Is Westminster heading for a Kick in the Pantiles?

View of the Polar Dance Statue in Royal Tunbridge Wells. ID 107345471 © Philip Bird Dreamstime.com

When Kent goes to the polls in the next local elections a few hundred voters could deliver a shock to the Conservative government. As with many landslides, the mountain is rock solid and completely stable. Until one day, it isn’t.

The voters in question live in true-blue Tunbridge Wells and the right votes in the right wards at the next local elections would remove the decades-long Conservative control of the council.

Such a slap in the face could have the same effect on national politics as the Eastbourne by-election when the Conservative vote collapsed from 33,587 in 1987 to just 18,865 in October 1990. Conservative MPs in marginal – and not-so-marginal – seats looked at the result and blanched. It was time for a change. Five weeks later, Thatcher – and Thatcherism – was out of Downing Street.

Thoughts of an echo of those events seem a fantasy now because Conservatives have a national government with a huge majority, Brexit achieved and solid, long-standing control of Tunbridge Wells borough. Might they lose control? And if so, how strong would be the message that a change of course is needed?

“In the Pantiles, Tunbridge Wells” by suvodeb

The Conservatives party holds 28 seats of the 48 on Tunbridge Wells Borough Council (TWBC) so losing five would be the end of the majority. Control could then pass to a combination of Labour, Lib Dem and independent councillors. Would they combine after the election? James Rands, chair of the Tunbridge Wells LibDems which is the official opposition, has tweeted: “I think we’re all expecting a result where a coalition of some description is needed.”

The result is not a foregone conclusion and the Conservatives might in May benefit from a grateful public relieved to have been vaccinated against covid – or the government might postpone the local elections to September in the hope the pandemic would be slowing and produce a “vaccine bounce” for the Conservative party.

Nevertheless, the mathematics will not be lost on Conservatives in the town. With elections due in 16 wards they know at least five seats may well be lost and at a pinch one of their remaining seats could be considered safe. Additionally, if there was a delayed start to the elections there may be a handful of by-elections where they could also be vulnerable. Remember, the loss of five means the end of their majority. If they lose four and keep half the seats on the council they will still have the mayor’s casting vote.

Tunbridge Wells has a well-deserved reputation for kicking over the traces:

  • It, alone among Kent constituencies, voted Remain in the EU referendum (even Canterbury, now home of the county’s only non-Conservative MP Rosie Duffield, voting 51 per cent to Leave).
  • A plan to spend £100m of residents’ money building a new theatre, office block and car park led to the birth of a local party of independents, the Tunbridge Wells Alliance (TWA) that won several local ward elections and contributed to the death of the plan.
  • This activism is not focused on local issues: in June  about 1,000 attended a Black Lives Matter demonstration in the town.
  • Nor is the town dominated by old people still fighting WW2: it is twinned with Wiesbaden in Germany after four ex-servicemen, keen to heal the wounds of the war, travelled to Germany and discovered they spoke a common language of active reconciliation. This led to a “Treaty of Friendship” in 1971. The town offered generous assistance to Belgian refugees during WW1.

So, loss of control of the council would be a shock from an electorate that for more than 100 years has faithfully returned a Conservative MP – often with 50 per cent or more of the turnout and majorities that vary between 10,000 and 20,000.  It is predicted to be the 147th safest Conservative seat in the UK at the next general election and one estimate says the swing needed to lose to the Lib Dems at the next election is a pretty hefty – but not impossible – 13.4 per cent.

However, this Conservative dominance may not be as assured as it seems: although voted second poshest town in the country in 2008, its changing population is not advantageous to the Conservative Party, which may have a membership largely in its 70s, considerably older than the 38 years average for the UK and the average of 40 for the town.

A glance at the most recent election result for each of the 16 wards scheduled to hold elections this year shows Conservative control is precarious. Councillors on TWBC serve for four years and most wards have three councillors with one up for re-election at a time. So not all wards are up for election at the same time. Consequently, several Conservative councillors elected in 2016 with substantial majorities face losing at the next election.

Can it happen? A breakdown of wards

To get down to the specifics, wards with sitting Conservative councillors facing elections this year include:

  • Broadwater, where just four voters need to switch and lend their votes to the LibDem candidate, who last time, in 2018, had 471 votes.
  • Rusthall where the Conservative party has a sitting councillor up for re-election – but it came third in 2019.
  • In Pantiles and St Mark’s the Lib Dems at 1,346 votes in 2019 were nearly 800 votes ahead of the Conservatives.
  • Pembury, where the TWA had a majority of 300 in 2019.
  • Sherwood, where Labour – even with Jeremy Corbyn as leader – had a majority of 11 over the Conservatives in 2019.
  • Goudhurst & Lamberhurst, where just nine voters need to switch from the Conservatives who had 505 votes last time with an independent candidate at 487.
  • Capel, where a controversial planning application is the big issue, only 38 need to switch to produce a non-Conservative winner.
  • Hawkhurst & Sandhurst where if 126 voters switch the Conservatives have lost the ward: in 2019 they had 797 votes with the LibDem candidate at 545.
  • In Park ward, two council seats were up for grabs in 2019 and both went to the TWA in a landslide with each taking 1,000 votes and the deputy leader of the council lost her seat: but both winning candidates then switched to the Conservatives: one of them is up for re-election and after this treatment, voters may not favour voting Conservative.
  • In Speldhurst & Bidborough the Conservatives know their candidate – leader of the council and the driving force behind the £110m theatre project – lost last time when the TWA took 1,007 votes against 613. The Conservatives need to win back at least 200 votes to stand a chance of holding the seat.
  • In Benenden &  Cranbrook the Conservative party needs 33 voters to switch to beat 771 votes achieved by the TWA last time.
  • The remaining wards have large majorities so look like holds: Brenchley & Horsmonden for the Conservatives and Southborough & High Brooms for Labour, with Culverden, St James’ and St John’s for the LibDems. Any attempt by the Conservatives to advance in these wards would take campaign resources from places they are likely to try to hold.

So the scene is set. Will the Conservatives keep control? Or will the Eastbourne example be repeated? Conservatives will hope not: but for the opposition activists the day may come when, as the Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote: “Hope and history rhyme.”