With national politics convulsed by Brexit, the Commons in deadlock, and the prospect of EU elections winking in and out of existence like Schrödinger’s Cat, it is somehow reassuring that local election campaigning in Cambridge continues more or less as normal. As surely as winter turns to spring, party activists begin calling on residents across the city, dogs lie in wait behind letterboxes for the wriggling fingers of unwary leaflet deliverers, and social media is flooded with photos of campaign teams looking really delighted by how well it’s all going. It was ever thus – or at least, it has been for a good long while – and will very likely remain so for many years to come, whatever happens on the national stage.
So here is my usual look at the prospects for the coming contest. I’m afraid I don’t have any very high drama to offer about the overall result – Labour will retain control of the City Council comfortably – but there will be closely-fought contests in some of the wards, and some pointers to next year’s elections, when boundary changes mean that all 42 council seats will be up for grabs instead of the usual one-third.
Currently Labour have a majority of ten over the other parties:
As usual one-third of the seats, i.e. 14, are being contested this year, plus two by-elections. One of these is in King’s Hedges, following the sad death of Cambridge Mayor Nigel Gawthrope; the other is in Trumpington, where Donald Adey has finally resigned both his Council seats following his move to Cupar in Fife. There will also be a by-election for his vacated County Council seat.
With the City Council seats being contested this year shown as hollow blocks, the picture looks like this:
Labour have nine seats to defend, the Lib Dems five, and the Greens and Independents one each. While six losses would theoretically mean Labour losing control of the council, in practice they are virtually certain to hold at least eight of their nine defences, and have some prospects for gains. So barring something totally unexpected, Labour will still be running the City Council after the elections with a similar or possibly even larger majority.
Let’s have a look at each of the seats being contested. For each one, I’ve made a graph showing the local election results for the last few years, to give an idea of the political context.
After seventeen years as councillor for Abbey ward, Labour’s Caroline Hart is standing down this year. Labour’s candidate to replace her is Haf Davies, who, as well as being a published poet, is political adviser to Labour’s Deputy Leader Tom Watson MP. The Lib Dem candidate for the previous three years, Nicky Shepard, is not standing this year; the yellow team is represented by Jake Butt, an Abbey resident who works at Cambridge Assessment. Last year’s Green candidate Naomi Bennett and Conservative David Smith both make a return to the ballot paper. The candidates list is completed by Boris Boyd, a porter at Newnham College and the first Cambridge local election candidate for Renew, a recently-founded centrist party.
Labour got a nasty surprise in Abbey in 2017, when a combination of the imminent General Election and an unusually vigorous Lib Dem campaign reduced their normally comfortable majority to just 75. However, neither of those factors are likely to apply this year, and a Labour victory seems the most likely outcome.
Abbey is now unique amongst Cambridge seats in having the same boundaries for both City and County Council elections. Following County Council boundary changes in 2017, the rest of the city is a complex patchwork of overlapping City Council wards and County Council divisions. This means that, Abbey apart, it’s difficult to apply the 2017 County Council election results to the City Council seats. So for the rest of the graphs I will just skip over 2017, whistling innocently and looking the other way.
Seeking re-election in Arbury ward is Labour’s Carina O’Reilly, a lecturer in Policing and Public Services at ARU, who has represented Arbury since 2011. I think it’s fair to say that Carina is not a member of the Jeremy Corbyn fan club. Her Lib Dem opponent is Tim Ward, former councillor for the area, who has stood unsuccessfully for Arbury every year since losing his seat in 2014. The Greens are represented once again by veteran candidate Stephen Lawrence, this year making his 22nd appearance before the Cambridge electorate. Standing for the Conservatives is Harry Clynch, an undergraduate at Churchill College and Vice Chairman of Cambridge University Conservative Association (CUCA). Harry’s previous campaigning experience includes the Monday Steak Club, a protest against Churchill College’s “Meat Free Mondays”. I’m sure this will come in handy as he pursues the Arbury sausage vote. However, given Arbury’s recent electoral history, I don’t think Carina has a great deal to worry about. Apart from Jeremy Corbyn, of course.
Castle is a good deal more closely contested. Last year a strong Lib Dem campaign saw Cheney Payne take the seat by just 25 votes, ahead of Labour’s Mark Reader. This year both main parties are fielding newcomers to the Cambridge political scene. Isabel Lambourne for Labour works in marketing at a biotech company, and has recently been prominent in the campaign for access to Castle Mound and the Shire Hall site. For the Lib Dems, incumbent councillor Valerie Holt is standing down, and their candidate is newcomer Greg Chadwick, who designs computer processors at ARM. The other two parties are fielding student candidates. The Green candidate is the appropriately-named Matthew Green of Fitzwilliam College, while CUCA Chairman Oliver Riley of Robinson College represents the Conservatives. Another close contest between Labour and the Lib Dems seems likely.
