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Battlegrounds – The key contests in the Lewes local election.

The election:

The local elections this year will see Lewes going to the polls to decide who will represent residents and hold council officers to account for the next four years. There are 21 wards to be contested and some wards will elect two candidates and others will elect three, with a total of 41 councillors to be elected. Crucially, these multi-member council wards raise the possibility that one area may return split representation, meaning two Green and one Lib-Dem candidate could be elected in one ward. With some individual candidates incentivising voters to split their voting, split voting could change the political landscape of the council. Further, a by-election win in Peacehaven West has given Labour hope they can secure more seats on the council at the expense of the Tories. This all creates much uncertainty and makes this multi-party contest intensely competitive and very unpredictable.

"The strong local rivalry between the local parties, alongside the unknown impact of smaller parties and Independents will make election battles intense and, competitive and unpredictable."

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 contest will likely be a multi-party battle between the Greens, Liberal Democrats, Conservatives, Labour and Independent candidates. The parties will often be battling across multiple fronts and in some wards will face challenges against Conservative opponents and other wards face battles against liberal/ left-wing opponents.

Current council composition:

The 2019 Lewes District Council elections saw the Conservatives lose the leadership of Lewes District Council after an 8-year period of control. The Conservatives found themselves in second place with 27.1% (a loss of 7.4%) of the vote, but as their vote was far more concentrated they won the most seats, 19 (a loss of 5 seats). The Greens finished first with 27.9% (an increase of 17.4%) of the vote but only won 9 seats (an increase of 6) as smaller parties often are not favoured by the First Past the Post electoral system. The Lib-Dems finished third and secured 22.5% (a loss of 1.3%) of the vote and won 8 seats (a loss of 3). Labour gained two seats and a further seat in a by-election, with the Independents keeping their two seats. Figure one shows the party that finished first in each ward.

These results left the council in no overall control, but the smaller parties decided to create a Co-operative Alliance where the Greens, Lib-Dems, Labour and two Independents would work together in order to force a change of political control. This means that going into these elections the Conservatives will be seeking to regain control of the council whereas the parties in the cooperative alliance may choose to work together in order to keep the Conservatives out of office. Yet, the desire for all parties to secure more seats could put the alliance under strain and might result in it breaking down, possibly producing an opportunity for the Conservatives to make gains.

Figure 1 – The results of the 2019 Lewes District Council election by ward. The winner is defined as the Party whose candidates won the most votes.

The Key Battlegrounds:


In 2019, the Conservative Party faced a difficult election as PM Theresa May was facing a revolt against her Brexit deal and looked likely to resign by the end of the year. 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 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, meaning Lewes 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.

The Conservatives will be seeking to defend the seats they hold in Chailey, Ditchling & Westmeston, East Saltdean, Newick, Peacehaven, Seaford and Wivelsfed. The most vulnerable Conservative-held seat is Seaford Central, where the Conservative Party only won the seat by 3.4% and Seaford South could fall to either Liberal-Democrat or Labour candidates. Further, in 2019, the Lib-Dems only found themselves 5.9% behind the second-placed Tory candidate in Seaford North, meaning the Lib-Dems could challenge her as well. Last time around, Peacehaven West saw a strong challenge from an Independent, meaning this seat also could be vulnerable. Most of the other seats they hold have fairly large majorities, but with negative headlines having plagued the party last year the public may take any frustrations they have out on local Conservative associations in these local elections, meaning that some of their safer seats might not be as safe as some think.

In terms of the seats they could gain, East Saltdean & Telscome Cliffs will be their easiest gain as last time they were only 1.4% behind the Labour candidate who won this ward’s second councillor position. Peacehaven East would be another potential gain for the Tories as they were only 2.4% behind the Labour candidate who won this ward’s second councillor position. Vitally, figure two shows that the Conservative Party’s vote distribution in the 2019 elections was very much concentrated in the seats they won, consequently in most wards they missed out on gaining a councillor by one place the Conservatives find themselves far behind, meaning their capacity to make gains outside these two mentioned wards is likely to be limited, again meaning they will likely be going into this election on the defensive.

The distribution of the Conservative vote share, 2019 Lewes local election.


