Local elections are funny things at the best of times and while we wait for the results of those councils who delayed their count to today to see if the picture that emerged overnight holds true – No Labour meltdown, Tories hit the ‘magic’ 40% without making a convincing breakthrough and Lib Dems getting squeezed – Sandwell has managed to buck the national trend and deliver a result out of keeping with the overall tone of the night.
The headline story of the night, as David Nikel rightly observes, is that there is no headline story – the BNP failed to make any gains at all, even in their key target seat in Princes End.
David will, no doubt, not mind if I point out that, as a Lib Dem candidate, he came a somewhat distant second to Steve Eling in Abbey Ward (which also happens to be the ward represented by Bob Piper). Facing off against Steve was always going to be a tall order, not only is he the Deputy Leader of Sandwell Council, but as chair of the now concluded SRB4 programme in Smethwick (amongst other things), his guiding (political) hand is inextricably linked in the minds of the local electorate to the massive improvements in the local environment in recent years, especially the investment in the area’s public green spaces, which includes the jewel in the borough’s crown, Warley Woods. Annoying as the problems caused by litter can be in Bearwood, I do wonder a little at the wisdom of campaigning so heavily on the environment against someone with Steve’s track record.
If anyone visits the area and gets to see how much of an improvement there’s been in our local parks and amenities, they’ll certainly come to understand the frustrations that Steve, Bob, myself and other local residents share at Witless Whitby’s instransigence over renovations to Lightwoods Park, which although physically in Sandwell, is the legal responsibility of Birmingham City Council – which reminds me that BCC never did respond to my FOIA request for a copy of the title deeds to the park.
Unlike Bob, I can’t say I saw any signs of negative opposition campaigning in my own ward, which is right next to his, geographically speaking, largely because I saw no sign of any opposition campaigning in my part of the ward at all other than from the ‘Red and Green Alliance Party’ who got all of 66 votes.
Looking at the results in more detail, perhaps the unacknowledged story of the night is that of the desperately disappointing results for the Tories in Blackheath and Great Barr with Yew Tree, both of which exemplify precisely why Tory councillors were complaining bitterly about the breakdown of the cosy ‘status quo’ of recent times that ensured that they and BNP stayed out of each other’s hair in their respective target wards.
The Tories must have had high hopes of picking up Blackheath, having made gains in the ward from Labour at the last two elections, but the combination of a popular and well established sitting Labour councillor – Bob Price – and the presence of a BNP candidate who took 6oo+ votes, most of which appear to have come from the Tory/Anti Labour vote of previous years looks to have cost them their best chance of making a gain on the night.
Great Barr and Yew Tree looks like much the same story, if maybe a bit more depressing for the Tories, who not only lost a sitting councillor to the Lib Dems but rolled in a very poor fourth with, again, the BNP appearing to be the main beneficiaries of the collapse on the Tory vote.
Labour’s one gain on the night, in St Paul’s ward in Smethwick, is another that reflects somewhat poorly on the state of the local Tory party. The ward is one the Tories made two gains in back in 2004, when all three seats were up, on the back of a nakedly communal election which lined up three Sikhs for Labour against three (newly acquired Muslims) for the Tories, at least one of whom, so I understand, has made some (rebuffed) overtures about crossing the floor since becoming a councillor.
This time out it was a Tory up for re-election, but not the one who won the seat in 2004, against a fresh Labour candidate, Pat Davies, who took the seat with a comfortable majority.
However if there is real story to tell about this election then it this…
One of the things I often here from people who’re a bit cheesed off with the local council is the suggest that what the ruling Labour group could do with is a bit more ‘serious opposition’.
My usual response to this tend to be ‘Serious? Competent would be nice for a change?’
Even a number of our councillors are wont to comment on the general poor state of the opposition parties in Sandwell and their inability to present a real challenge either at the ballot box or on the floor of the council chamber.
It says much about the parlous state of the local Tory party that in several wards where, for the first time, the BNP put up candidates at this election, it was largely they and not Labour who lost votes to the BNP. It may well have cost them a win in Blackheath, where the Tories have done well in the last two election from a solid community base built around the local trader’s association, and it did cost them a seat in Great Barr, although that’s somewhat less surprising as the area around the Scott Arms pub, on the Birmingham border, was at one time BNP/NF central prior to their move into Tipton. In several other seats, the BNP took a sizable bite out of the Tory vote, even pushing them down into third and fourth place in some wards.
To some small extent, the BNP, despite their failure to make any gains, have benefited from a small, racist vote that, in the past, has seen the Tories as the best available fit for their prurient views whether local Tories have actively courted that portion of the electorate or not. However, looking at the number of votes that the Tories lost to the BNP, it would be too simplistic a response to suggest that this stems either from local racists finding a more conducive political home or from Thatcherites jumping ship in protest at Cameron’s move to the centre, as long-serving Wednesbury councillor, Bill Archer, tried to suggest mere days before the election.
Despite their all too obvious deficiencies as a political party – and in the case of Cllr Simon Smith, especially, as a human being – the BNP are having some success in capitalising on local disillusionment with the mainstream parties. In the case of Labour, we’ve known this for a while. What we discovered last night was that its also happening to the Tories, for all that elsewhere the party’s fortunes have been improving. That is, I think, not a reflection on Cameron or on the national Tory party – what the local Tory are most pissed off with is the state of their own local party and their abject inability to function as a credible opposition – that, as much as any mid-term unpopularity that Labour is facing, is what has fed votes to the BNP in Sandwell.
Will any of this register with Tory Central Office, I wonder?
