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Green breakthrough: Julia Hilton celebrates becoming the Green’s first HBC councillor with party colleagues including Andrea Needham, left, and Sally Phillips, right (photo: Hastings Green Party).

Tory gains and breakthrough for Greens in Hastings as Labour vote shrinks

Judgement day for Labour in Hastings: the party loses half of its borough council seats up for election to a Tory surge while jubilant  Greens gain a historic first seat. Chris Connelley casts an eye over the results, identifying the winners and losers in this year’s battle for the local council.

As Labour candidates made their way to the Horntye Sports Centre for the election count on Friday morning, they will have known they were in for a drubbing.

Around seven o’clock that morning, any faint hope that their party might have been on the way back after its epic general election defeat in 2019 will have turned to dust as the result from its former northern heartland of Hartlepool saw the Conservatives storm the seat with a 16% swing, displacing yet another brick in Labour’s famed red wall. With early local results suggesting this was not a one-off, the die was cast for a difficult day.

If such a thing as a southern red wall existed, Hastings would be its pier, as one of very few Labour controlled councils outside of London. In the last set of borough council elections in 2018, when all 32 seats were up for grabs, Labour took 24 seats (dropping to 23 when one of its councillors later resigned to become an Independent), leaving the Conservatives trailing far behind with just eight.

In the run-up to this year’s local elections, which saw half of the borough Council seats and all eight  East Sussex County Council seats contested, few expected much would change, with Labour’s decade-long dominance expected to remain undented.

Indeed, just one ward, Old Hastings, was widely identified as a possible swing seat, reflecting the closeness of the result in 2018, when the Greens came within 29 votes of victory, and where most commentators, including myself, anticipated a tight race.

How wrong we were.

Big shifts in Hastings too

By late morning, as the results began to be announced in blocks, it was clear that the big shifts seen elsewhere across the country were happening here too. First to change hands was Baird Ward, never seriously considered as a likely loss for the ruling party, where the well-established Labour councillor, teacher Warren Davies, went down by 73 votes to Conservative Rob Cooke, a former Hastings councillor returning to the fray after a sabbatical.

The next loss for Labour was in Old Hastings, where the result was anything but close as Green Party candidate, Julia Hilton, snatched the seat with 1,032 votes on a landslide swing that saw her secure over 50% of the total vote, trouncing her Labour opponent, newcomer Anna Sabin, to became her party’s first ever councillor in Hastings.

Just five minutes later, St Helens, one of the borough’s traditionally more marginal wards, in the comfortably-off centre of town, swung blue, as veteran local Conservative, civil servant Peter Pragnell, displaced the incumbent councillor, Labour’s Antonia Berelson, a nurse, by 289 votes.

Any hope that this marked the low point for Labour was brutally quashed as more results were announced mid-afternoon.

In Ore, Labour newcomer, care worker and musician, Anime Abdallah, was pipped to the post by 102 votes by her Conservative opponent, engineer Alan Hay.

Meanwhile, over in Silverhill, former Cabinet member Margi O’Callaghan lost by 71 votes to Conservative Lucian Fernando. Interviewed on local television, she admitted to surprise at the outcome, claiming that she been assured of residents’ support on the doorstop, while crediting her defeat to national issues. “They were all saying, no matter what, we are all coming out for you. Obviously, the national trend is a lot stranger than local politics at the moment.”

Five Labour losses

Overall, Labour lost five seats, four to the Conservatives and one to the Greens, retaining Braybrooke, Castle, Central St Leonards, Gensing, Hollington, Tressell and Wishing Tree.

Its new councillor team is a mix of new blood and returning talent, with veterans like Phil Scott, Alan Roberts and Trevor Webb, all of whom were first elected in the 1990s, joined by Sabina Arthur, Claire Carr and Ali Rourke, council leader Kim Forward’s daughter, who were all standing for the first time.

Back as HBC councillors – Rob Cooke (Baird, centre) and Peter Pragnell (St Helens, right), with Matthew Beaver, whose West St Leonards seat was not up for election (photo: Andy Patmore).

The Conservatives held all their existing seats in Maze Hill, Ashdown, Conquest and West St Leonards, where their candidate, Karl Beaney, secured a much enhanced majority in a ward where Labour’s controversial plans to build on a flood plain and develop the former bathing pool site had alienated many local voters.

