The other election in Cambridge

With all eyes on the General Election, there has been a lot less attention than usual on the other election taking place on May 7th – the battle for Cambridge City Council. So here’s a look at Cambridge’s other election.

After two years of clinging on precariously with the Mayor’s casting vote, the Cambridge Lib Dems were finally dislodged from power in the Guildhall in 2014, as Labour took control with a majority of eight. That has since been reduced to six thanks to the Lib Dem victory in the Queen Edith’s by-election, and Labour are now defending eight seats that they won in 2011. So could we see a dramatic Lib Dem return to power at the Guildhall? Well, probably not – at least, not this year.

Cambridge City Council elects its members by thirds, with 14 of its 42 councillors chosen each year for three years; there are elections for the County Council in the fourth year. Here’s the current balance of power on the City Council, showing Labour’s majority of six:


Councillors serve a four-year term, so the council seats being contested this year were last fought in 2011 – the first local elections following the 2010 General Election and the formation of the coalition. Unsurprisingly, the national political situation provided a boost to Labour locally; they won eight of the fourteen seats, with the Lib Dems taking six. With those seats shown as hollow blocks, the balance on the council is:


If Labour were to lose three seats this year, they would be left with 21, exactly half the Council – but could still hold on with the Mayor’s casting vote, as the Lib Dems did between 2012 and 2014. They would need to lose four seats for their combined opponents to be able to force them out. Is there any prospect of this? This next graphic shows the Labour majority in last year’s local elections for each of the seats they are defending this time:

As you can see, in most of they seats they are defending, Labour notched up some pretty hefty majorities last time. Cherry Hinton, Coleridge and Abbey are their safest seats, though the Lib Dem high tide in 2010 did lap around their feet in the latter two. King’s Hedges, Arbury and Petersfield have all elected Lib Dems at some point in recent years, but Labour were firmly back in control in all three last year. Romsey and East Chesterton were much tighter contests last time, with ex-firefighter Dave Baigent unseating former Lib Dem mayor Paul Saunders by 112 votes in Romsey, and Labour’s Peter Sarris beating Lib Dem Zoe O’Connell in East Chesterton with a wafer-thin majority of ten.

What of the seats the Lib Dems are defending this time? Here’s the picture:

As the graph shows, last year was a pretty nerve-wracking affair for the Lib Dems. They managed reasonably respectable majorities in their southern strongholds, Queen Edith’s and Trumpington, but barely held on against Labour in Newnham and West Chesterton – retaining the latter by just 19 votes. In two of the seats they must defend this year, they actually lost last year (remember that each ward has three City Councillors, who serve overlapping four-year terms). Independent Marie-Louise Holland won Castle ward, with another knife-edge majority of just 20, while there were unusual circumstances in Market ward, which Labour won after the Lib Dems suspended their candidate following an assault charge.

On paper, then, you would expect that this year the Cambridge Labour Party would be in a pretty strong position, with the Lib Dems facing a stiff battle to defend the seats they hold. The confounding factor, however, is of course the fact that the General Election is taking place on the same day. In a normal local election, the parties focus their efforts on the “battleground” seats where the outcome is uncertain, putting little or no effort into seats they are sure to retain or which they have no hope of winning. However, when they are fighting to elect an MP, parties have to canvas and deliver leaflets in parts of the constituency where usually they do little, which changes the normal pattern of results. Another factor is the greatly increased turnout at the polling stations – in years when there are only local elections, turnout is usually around 30%, but in a General Election year it can be more than twice that. This means that many people who usually don’t bother voting in the local elections will be doing so, and their votes will have a substantial effect on the outcome. Many of them will simply vote for the same party in both elections, giving a boost to the local colleagues of the General Election winner in Cambridge. If the latest Ashcroft polls are to be believed, this may benefit the Lib Dems.

Even so, it’s hard to see the Lib Dems overturning Labour’s City Council majority this time. I’ll be looking at each seat in more detail in a later post, but even Labour’s most vulnerable seats on paper, Romsey and East Chesterton, look pretty challenging for the Lib Dems this year. In Romsey, Labour have regained their campaigning zing after years when the Lib Dems had the upper hand (confounding my prediction last year that the Lib Dems would hold on), and in East Chesterton they have a formidable asset in the shape of their candidate Gerri Bird, a popular and effective local campaigner and the current Mayor of Cambridge. Meanwhile, at least two of the Lib Dem defences are far from certain. Exciting times.

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