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Battlegrounds – The key contests in the Rother District Council 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 one candidate whilst most will elect two, with a total of 38 councillors to be elected. Crucially, these duel-member council wards raise the possibility that one area may return split representation, meaning one Lib-Dem and one Conservative candidate could be elected in a single ward. With some individual candidates incentivising voters to split their voting, split voting could change the political landscape of the council. Additionally, the parties’ fortunes have much changed since the last local election, which was held in May 2019. This will give Labour and the Greens hope they can pick up seats, with the Lib-Dems and Conservatives also likely to battle it out over control of seats in rural areas. Further, in 2019, Independent candidates unexpectedly performed very strongly and won councillors in Bexhill, a phenomenon they will hope to recreate in this election. All this creates much uncertainty and makes this multi-party contest intensely competitive and very unpredictable.

"The multi-party nature and the strong local rivalry between various parties, alongside the unknown impact of smaller parties will make these battles intense and this local election highly 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 Liberal Democrats, Conservatives, Labour and Independent candidates, with the Greens also likely to feature in specific areas as well. In some wards, there will be at least a three-way contest, such as in Rye and Eastern Rother where Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will battle for control of two seats.


Current council composition:


The 2019 Rother District Council elections saw the Conservatives lose the leadership of the council for the first time since 1999.

The Conservatives found themselves still in first place with 36.4% of the vote, but the Conservatives lost 12.4% of the vote from the previous election, with most of this loss coming in key wards in Bexhill. This meant that they only secured 14 seats, a loss of 17 seats to a combination of Independents, Labour, Lib-Dem and Green candidates. The main winners from the election were the Independents, who finished in second with 27.0% of the vote, an increase of 14.8% of the vote. Vitally, the Independents’ increase came from concentrated areas of support, allowing them to secure 13 councillors, an additional 9 seats. The Lib-Dems were the second beneficiary of the Conservative Party’s collapse, allowing them to gain an additional 2.1% of the vote and finish in third place with a total of 15.3% of the vote. This awarded the Lib-Dems an additional five seats, giving them a total of seven councillors. This increase in support came from rural areas where the Conservative Party lost support, meaning the Lib-Dems will be seeking to hold onto these rural seats in this election. Despite Labour losing support across Rother, as Bexhill Labour did well in key seats they managed to gain three councillors, whilst the Greens also gained one councillor in Bexhill.


These results left the council in no overall control, but the smaller parties decided to create a new Rother Alliance made up of Independent, Liberal Democrat, Labour and Green Party councillors, allowing them to form a majority and lock the Conservatives out of power.


This means that going into these elections the Conservatives will be seeking to regain control of the council by retaking Bexhill from the Independents, Labour and Greens. In contrast, the parties in the cooperative alliance may choose to work together in order to keep the seats they secured last time and 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 – Results of the 2019 Rother District Council election for each ward.

Key Battlegrounds:


Conservatives:


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 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 Rother 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.


As the Conservatives suffered heavy losses last time they will be seeking to regain council seats they previously controlled. However, making gains will be difficult as they will be fighting multiple parties on several fronts. One possible gain could be Rye and Winchelsea, as they were only 3% away from gaining both council seats in 2019. However, Labour is pushing for this seat and they could lose a councillor in this ward. Another potential gain could come in Bexhill Old Town & Worsham, but with this seat possibly being a four-way battle between the Lib-Dems, Greens, Independents and the Tories could find it tough to secure a seat in this ward. Another potential gain for the Tories could come in Sedlescombe & Westfield where they will hope to gain the seat they lost to Independents in the last election.


The Conservatives will seek to gain a seat off the Lib-Dems in Southern Rother. Eastern Rother will also be a target, but with a well-known Liberal Democrat councillor standing again and Labour also pushing for this seat they may struggle to hold onto the one seat they have in this ward. Bexhill Sidley is another ward the Tories could pick up on a good day and they will hope to take back the seat Labour secured off them last time around, but Labour will also be seeking to secure both seats so this could be a hard seat to win back. Finally, with one elected Labour candidate in Bexhill Central switching to the Independents and deciding not to re-stand in these local elections this could provide the Conservatives with an opportunity to win back a seat in this ward, but Labour will fight to stop this from happening.


