Guildford Dragon Opinion: Why Has Lovelace Fallen Out Of Love With The Tories?
By Martin Giles
What are we to make of the remarkable by-election result on Thursday (September 25) in the Lovelace ward that covers Ripley, Wisley and Ockham?
It was truly remarkable. Lovelace was one of the safest Conservative seats in the borough. Indeed it had always been Conservative since the council reorganisation in 1973. In the 2011 election, the Conservative candidate, the late John Garrett, with a similar 50% turnout, obtained 648 votes out of 913*.
Colin Cross, standing for the Lib Dems, almost completely reversed that result this time, attracting 555 votes out of the 875* cast. Even he was clearly shocked by the level of his majority.
Nationally at the moment, according to You Gov, the Lib Dems are languishing at 6% in an opinion poll, neck and neck with the Green Party; while a Sunday Times poll showed UKIP above them both at 15%, the Tories at 31% and Labour at 36%.
Unfortunately, despite the differences in function, issues and performance between local and national politics, the way we vote in local elections is, normally, heavily influenced by our current views of the national political parties. But not in Lovelace last week it seems – another remarkable aspect of the result.
Firstly, Colin Cross was universally acknowledged to be a good candidate. A local man who spoke his mind simply and clearly and was in tune with local disquiet over proposals in the Draft Local Plan, in particular the idea of developing a complete new settlement on the former Wisley airfield aite.
Secondly, the Tories were in disarray. Political constituency boundaries do not coincide with borough boundaries, so it was the responsibility of the Mole Valley Conservative Association to organise the selection of a by-election candidate.
The man they chose, Ben Paton, was one of the most vociferous and effective critics of Conservative led Guildford Borough Council. Indeed, council leader Stephen Mansbridge turned up, unwanted by some, at the selection meeting, exercising his right to do so as leader of the political group Mr Paton would be joining. He objected to Paton’s selection but was ignored or outvoted.
As a result, Guildford Conservatives disowned, in practical terms, the official Conservative candidate and could scarcely hide their desire for a Lib Dem victory. This despite the fact that Ben Paton was clearly reflecting the most frequently voiced concerns of the residents in the Lovelace ward.
Then there was the mid-campaign letter from Cllr Paul Spooner, a member of the GBC Executive, questioning Ben Paton’s allegiance and extracting, in a response, an admission that Paton might “cross the floor” at a later date if he felt it necessary. Meanwhile, Colin Cross muddied the water further by going on the record to tell Ben: “…your enemy’s enemy is your friend.”
So voters, if they intended to vote on the basis of their view of Local Plan proposals, were left with the choice between the party they traditionally supported, represented by someone local who was in tune with them but out of tune and out of favour with the local party leadership, albeit the same leadership responsible for the Draft Local Plan they hated, or a well known, respected and liked man, also local – but more a salt of the earth type guy, who was equally unhappy with what the plan contained and whose differences in opinion over the Local Plan issues with his own political leadership were less apparent and said to be tolerable.
Both candidates had declared their support for, and membership of, the Guildford Greenbelt Group (GGG) a group probably disliked by the Tory and Lib Dem leaders at Millmead, in equal measure.
In the end, it seems that Lovelace decided the Conservatives needed to be punished. They liked Colin Cross but they did not vote for the Lib Dems because they preferred its view, as a party, on the Local Plan: they simply had had enough of the Tories and were especially angry about them reneging on promises given in 2011 to protect the green belt.
The UKIP and Labour candidates hardly got a look in. The UKIP man from Merrow did manage to beat the local Labour candidate into fourth place, but their shares of the vote, 63 and 32 votes respectively, were so low not much can be deduced.
Time will tell if the voters of Lovelace have made the best choice to represent their views. Colin Cross might not find it is as easy to remain independent over the Local Plan and remain part of the Liberal Democrat group, as he imagines.
Meanwhile, Stephen Mansbridge and his Executive might be privately enjoying, in some masochistic way, the Lib Dem kicking they have received. But they would be wrong to imagine that most observers will feel that this exonerates or justifies their behaviour in the by-election. Just what kind of candidate did they want, one that meekly followed the party line, regardless of the mood of his constituents, prepared to give out more false promises?
Electorates do not like parties that break promises or who are obviously divided – and the divisions in the Tory group at Millmead become more apparent by the day. The signs are that they intend to park the Local Plan for a while and hope that other concerns might affect voter thinking between now and next May when there are likely to be GGG candidates on the ballot papers.
Perhaps a fall-back plan will be that if, next year, they do not win enough seats themselves they could take a leaf out of David Cameron’s book, find a rose garden, and form a coalition with the Lib Dems? The established parties could close ranks against the green belt upstarts. Where would that leave Colin Cross and, more importantly, where would that leave members of the Tory group who probably dislike elements of the Draft Local Plan as much as the GGG?
Interesting times indeed for local politics. Please keep watching – the future of your borough is at stake.