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Battlegrounds – The key contests in Eastbourne 2023

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

Election Format:

The local elections this year will see Eastbourne going to the polls to decide who will represent residents and hold council officers to account for the next four years. There are nine wards to be contested and each ward will elect three councillors, a total of 27.

As with any local elections, there will be campaigning over the state of local services, specific local concerns, council transparency, house building, council finances and of course, potholes. The approaches of local candidates and parties will have an impact on how the campaign unfolds and the election result, but there will also be national trends that will shape the key battlegrounds and parties’ strategies.

"The Lib-Dems will be confident in their defences and will hope to make major gains, whilst the Tories will hope to hold on and potentially make one or two gains."

Key factors:

In terms of local factors, there have been some important changes since the last election. Firstly, the long-term Liberal-Democrat leader, David Tutt, has stepped down from politics and the Lib-Dems are entering this contest with new leadership that has not yet been tested by a local election campaign. Further, the Lib-Dems have a new parliamentary candidate, Josh Babarinde, who will surely be looking to use these local elections to raise his profile for the general election that will most likely be held sometime from May to December next year. If this new leadership goes down well with the electorate the Lib-Dems may be able to improve upon their last successful local election result, but if the voters do not like this change then experienced Conservative campaigners may be able to capitalise. As the Lib-Dems have had a majority on the council, these experienced campaigners will seek to exploit any unpopular decisions the previous administration was forced to take. As always, small local factors could influence voting and can benefit or hinder any candidate based on how they pitch themselves.

Vitally, national trends do have the potential to override these local concerns. May 2019, the last time local elections in Eastbourne were held, was a poor time for the Conservative Party. Prime Minister Theresa May was struggling to hold onto office and Brexit lingered on with no end in sight. The Conservatives were punished at the polls and smaller opposition parties, such as the Lib-Dems, benefited from this. Therefore, this time around the Tories would have thought they would be going into these local elections in a more advantageous position. 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 ate 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, possibly meaning that the Conservative Party’s vote share in seats they hold will be lower than last time around, meaning they may find it harder to regain losses and hold onto seats than initially anticipated. Nationally the Lib-Dems are performing more strongly in the polls, which likely will filter into their local strongholds, such as Eastbourne and specific held council seats in Lewes and Rother. Therefore, the national trends do favour the Lib-Dems going into these local elections, although there is no guarantee that these will eliminate local factors and cause the party to make gains.

1. Winner of the 2019 election by ward (winner defined as the party who on average won the most votes).

Key Battlegrounds:

The Lib-Dems will likely be seeking to go on the offensive due to positive national trends and the fact they performed quite strongly in the three wards they failed to win in 2019, see figure two. The most likely ward to be a tight contest is Ratton ward. Last time around there was only a 6.4% gap between the third-placed Conservative candidate and the most popular Liberal Democrat candidate. This is a very small majority for the Conservative Party and with the party performing poorly in the national polls the Liberal Democrats will likely see this as a potential gain and target their efforts accordingly.

The next seat that will be most likely to be a close contest is Meads as the Conservative Party’s third-placed candidate in 2019 only had a 13.5% majority over their nearest Liberal Democrat opponent. Further, in the 2021 local elections, the Lib-Dems only missed out on this seat by 5.6% and with demographic changes in this ward favouring the Lib-Dems they will likely push for votes in this area of the district. Additionally, the Conservative Party's long-term representative of the area, Barry Taylor, stepping down provides the Liberal Democrats with an opportunity to offer new representation. Again, with the Conservative Party having had a tough time going into these local elections because of the troubles the national party have experienced in the last year, their vote may have weakened enough for seats like this to be within the Liberal Democrats’ reach, making this an area of interest for Liberal Democrat campaigners.

The next possible gain for the Lib-Dems will be Sovereign, where the Liberal Democrats found themselves 17% behind the third-placed Conservative candidate. This seat would require a particularly big swing so the Liberal Democrats may choose to target their campaign elsewhere, yet if their campaign produces positive results within this ward the Liberal Democrats may decide to push for it.

Image 2 – Heat map showing the distribution of the Lib-Dem vote share by ward in 2019.

In terms of seats the Conservative Party could gain, their key target will be Old Town. This seat is where the Lib-Dems’ smallest majority is located, 14.5%, thus requiring smaller swings to bring the Conservatives gains compared to other Liberal Democrat-controlled areas. One major problem for the Conservative Party is that their vote in 2019 was very concentrated in three seats, with their vote being much weaker elsewhere, see figure 3. With our First Past the Post electoral system, this makes it harder for the Conservatives to gain seats and encourages the party to defend its current territory. Consequently, with the local party facing these tough local challenges and facing tough headlines nationally the Eastbourne Conservatives will likely be going into these elections in defence mode.

Image 3 – Heat map showing the distribution of the Conservative vote share by ward in 2019.

The seats unlikely to change, meaning they will be less hotly contested, are Hampden Park, St Anthony’s, Upperton and Langley. All these seats have majorities for the Lib-Dems of over 20%, making it hard for the Tories to pick up even one candidate, meaning the Lib-Dems will be confident in defending these sets. Further, Labour could challenge the Lib-Dems in Devonshire due to their much-improved polling position, but as the Lib-Dems have a majority of 33% this battleground will also likely not be as hotly contested as other areas may be.

The unknown impact of Labour, independents and other candidates:

Finally, as Labour is doing much better in the polls than compared to 2019 they may pick up votes from both the Lib-Dems and the Conservatives throughout Eastbourne. Local factors may aid or limit such trends, but if such trends do materialise they could affect the election outcome in unpredictable ways. For example, if Labour was to take votes off the Conservatives it could help the Lib-Dems win seats. Yet, if Labour took votes from the Lib-Dems then it could limit their gains and even aid the Tories in areas they target. Further, any smaller party or Independent candidates campaigning on specific local or national issues could impact the election result and may even produce shock results where an outsider manages to break through and gain a council seat.

In summary:

These local elections look to favour the Lib-Dems, meaning they will likely be on the offensive and the Conservatives on the defensive. The Lib-Dems will be confident in their defences and will hope to make major gains, whilst the Tories will hope to hold on and potentially make one or two gains. Yet, local elections are rarely this predictable as local factors intervene and smaller parties make unexpected impacts. Therefore, whilst the Lib-Dems will perhaps be going into this local election as the most optimistic party, there is still much campaigning to be done and many contests that will need to be fought before the result is decided.

Published and written by James Prentice. 16/04/2023.

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