It’s still more than six months until the next Cambridge local elections, but already the main local parties will be eagerly looking forward to the campaign, which, as ever, will throw up a number of fascinating contests. So here’s a look forward at the prospects for each of the 14 wards in Cambridge. But first, a disclaimer: since the elections earlier this year, I’ve re-joined the Liberal Democrats, and unlike last time, I’m planning to take an active part in the campaign. So you should bear in mind the possibility that the rest of this article might be a nefarious ploy designed to sow confusion amongst my friends in the Labour party. It isn’t, though – I’m still trying to be as objective as I can.
My more regular readers can probably recite this next paragraph from memory, but it’s worth a quick recap: Cambridge City Council has 42 councillors, with three representing each of 14 wards; councillors serve overlapping four-year terms. There are City Council elections each year for three years, electing one-third of the council at a time, with County Council elections in the fourth year. 2016 is the third year in the cycle, so the seats of the 14 City Councillors chosen in 2012 are up for election in May.
The coming elections will bring a distant echo of the 2004 all-ups, twelve years before. In that year, boundary changes meant elections were held for all 42 City Council seats. The top three candidates in each ward were elected for four, three, and two year terms respectively, to re-establish the pattern of overlapping terms – as shown on Colin Rosenstiel’s comprehensive Cambridge elections website:
Because we are now twelve years on, the seats won by the strongest candidates in 2004 are up for election again in May. Only three of these are still held by 2004 poll-toppers – Labour’s Rob Dryden in Cherry Hinton, and Lib Dems Sian Reid in Newnham and Catherine Smart in Romsey – but they will probably be particularly hard to dislodge, should they decide to stand again.
Labour currently have a fairly comfortable majority on the City Council, with a majority of six over all other parties combined:
However, the seats up for election in May were last contested in 2012, when the Lib Dems were suffering one of their worst periods of unpopularity nationally, following the formation of the coalition government and the broken pledge on tuition fees. In that year’s local elections, Labour won eight seats and the Lib Dems just four, with one each for the Conservatives and Independents. However, the Lib Dems recaptured Queen Edith’s from Labour in a 2014 by-election, so at the next elections they effectively have five seats to defend, and Labour seven. With the seats up for election shown as hollow blocks, the picture looks like this:
So could Labour lose control of the council this year? If they lost three of the seats they’re defending, they’d be down to exactly half the councillors, but would still keep control on the Mayor’s casting vote. It would take four Labour losses before the council was truly under no overall control. Is there any possibility of this happening? Let’s have a look at each of the seats. For each one, I’ve made a graph showing the local election results over the last decade (not including any by-elections).
Labour have been racking up large majorities in Abbey local elections in recent years. While the Greens held the seat a few years ago, their main focus will be elsewhere this time. Labour’s incumbent is Richard Johnson, who is Executive Councillor for Communities, as well as part of Daniel Zeichner’s casework team.
Once a Labour/Lib Dem marginal, Arbury has also seen some large Labour majorities in recent years, though recently these have been on a downward trend. This time it’s Labour’s Mike Todd-Jones who is up for re-election. As well as being a formidable campaign organiser, Mike has a large personal vote, as the peak in the graph when he was last elected in 2012 testifies. He’ll no doubt be hoping for another comfortable victory this time.
Castle is likely to provide one of the most interesting local contests at the next elections. The incumbent is Cambridge political veteran John Hipkin, who was elected on a landslide in 2012. As well has his City Council seat, he also holds the County Council seat which he won in 2013. Last year his wife Marie-Louise Holland joined him on the City Council, but only by a whisker; this year there was no Independent candidate, and the Lib Dems took the seat. John has achieved an almost Mugabe-like political longevity (while not, I hasten to add, resembling the Zimbabwean leader in other respects) – if he wins again this year, he would complete his term around the time of his 85th birthday. However the Lib Dems will be working hard to deny him the opportunity.
Another Cambridge political veteran is Robert Dryden, first elected in 1995, and currently Mayor of Cambridge, whose seat is up for re-election in Cherry Hinton in May. Rob is one of the surviving 2004 poll-toppers and as you can see from the graph, won in 2012 with a mountainous 73% of the vote. Should he stand again (and I have no reason to suppose he won’t) Cherry Hinton will probably provide Labour’s strongest result in Cambridge at the next elections.
Coleridge has been a safe Labour seat for some years, after a period when the Conservatives were in contention. However, last year, Labour’s majority fell considerably – partly due to the General Election on the same day, but also because of increasing Lib Dem activity in the ward. The seat up this time is held by Labour’s George Owers, currently Executive Councillor for Finance and Resources – a particularly challenging position in the current financial climate.
East Chesterton has swung back and forth between Labour and the Lib Dems in recent years. After a pummelling in 2012, the Lib Dems won quite comfortably in 2013, only to lose by just ten votes last year. In May this year with the main focus on the General Election, Labour’s popular candidate Gerri Bird held her seat comfortably, whilst Daniel Zeichner outpolled Julian Huppert in East Chesterton by a margin of just three votes. Next year the seat held by Labour’s Margery Abbott is up for election. It’s likely that both Labour and the Lib Dems will be putting a lot of effort into winning it.
