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Counting under way at Horntye sports centre (photo: Chris Connelley).

The grass is Greener in Hastings…

HOTs election commentator Chris Connelley reports from yesterday’s nail-biting count on a historic day when the Greens became the largest party on Hastings Borough Council just three years after taking their first seat. Labour also made gains, but the Tories lost seats and none of the Hastings Independent candidates was elected. Graphics by Russell Hall.

This week’s local elections proved a memorable day for Hastings Greens who won nine of the 16 seats in the poll. In contrast to their performance nationally, Labour trailed in second place with five, while the Conservatives managed only two and the Hastings Independents none.

Hastings remains a council under no overall control: the Greens have 12 seats, Labour eight, the Hastings Independents six and the Tories five. There is one unaligned independent.

Nerve-wracking marathon

If election day is all about energy and adrenalin, the relentless pursuit of getting out the vote, the day after, when the counting happens, is best characterised as a combination of apprehension and fear, in what is a genuinely nerve-wracking marathon for the candidates and activists who have invested weeks, sometimes months, of their life out on the doorstep trying to engage the attention of voters.

Here in Hastings, the count takes place in the sports hall at the Horntye Centre on Bohemia Road, which abandons its usual schedule of badminton and fitness classes to become a giant results operation for the day. Laid out in grid form, with designated areas for each of the borough’s 16 wards, a team of council officials validate, batch and count ballot papers closely observed by representatives of the political parties eager to spot any papers moving to the wrong pile.

This forensic task assumed greater importance this year in a more complex and congested council contest than ever before, with Labour and Conservatives subject to a vigorous challenge by a confident Green Party and the presence of the new Hastings Independents, an explicitly local force formed out of a fracture with Labour on the part of eight of its former councillors in December last year.

Last time these seats were contested, in 2021, the Conservatives were on a roll, taking eight seats to Labour’s seven. It was also the year the Greens gained their first seat on the borough council, snatching Old Hastings Ward from Labour with over half of the vote.

Preparing for the count early on Friday. As with various other councils, there was no overnight counting on this occasion (photo: HBC).

Different context

This year, the context couldn't be more different.

Nationally, Labour has a 15-20% lead in opinion polls, while locally Julia Hilton, the Green victor in Old Hastings in 2021, was leading the council, her four-strong group having been working in partnership with the Hastings Independents since they split from Labour.

The Conservative, Green and Hastings Independents teams all arrived early at Horntye, to sample the full spectacle of the count, with Labour maintaining a less visible presence during the early stages, just sending in its counting agents.

By lunchtime, when Labour’s candidates arrived en masse for the early declarations, it was clear that the wind was very much behind the Green sails, with major movements in hitherto safe Labour areas like Braybrooke, where on his first foray into local politics, urbane former soldier and diplomat Mark Etherington overturned a two-decade strong Labour majority to take the ward, by 1,001 votes to 660 for Dr Tim Shand, the Labour candidate, equivalent to an impressive 56% of the vote.

Triumphant afternoon

This set the scene for a triumphant afternoon for the Green Party, which also won Baird, Central St Leonards, Castle, Ore, Maze Hill, Gensing and Tressell, while group leader Julia Hilton retained her seat in Old Hastings, building on her landslide last time to take 61% of the vote.

Labour, for so long the dominant party locally, won just five seats, snatching West St Leonards and St Helens from the Conservatives, Silverhill from Reform UK and Hollington from the Hastings Independents, where former Guardian journalist, Danuta Kean pipped former council deputy leader, Maya Evans, by 395 votes to 351 in one of the most tightly fought contests. Newcomer Helen Kay comfortably held Wishing Tree for the party, replacing outgoing Labour veteran Alan Roberts.

The Conservatives retained just two seats, holding on in their traditional heartlands of Ashdown and Conquest.

Overall the results mean that no single party has overall control of the borough council.

While Labour has done very well nationally, the undoubted winners of our local campaign were the Greens, who demonstrated the power of early candidate selection and a forensic focus on continuous community activism as tools for success. Many of their team are first-time candidates, grounded in their local communities and with a track record of practical action, which played well with voters in all areas of town, confounding speculation that they only do well in more conspicuously middle class areas.

