The 2018 local council elections in and around Cambridge – time for something different?


Turns out there is quite a big restructure around Cambridge which could make things interesting – if Labour and the Liberal Democrats choose to divert some of their resources from Cambridge City to South Cambridgeshire.

South Cambridgeshire District Council has been a safe-as-houses Conservative Council since the middle of the last decade, and historically has been true blue Conservative to the extent that the councillors there prior to the 1990s didn’t even need to register with the political party, it was just ‘assumed’ they were Conservatives! Actually that’s not true. I don’t know why there were so many independent councillors in South Cambridgeshire in the 1970s & 1980s. The council itself is a relatively new one – formed out of the old Chesterton Rural District Council, South Cambs Rural District and Newmarket Rural District in the last major restructure in the mid-1970s. Have a look at this map.

From 57 to 45 councillors in South Cambridgeshire

According to the South Cambridgeshire Conservatives here, the council is moving to elections every four years rather than the annual ones we have at the moment. Cambridge City Council for the moment is staying as it is. The current political control of South Cambs looks as follows:

  • Conservative = 36 councillors
  • Liberal Democrats = 14 councillors
  • Labour = 1 councillor
  • Independent = 6 councillors

The new ward map is as below – weblinked here.

SouthCambs Ward Map 2018

What makes the looming elections potentially interesting is the slightly different boundaries – villages that were previously teamed together being so no longer, while others that were previously separate (such as Fen Ditton and Fulbourn) now find themselves merged together despite a very busy main road (the Cambridge-Newmarket old A45 road) separating the two villages.

“Why should Cambridge’s political parties help their counterparts in South Cambs – haven’t they got their own battles to fight?”

They do, but over the past few years it has become more and more apparent that what happens inside The Guildhall doesn’t really count for much in the Conservative-dominated county. Because let’s not forget, up until the early 1980s, Cambridge was regularly returning Conservative-led councils and Conservative Members of Parliament. Cambridge was such a safe Parliamentary seat in the 20th Century that only four politicians in the entire century were elected representing other parties. Have a look at Colin Rosenstiel’s charts here and compare and contrast the political distribution in the late 1970s with the late 1990s.

But post-1992 the Conservatives collapsed in Cambridge – as described in this blogpost. Since the Millennium there have been just as many Green Party councillors (who have had a much higher profile) as there were Conservative councillors as this chart shows.

“Why aren’t the Conservative County Councillors listening to the people of Cambridge?”

Why should they? No Tories got elected there, Tories are in office nationally and they’ve managed to get further powers for a county infrastructure mayor and a county police and crime commissioner. Given that Cambridge historically has been something of an aristocratic inheritance for the party, the fact that there are no Conservative councillors on Cambridge City Council is something of a constitutional outrage if you are so attached to your old college colours. Let’s also not forget that Cambridge was one of the places where the Conservatives had a very active group of Conservative Suffragists – yes, they did exist.

Having seen the exchanges inside Shire Hall over the past five or so years, I can’t pretend that the group of councillors collectively have covered themselves in glory. Anything but. Yet given the very partisan nature of politics there and the huge cuts forced upon councils by central government, it’s completely understandable why the anger has boiled over. At the moment I can think of at least four campaigns where Labour, Liberals and community activists are campaigning against the latest cut by the Conservatives – whether children’s centres, a proposed move out of Shire Hall, education support services, through to Whitehall’s proposal to close Cambridge’s Magistrates Courts, you can see why town dwellers are wondering what the County Conservatives have against Cambridge while ministers wax lyrical about how Cambridge is this economic powerhouse and this small global city…while its civic infrastructure is reduced to that of a glorified market town. But while there are no local electoral consequences for such decisions, there’s no incentive to change things. This is exactly the same with the safe-as-houses Labour wards in the inner city districts of the large cities where Conservatives sometimes don’t even stand for election due to a lack of volunteers to be candidates.

The medium term risk the Conservatives face is the prospect of a Labour government under the most left-wing leadership since Clement Attlee. Just as Thatcher was quoted as saying Labour governments always run out of other people’s money to spend, some Labour activists have started retorting with:

“The Tories always run out of public assets to sell off”

Prior to the 2017 general election, few could have imagined the Financial Times running a Weekend headline as they did for this one:

“Corbyn’s hardly a vote-winner in affluent, rural South Cambridgeshire – and who’s leading the Lib Dems these days? We hardly ever see them on telly!”