Fifteen long years have passed since the last local election in Cherry Hinton that could be honestly described as exciting. In those distant days of 2004, the ward was Cambridge’s sole Lab-Con marginal, and the closely-fought elections saw only a few dozen votes between the top candidates. You wouldn’t know it to look at recent results; nowadays Cherry Hinton is Labour’s safest seat in the city, and the re-election of their candidate Mark Ashton is the nearest thing to a nailed-on certainty that Cambridge politics has to offer. The Lib Dem candidate is Henry Wright, who is currently studying Computer Science at Homerton College. His Medium profile described him as a “reluctant Lib Dem member”, though it has now been updated to “previously reluctant, now committed Lib Dem member”. No doubt the excitement of an election campaign has boosted his enthusiasm for the party. Last year’s Green candidate, Jenny Richens, makes a return to the ballot paper, and Mohamed Hossain is standing for the Conservatives.
The graph of recent results in Coleridge looks pretty similar to Cherry Hinton’s, and this is another very safe Labour seat. This year sees the retirement of veteran Labour councillor Jeremy Benstead, who has represented Coleridge since 1992. Labour’s candidate to replace him is Grace Hadley, who works as an Event Coordinator at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Former councillor Donald Douglas is standing for the Conservatives, Alex Harrison, a student at Emmanuel College, for the Lib Dems, and Sarah Nicmanis, who works at the Hundred Houses Society, for the Greens. Bill Kaminski also returns as UKIP candidate after a gap of two years.
From a knife-edge ten-vote majority in 2014, Labour are rather more comfortable in East Chesterton these days, though Lib Dem Ian Manning did take the partly-overlapping Chesterton seat on the County Council in 2017. This year it’s Cambridge Mayor Gerri Bird seeking re-election for Labour, and I expect that she’ll retain her seat fairly easily. For the Lib Dems, Owen Dunn, a Computer Officer at the University of Cambridge, is making a second attempt at the seat. The Green candidate is Gareth Bailey, a Computer Science researcher at the University, and returning for the Conservatives is Timur Coskun, an undergraduate at Trinity College and former Chairman of CUCA. Finally, regular UKIP candidate Peter Burkinshaw is making his fourteenth appearance on Chesterton ballot papers.
The graph of previous election results in King’s Hedges looks very much like those of Cherry Hinton and Coleridge, though with a fractionally less yawning gap between Labour and the Lib Dems. This year there are two seats up for election, following the untimely death of Mayor Nigel Gawthrope in January. Labour’s candidates are Alex Collis, a Humanist celebrant and freelance caterer, and incumbent councillor Kevin Price. The Lib Dems are adding to the already large number of students on this year’s ballot papers with Luke Hallam of Trinity College and Ewan Redpath of King’s. The Conservatives are fielding former councillor Eric Barrett-Payton, and yet another student candidate, Benedict Smith of Selwyn College. There is a single Green Party representative, regular King’s Hedges candidate and experienced protestor Angela Ditchfield, and also one UKIP candidate, David Corn.
Four years ago, Market ward saw the closest three-way split in Cambridge electoral history, with 1,134 votes for the Lib Dems, 1,140 for Labour, and Green candidate Oscar Gillespie taking the seat with 1,147. However, as the graph shows, the Greens have seen a steady fall in their vote share since then, partly due to reduced campaigning activity, and partly because of the Jeremy Corbyn effect. In his four years on the City Council, Oscar Gillespie has proposed some thoughtful and well-argued, if occasionally long-winded, motions to Council, for example successfully pushing the Council to adopt a sustainable food policy. However, he is not defending his seat this year. The Green cause is represented by Emma Garnett, who is studying for a zoology PhD at the University of Cambridge. The Labour candidate is Steve King, who works at Cambridge Assessment, and standing for the Lib Dems is Katie Porrer, a student adviser at ARU. It’s notable that we’ve got to Market ward before finding a female Lib Dem candidate – just three of the 17 Lib Dem candidates this year are female. The Conservative candidate is William Phelps, a student at Corpus Christi College. Both the Lib Dems and Labour will be hoping for a gain from the Green party; the Lib Dems may be in with the best chance, having gained a seat from Labour in Market last year.
