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  • Writer's pictureCoastal Action

Parties gear up for 6 May polls

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

"Secondary elections rarely excite great interest, and this year, as many of us contemplate picking up the pieces after this most extraordinary period, they are as ever at risk of passing unnoticed. But there are reasons to show an interest." Chris Connelley says, writer of the Coastal Action think-tank

Unglamorous and unloved though they may be, there’s an awful lot of elections happening on Thursday 6 May after the decision last year, in the early days of the first covid lockdown, to postpone regional elections. Consequently, 2021 sees a bumper crop of scheduled and rollover polls.

For Hastings residents there will be three ballots: for the borough council elections; for East Sussex county council, which includes Hastings and has key powers over roads, education and social services; and for the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner, an elected position since 2012, once again encompassing the whole county.

Residents of Eastern Rother also have a by-election to choose a new Rother District Council representative to take the place of Sally-Ann Hart who became MP for Hastings & Rye in the December 2019 general election.

Much of the media interest nationally will centre on what’s happening in Hartlepool, Lord Peter Mandelson’s former constituency in New Labour’s 90s heyday but now at risk of falling to the resurgent ‘red wall’ Conservatives at a by-election, and in London, where Sadiq Khan leads by a large margin in the Mayoral contest and which looks set to provide Labour with its best result.

Scotland is another hotspot, and pundits will be watching the effect that recent bitter feuding between Nicola Sturgeon and her predecessor Alex Salmond has had on the nationalist vote as the SNP makes the case for another independence referendum.

Thin gruel

What’s happening here on the south coast is undoubtedly thinner gruel, and less likely to attract national attention, though Labour strategists will be mindful that Hastings is one of very few southern councils it controls and will be watching any fluctuations in the vote here with great interest.

Holding an impressive 23 out of 32 seats, Labour has established a formidable majority on Hastings Borough Council, though, against expectation, it has failed to take the parliamentary seat of Hastings & Rye on three occasions, in 2015, 2017 and 2019. As a key marginal seat, where Hastings entrusts its vote, the nation tends to follow.

Sixteen of the HBC seats are up for grabs – 11 held by Labour, four by Conservatives and one by an independent – the Old Hastings seat occupied by Dany Louise, who was elected in 2018 on the Labour ticket but left the party alleging anti-semitism in its ranks. She tells HOT she is not seeking re-election.

As campaigning begins, the wind is very much in the government’s sails after a highly effective mass vaccine rollout that has reached out to over 30 million people, with latest polls suggesting the Conservatives have opened up a comfortable lead of between 7 and 10 percentage points. Energised by a new leader, their local activists will be hoping that this goodwill plays out well here, helping them pick up seats on the borough council from Labour after a dismal decade for them.

They will also be hoping that local issues, most notably two controversial housing developments, on the seafront and at a floodplain in West St Leonards, play into a narrative of a lack of transparency and poor judgement on Labour’s part, suggesting that it has lost its edge after a decade in power.

As the establishment party in Hastings, Labour runs the risk of a backlash, but will hope that recent improvements in the town’s fortunes from its growing reputation as a fashionable coastal relocation hotspot are associated with its effective stewardship and willingness to tackle enduring problems like insufficient housing through bold developments.

Going Green?

Labour will be aware that the borough’s newer residents, many of whom are moving from London and Brighton, are likely to hold progressive opinions, and that any transfer of votes is likely to advantage the Greens rather than the Conservatives.

In the last set of local elections, the Greens came within 29 votes of snatching a seat from Labour in the Old Hastings ward, and unsurprisingly this ward is the focus of their current campaign as well-respected community campaigner Julia Hilton returns for a second attempt to become the first Green to be elected on to the borough council.

Although the Liberal Democrats ran Hastings Borough Council for a period in the 1990s, they have not elected a councillor for over a decade. They are standing a full slate of candidates, but will be concentrating their main efforts on the county council contest, which includes their strongholds of Eastbourne and Lewes, and where they will be hoping to play a leading role in a coalition if no party has overall control.

With only half the seats up for grabs, the potential for gains is modest, though St Helens, Ore and Silverhill wards all have small Labour majorities that could easily become Conservative gains with small swings.

Campaigning in the pandemic

With doorstep campaigning restricted by the pandemic, all the parties will be relying on leaflet drops, social media and telephone canvassing to raise awareness and get their message out. Turnout is crucial, and maintaining the modest 37% achieved at the last local polls in 2018 is likely to prove difficult.

Though Labour, with its sizable paper membership, has a clear advantage in running a ground campaign, it will be concerned that vaccine gratitude amongst the over-50s, the group most likely to turn out and vote, will provide a boost to the opposition.

Hastings’ eight county council seats are equally divided between Labour and Tory. Most of were won by an overwhelming majority, though the closest contest was in Tory-held Baird and Ore, where Labour’s Kim Forward came within 71 votes of winning.

With a month to go, there’s everything to play for, but with restrictions about to ease, the greatest challenge for all the parties might be attracting our attention at a moment when local elections are the last thing on many of our minds.

The article was initially published in the Hastings Online Times: Wednesday 04/04/2021.

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