Strong local issues play a much stronger part in council elections than the London media like to give credit for. Furthermore, local elections are not the sort where you can rock up shortly before the deadline for nominations and expect to win first time around as a brand new candidate in an area where you have previously had little presence. The one thing that struck me about the 2017 general election in the South Cambridgeshire and South East Cambridgeshire constituencies was the credible results the opposition parties got in the face of the otherwise landslides that both Heidi Allen and Lucy Frazer received respectively. Although both the Conservative women received over 30,000 votes each (and thus over 50% of the vote), the highly-populated constituencies gave over 10,000 votes to each of the Labour and Liberal Democrats candidates. In Labour’s case, it was over 17,000 for each of their candidates. Even on a much lower turnout, they should be doing far, far better than the single lonely Labour councillor on South Cambridgeshire District Council.

“What will the Brexit effect be?”

That is the very big unknown. In one sense, Heidi has been able to raise her concerns much more publicly than Lucy Frazer, who is now minister for the courts at the Ministry of Justice – and was given the job of overseeing the consultation for and planned closure of Cambridge Magistrates Courts.

It’s easy to say that the very angry pro-Remain vote in South Cambridgeshire will be switching their allegiance to the Liberal Democrats, but that didn’t happen in 2017. There were a host of other factors in play that became apparent as I followed the candidates at the various hustings and public debates that I filmed.

The other thing is that the Conservatives have a number of new, younger women candidates who in the grand scheme of things just come across as more competent and approachable than some of their predecessors. You won’t find these women boasting proudly about how ignorant they are of social media and new technology on the council chamber floor.

“Moving lots of activists out of Cambridge and into South Cambridgeshire is a logistical task and a half – and won’t locals resent these ‘outsiders’ coming into their village telling them who to vote for?”

If you look at the commuting patterns, you’ll find that many people who live outside of Cambridge travel into the city every day for work, study or other activities. Why go out to the villages when the people from the villages are coming over to you every day? Why not schedule your activists to be at the places where the most number of people are either coming or going? This means targeting:

  • Major bus interchanges such as Drummer Street, Emmanuel Street and St Andrew’s Street – and the Park & Rides out of town as drivers come into park their cars
  • Railway stations and guided bus stops
  • Traffic lights where major cycleways pass through – for example by the science parks
  • Entrances and exits to large workplaces that employ lots of people – such as Addenbrooke’s.

Although the local elections won’t be covering transport specifically – it’s a county council and mayoral competency – it will cover housing and planning, which are big issues in particular for younger generations. There’s also a huge opportunity to target the sixth form and further education colleges – whose students will be casting their votes for the first time in the next couple of years.

“What about a Conservative revival in Cambridge? Any chance of that?”

Everyone thought the Tories were dead and buried after the 1997 general election. Anyone who remembers the darkly comical days of William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith’s leadership of the Conservatives in the early 2000s can testify to that. But never say never.

In the case of Cambridge, the pattern at the last series of elections did not match house prices. The could of wards where they were active in Cambridge were the ones where they got the lowest votes (despite having the highest house prices), and the ones where they got some of their highest vote totals were the wards with some of the highest levels of relative poverty. Remember that 15,000 people in Cambridge voted to leave the EU with around 45,000 voting to stay. The total number of leave voters in principle should be enough for the Conservatives to claw back one or two councillors, but at present they don’t have a concentrated vote – it’s spread out all over the city.

Furthermore, they no longer have the blogging and social media operation they had at the end of the last decade -> (ironically in my neighbourhood) is actually an excellent example of pre-Twitter local blogging by Andy Bower and Chris Howell amongst others. Given the number of recent arrivals – in particular in Trumpington ward (where Conservative peer and former Cambridge Mayor Jean Barker takes her peerage title from), again there could be potential voters and new activists for the Conservatives.

In the run up to the 2018 local elections, expect Phil Rodgers to give his ward-by-ward analysis as he does every year – here’s 2017’s example.





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