The Tories may have to defend seats if they have a tough day at the polls. Catsfield & Crowhurst alongside, Burwash & The Weald and Hurst Green & Ticehurst may have to be defended from Lib-Dem challenges if the Tories experience a bad day at the polls. Further, as mentioned previously, there are some wards where they have one councillor that will need to be defended rather than pushing to gain a second councillor. For instance in Rye & Winchelsea and Eastern Rother. The good news for the Conservatives is that in some of the wards they need to win back their vote is strong enough for them to make a challenge, see figure two. But, the risk for the Tories is that their vote share continues to go down in wards they lost last time, possibly creating further councillor losses for them.

Figure two - The distribution of the Conservative vote share, 2019 Rother local election.

Independents:


As figure one shows, the independents performed very well within specific wards in Rother. In Bexhill, an Independent group critical of the then Conservative-led council managed to exploit negative national and local headlines to gain enough councillors to force the council into no overall control territory and form an alliance that locked the Tories out of office. Therefore, the Independents’ goal in this campaign is fairly straightforward. The main effort of Independents standing this time around will be to force the same result and possibly gain another councillor or two from the Tories in wards they fell just short of securing representation last time around, such as in Brede and Udimore.


Lib-Dems:


Coming off a good previous election result, the Lib-Dems will be seeking to defend the gains that they secured from the Conservative party in 2019. Map three shows that this task is achievable as their support is heavily concentrated in these seats. Their hardest seats to defend will be Rye & Winchelsea, with a strong challenge coming from both the Tories and Labour. Southern and Eastern Rother will also have to be defended from this same challenge. The Lib-Dems also will face a challenge in Bexhill St. Stephen's as their majority was only 0.3% and as the Greens were so close to taking this seat last time they likely will push for this seat in these coming local elections. The good news for the Lib-Dems is that their vote is strong enough in other wards they control to mean that they likely will not face a difficult task in securing these seats again.


If the Conservatives have a particularly bad day at the polls, the Lib-Dems could challenge in the wards of Burwash & The Weald, Catsfield & Crowhurst and Hurst Green & Ticehurst. These would require a big swing in the Lib-Dems' favour, but as the national polls show the Tories struggling to reach 30% this could provide the Lib-Dems with an opportunity to make further gains in this election.

Map three - The distribution of the Lib-Dem vote share, 2019 Rother local election.

Labour and the Greens:


Labour will be targeting to defend the seats they won last time in Bexhill and potentially gain one or two additional seats in the Bexhill town area. However, as Labour is performing much better in the polls now than compared to 2019 the party can make gains in the part of Rother that is connected to the Hastings & Rye constituency. These wards are Eastern Rother and Rye & Winchelsea. If Labour performs well they could gain both seats in Rye and potentially secure one seat in Eastern Rother (although this will be tough as Labour has never won a seat in Eastern Rother). There is a real possibility Labour could make gains here as they have had a high-profile parliamentary candidate, Helena Dollimore, campaigning on local issues within this area of Rother, which can only help Labour secure the swing it needs to win seats in this area of Rother.

The Greens will hope to hold onto the one seat they have in Bexhill and will challenge other candidates in areas where they field candidates. As last time they were only 0.3% from taking one seat in Bexhill they will hope to gain another seat and increase their presence on the council.


In summary:

These local elections look to favour the new Rother alliance, who will be seeking to exploit positive national trends and any successes they have had whilst in office. The Independents, Lib-Dems and the Greens will mostly be on the defensive and all will hope to win one or two new councillors. The Conservatives and Labour will both be on the defensive and offensive in different parts of the district. The Conservatives will seek to win back council seats they lost last time around but will know Labour and other parties will be pushing for more of their seats in key areas in this election, making this a tough contest for the Tories.


Based on the national polls, a likely outcome is that the Tories have another bad election and the Rother alliance receives another term in office. Yet, local elections are rarely this predictable as local factors intervene and candidates considered outsiders can make a big impact. For example, the impact of UKIP candidates standing in Bexhill could produce a shock result as they may be able to capitalise from the proposed immigration detention centre that is set to be placed in Bexhill. Therefore, whilst the Rother 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 will make these battles intense and this local election highly competitive and unpredictable.

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