A few Thursday’s ago (17 July), town councillor and ex-mayor Terry Widdows, standing for It’s Our County, was returned with a thumping majority over the Conservatives, taking 51% of the vote. In June 2012, three candidates – Annette Crowe, Melanie Roberts and Lily Fieldhouse - standing under the banner ‘Positively Ledbury’ swept the board over rival UKIP contenders in a Ledbury Town Council by-election.
They joined It’s Our County’s Liz Harvey, Ledbury’s elected ward county councillor who had surrendered her town council seat so as to test out the democratic legitimacy of her town council position (there was no poll in 2010 so the entire Council was elected unopposed). She was alone among her seventeen town councillor colleagues to do so. As it went, Liz topped the poll taking over a thousand votes. (As a footnote, back in February this year, I won nearly 50% of the vote also standing on a change manifesto.)
All of these results show that the electorate is keen to embrace reform and enthusiastic to support candidates who are specifically not part of the local political ‘chumocracy’ which has run Ledbury’s and Herefordshire’s affairs for decades and decades. Strikingly, we see women, and younger faces, political outsiders and non-conformists entering the scene. By no means do all the new players agree on everything nor are they party political in the conventional sense, but are united by a desire to reinvigorate the stale democracy and tired conventions of small town politics, to confront the old order in both town and county.
And just to confirm: no, the middle-aged (and older) gents who have been running the show up to now don’t like it when the upstarts arrive and begin asking questions, challenging the established patterns of privilege and ancient ideas of droit du seigneur. I am not alone in feeling the chill vibes emanating from the powers that be.
Terry Widdows’ triumph is spectacular in its way. A Ledbury lad in his early thirties, he is much younger than the usual council candidate, has a successful full time job and a young family. Neither does he belong to the Ledbury political establishment. Terry has espoused the cause of democracy and positive values, energetically supporting initiatives to engage the community in civic affairs. His victory did not come simply from a backlash against the ruling Conservative administration in Herefordshire. It was a vote borne out of his personal popularity, and a desire among the electorate for a change of mood.
That much was clear from the feedback reportedly coming from the doorsteps. The voters of Ledbury, as elsewhere, are fed up with the stale, toxic, narrow politics that holds sway in the towns and parishes of our county and which has been so singularly ineffective in delivering services, creating jobs and responding to the popular will.
At the election, in Ledbury’s blue corner stood Allen Conway, in many ways an admirable choice by the Tories, affable, popular on the street and being retired, with plenty of spare time for his council duties, something he drew attention to in his publicity. He billed himself as a ‘safe pair of hands’, passionately committed to Ledbury and was endorsed by a few shining lights in the community. The Mayor, Cllr Bob Barnes, along with a bunch of theoretically ‘independent’ Town Councillors, even signed his election nomination form. So what went wrong for him?
On paper, everything was looking so good and Allen radiated an air of quiet confidence. The party machine swung into action on his behalf. Buoyed by an economic recovery, Allen’s Tory Government colleagues are doing ok in the national polls, always a helpful factor. One thing the Conservatives have always been good at, it is their ability to get their vote out on the day, winning elections. But despite all these benign conditions - and against national trend - the Conservative vote in Herefordshire slumped.
The electoral statistics are stark. From the last election, there was a powerful swing of 10% away from the Conservatives to It’s Our County. See the stats here.
In short, come polling day, enough Tory voters either sat on their hands (it was a lowish turnout of 25%) or defected to IOC or UKIP to make his victory impossible. Obviously it couldn’t have helped that the Conservative party machine exposed themselves and their candidates to ridicule by publishing identical ‘personal’ statements supposedly from both Allen Conway and Wayne Rosser, the Conservative candidate for the concurrent Leominster by-election. See here. So much for authenticity.
No disrepect to Allen personally whom I count as a friend, but the old guard in Ledbury and Herefordshire are looking increasingly out of touch. There would have to be something pretty earth-shattering to expect the electoral trend to be reversed in May 2015, when town, County and Government elections take place here.
Neither was this a Ledbury aberration. In last Thursday’s Leominster by-election, the pattern was repeated, with an even more sensational swing of 18% to the Green Party. Combined, the Tories and Independents scraped just 42% of the vote in one of their spiritual heartlands, together just about equalling the Green’s share. This was a staggering achievement for Leominster’s Greens.
So what next?
Meanwhile, Town Councils like Ledbury’s show no great enthusiasm for moving with the times, for engaging positively and promoting democratic participation with their local communities, which are aching with feelings of exclusion and disempowerment. Take a look at the Facebook group Voice of Ledbury for an insight into the collective psychology of ordinary people.
At a political tectonic level, the supremacy of the traditional party structures – alongside their active membership lists - seems to be in an advanced state of decline right across the country. The three party system of Labour, Conservative and Liberal is morphing into a complex web of dare-to-be-different protest movements like the Greens and UKIP, just as we see too in Herefordshire.
This is a perfect storm for the County’s political establishment. When the election comes in 2015, it looks like things are going to be very different. As the US General said, if you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.
The Herefordshire by-elections of July 2014 have shown that ordinary people in our communities are hungering for positive change. They are fed up with the dissembling, bumbling, fork-tongued antics of the political establishment who have been running our County, town and parish councils for so long. They want people who are authentic, principled and committed to democratic accountability. They want fresh ideas and purposeful leadership that is capable of responding to the changes and challenges that are washing over our communities and public institutions.
A new era beckons.