During the last Labour government the Lib Dems would regularly clock up over 50% of the vote in Newnham, but it was only last year that they started to return to that level in the ward. Nevertheless, both main parties will be expecting a Lib Dem victory in Newnham this year, and will adjust their campaign efforts accordingly. Markus Gehring is seeking a second term for the Lib Dems, and faces Joe Beastall for Labour, who works for UNISON. Mark Slade is standing for the Greens for a fourth time, and the Conservative candidate is Dolly Theis, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine. Dolly stood for Parliament against Kate Hoey in Vauxhall in 2017, finishing third.
Petersfield is another ward with the classic “safe Labour seat” graph shape – Labour’s lead has fallen slightly since 2016, but it’s still very substantial. There was controversy earlier in the year when Labour’s sitting Petersfield councillor Kevin Blencowe was deselected, despite representing the seat for 24 years, and Mike Davey, the Chair of Cambridge Labour Party, was chosen as the candidate instead. I don’t know the full story behind this, but a reliable source says it wasn’t “left/right factional”. Make of that what you will. Facing Mike Davey for the Lib Dems is Sarah Brown, former Petersfield councillor, and runner-up in the by-election in September 2018. Virgil Ierubino is standing for the Greens for a fourth time in Petersfield, and Stephen Burdett is the Conservative candidate.
As the Queen Edith’s graph shows, last year saw rather a serene campaign, with all parties registering very nearly the same vote share they received at the previous City Council elections in 2016. In normal circumstances, Queen Edith’s would expect a similar election this year, leading to much the same sort of result, a comfortable Lib Dem win. However, this year the four parties are joined by an Independent candidate, Sam Davies, who has been an active campaigner on local issues in the area for some years. There have not been a huge number of Independent candidates in Cambridge, and it can be difficult for them to compete effectively against the efficient and experienced campaign teams of the two main parties. However, as John Hipkin has shown in Castle, it can be done, and from what I know of Sam I would certainly not write off her chances. If she can muster enough volunteer support to communicate effectively with the voters and motivate them to turn out for her on polling day, it is not impossible for her to make a breakthrough, particularly with the standing of party politics at such a low ebb nationally. However, I think third or possibly second place might be a more likely result, but this would still leave her well placed for a shot at one of the three Queen Edith’s seats in next year’s “all up” elections. One indicator of how well Sam is doing is whether the other parties, particularly the Lib Dems, mention her in their leaflets. If they think she isn’t in the running, they will simply ignore her; but if they are hearing her name a lot on the doorstep, that will change.
The favourite for the Queen Edith’s seat this year is the incumbent Lib Dem George Pippas, former Mayor of Cambridge, who has represented the area since 2011. Dan Greef, previously candidate for South Cambs MP, makes a return appearance for Labour, as does Manas Deb for the Conservatives. The Green candidate is newcomer Elisabeth Whitebread, who works for a conservation charity campaigning on marine plastics. The result should be less predictable than last year, but that’s not saying a great deal – the Lib Dems are still firm favourites.
From being a Labour/Lib Dem marginal a few years ago, Romsey is now firmly back in the red team’s grip, thanks to their determined and effective campaign organisation in the ward, as well as trends in national politics. It’s a measure of how much things have changed in Romsey that last year Dave Baigent was the first Labour councillor to be re-elected in the ward since Joe Gluza in 2001. His colleague Anna Smith is virtually certain to repeat the feat this year. Showing the colours for the Lib Dems is Joshua Blanchard Lewis, a languages tutor, who also stood in Romsey last year. Martin Keegan also returns for the Conservatives, and the Green candidate is Caitlin Patterson, who has stood twice before.