The easy option would undoubtedly be just to write last night off as an odd local anomaly, especially as Sandwell is a solid Labour area, despite part of the borough falling under the Halesowen and Stourbridge parliamentary constituency, for which the Tories have aspirations at the next general election, but that would be a mistake as for the Tories there are lessons to be learned from last night’s results.
What has happened in Sandwell is that, but for the very few areas in which Tories still have claim on a solid vote, they have ceased to function as an opposition or even as a meaningful political party and have come to rely, instead, on purely cynical methods to try and dent Labour’s local standing, whether by consciously cultivating a communalist vote in wards with a significant South Asian community – even if that means putting up candidates whose application to join the panel of candidates have previously been rejected by Labour out of well founded concerns about voter registration anomalies and the risk of ‘entryism’ – or by way of ‘unexpectedly’ finding themselves unable to put up a candidate in wards where the BNP have been putting up a serious challenge to Labour, a failure that, until this year, was quite coincidentally mirrored by the BNP in wards where the Tories has sitting councillors, or fancied their chances.
Comparing last night’s results with those of previous years in which the BNP have been successful in winning seats in Sandwell, what seems clear is that we have just about found the limits of the BNP’s capacity to take votes from Labour in an election where the two mainstream parties – Tory and Lib Dem – behave like an opposition and put up candidates.
By contrast, three of the four sitting BNP councillors had the benefit of being given a clear run by at least one of the two mainstream opposition parties, allowing them to position themselves to pick any anti-Labour tactical votes.
In Sandwell, the Labour Party has done its bit to stem the recent run of BNP electoral successes and has no qualms in make our objective for the coming year’s local elections clear – four BNP councillors is Sandwell is four too many and we will continue to work for the goal of a BNP-free Sandwell – but we cannot do this alone.
We will need the assistance of the Lib Dems and, especially, the Tories, but not as allies or partners is electoral pacts. All we need from them is that they should ditch the electoral cynicism and start behaving like real political parties and a real opposition.
That’s Sandwell’s story for 2007 – Labour taking the fight to the BNP and the Tories losing ground due to their inability to function as an opposition, which is I would say this to Tory Central Office…
Get the hell in here and sort your lot out.
Moving further afield, as I’ve covered one or two not quite so local election stories in the past week or so…
Staying with the BNP for a moment, its been a source of much personal amusement to note both the wild conjectures on the election page of their website, where theay whether they might win 30, 40 or even 50 seats at this election.
So far its four and, by no coincidence whatsoever, their election pages still seem to be ‘awaiting’ the results of their West Midlands candidates, in Sandwell’s case more than 12 hours after they were announced.
Is there, perchance, something you’re not keen to tell your members, Nick?
Results elsewhere in the West Midlands have been mixed, as expected.
As predicted, Labour dropped seats to the Tories in Birmingham in a straight fight between Blair’s unpopularity and Witless Whiby’s incompetence.
Even more predictably, John Hemming’s making allegations of unethical behaviour and ballot irregularities… again. I should point out here that even when he was on to something, in 2004/5, the presiding ‘judge’ at the election court who ordered fresh ballots to be held in two Birmingham wards still found time to refer to John’s testimony as, IIRC, ‘unreliable’.
Labour dropped three seats in Walsall, but there may be a bit of controversy to come as its been alleged that is one closely contested seat, Labour were denied a recount on a 15 vote margin because the tellers had had a long day and it was unfair to keep them up any longer (?). Who said that democracy never sleeps, eh?
Dudley turned in a decent result for Labour – three seats changed hands with two gains for Labour and one for the Tories, with UKIP losing their only seat in the town.
And speaking of UKIP, Confused of Arboretum Ward, Worcester – aka Melanie Heider, failed in her bid to be become the joint Conservative/UKIP Councillor for the ward, turning the town’s most marginal seat into a solid Labour majority in the process.
Whether this might have anything to do with her neglecting to tell the Tories that she’s joined UKIP seven weeks before the election is anyone’s guess, and frankly I doubt that in light of Melanie’s obvious memory problems – she managed to forget to resign from the Tory Party and tell UKIP she was Tory candidate as well – that she’ll be able to illuminate us any further.
Spare a thought, however, for the UKIP candidate in the same ward – no one told him anything, least of all his own party.
Oh, and apropos of George Ashcroft, the Tory candidate in Telford who was identified by the BBC, a mere week before the election, as having been a regional NF organiser in his self-admitted misspent youth, he won his seat, which for me is both bad news – he did beat a Labour candidate after all – but also good news as it does show seem to show that his past, of which he has soundly and genuinely repented, did not turn out to be a factor in the election.
George, who’s posted a couple of comments here since I wrote about his situation, seems pretty bright and articulate as local-ish Tories go – a distinct improvement on most of Sandwell’s lot – and at a mere 30 may have prospects of moving on to brighter thing, having got over this particular hurdle. Indeed, for a party looking to put its reputation as the ‘nasty party’ behind it, George’s experience of putting his past membership of an even nastier party behind him could provide some valuable insight and experience for the Tories to draw upon.
As for his local party leader, Andrew Eade, who declined to talk to the BBC on its local election coverage when he could have done the decent thing and stood up for George, I’m of the view that he needs to go and grow a backbone. It comes to something in a situation like this that a Labour Party member with a long track record in anti-fascist activism, like myself, is prepared to speak up for George and give him a fair chance, but not the leader of his own party on the council to which he’s been elected.
And that,as they say, is a wrap except to say that next year we’ll have our sights firmly fixed on unseating BNP group leader, James Llloyd…
…if he’s not disqualified first for voting illegally on this year’s council budget.