Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Dust settling over Kingstanding

Well, we have a new councillor for Kingstanding and after eight years of asking, the voters gave Gary Sambrook a run at it for the next two years, as he serves out the remainder of Cath Grundy's term in office.

I thought we'd get home, but not by much - I thought a majority of under 100 was likely, but in the end, Gary won it by 138 votes. As I said at the outset and as I say about all by-elections - they are peculiar, singular beasts and the result in any one by-election is not necessarily indicative of a wider trend. This was no exception.

Even though Labour was the incumbent party, we were putting up a new name against Gary Sambrook, who has been the permanent Tory candidate for years. It is virtually impossible for a new candidate to match that level of name recognition in a few short weeks. The Tory campaign clearly recognised this and focussed very heavily on Brand Sambrook rather than potential toxicity of their own party - much of their material barely mentioned the Conservative Party. There was even a small, full-colour, glossy folded leaflet that mimicked a parish newsletter in style and which dealt only with Gary. In many ways, he had all the advantages of incumbency without the negative risks. Similarly, Rob Pocock eventually won in Sutton Coldfield, against all the odds, by being a candidate with terrific name recognition. Perhaps the key test of whether this might be a sea change in Kingstanding will be the May result, when the Tories will put up a candidate with less of a ward profile than Cllr Sambrook. There will be something similar in Sutton Vesey, but at least there has been a bigger window to establish a new candidate. I suspect the Tories will struggle in Kingstanding.

Secondly, rather than trying to defend their role in government and the massive cuts that are being enforced upon Birmingham and on local authorities generally, the Tories decided to go negative early on and attacked Lorraine Owen for the heinous crime of not living in Kingstanding. They failed to mention that Gary had himself tried to win selection in a safe Sutton Coldfield seat, where the local members didn't find him to their taste and preferred Ken Wood - touted by some as the next leader of the Tory group, owing to doubts in Sutton Coldfield over the suitability of Alden Jnr for the top job. Of course, if Lorraine was ruled unfit to be a councillor in Kingstanding, you struggle to understand why the Tories have put up with their current group leader for so long, as he doesn't even live in Birmingham. Incidentally, Lorraine is terrifically hard working and she will make an excellent councillor.

This wasn't quite the massive defeat in Labour's heartland as it has been portrayed. Yes, Labour have held this for a number of years - and still have two serving councillors - but if you look at the Labour majorities, they are rattling around marginal territory. We won in 2008 by just 80 votes, by 580 in the general election year of 2010, 174 in 2011 and 405 in 2012. Add in voting on a freezing cold February day and the lower turnouts expected in by-elections - down to 19% from the 23% in 2012 and it looks shaky.

I said at the start of the campaign that it would come down to turnout on the day and so it came to pass - just 71% of the 2012 Labour vote turned out, compared to 98% of the Tory vote. This is pretty much a straight Tory/Labour fight, as the LibDems polled their lowest vote in the city in 2012, collecting a whopping 80 votes (excluding Shard End, where they didn't even run a candidate). UKIP ran a candidate, who took 266 votes - a creditable 8% for a first run out - hardly indicative of a likely win in May. Incidentally, the National Front vote also held up. 33 out of their 34 voters from May 2012 managed to find their way to the polls, doubtless keeping to the far right all the way.

So, for my money, this is an unfortunate blip rather than the start of a turning tide of Labour support. The picture will be clearer after May, but I don't think the Kingstanding result is a reason to panic.

[EDIT: Corrected error in para 1. Gary has not stood eight times before. Been at it since 2006 or so, mind you. I have a theory that voters get bored seeing your name and realise the only way to get rid of it is to actually elect you. Worked for me, anyway.]

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