King’s Hedges has had a fairly quiet time of it electorally in recent years, as Lib Dem support faded after the 2010 General Election, allowing Labour to regain the upper hand. The ward supplied UKIP’s strongest support locally in the General Election, but, this being Cambridge, that isn’t saying very much. Independent candidate Ian Tyes has been plugging away for some years but has yet to make a breakthrough. Labour’s incumbent is Nigel Gawthrope, who will have high hopes of being re-elected if he stands again.
Earlier this year Market produced the closest three-way election result in Cambridge political history, with the Greens snatching the seat by just seven votes from Labour, who in turn were six votes ahead of the Lib Dems. The Greens will certainly be focusing their efforts on Market again next year, and have already selected their candidate, Stuart Tuckwood. The Lib Dem incumbent is Tim Bick, leader of the Lib Dem group on the City Council, and chair of the Greater Cambridge City Deal Joint Assembly. A tight three-way contest seems likely.
Despite their tribulations nationally, the Lib Dems have managed to hang on to all their Newnham seats in recent years, and indeed haven’t lost an election in the ward since 1996. However, the days when Lib Dem candidates regularly won over 50% of the vote in Newnham are long gone. Labour have been pressing them hard in recent years, and the Green party has been more active too. The incumbent up for election this time is Sian Reid, former leader of the City Council, and runner-up to Julian Huppert in the last contest to select a Lib Dem candidate for Cambridge MP.
Petersfield is Labour’s heartland in Cambridge, with a large number of party members and a generally strong showing in local elections. While the Lib Dems did win a couple of seats towards the end of the Blair/Brown era, Labour have now retaken them, evicting the last Lib Dem councillor, Sarah Brown, in 2014. This time it’s Labour’s Richard Robertson whose seat is up for election.
After years of Lib Dem dominance, Queen Edith’s provided a shock win for Labour in 2012 as Sue Birtles won the seat from third place. However, when she resigned in 2014, Lib Dem Viki Sanders recaptured the seat for the yellow team, and will be up for re-election in May. While Conservative Andy Bower has been putting some consistent work into the ward, it’s likely that Queen Edith’s will remain a relatively safe Lib Dem seat.
Romsey will provide a particularly interesting contest this year as the apparently irresistible force of Labour’s revitalised campaign team meets the seemingly immovable object of Catherine Smart. The veteran Lib Dem councillor has been fighting elections in Romsey since 1993 and winning them since 1998. Cllr Smart has a substantial personal vote and will be a formidable opponent for the similarly formidable Labour team, who have retaken the other three Romsey seats from the Lib Dems. The Greens have also been stepping up their activity in Romsey, which was one of their three target council seats in Cambridge this year. The Cambridge Socialists, however, seem unlikely to stand again, at least while Jeremy Corbyn is leading the Labour Party nationally – a factor that can only benefit Labour.
The Trumpington seat up this year is held by Shapour Meftah, one of only two Conservatives to win a Cambridge local election in the last decade (the other being Chris Howell in Coleridge). It certainly represents one of the Conservatives’ best hopes of electoral success this year, though the Lib Dems will also have high hopes of a gain. The stronger-than-usual Labour showing last year was largely due to the General Election campaign, in an area that usually sees relatively little effort from Labour.
Finally, West Chesterton is likely to be another close Lib Dem/Labour contest, with Lib Dem Mike Pitt’s seat being up for election. In the last two years the Lib Dems have held off Labour by just 19 and 78 votes, and it seems likely that Labour’s well-known campaigner Mike Sargeant will make a ninth attempt to win the seat. Another close result seems likely.
So, given all that, how secure can Labour feel about their prospects of holding on to control of Cambridge City Council? As shown above, it would take a net loss of four Labour seats to deprive them of effective control. Based on last year’s results, their four most vulnerable seats numerically are East Chesterton (which the Lib Dems need a 5.6% swing to win), Arbury (6%), Coleridge (6.7%), and King’s Hedges (9.2%). The Lib Dems will be hoping to make gains in Castle and Trumpington, from the Independents and Conservatives respectively, but this will do nothing to reduce Labour’s majority. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems face a stiff fight in at least four of the five seats they are defending. As well as the raw numbers, of course, other factors include whether or not the incumbent councillor is re-standing (which we won’t know for certain until April), and if they are, what sort of reputation they have in their ward.
Nationally, the transformed political situation will certainly have some effect on the local elections, though it’s hard to say exactly what. The Lib Dems have been emphatically relieved of the burdens of office, and Labour has elected their most left-wing leader for a very long time. My instinct is that while Jeremy Corbyn will make Labour less electable nationally, he may well boost their chances in Cambridge local elections. Demographically Cambridge is a young city, and polls suggest Corbyn’s appeal is stronger with younger voters. There’s also the factor that Cambridge local elections, with their traditionally low turnout of around 30%, are all about motivating people to vote. Corbyn may well help Labour with this. Time will tell.
The 2016 City Council elections are the last for two years, as the County Council elections come round on the electoral cycle in 2017. This means if Labour do retain control this time, then (barring defections or by-elections) they will be secure in office until 2018. By that time we will have had the EU referendum, and the political situation may well have been transformed all over again.