Last time around the Greens witnessed a large increase in their vote share, 17.4%, putting them in first place in terms of the number of votes cast. With the last elections being so good for the Greens, the party will be hoping to either replicate this result or improve upon it. Yet, despite their very good performance in the last elections, there are a limited number of wards where they finished one place behind the last elected councillor, meaning for them to elect new councillors they require large gains in wards that produced limited support for them even in a good election year. One seat they could achieve this would be Lewes Priory, where they will seek to gain an independent’s seat. The next easiest gain for them could be argued to be Seaford West, where they were 13.5% behind the Tories in 2019, and although this requires a large swing to change control, if the Greens receive positive feedback from their campaign in Tory areas they could target this seat. They may also seek to make gains in areas the Conservatives hold and might perform poorly, but they will have to compete with the Lib-Dems and Labour for these votes. Further, figure three shows that their vote is concentrated in wards they mostly already have councillors in, making it hard for them to make significant gains.

Therefore, if the Greens can’t make major gains they will hope to defend all the seats they currently hold, thus putting them in a good position to lead any future cooperative alliances. The seats that will likely be the hardest to defend are Lewes Bridge (where the Lib-Dems only find themselves 4.1% behind the Tories) and Lewes Castle (where the Lib-Dems only were 5.2% behind the second-placed Green candidate). These challenges could place the cooperative alliance under strain and could provide the Conservatives with an opportunity to regain control if they make modest gains and the cooperative alliance no longer functions after a series of fiercely fought battles in these wards. Yet, if these seats do not change control and the Greens hold on to them then these wards could produce little change in the political control of the council.

The distribution of the Green vote share, 2019 Lewes local election.

The Lib-Dems:

The Lib-Dems will have one of the most complicated campaigns as they will be battling the Conservative Party, Greens and Labour across multiple wards in the district.

Last time around the Lib-Dems lost three seats and will be seeking to reverse those losses in this upcoming election. The Lib-Dems will attempt to make gains in Ditchling & Westmeston, Seaford North, Seaford South and Seaford Central as all these seats have majorities of under 10%, with Seaford South only having a majority of 1.2% and Seaford Central 3.4%. These target seats are all currently held by the Conservatives, bringing the party into battle with the Conservatives when seeking to make gains. Figure four shows that the Lib-Dems' vote was mostly distributed in the wards they currently hold and the areas where they were close to winning councillors. As the Lib-Dems might gain from the decline of the Conservative party’s national polling, this indicates the Lib-Dems may be able to take these seats in this year’s local election, consequently meaning they will likely target their resources towards these seats.

Yet, in wards they hold and in other wards they will seek to make gains they will be competing with the Greens and Labour Party, their cooperative alliance allies. Further, Independent candidates will also compete with the Lib-Dems in seats they hold and seek to make gains in, further complicating their campaign approach. For instance, Newhaven North in 2019 saw an Independent candidate only 0.5% behind the Lib-Dems, meaning an Independent candidate or grouping might target the Lib-Dems here. Therefore, whilst campaigning for gains from the Conservative Party the Lib-Dems will have to be careful not to neglect defences of seats they currently hold by small margins.

The distribution of the Conservative vote share, 2019 Lib-Dem local election.

The unknown impact of Labour, independents and other candidates:

Finally, there will be many different parties standing in all 21 seats, bringing unknown factors of Independents and smaller parties who might break through the current multi-party system in Lewes. Local factors may aid or limit this possibility, but if such trends do materialise they could affect the election outcome in unpredictable ways. For example, Labour may continue to make gains and secure another one or two councillors off the Conservatives, potentially helping to strengthen the cooperative alliances hold on the council. This could easily happen as Labour will be pushing for gains after a recent successful County Council election result and a belief they can make gains in the Lewes Town Council election. Alternatively, Independent candidates might take a seat off the Greens or Liberal Democrats, which is not impossible as last time in Newhaven North an independent came only 0.5% from being elected. If this occurred, then this may limit the Green’s and Lib-Dem’s ability to make enough gains to keep the cooperative alliance as the leaders of the council. Further, any smaller party or Independent candidates campaigning on specific local or national issues could impact the election result by preventing the Conservatives from winning, possibly even resulting in an outsider managing to break through and gain a council seat, which in Lewes could strengthen the cooperative alliance.

In summary:

These local elections look to favour the cooperative alliance, who will be seeking to exploit positive national trends. The Tories, Greens and Lib-Dems will be both on the offensive and defensive. The Conservatives will likely be mostly on the defensive and will hope to keep what they have and make one or two gains, whilst the Greens will be seeking to defend their held seats and make one or two gains. The Lib-Dems will mostly be on the offensive and seek to reverse the losses they experience in 2019, potentially giving them a bigger voice in a cooperative alliance administration.

A likely outcome is that the Tories have another bad election and the cooperative alliance receives another term in office. Yet, local elections are rarely this predictable as local factors intervene and smaller parties and Independents 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 parties and Independents will make these battles intense and this local election highly competitive and unpredictable.

Written and published by James Prentice - 18/04/2013.

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