Tory delight

New Conservative Group leader, Andy Patmore, running his first campaign, will have been delighted with the outcome. In a statement to HOT he commented, “The residents have sent a very loud, clear message to the Labour administration that they are not being listened to and won’t be taken for granted.

“The Conservative group polled 39.3% of the vote compared with Labour’s 37% and people will be wondering why they still have a Labour Council.

“Voters will have a chance in only 12 months’ time to hold Labour to account again. With that in mind, I feel like the job is only half done and the Conservatives must double their efforts to make sure we have genuine change in the Borough.”

The Conservatives are aware that their  gains included working-class seats where Labour might usually expect to win easily. Incoming  St Helens councillor Peter Pragnell picked up on this point, noting that “politics has changed” and that “class seems to matter less and less”, establishing a connection between Hastings and red wall seats in the north.

The Greens were the other big winners of the night, pulling off the night’s headline win after sustained hard work in Old Hastings. Their candidate, Julia Hilton, commented, “This shows that if you vote Green, you can get Green. I’m going to be in listening and learning mode for the next few weeks and months, seeing where we can join the dots and work together, bringing all the passions and skills of this amazing community to build a town where everybody’s needs are met within planetary limits.”

Bitter disappointment

By contrast Labour, which, unlike the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, actively campaigned throughout the election period, will have been bitterly disappointed with the result, its weakest for over a decade. Its leadership will be relieved that only half the seats were being contested, effectively containing the scale of its losses, while being aware that it will have to face the electorate again in a year’s time, when the remaining 16 seats are contested.

The Liberal Democrats had a grim night, and were squeezed everywhere, struggling to break through in any ward. For the time being at least, the yellow bird is well and truly grounded.

Thursday also saw elections for ESCC, which provides major services such as highways, adult social care and education, and is made up of Hastings, Wealden, Rother, Lewes and Eastbourne councils. Of the eight local seats,the Conservatives won four, with Labour taking three and the Greens gaining their first, at Labour’s expense.


This article was amended by Nick Terdre on 10 May 2021.

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Posted 12:40 Sunday, May 9, 2021 In: Politics


Please read our comment guidelines before posting on HOT

  1. Erica Smith

    I don’t think the article makes it clear that there is still a Labour majority (now reduced) because each ward has two councillors, and only one councillor in each ward was up for re-election last week.
    For this election, the result was 8 wins for the Conservatives, 7 for Labour and 1 for Green, but the overall balance of Borough councillors is:
    Labour: 19
    Conservative: 12
    Green: 1

    Comment by Erica Smith — Friday, May 14, 2021 @ 17:22

  2. Bryan Fisher

    “The Conservatives held all their existing seats in Maze Hill, Ashdown, Conquest and West St Leonards, where their candidate, Karl Beaney, secured a much enhanced majority in a ward where Labour’s controversial plans to build on a flood plain and develop the former bathing pool site had alienated many local voters.” – are you listening Kim Forward, Andy Batsford & all at Hastings & Rye Labour Party or is still a case of ignoring the communities and accept the seat losses?

    Comment by Bryan Fisher — Tuesday, May 11, 2021 @ 16:19

  3. Hippolyte Grigg

    FPTP or not this is a whiff of voters not liking the seemingly dictatorial attitude of this Labour HBC. Ever since the new leader was in post this has been the flavour.
    When the Zoom regime is at at an end we look to the new and old councillors to show their value and make a difference. That is what they have been voted in to do.

    Comment by Hippolyte Grigg — Monday, May 10, 2021 @ 12:19

  4. DAR

    Maybe it’s as much local issues as national ones that have brought about this poor result for Labour. Many people locally are fed up with Labour-controlled HBC’s cavalier attitude to housebuilding approval on greenfield sites and flood plains (see Harrow Lane Playing Fields /Bulverhythe etc.). If this attitude doesn’t change the same is likely in next year’s elections. Time to get rid of the Cabinet system too: it puts too much power in the hands of a few. Finally, I hope HBC’s planning officers will also take note.

    Comment by DAR — Monday, May 10, 2021 @ 11:39


    I don’t think an analysis of an FPTP election is complete without referencing the overall popular vote in Hastings, and whether the distribution of seats fairly represents the overall wishes of voters.

    Comment by JAMES WRIGHT — Sunday, May 9, 2021 @ 16:37

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