By Graham Symon
Principal Lecturer at the University of Greenwich Business School and specialist in public policy analysis.
Our corner of Kent is no stranger to political upheavals. Fabled 1450 Peasants’ Revolt leader Jack Cade rallied his ‘Men of Kent’ from these parts; ever-dissenting Faversham took a resolutely Parliamentarian stance against the Crown at the time of the Civil War; and the eccentric demagogue Sir William Courteney capitalised on a local sense of injustice to provoke a popular uprising in 1838, only for the insurrection to be violently crushed by better equipped Canterbury militia at Bossenden Wood near Boughton. And Faversham’s Guildhall has been set alight by the town’s more excitable citizens at least once.
Thankfully the local elections of 2nd May 2019 passed in Faversham without violence.
However they were not without considerable drama and will mark the history of the town for some time to come. In both the Faversham Town Council (FTC) and Swale Borough Council (SBC) (Faversham wards plus Boughton & Courtenay) elections the long established patriarchy of Conservative councillors were unseated and replaced by a new, fresh cadre of Liberal Democrat, Labour and Independent representatives for our town (see table 1). Honourable mentions are due also to the two successful Green candidates for SBC in Boughton & Courtenay.
To what can we attribute this apparent seismic shift in the sensibilities of Faversham's electorate? Nationally, the Conservative party had a very bad night in the elections that were taking place across England (involving 248 local authorities). The Conservative party lost 1300 seats and control of 44 councils. Swale Borough Council was among them. Not included in these numbers is the myriad of Parish and Town council that operate across England as small, local ‘third tier’ authorities. However, FTC as an institution appeared to mirror the national trend; the Conservatives as the losers; the Lib Dems as the beneficiaries.
In the national press it did not take long for the Conservative party spin doctors to spring into action, blaming Brexit and the May Government’s failure to deliver ‘the will of the people’ (sic.). The fact the votes had swung to a remain party advocating a ‘people’s vote’ rendered this excuse somewhat implausible. Had desire to realise Brexit been an issue we could have expected more of a swing to Brexit-friendly Labour on the left or UKIP on the right. The reasons for the swing are more complex; paramount among them would appear to be a loss of confidence in the Conservative party as a governing machine and ongoing dissatisfaction with austerity which has hit local government services more than any other area of public policy.
Focusing on FTC, what can we infer about these swings? FTC does not have the same budget, statutory status or powers as either Swale Borough Council or Kent County Council. Its remit is very limited by comparison. However, in a symbolic and ceremonial sense it plays a high profile role in the town with integral involvement in aspects of the built environment, cultural and economic life, and as a democratic platform. Thus, despite limited capacity, much is expected of the councillors and the small number of hardworking staff.
As we know, out went all Conservative councillors from the 14-strong council, including the putative Mayor. In came a yellow wave of 11 Liberal Democrats plus two Labour and one Independent. The swing to Lib Dem is illustrated most dramatically in the Abbey Ward where the Conservatives were not so much toppled but routed. A 59 percent share of the vote (and 4 out of 4 seats taken) is a significant result in any election. Watling ward on the town’s southern extremities had an even greater Lib Dem vote share (and 4/4) with 64 percent; an unequivocal statement.
St Ann’s ward, resolutely Conservative for some years, elected two Labour candidates. However, in the case of St Ann’s, we saw something of an anomaly: of the three parties represented, Labour polled the smallest overall percentage. Thus we consider that the local Conservative party in particular were tactically naïve in fielding 4 candidates for 2 seats, thereby spreading the vote too thinly.
Priory ward perhaps should be treated with slightly more circumspection, returning an Independent candidate and a Liberal Democrat, the new Mayor designate Alison Reynolds who personally gathered 36 percent of the vote. Councillor Reynolds is a respected local figure with a substantial record of public service to the town and we should not discount that her election was on that basis as much as any party affiliation.
Turnout across the wards tended to average around the 40 percent mark. Although , low compared with Westminster elections it was higher than average for local elections in England which tend to see around the 30 percent.
So to what can we attribute these swings locally? Certainly not dissatisfaction with the Westminster Government’s failure to deliver Brexit. Indeed, the Faversham wards voted to remain in the 2016 referendum and there is little evidence that this sentiment has changed.
If Westminster Government performance is an issue, it is more likely to be dissatisfaction with austerity, with local services starved of cash while council tax has been rising without any perceived improvements.
At a community level, there were numerous local developments that were associated with Conservative members of FTC. The war memorial development in Stone Street has proved particularly controversial. The indifference of those involved to the concerns of the electorate will not have gone unnoticed.
Also, the volume of development around Faversham, seemingly without addressing the need for affordable homes, has caused concerns. Although the environmental hazard, pressure on local services and housing are technically not in the remit of FTC, the community would have a reasonable expectation that their town councillors would act as advocates for community interests in their engagements with Swale Borough and Kent County Council.
This aspect of FTC’s remit is an important one across a number of issues and the townsfolk of Faversham will hope that the fresh vigour of the new intake of councillors will be put to good use in helping to address concerns over traffic management, economic development, community safety and public spaces.
However, the successful candidates should not be regarded as the passive recipients of wider attitudinal shifts. The Liberal Democrats pursued a very well organised, dynamic and intensive campaign. Through regular canvassing, leafleting and social media presence, the candidates were able to raise awareness and build their profiles so that come polling day voters were confident that they had an idea of what they were voting for. The Conservatives by contrast ran a rather complacent and lacklustre campaign.
Towns are living, organic entities and are subject to change over time. Shifting demographics, that is the influx or exit of populations with different characteristics, will also have had a potential impact on voting patterns. With the large-scale development around the town, this effect will intensify.
So, what can we expect in the future? The councillors will no doubt be keen to repay the faith put in them by the community to serve the town. They will potentially bring fresh ideas, renewed vigour and will work with the rich fabric of institutions that make Faversham what it is. And hopefully there will be no need for pitchforks and torches!