The local elections here in Crawley turned out pretty well for Labour I think. We held all the seats we were defending and took three off the Tories, unseating one of their cabinet members in the process. We came pretty close in our other target seat and looking at the results we did well enough in Three Bridges that it should become a target seat now.
We now have a situation where there are 5 split wards which have both Tory and Labour councillors. Four of them were, I think, recently all-Tory wards and all of them have had Labour wins as their most recent result. We only need to gain three of them to regain control of the council.
But what about Southgate? That ward stubbornly refuses to change hands. It used to be all-Labour (as most of the town was at one point) then started to swing both ways and it has now been all-Tory for a few years. My one firm prediction about our local elections was that at least one ward would end up with a majority of less than 50. I was wrong and this year the narrowest margin was the 66 votes in Southgate. So why didn’t we win it this time?
Raj got a little bit closer than last time in terms of the absolute size of the margin but in percentage terms it is almost exactly the same as 2011, just on a greatly reduced turnout. Why is it that the swings we see elsewhere in the town, and the country as a whole, aren’t happening there too?
I don’t like to over-analyse election results. I think its pointless trying to second-guess the electorate by over-simplifying it all. In Southgate there were 2068 votes cast and probably more than 2000 different reasons for why those votes were cast the way they were. But I think there are probably four factors that contributed.
The biggest one is probably the presence of the Greens in Southgate, with a well-known candidate – the local vicar who is an ex-Labour councillor. While Labour and the Tories have been on 41% and 44% for the last two years, the Greens have polled 14%. If you assume that the Greens take more votes from Labour than the Tories that alone could explain the difficulty there.
Another big factor was probably the rehabilitation centre that was mootted for East Park. It became a well-publicised possibility in the run up to the election and while I don’t think any candidate was in favour of it, it was the Tory who took most advantage and was prominent in the campaign to stop it.
There are three other factors which may or may not have contributed. Both are a bit nebulous, if that is the right word, but you can see the effect when there are all-out elections or when a by election happens along with the normal one.
It sounds silly, but alphabetical order seems to have a small impact. When there two candidates from the same party there is a tendency for the one who comes first on the polling slip to get more votes. It doesn’t make sense to those of us who use both our votes for the same party but it seems to happen. It is probably a coincidence that the first few letters of the alphabet are over-represented in the surnames of councillors. I reckon the alphabet effect could account for a small handful of votes.
Another factor is the doesn’t-live-here factor. Some voters have a real reluctance to vote for candidates who do not live in the area they are looking to represent. In this case I know the Green does live in Southgate, the Labour candidate lives in Furnace Green and I’m not sure where the Tory lives. At the very least this could account for a few Green votes that might otherwise have gone Labour.
The last factor is a bit less amusing. It is the racial aspect. Again, where there are elections where two candidates from the same party appear, there is a distinct tendency for the one with the less ‘English’ name to poll fewer votes, all other things being equal. I’m not suggesting there is a consciously racist motivation at work, but there could be an inclination to be less likely to vote for a name that is unfamiliar or that you can’t pronounce. Mind you, the BNP have stood in Southgate before and got a handful of votes, would those erstwhile BNP voters have voted deliberately against Raj or just stayed at home along with the majority of voters? Nobody knows, but if the foreign-sounding name factor cost a dozen votes it could account for a chunk of the small margin.
When the gap is only 66 votes a few factors that can cost maybe 10 votes each can be significant. Or perhaps I am just talking out of my backside. It does happen.
The other noteworthy ward was Maidenbower, for personal reasons. I was standing there and didn’t win. I didn’t expect to of course, but considering we did no work there I think 425 votes was respectable. considering the shockingly low turnout. In percentage terms it is about 5 points up on last year. I feel a bit sorry for the voters of Maidenbower. They must feel a bit ignored really. We don’t put in a lot of work there because our limited resources are better used in places where we are likely to win – which worked out well for us this time. I guess the Tories also have limited manpower and will also concentrate on the marginals so safer seats like Maidenbower get ignored are engaged with less than voters in, say, Ifield or Gossops Green. No wonder the turnout was so low. If the parties can’t be bothered with the voters why should the voters be bothered with the parties?
I imagine the Tories do engage a bit more with Maidenbower, but then they have two councillors who are effectively being paid to so I hope that is the case. In the absence of more proportional voting methods I can’t see it changing, which is a shame. I’d like to think that if we spent a couple of years identifying our potential voters there we could make it a lot closer. If the Maidenbower branch expands a little and gets more active maybe that will start to happen.
I think a lot of my colleagues will, like me, wish next year was another borough election rather than the county – although we have to have a good chance now of at least doubling the Labour presence in Chichester.
For various personal reasons I won’t go into, I wasn’t hugely involved in the Labour campaign this time round, but from what I saw of it we have finally started doing it right. We started early and have got more into the mindset of permanent campaigning. We also selected earlier which really helps, and we selected good candidates in the main wards who all led their own campaigns from the front. As long as we continue to take it seriously like that it all bodes well for the future.