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The battle is on for the Old Hasting seat (photo: Russell Jacobs).

The Battle of Old Hastings: Greens gear up for an Old Town challenge

In a town where the prospect of upsets in the upcoming local elections is generally remote, it is the Old Hastings ward where the likelihood looks greatest, following the Greens’ narrow loss to Labour in 2018. Chris Connelley has been out with both parties’ candidates to find out what they have to offer the electorate.

It is Saturday morning in Hastings Old Town and all is well. The sun is shining, Covid rates are way down and this historic heart of Hastings is coming back to life. With most shops now back open, the pubs and cafes with outdoor space are doing a roaring brunch trade, as hirsute hipsters clutching designer dogs mingle with bikers out on a seaside jaunt, and extended multi- generational families queue with barely contained excitement for a round of crazy golf. In our new adjusted normal, everyone seems happy to be back out to play.

And just a couple of minutes away, by the Stables Theatre, there’s an equally upbeat mood as a group of local Green Party supporters for the 6 May local elections convene for a morning out on the doorstep meeting voters. They are a friendly bunch, and clearly rearing to go, enthused by recent polls showing them ahead of the Lib Dems nationally, with their cousins the German Greens predicted to be the highest scoring party in September’s general election over Angela Merkel’s CDU.

Here in Hastings, their aspirations are more modest, though they think they are in with a decent chance of taking their first seat on the borough council in Old Hastings ward, having missed out by just 29 votes in the last set of elections. Buoyed by the presence of their candidate, Julia Hilton, back out on the stump after a period convalescing after an operation, the group splits into smaller teams, and I head off with Julia, a landscape architect and seasoned community activist, and party stalwart, Andrea Needham, a dementia nurse, into the heart of the Old Town to meet voters.

It could, of course, be a case of beginner’s luck but the first road canvassed is remarkably good for them. Apart from one voter who declined to state his preference, almost everyone who answers the door readily offers their support, while most ask for a window poster. In fact, they get through so many in this single street that they run out and have to take addresses to drop them off later.

If this road was typical, they’d be on course for a landslide, but as Julia is at pains to point out, Old Hastings ward extends way beyond the Old Town to take in Clive Vale, stretching to the boundaries of Ore, and not all the territory is as supportive of them.

Julia Hilton, right, canvassing with Andrea Needham in Old Hastings.

Warm reception

Certainly, other roads on our canvassing route, though positive, are less fulsome, though what strikes me by the end of the morning is the warmth of reception towards the Greens generally, however people are voting – people tend to smile on discovering who they are – and the high candidate recognition for Julia, who is stopped, name-checked or in touch with many voters, suggesting she has been working the patch hard since the last poll in 2018.

Since moving to Hastings 12 years ago, Julia has established a formidable reputation as an effective campaigner, most notably pushing the Council to declare a climate emergency and continuing to hold it to account. In addition, she has worked with the local energy co-op Energise Sussex Coast to install solar panels on schools, and is currently part of the Garden Town team hoping to green up Hastings Town Centre.

Last but not least, she led the campaign against the Marina, proposals for which horrified many residents in the Old Town a couple of years ago, earning her widespread respect across party lines.

The issues raised on the doorstep are diverse, from the relentless proliferation of holiday lets and the range of seafront amusements through to more predictable issues like climate change. The borough council comes up on a few occasions, and a few residents take the opportunity to vent their displeasure with it,  tapping directly into Julia’s narrative that she offers Old Hastings voters the chance of an alternative, independent-minded voice in an authority so heavily dominated by Labour over recent years.

By lunchtime our time is up, and I head off to meet the Labour candidate for Old Hastings, Anna Sabin, at the Stade. The original intention was to observe another canvass, but as this was not possible, we chat over coffee. And, unlike many conversations with politicians, which can be formulaic due to the relentless desire to be ‘on message’, this proves to be a captivating and free-ranging conversation with a refreshingly open and candid candidate.

I discover that Anna, a print-maker by training,  is a newcomer to the area, having moved to St Leonards in 2019 after decades living on a smallholding on Dartmoor so that she is closer to her grown-up children. Since arriving here, she has been involved in Transition Town Hastings, part of a national movement she much admires, and active in the community campaign opposing development plans on the Old Bathing Pool site being promoted by some of her party colleagues.

New to Labour

Indeed, it turns out that she is a newcomer to Labour Party politics too, and she freely admits that she voted for the party for the first time in the Brexit election of 2019. Inspired by Jeremy Corbyn’s Green Industrial Revolution pledge, she signed up to help the local party campaign, made some good friends along the way and was asked to stand as a candidate in the borough council elections, scheduled for last year but deferred by 12 months due to Covid.

She was originally selected to stand near where she lives in West St Leonards, having convinced the regional party to waive the normal one-year membership requirement for candidates, but swapped to the Old Town, where a vacancy had arisen following the decision by former Old Hastings Labour councillor Dany Louise to resign the party whip and sit as an independent at the peak of the party’s anti-semitism crisis.

Over recent weeks, she has been busy getting to know Old Hastings ward residents, using a combination of telephone canvassing and, following the easing of restrictions, door-knocking. She name-checks pot holes as the number one issue raised on the doorstep, while revealing that her personal political passion is centred on improving local public transport, especially buses, so that those living in outlying areas are better served getting to and from the centre. Given the low levels of car ownership in the locality, this is seen as having the potential to “free people” from being confined to their immediate environment, to beneficial effect.

In a borough  where many wards are a shoo-in for Labour, Anna is fully aware that Old Hastings is a close call and acknowledges that the Greens represent a real challenge. She declines to predict the outcome of the election, conceding it will be close, but maintains the Labour vote is holding up in Clive Vale, an area she describes as made up of  “the salt of the earth: nurses and teachers and public servants”.

Though the Lib Dems and Conservatives are on the ballot, this is very much a two-horse race and the winner on 6 May will be one of the two women introduced in this article. Having spent time with them, it is clear that both could do the job well. With just one seat up for grabs, the voters of Old Hastings have to make the difficult choice between two capable and thoughtful candidates.

May the best woman win.

Old Hastings result in 2018

James Bacon (Lab) 983 votes (27%), Dany Louise (Lab) 726 (20%), Julia Hilton (Green) 697 (19%), Andrea Needham (Green) 454 (13%), Alan Hay (Con) 420 (12%) and Lisa Rankin (Con) 316 (9%). No Liberal Democrats stood. Bacon and Louise were elected.

In the 2021 election, in addition to the Green and Labour candidates, Stuart Murphy is standing for the Conservatives and Gene Saunders for the Lib Dems.

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Posted 21:18 Tuesday, Apr 27, 2021 In: Politics

2 Comments

Please read our comment guidelines before posting on HOT

  1. DAR

    My previous comment is metaphorical rather than literal.

    Comment by DAR — Thursday, Apr 29, 2021 @ 15:17

  2. DAR

    Sounds like a battle of the DFLs!

    Comment by DAR — Thursday, Apr 29, 2021 @ 10:52

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