The 2018 Borough Election campaigns came to an end on Thursday, May 3 – as over 40,000 of us went to the polling stations.
Of the 18 seats up for grabs, there were four pitched battles, one significant struggle and two upsets – it’s clear that whatever’s been going on round here has got your attention and that you don’t like how things have been run.
And while there are underlying patterns, they’re more about the gross mistakes in my election predictions than in the modest accuracy of the lesser numbers I’d calculated.
Four Pitched Battles
Over in Arborfield, it was a tussle that I’d felt was too close to call – whether the ward would vote the party or the man – a younger Conservative who was new to the ward or a more mature Independent, who’d represented them for over 20 years.
Strong support from a resident group for the Independent candidate, coupled with an early decision by his opponent to delete some very uncomfortable questions on social media, all led to the Independent beating the Conservative by a margin of over two to one.
Back in 2016 in Bulmershe and Whitegates, all that stood between Labour winning a second seat at the time was a Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition candidate who took 43 votes and giving the Conservatives a victory by 27 votes.
As this year’s campaign developed, it became clear that Labour were getting the support that would take them on to victory as opposition Conservative resources were moved to other places. Despite this, Conservative Majid Nagra still went on to poll over 1,160 votes – way better than expected, but not enough to prevent Carl Doran sweeping to the first of Labour’s two victories at the count last Thursday.
In Embrook, the Liberal Democrat candidate who’d won the 2017 bye-election showed that they’d understood the small stuff of pavement politics as well as the wider issues that caused so much upset around the town. Conservative newcomer Jack Beresford had one of the hardest political hills to climb if he was to make any impact at all. Even a well-fought campaign which delivered 1,084 votes at the count wasn’t enough to stop 1,829 votes returning Imogen Shepherd DuBey as an Embrook councillor.
Norreys ward saw the culmination of two years of hard work by Labour’s Rachel Burgess being put to the test. David Lee as incumbent, WBC deputy leader and member of the front bench team seemed to have the upper hand but, although it shouldn’t have made a difference, a call to jury service in the week of the election didn’t help his cause. Even during the count, the two main parties contesting this ward weren’t sure what the outcome was going to be. In the end, and with less than 1% of the electorate as a margin of victory, Labour’s Rachel Burgess won the battle to represent Norreys.
One significant struggle
Over in Lower Earley, there was a fight for Hawkedon ward. Incumbent and Earley Town Mayor Michael Firmager had a good majority, but Liberal Democrat David Hare was equally keen to win, having campaigned and lost so many times over the past few years.
While there’s still plenty of room for analysis and speculation as to cause, one factor from the national voting patterns in 2018 is where traditional Conservative voters in strong “Remain” areas (e.g. the parliamentary constituency of Wokingham) are thought to have stayed at home instead of voting for their candidate.
At the count however, it was very clear that whatever the reasons, Liberal Democrat’s support at nearly 1,100 votes put David Hare first past the post to take Hawkedon, though this seat may be one to watch in future.
Conservative councillor Mark Ashwell in Wokingham’s Evendons ward and Liberal Democrat councillor Beth Rowland in Woodley’s South Lake ward weren’t going to have a happy outcome to their campaigns.
Both incumbents had what can really be described as the political kitchen sink thrown at them in the last two weeks of campaigning as their opponents drained resources from other areas in order to ramp things up.
Over in South Lake on polling day, a visit from Theresa May in person got everyone out of their houses and onto the pavements, simply to meet and greet the Prime Minister.
It was as if a sea of people flowed along with her and into the polling stations.
When they got there more of them voted for Woodley’s former town mayor, Conservative Jenny Cheng who, after many years of trying has finally been elected as a borough councillor with 801 votes in comparison to Beth Rowland’s 682 votes.
Credit to Beth Rowland’s many years of representing South Lake residents – there’s no shame in losing when the opposition need to call in support from the Prime Minister.
In Evendons it was clear from the outset that the Conservatives were in difficulty. The issues of Wokingham’s Market Place redevelopment, the ghastly traffic jams, the loss of trees in Elms Field all rolled into one mighty “town centre” effect.
Voters made their respect for Cllr Ashwell clear, but while they liked and admired him, they weren’t going to vote for him, indeed some said that they would vote for the opposition. This saw experienced Liberal Democrat candidate Helen Power deliver a clear victory with 1,375 votes to the Conservative’s 1,198.
After the Show
In part thanks to the policies and decisions taken under previous leadership to May 2017, it’s obvious the electorate has sent a message to the ruling Conservative group.
As a consequence, we’ve said goodbye to two of the most passionate and hard working front bench Conservative councillors.
Given everyone’s feeling about Grazeley and other housing matters, losing David Lee in the middle of the Local Plan update isn’t just a loss to the Conservatives, it’s a blow to the Borough itself.
Mr Lee is well aware that we both hold strong as well as somewhat divergent views as to what needs to be done about national housing policy.
However, I can’t think of another person in the Borough who’s got the courage and skill to take the battle into Westminster and Whitehall to champion Wokingham’s causes. He’s challenged senior civil servants as well as ministers of all ranks – up to and including members of the cabinet and the leader of his own party.
That said, after a setback at the polls it’s traditional for Tories to gnaw their own head off, so we can expect to see a leadership challenge being mounted in the next few days – if it hasn’t started already.
But when the dust settles, it might be an idea to think carefully as to whether a new leader is such a good idea.
They’ll have just one year to turn things around before having to face the electorate again.
And that turn-round will have to include reforming and realigning the policies and practices of the council, not just the local party.
All of this is of course well overdue. But you knew that anyway, otherwise you wouldn’t have voted the way you just did.