour is no longer the majority party, losing control in December following the defection of eight of its councillors, including leader and deputy leader, Cllrs Paul Barnett and Maya Evans, and all but one of the Cabinet, to form a new group, the Hastings Independents.

Four other councillors have jumped or been pushed from the party ticket they were elected on. Cllr Lucian Fernando has joined Reform UK, while the other three now sit as independents, but separate from the Hastings Independents. One of them, outgoing Castle Ward councillor Claire Carr, has changed sides twice in her three-year term, from Labour to the Greens in 2021, and from the Greens to independent earlier this year.

She will not be standing again, nor will Tressell councillor Ali Roark.

The various comings and goings over the Council term see the authority currently configured as follows:

  • Conservatives 10
  • Greens 4
  • Hastings Independents 8
  • Labour 6
  • Non-aligned independents 3
  • Reform UK 1

The Council is currently run by an alliance of the Hastings Independents and the Greens, with the leader and deputy leader roles held by Cllrs Julia Hilton and Glenn Haffenden, both from the Greens. The three remaining Cabinet roles are all held by members of the Hastings Independents.

As voters prepare to head to the polls, they are likely to confront a six-way choice in some wards. This is made up of all the established national parties – Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Reform and Greens – plus a set of candidates representing the Hastings Independents, which has applied to be registered as a new political party entirely focused on issues local to Hastings.

New faces

With a number of existing councillors standing down, many of the candidates up for election will be new, with 14 members of the 16-strong Labour team completely fresh faces. They include a local family businessman, a university professor, a former Guardian journalist and a brand consultant.

The Greens are also looking to bring on new talent, with many of their candidates standing for the first time. Their line-up includes a former soldier turned diplomat, a former Metropolitan police officer, an undertaker, a publisher and an educational consultant.

Hard to call

Given the complex backdrop, predictions are almost impossible to make, adding an element of genuine surprise to this year’s contest.

Labour supporters, including four of their six HBC councillors, out canvassing for their parliamentary candidate, Helena Dollimore (centre, red coat).

Labour will be hoping to bounce back from a torrid few months, during which time it has lost some of its most visible and experienced campaigners and fallen back to just five councillors. It will, however, be heartened by the party’s consistently strong lead in national polling, the tendency for voters to concentrate support around the major parties in the run-up to the general election and its ability to draw upon substantial help from neighbouring branches and trade unions, allowing it to run a vigorous ground campaign.

The Greens, who in just three years have moved from complete outsiders to leading the authority in alliance with the Hastings Independents, will be hoping that they have not peaked. They will be mindful that scaling up an operation to actively contest six or seven wards is a challenge for a small party, especially since many of their candidates are new and have limited experience.

They will also be aware that some of their voters will drift back to the major parties in this general election year, but they will be buoyed by their party’s considerable success in gaining council seats in recent years, yielding a tally of over 700 Green councillors nationwide. They will, however, be haunted by the results in Brighton and Hove last year, where the Greens lost badly to Labour, having run the council there as a minority administration.

The Conservatives will be aware that they did well last time, taking swing seats such as Ore, Silverhill and St Helens, and that holding these wards in the current climate, when their party trails Labour by around 20% in the polls, and with Reform UK representing a growing threat from the right, is a big ask. They will be pleased to hold on to their traditional heartlands in Ashdown, Conquest and Maze Hill, and to live to fight another day.

Reform UK, now polling nationally at 13%, will be hoping to make its presence felt, although at the time of going to press it is unclear whether its single councillor, Lucien Fernando, a Conservative defector, will be standing again in Silverhill Ward. Cllr Fernando is the party’s parliamentary candidate for Hastings and Rye and may focus on that contest rather than the local elections. We also understand that Reform UK plans to put up a full slate of candidates for the 16 council seats.

Peter Bailey, left, Hastings Independents candidate for Baird Ward, out canvassing with Cllr Mike Turner.

The Hastings Independents have just one existing councillor, Maya Evans, up for re-election this May. She will be running under her new colours in Hollington Ward, and will be joined by up to nine more candidates across the borough. Campaign managers promise a diverse slate, and, at just four months old, and with no formal membership in place, will be hoping to tap into the widespread public disillusionment with politics and to benefit from not being part of an established national party.

The Hastings Independents are so new, in fact, that their application to register as a political party is still being processed. If confirmation is not received by the final date for candidate registration, their team members will appear on ballot papers as independents.

The Liberal Democrats, despite being the third party nationally, have not held a seat on Hastings Borough Council for the best part of 20 years, and will only be standing candidates in two wards, with no serious expectation of victory. In practice, their activists will be focused on supporting general election victories in the neighbouring constituencies of Eastbourne and Willingdon, and Lewes, both of which are key ‘blue wall’ Conservative-Liberal Democrat marginals. They have just announced that Guy Harris will be their parliamentary candidate for Hastings & Rye.

Turning out voters

Given the traditionally low turnout for local elections, under 30% in some wards, those parties that are able to run an effective ground campaign to locate supporters and to turn their promises into actual votes on polling day can gain a real advantage. Labour and the Greens have a head start in this regard, with both having paid organisers in place to target resources and co-ordinate activity.

With eight weeks to go before polling day, voters can expect many leaflets and much doorstepping as the parties jockey to secure an advantage to break the logjam on the Council. With so much change over the last six months, and new and different choices on offer, we are in uncharted territory, and it is unclear whether any single force can break through to secure an overall majority.

Over the coming weeks, HOT will be bringing you comprehensive coverage of the campaign, with news on the policies and personalities being put forward by the parties in an attempt to secure your support. We will also be testing the mood on the ground in some of the swing wards.

 

The misspelling of Ashdown Ward was corrected on 8 March 2024.

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Posted 18:46 Tuesday, Mar 5, 2024 In: Elections

2 Comments

Please read our comment guidelines before posting on HOT

  1. Nick Terdre

    Thank you for pointing that out, Cllr Edwards, and apologies for the misspelling. The name of your ward, Ashdown, has now been corrected.

    Comment by Nick Terdre — Friday, Mar 8, 2024 @ 08:53

  2. Michael Edwards

    As the sitting members Councillor Marlow-Eastwood and myself would wish to point out that the ward we are honoured to represent is called Ashdown Ward and not as shown above.

    Comment by Michael Edwards — Thursday, Mar 7, 2024 @ 21:44

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