Trumpington is one of the most intriguing contests in this year’s elections. As well as a four-vote majority last year for the first-ever Trumpington Labour councillor, Katie Thornburrow, there is also a double by-election underway, as former Lib Dem Donald Adey has finally resigned both his City and County Council seats following his move to Scotland last year. Furthermore, incumbent Lib Dem City Councillor Zoe O’Connell is standing down. With a wafer-thin majority and three seats up for grabs, as you might expect Trumpington is getting a great deal of attention from both Labour and Lib Dem campaigners. Five of the six candidates for the main parties are new to Cambridge elections; only former Trumpington County Councillor Barbara Ashwood for the Lib Dems has stood in the city before. In 2017 she was deselected in favour of Donald Adey – a curious decision, in retrospect. Her Lib Dem colleagues standing for the City Council seats are Daniel Summerbell, a postdoc researcher and former member of the Cambridge University Fencing team, and Peter Lord, a semi-retired Chartered Engineer who previously stood for the Lib Dems in Haverhill North. Labour’s County candidate is Rob Grayston, who was Parliamentary assistant to Fiona Onasanya, and gave evidence at her trial. For the City Council, Labour’s candidates are Matt Bird, a software developer, and May Shafi, a researcher on cancer treatments. For the Conservatives, former councillor Shapour Meftah is standing for both City and County seats, and the second City seat is contested by Phil Salway, a Senior Technician at Cambridge University. The Green candidates are Sue Wells, and Trumpington regular Ceri Galloway, both for the City Council, and Beverley Carpenter for the County seat. In recent years both demographic changes in the ward and the national political situation mean the tide has been running in favour of Labour in Trumpington, but the Lib Dems are certainly still in contention. Expect a close contest between the two main parties, possibly with a split result.
West Chesterton is another Lib Dem/Labour marginal, with close results for the last several years. This time the incumbent Lib Dem Damien Tunnacliffe is seeking a fourth term of office; his Labour opponent is Milton Road campaigner Alex Skinner. Last year’s also-rans Michael Harford for the Conservatives and Shayne Mitchell for the Greens are both standing again, Shayne for the 17th time in a Cambridge election. I think a Lib Dem hold is slightly more likely than a Labour gain, but it could go either way.
The overall picture, then, is very much of Labour on the front foot. Although they have nine seats to defend, eight of these (Abbey, Arbury, Cherry Hinton, Coleridge, Petersfield, Romsey and two seats in King’s Hedges) are very safe indeed, and the ninth, East Chesterton, is only slightly less so. The picture is a great deal less comfortable for the Lib Dems. They should hold Newnham and Queen Edith’s, and will have hopes of gaining Market, but they face strong challenges from Labour in Castle, Trumpington and West Chesterton. Conservative, Green and Independent candidates are not likely to win any seats at all, though a surprise result in Queen Edith’s can’t be entirely ruled out. For Labour, the realistic worst-case scenario is merely that they hold the nine seats they are defending and don’t make any gains, but if things go their way they could make up to five gains on the City Council, as well as taking the Trumpington County seat. This range of possible results would put their strength on the new City Council at between 26 and 31 of the 42 seats, giving them a comfortable majority of between ten and twenty. For the Lib Dems, the best case scenario is that they hold their five defences, gain Market from the Greens, and retake Donald Adey’s seats in Trumpington, giving them seven City Council seats this time, a result which they would be extremely pleased with. If things go badly for them, though, they could lose three and hold just two. This means their strength on the new City Council is likely to be between 10 and 15. With the other parties not likely to take any seats, the new Council will have just one member outside the two main parties, Independent councillor John Hipkin, whose term of office ends next year.
A notable feature of this year’s local elections is the number of student candidates standing. I count ten undergraduate candidates this year: five Conservative, four Lib Dems, and one Green. This is often a sign that the parties are struggling to find candidates, so goodness knows what will happen next year when boundary changes mean that all 42 City Council seats will be up for election at once. If the four parties run full slates, that will be 168 candidates to find across the city, not including minor parties and Independents. Good luck with that.
Even with the all-up elections next year, it looks like Labour are strongly placed to hold on to the City Council. So can anything threaten their seemingly unshakeable grip on power in Cambridge? I see three main risks. Firstly, serious dissent within the Labour group of councillors – always a possibility when a party has a safe majority. While there have been some rumblings, I don’t rate this possibility very highly – Labour have held together pretty well in Cambridge despite the turmoil that the party has been going through nationally. The second risk is one that I’m sure Labour councillors would be happy about – the election of a Labour government. History shows that being in power at Westminster is generally bad news for your prospects in local elections, as voters retaliate against unpopular things that the Government does. Thirdly, there is the possibility of local government reorganisation in Cambridgeshire, which might abolish the City Council entirely. However, this is likely to be some way off, as central Government has one or two other things on its mind at the moment. So it looks like Cambridge will continue to have a Labour council for the foreseeable future – however long that is.
Both Cambridge Cycling Campaign and Carbon Neutral Cambridge are running surveys of the election candidates, so you’ll be able to find out more about their views on those issues in due course. You can also find contact details for the candidates, and election statements from some of them, on whocanivotefor.co.uk, as well as the local party websites (Lab, Lib Dem, Con, Green, UKIP). Polling is from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Thursday 2nd May, and the results should be announced in the early hours of Friday 3rd. Best wishes to everyone standing this year!