Newcomer Jo Walker, for example, took the classic swing seat in Ore, defeating Labour group leader Heather Bishop by over 400 votes in a ward that sits far outside the seafront-facing hipster hangouts.

Disappointment and delight

Labour, whilst deeply disappointed to  have lost in Braybrooke, Castle and Central St Leonards, will be delighted to have regained swing seats in St Helens and West St Leonards, and, most of all,  to have retaken Hollington from the Hastings Independents.

Party managers were  keen to differentiate patterns of local and national voting, making the point that most voters who had deviated from voting for them yesterday are expected to return to support their highly visible parliamentary candidate, Helena Dollimore, at the general election due probably later this year. They will be mindful that Labour’s traditional dominance on the council and recent splits within their ranks played badly for them, and wise heads in the party will recognise that it is time to regroup around their new team with a fresher and more outward-facing appeal.

The Hastings Independents, who were unable to register as a party in time to have their name on the ballot papers,will be devastated to have lost Hollington, where one of their most visible campaigners, Maya Evans, was defeated by just under 50 votes. Outside of Central St Leonards, where their candidate, artist and gallerist Steph Warren, achieved a creditable 275 votes, their results were decidedly modest, evidencing the difficulty of entering an electoral contest in such an already crowded field.

Party strategists will be pondering their future, and hoping to continue a partnership arrangement with the Greens as the most obvious means to maintain their relevance.

Taking comfort

The Conservatives were expecting a kicking, and got one. They will take comfort from avoiding the total wipe-out experienced by their peers in Lewes a year ago, when they lost all their seats. They will also take pleasure from seeing off Reform UK, whose three candidates failed to make any substantial impact, while losing their single seat in Silverhill to Labour.

The Liberal Democrats, deprived of any representation on the council for over a decade, showed no sign of any comeback, having been displaced by the Greens as the party of protest against the two major parties. In a dismal showing their candidates came last in all eight seats they contested.

The focus now moves to possible alliances allowing for a majority administration, with talks expected between the Greens and Hastings Independents. Unless there is a change of mind at Labour headquarters, whose diktat ended the previous cooperation agreement with the Greens, Labour look like remaining out in the cold.

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Posted 18:43 Saturday, May 4, 2024 In: Elections


Please read our comment guidelines before posting on HOT

  1. Keith Piggott

    Indeed, thank you Nick for correction, all credit to Russell Hall. Keith

    Comment by Keith Piggott — Monday, May 6, 2024 @ 20:01

  2. Nick Terdre

    Keith, I’m sure Chris won’t mind me pointing out that the presentation of data in graphical form is down to Russell Hall. Chris is responsible for the text.

    Comment by Nick Terdre — Monday, May 6, 2024 @ 14:40

  3. Keith Piggott

    Congratulations to Chris Connelley on his impressive and superbly presented election results database.

    Abstaining residents, perhaps, had an indirect effect that contributed to the Green’s success, unlikely or at least not guaranteed in the national election.

    Comment by Keith Piggott — Monday, May 6, 2024 @ 13:06

  4. Bea Rogers

    A contributing factor was Labour’s odd campaign. There was lots of canvassing, but not the usual practice of carefully recording people who intended to vote for the party. Requests for posters were ignored – almost all the posters on show in the town were Green. There were number takers outside polling stations, but it seems these were ignored when it came to knocking-up time. The result: people were knocking on everyone’s door asking if they had voted and who they supported, leading to a lot of angry protest which was visible on the local Nextdoor site. The point of election organising should be to record your supporters, note who has voted, and go round to remind those who have not.
    On the substantive local situation, the likely Green/ H-Indy coalition looks short-term. The H-Indys lost tbe only councillor who had to face re-election, and all their new candidates came nowhere. In two years’ time they may lose some more. Meanwhile Labour will be back and much better organised.

    Comment by Bea Rogers — Monday, May 6, 2024 @ 08:41

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