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The postponement of the 2020 local elections, and the absence of council by-elections for most of the past year, has led to a tsunami of local and regional elections across the country next Thursday. We have our fair share in the West Country.

The cool kids are calling this electoral event “Super Thursday”.

This blog provides a bit of a guide to what’s happening in the region and delves deeper into some of the potentially more significant elections in Bristol, Stroud and for the West of England mayor.

I’ve not covered the various elections for police and crime commissioners, town and parish councils or the council by-elections taking place. If you’re interested in any of these feel free to contact me at freddie.palmer@social.co.uk

Where are elections happening in the South West?

Directly elected mayors of:

Bristol

West of England

All county councillors in:

Devon

Gloucestershire

All councillors in the district and unitary councils of:

Bristol

Cornwall

Gloucester

Stroud

Wiltshire

A third of councillors in the district and unitary councils of:

Exeter

Plymouth

Swindon

 

Half of councillors at Cheltenham’s unitary authority will also be up for election.

Somerset County Council elections scheduled for this year have been postponed. Government chose to delay these elections to 2022 as it considers options for a single tier of local government in Somerset. The chosen option will be implemented from 2023, with transitional arrangements starting with a shadow administration formed at the elections next year.

Mayor of Bristol

Thursday will see Bristol choose a directly elected mayor for the third time. The incumbent, Labour’s Marvin Rees, is easily the favourite.

That being said, the supplementary voting system, where every voter chooses a first and second preference; the uncertainty created by a dramatic four years for the nation and the city; and the fact an independent secured more than 30,000 votes in 2016, makes any firm prediction tricky.

In theory it is a two-horse race between Labour and the Conservatives. In reality, the Green candidate, Sandy Hore-Ruthven, is claiming to have a fighting chance.

Sandy will need more than a fair wind and the right kind of luck to come close – the 2016 Green candidate received only 10,000 first preference votes, whilst the Conservative candidate received nearly 20,000 and Marvin receive more than 56,000.

The Green candidate for the 2019 general election in Bristol West, a constituency covering a third of the council area, managed a more convincing second with nearly 19,000 votes.

The Greens have seen some slight gains in national opinion polls and there are many voters in the city – the first to declare a climate emergency – who’d never countenance voting Conservative but quite happily swing between Labour and the Greens.

Bookies odds are not opinion polls, but Ladbrokes has Sandy winning at 6/1. Marvin’s odds are 1/10 and the Conservative Alastair Watson is at 33/1.

The only reason for any doubt is some of the criticism Marvin has collected. He’s made some important decisions that not everyone has agreed with.

Ultimately, Bristol is an incredibly tricky city to govern. It is a wonderfully engaged and opinionated place. Unfortunately, the nuances and competing priorities in leading a diverse city with shrinking budgets and increasing challenges are tricky to create a consensus around in a city of 500,000. There is no doubt that having a city mayor enables things to get done, instead of the endless debating but never doing that preceded a directly elected mayor. It does also concentrate blame at one person’s door.

Bristol’s councillors

At the last councillor elections in 2016, Labour won a slim majority with 37 out of 70 councillors. This lead has evaporated but never enough for Labour to lose its majority on committees.

Lacking a majority of councillors tends to matter little in the mayoral system, where most powers are vested in the mayor and cabinet.

Where it can matter is on Bristol’s two planning committees. The development control committees reflect the makeup of the councillors on the council. If Labour fails to achieve a majority of councillors, the traditionally unpredictable committees stand to become that much more unpredictable.

Even if Labour retain a majority, there are 14 Labour councillors standing down. This level of guaranteed political change is significant. 14 new Labour faces in the council chamber will all need to get to grips with the ways of the council – this matters when engaging councillors whether at a committee or a ward level.

Stroud District Council

Stroud has traditionally flip flopped between Conservative and no overall control and so is no stranger to coalition leadership.

In many ways, the serving rainbow coalition has meant better leadership for the council – its fragility has meant the leader, Labour’s Cllr Doina Cornell, has taken a cross-party collaborative approach.

This is clear in the progress of the district’s local plan, where the long-term process has been de-risked from political change by building a consensus. It is true this consensus has faltered recently as the local plan progresses onto the latter stages and the elections near.

Now the Conservatives have Stroud in their sights. There are 51 councillors in total. 23 Conservative councillors were elected at the last elections in 2016, with Labour able to form a coalition with 18 councillors, alongside the Green’s eight and Liberal Democrat’s two.

The prime minister was clearly aware of the opportunity to take control, by winning just three council seats, as he visited a Stroud construction site with local MP Siobhan Baillie last week.

West of England Combined Authority

Last week saw a day of drama for the West Country battlegrounds. Whilst in Stroud, Boris Johnson was asked to name the serving Conservative mayor. He couldn’t.

Almost at the same time Labour’s challenger for the WECA mayoralty was being thrown out of a pub in Bath alongside Labour leader Keir Starmer. It turns out the landlord was vociferously anti-lockdown and so took his chance to have a pop at the leader of her majesty’s most loyal opposition.

It was Boris’s forgetfulness that was most revealing. Probably because it came as no surprise to the region.

The Conservative incumbent Tim Bowles is not running again – you’d struggle to find many who disagree with this decision. Tim was the region’s first mayor and so to be fair to him it’s unclear whether it is his leadership, or the institution itself, but the consensus that WECA failed in uniting the West of England is almost universal. Certainly, little has been done to raise the region’s profile.

In 2017 Tim beat the Labour candidate by less than 4,400 votes. This was much closer than was expected. Labour’s campaign then was half-hearted, this time around Labour’s candidate, former MP Dan Norris, is a real contender.

The postponement of last year’s Bristol local authority elections could be significant for the WECA mayoral race, as both elections are now happening at the same time.

The turnout at the last WECA election was a low 29.7% (in Bristol in 2016 it was 44.76%). If Bristolians are traipsing to the polls anyway, turnout increases in the city where Labour’s vote is concentrated. This puts the WECA mayoralty firmly within Dan Norris’s grasp. Bath and North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire councils elected in 2019 and won’t go back to the polls until 2023, so lower turnouts are likely in these areas.

It’s also worth considering that an independent candidate, ex-Labour John Savage, won almost 30,000 votes in 2017. He’s not standing this time so those votes will go elsewhere.

The WECA race really is one to watch and potentially one of the only good news stories on what is expected to be a difficult night for Labour nationally.

If you need any further information on the elections or have any questions on what they might mean for the politics of place in the West Country feel free to get in touch: freddie.palmer@social.co.uk