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A Quick guide to this year’s key contests in the East Sussex local council elections.

Current Scenario:


This year East Sussex will go to the polls to decide who will represent residents and hold their local council to account for the next four years. Rother, Eastbourne, Wealden, Lewes and Brighton all will be going to the polls to elect all councillor positions. The one exception will be Hastings as this Borough has a different political system where they elect half the council every two years. The seats up for grabs this time around were last available in May 2019. As this was a bad time for the Conservative Party, they lost seats across East Sussex and smaller parties gained.

Figure one - Party that won the most votes in each council ward in East Sussex - 2019 local elections.

In Lewes, the Greens and Lib-Dems were the main beneficiaries of the Conservative Party’s poor performance and the Conservatives lost control of the council, allowing a coalition of the Greens, Lib-Dems, Labour and independents to form an administration. Alternatively, in Eastbourne only the Lib-Dems benefited from the Conservative’s decline, allowing them to gain a strong majority on the council.


In Rother, the Conservatives also suffered large losses, with them losing control of the council. In Bexhill, an Independent group campaigning on a greater say for residents performed strongly enough to take many seats off the Tories. Further, Labour also performed strongly enough to secure seats off the Conservatives in Bexhill. Additionally, they lost seats to the Lib-Dems in the more rural areas of Rother, with another Independent candidate winning a seat from the Conservatives In rural Rother as well.


Wealden held their election under new boundaries, making a comparison to previous performances difficult. But, with the Lib-Dems and Green securing six councillors and Independents a further five councillors even in a district considered to be strongly conservative the Conservative Party did not perform as well as they may have expected.


Brighton also witnessed change, but both Labour and the Conservatives suffered losses with the Green Party making enough gains to take leadership of the council. An Independent candidate also managed to win a ward and these changes forced the council into no overall control.


Key battles:


This time around the Tories would have thought they would be going into these local elections in a more advantageous position and be in a good position to exploit local issues and make gains. Yet, this may not be the case as for nearly a year the Tories have drifted from one crisis to the next, forcing two Prime Minister’s resignations. There is a feeling that many services are just not working and the polls show the Conservative Party to be consistently under 30% of the national vote. This likely will filter into local election results, meaning Conservatives might not be able to make the gains they would have anticipated to make this time around and could find themselves on the defensive again. Therefore, other parties who performed well last time will be seeking to replicate their good 2019 performances in areas across East Sussex. In contrast, the Conservatives will seek to focus on local issues to make their gains.


Rother:


In Rother Labour is seeking to make gains in the part of Rother that comprises the rural part of the Hastings & Rye constituency. If Labour can perform well, and even gain councillors, in the seats of Rye and Winchelsea, Eastern Rother and Southern Rothern Labour will have confidence they can win back the parliamentary seat. Independents and Labour will be seeking to hold onto seats they gained in Bexhill, and may even be able to gain more. The Lib-Dems will seek to hold onto key rural seats and will aim to make further gains in such areas. Alternatively, the Conservatives will be seeking to reverse the losses they experienced last time around in Bexhill and the more rural areas of Rother. The proposed immigration detention centre just north of Bexhill could produce unpredictable results and may help challenger candidates, such as UKIP, making this contest quite unpredictable.


Eastbourne:


The Lib-Dems will be seeking to keep the nine wards they won last time as if they can achieve this they will keep control of the council. Naturally, the Conservatives will seek to make modest gains and try and force no overall control but if they have a difficult day they may find it hard to defend all three seats they won last time. Meads could be a particularly tight contest between the Conservatives and Lib-Dems as in the last county council elections the parties were only 6% apart from one another. Smaller parties will seek to make an impact and could force council wards with smaller majorities to change political control.


Lewes:


Lewes is perhaps the most complicated contest as it involves multiple parties fighting battles throughout the district. The Conservatives, Greens and Lib-Dems will both be on the offensive and defensive depending on which council ward they are campaigning in. Further, due to a by-election win in Peacehaven West for Labour the Labour Party will hope they can secure more seats on the council at the expense of the Tories, further complicating the election. Moreover, Independents secured seats on the council last time around and will seek to gain more seats on the council, again adding more uncertainty.


The Lib-Dems will be defending and trying to gain council seats in Seaford, Newhaven and Plumpton. Labour will seek to make further gains in Peacehaven, whilst the Tories will hope to secure previous losses in this area. The Greens will seek to take Tory areas they were close to taking last time in the more rural areas of Lewes, whilst also seeking to keep seats they won in the centre of Lewes and Ouse Valley. Independents will hope to gain seats in Newhaven North and Lewes Priory, whilst also taking seats they were close to winning last time. The Conservatives will seek to regain all the losses they experienced across Lewes, but they will have to beat the Greens, Lib-Dems, Labour and Independents in various wards across the district to achieve this. As the party is having a tough time in the polls, the Conservatives might not be able to do this, meaning they likely will again be defending seats they still hold from the Greens, Lib-Dems and Labour.


Brighton:


As Labour is performing much more strongly in the polls they will be seeking to regain control of Brighton council and will be expecting to at least regain their status as the largest party. Labour will be seeking to continue taking seats off the Conservatives, as they have recently done in a by-election in Wish Ward. Importantly, for Labour, there are a number of seats the Tories hold that have small majorities they can win back. Further, Labour and the Greens will battle over wards and council seats in the centre of Brighton over local issues, where the Greens currently have most of their councillors. If Labour can win these battles then they can regain control of the council, but if the Greens manage to take seats off Labour then they can deny Labour a majority and may still be the largest party. Labour candidates who have become Independents since they were elected in 2019 could also add further complications, which again could stop Labour from winning enough seats to form a majority. The Conservatives will hope to challenge Labour in areas they could win on a good day, but if the party is punished by national trends Labour should be able to defend itself from Conservative challenges.


Wealden:


Wealden is the strongest area for the Conservatives and they will seek to gain seats off the few Independents, Greens and Lib-Dems that won seats last time. However, if the Conservatives suffer losses across East Sussex then the Lib-Dems, Greens and Independents (where they chose to stand) may be able to challenge and even take further seats off the Conservatives. The Conservatives will probably keep control of Wealden council, but if smaller parties take enough seats off the Conservatives they may be able to force no overall control and find a way to work together to form a new cooperative alliance administration, as these parties did in Rother.


In summary:


These local elections look to favour parties that are challenging the Conservatives, who will be seeking to exploit positive national trends. The Greens, Lib-Dems, Labour and various Independent groups will mostly be on the offensive and will seek to take further seats off the Tories. They will target the seats they struggled to hang on to last time and may even be able to challenge seats thought of as safe Conservative seats if the Tories have a particularly bad day at the polls. The Conservatives will likely be mostly on the defensive and will hope to keep what they have and make one or two gains in each council district. They will likely seek to focus on local issues and avoid the national headlines that have dragged their party’s poll ratings down.

A likely outcome is that the Tories have another bad election and other parties form cooperative alliances to try and keep the Tories out of office. Yet, local elections are rarely this predictable as local factors intervene and Independent and smaller outsider parties make unexpected impacts. Therefore, whilst the cooperative alliance will perhaps be going into this local election more optimistic than the Conservatives, there is still much campaigning to be done and many contests that will need to be fought before the result is decided. The multi-party nature and the strong local rivalry between various parties, alongside the unknown impact of smaller party and Independent candidates will make these battles intense and this local election highly competitive and unpredictable.

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