Here in Queen Edith’s, just under half of us vote in local elections, which is not great, but it’s significantly higher than some other parts of the city. This year, there’s been a big rise in the number of people asking for postal votes, so will that increase turnout? Or will that be counteracted by a reduction in the considerably larger number of people who usually go to the polling stations on the day?
That’s just one of the many questions in what will be a fascinating set of elections this year. And it is indeed a set of elections for all of us, with an incredible four different authorities up for grabs. Over the next three days, I’ll be looking at each of the ballot papers we’ll be given in turn, and perhaps help make things a little clearer.
In this first instalment, I’m going to take a look at the most ‘local’ election of all, the big one for our councillors who will make up the City Council.
Cambridge City Council Election, May 2021
This year, unusually, we have an election for all of our City councillors. Electing the whole council in one go is something that hasn’t been done since 2004.
In Queen Edith’s, like every other ward, we have three City councillors, so this year as voters we each get three votes, rather than one. For the political parties to make the most of our votes, that means they each have to find three candidates for every ward. That’s a lot of candidates.
However, all of the parties which normally stand have managed to find enough (to my surprise!), and in Queen Edith’s there are two independent non-party candidates as well, giving us a field of 14 names from which to choose. This is the most of any ward in the city.
I must declare an interest at this point. Every candidate needs a ‘proposer’ and a ‘seconder’. One of the independent candidates, Sam Davies, has been proposed by Geoff Heathcock, the long-time County Councillor for the area, and I was honoured to be asked to be Sam’s seconder. I am a huge supporter of hers, and so feel free to bear that in mind when reading this!
There will be big changes at this election, whatever happens. One of our three city councillors, George Pippas, retired through ill-health last year and could not be replaced. Another, Colin McGerty, has left us after just one term (this is fairly typical – George Pippas was the only City councillor here in the last decade to stand and be elected for more than one term). So we will have two new councillors at least, and perhaps all three will be new faces.
The councillor standing for re-election is Jenny Page-Croft of the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems have topped the poll in Queen Edith’s in all but one of our City Council elections since the turn of the century, albeit with far smaller majorities in recent years. As Jenny is easily the most recognisable of their three candidates this year, she must be considered the favourite to win.
The other two Lib Dem candidates are Daniel Lee and Richard Eccles. I have not seen much of them on the local political scene, although I believe Daniel has at least featured in some Lib Dem literature prior to this election. The strong support locally for their party must however still make them serious contenders for election.
The Labour Party traditionally provides the main opposition to the Lib Dems in Queen Edith’s, even winning here back in 2012. Its three candidates, Connor Hanagan-Morrissey, Indy Vadhia and Daniel Zahedi, seem refreshingly young, although again, I’ve not seen anything of them in local politics here before. The party has quite a gap to catch up on the Lib Dems however, and at the last election, despite fielding a very strong candidate, it slipped to third place behind the ward’s first ever independent candidate.
Back in the 70s and 80s, Queen Edith’s elected Conservative Party councillors every year. Since then, the party’s vote share has been in relentless decline, hitting a new low at the last election of just 7%. Its candidate for the last three elections is now contesting a County Council seat in Sawston & Shelford, and I briefly wondered if the party would even be able to find three new candidates. However, it’s good to see that they have done so, putting forward long-term local resident Christine Butler and young brothers Shoaib Shahid and Suhaib Shahid. Again, I don’t know of any political activity from any of them in the past.
The Green Party was the only party to increase its vote share in Queen Edith’s at the last election. This was despite fielding the least engaged candidate of the five (who didn’t even take part in the hustings). In previous years, the party had struggled to find a candidate at all. Clearly there is a small but significant desire for Green politics locally, so it was gratifying to see that the Green Party has also managed to find three candidates this year. They are Jacqui and Simon Whitmore, and Peter Price. Yet again, I’m not aware of any of them having been part of the local political scene before now.
Then we come onto the two independent candidates. At the last election, Sam Davies became the first independent ever to stand in Queen Edith’s. Despite a last-minute campaign born out of frustration with the council, and with no party backing, Sam came a surprisingly strong second to George Pippas. This time, she started campaigning weeks before any of the political parties had named their candidates, and must stand a decent chance of breaking the Lib Dem stranglehold on this area. After two years of community work culminating in the award of an MBE last summer, Sam must also be the most well-known of the 14 people on the ballot paper.
The other independent, Al Dixon, has also not been involved in local politics before, but is standing on a similar ‘community first’ platform to Sam Davies. Al is one of several candidates in this election who grew up in the area, and has been involved in community initiatives such as the Food Hub throughout the pandemic. He may well benefit if Sam Davies’ campaign to take the focus away from the political parties captures people’s imaginations.
My prediction? It’s hard to see past the two names in the election who already have a local profile, Jenny Page-Croft and Sam Davies. For the third spot, it would have to be a random choice between one of the other two Lib Dems – but if history is a guide, Richard Eccles might win it by being higher up on the ballot paper. This actually makes a difference. As a long shot, it’s possible that Al Dixon might pull off a surprise, but we shouldn’t underestimate the difficulty faced by independent candidates in breaking the inertia behind voters’ party loyalties.
To help you decide, there are candidates’ statements in the current Queen Edith’s magazine, and most candidates have provided an introductory video. These can be found on the Queen Edith’s Community Forum website. I have been part of the team compiling these resources, which I hope will allow voters to make a more considered opinion on the best individual candidates. With building planning being part of the City Council’s remit, and so much development going on in Queen Edith’s, it’s as important as ever for the area to get strong representation.
Across the city
Major council decisions at Cambridge City Council are made by a vote of all 42 councillors, and they are fiercely tribal in nature. All but one councillor currently belongs to either the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats, and it’s rare for the two factions to vote the same way, or for members of either party to vote against their party. One Labour councillor who disagreed with his party resigned last year, rather than vote against the party.
The only variable is the independent councillor in the Castle ward, John Hipkin, who is standing down at this election. It is not impossible that – for the first time – every seat at this election could be won just by those two parties, and almost every vote until the next election would result in the same outcome (larger party X votes, smaller party Y votes). It would make the idea of ‘debate’ fairly pointless.
Geographically, here’s how the parties split (Red= Labour, Orange = Lib Dem, White = Independent, Grey = vacant seat).
You’ll see that Labour have 25 seats, the Lib Dems 12, Independents 1, and 4 are currently vacant. So what the Labour councillors say, normally goes, but the city seems to have been voting fairly consistently for that since the party took over from the Lib Dems in 2014. For the best independent analysis of what might happen across the city, and some usually pretty good predictions, I strongly recommend visiting Phil Rodgers’ blog nearer the election.
It’s almost impossible to conceive of anything other than Labour retaining a majority across the council after this election. So the way things split tribally, if your councillor is a Labour one, their side will win every major vote. If your councillor is a Lib Dem one, they will lose. On the other hand, if the majority party is pursuing a policy that is bad for your ward, it’s nice to have a minority party councillor who is at least allowed to argue (and vote, albeit pointlessly) against it on your behalf.
There’s a Local Plan being created which will be hugely important to the future of Queen Edith’s, the focus of so much of the city’s development. For this reason alone, I would like to have councillors who have a great understanding of the ward and its issues, and can speak up forcefully for what we need. In recent years, under both Lib Dem and Labour administrations, Queen Edith’s has missed out on a lot of support and has been at the wrong end of some poor planning decisions. Your vote is important.