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HBC 2022 – The key battlegrounds.

In less than one month Hastings Borough Council (HBC) will be electing 16 councillors as England goes to the polls for this year’s local elections. This post outlines the political situation the election is held under and what will be the most likely seats to change hands.

Map 1 - HBC - Ward Winners and their majority in 2018.

The first map shows the seats that will be defended in the upcoming local elections. These are the seats that were won in the 2018 local election. Due to boundary changes two councillors were elected to each ward, these seats are the ones that are held by the candidates that were elected with the highest number of votes, with those who finished second facing the ballot box in last year’s local election.

Labour is defending 12 seats, with the Conservative Party defending four. The map also shows the majority the parties’ are defending. Realistically, it is unlikely the Conservative Party will lose any seats. Ashdown, Conquest and Maze Hill have returned Conservative councillors for decades, and with such large majorities for the Conservatives this is unlikely to change. Moreover, in the last local elections, Labour had a tough time in West St Leonards after residents felt frustrated over the council not listening to their objections over a controversial housing development plan. This means that Labour will find it almost impossible to gain anything from these local elections, meaning that in this election all they can do is defend their record. In contrast, this election presents the Conservative Party with nothing but an opportunity to eliminate Labour’s overall majority. If Labour loses two councillors from the twelve seats they are defending to the Conservatives then they will be left with only 16 councillors, leaving them without an overall majority. This means that if the Greens, who have two seats, worked with the Tories, who would have 14 seats, they could force Labour to compromise or work with the Conservatives on an issue by issue basis. If Labour loses three or more seats to the Tories then a Conservative administration becomes more likely, with the Greens possibly deciding the balance of power, possibly working with both parties on an issue by issue basis. Worryingly for Labour, there are reports that the Greens feel badly treated by Labour, possibly meaning they may be more likely to side with the Tories in a hung council scenario. Therefore, to be certain of remaining in office Labour can’t afford to lose more than one seat.

Key Battlegrounds:

Where could Labour lose these two seats?

Figure 2 - HBC - 2021 local elections - party control & their new majorities.

Some seats have long returned strong Labour majorities, such as Central St Leonards, Gensing, Castle, Hollington, Tressell and Braybrooke, meaning the number of seats Labour can lose is limited. Yet, there are vulnerabilities in the red wall displayed in map 1.

The key battlegrounds will likely be the traditional four key marginal seats that have often defined the swing of power in Hastings. These four seats are Baird, Ore, Silverhill and St Helens. It is possible that Labour could lose all these four seats as in last year’s local elections Labour lost all four seats to the Tories, see map two. In particular, St Helens (currently held by Cllr Batsford – Labour’s housing leader) could be tough for Labour as last year the Conservative Party won a 16% majority in a large swing against Labour. Baird, Silverhill and Ore all have small majorities (all less than 8% last year), and usually always have for any winning party, meaning these seats will again likely be close. Further, there are more potential swing areas. West St Leonards is a traditional key marginal, but due to unpopular housing policies in the area, Labour may not be able to get close and challenge the Tories in this ward for a few election cycles. Yet, it is possible that national factors may override local concerns and bring back close results. Wishing Tree was a surprising battleground in last year’s local election, with the Conservative Party coming much closer than expected to Labour. Moreover, with the longstanding Cllr Scott stepping down Labour may lose some of the personal vote he gathered after many years of work in the area, potentially giving the Tories an opportunity. Yet, Labour has not lost this seat for a very long time so the Tories might find it harder to take this seat than compared to other key marginals. The problem for Labour is that their biggest decreases in the Labour vote share in last year’s local elections, and therefore some of the biggest swings against them, occurred in these key marginal seats Labour are defending, see map three. Consequently, if Labour cannot reverse this decline in support, and the rise in Conservative support, then they will lose their majority.

Figure 3 - Change in the Labour party share of the vote - 2018 to 2021 HBC local elections.

The Greens:

The biggest unknown element that could impact these local elections is what will happen to the Green Party vote in last year’s election? Map two highlighted how the ward of Old Hastings could now be thought of as a key marginal seat. Historically, the ward was a battleground for Labour and the Conservative Party, but over the years the Old Town has changed demographically. It has given way to a more middle-class and socially liberal audience, who are more likely to vote for liberal-left-wing parties. Last year the Green Party secured its first-ever seat in this ward and could gain another councillor if they can persuade enough of these voters to back their proposed second councillor. However, they face the challenge of dethroning the current Mayor, something not often done. Cllr Bacon has a very visible presence in this part of town and local social media and will have some personal support because of his amount of constituency casework and visibility. Therefore, Labour should be the favourite to hold onto this one. But, the Greens could repeat their performance from last year or could take enough votes from Labour to let the Tories in, meaning this ward will be one to watch.

Finally, the Greens may have some impact in the key marginal areas. Crucially, polls show the Green Party’s national vote to be down from last year’s success. Therefore, if the Green Party’s vote decreases how the vote will be distributed between Labour and Conservative could prove vital. It could let the Tories back in, alternatively, it could help Labour by bringing back former wavering voters. Moreover, in key marginal wards, where the election likely will be tight, how the Lib-Dems perform could partly determine if the power flows the Tories’ or Labour’s way. Map four shows that the Green Party’s support varied highly between wards, so how the Greens fare will be important in wards like Old Hastings, Ore, St Helens and Silverhill, but perhaps less so in wards they did less well in, such as Baird, Wishing Tree and safe Conservative areas. If the Greens build upon last year’s success and increase their vote share then the evidence from the last election is that in key wards this would likely damage Labour more than the Tories.

Figure 4 - The share of the Green Party vote by ward - HBC 2021 local elections.

Will Labour lose their majority?

How likely is it that Labour can lose the two seats the Tories require?

It is entirely possible that this election could prove to be quite a dull affair, with possibly no seats changing hands. Although Labour is in for a tough election they are defending their majority at a good time for them. The national polls put Labour ahead, indeed some election predictor websites show Labour gaining Hastings&Rye if a general election were held tomorrow. Further, we are at the mid-term point in the parliamentary election, where the government usually gets a kicking. Moreover, there will be incentives for the public to kick the government due to “party-gate” enraging many voters. Further, in the key marginal areas Labour has some longstanding councillors who will have some personal support based on work they have done over the years, such as Cllrs Sinden, Turner, Bacon and Batsford. Based on these positive factors, Labour really should have a good local election.

However, there are local factors to take into account. Labour faced a kickback last year partly due to unpopular positions on local issues, and opposition parties have focused on criticising Labour’s record. Due to the odd position of electing two councillors in the same ward, although Labour is theoretically defending some large majorities in reality they might be fighting against the Tory majorities secured in 2021 (see map two), some of which will be hard to overcome. The Greens will work Old Hastings hard as they can win in this area. Indeed, debates online about leaflets that talk about “Greens can win here” and criticising Labour’s record have already provoked heated debate. The Tories are focusing on critiquing controversial planning decisions and highlighting stories of waste in local government, which might provide the difference in a tight election. The question is will these local factors be enough to overcome the national trends that look to be favouring Labour? The answer is that there are just too many unknown local factors, meaning that this local election is just too close to call. One thing is for sure, the seats of Baird, Ore, Silverhill, St Helens (and possible Old Hastings) will determine the flow of power for the next two years at HBC.

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