The Anatomy of a By-Election

It was all supposed to be quiet. Town council elections are pretty much the lowest level of full democracy we have. The plans were to do as much canvassing (talking to voters on the doorstep) as we could, leaflet everywhere once, and then maybe, just maybe, get a second leaflet out.

This requires a bit of background. Emmbrook North was the second town council by-election in a matter of weeks. The ex-councillor (Sanjay Odedra) needed a heart bypass operation that coincided with the May 2015 election date. Because of illness, he’d not attended any meetings since January 2015. Under section 85 of the Local Government Act 1972 (“how geeky is this going to get?”, I hear you ask), a councillor is automatically disqualified if they have not attended any meetings for 6 months and has not asked for special dispensation. The start date is reset by them being re-elected, as Sanjay was in May 2015, with over 1,000 votes (roughly 54% of the votes cast) and a majority of around 450 over an independent candidate.

When the disqualification became unavoidable, the Conservative mayor and leader met the sole Liberal Democrat on the council and the two Independents and asked whether the ex-councillor could be co-opted on. All agreed, albeit reluctantly. But in order for co-option to happen, a by-election must not be called. Any ten electors in the ward can call a by-election, and the local Labour party found ten people to do exactly that.

So we found ourselves with a by-election.

One of the pieces of Conservative literature for the earlier by-election had to be withdrawn as it used, without permission, an image for which the council held copyright. We then needed to notify the Returning Officer that the Conservatives were distributing a card in this election which referred to their Emmbrook candidate as “Town Councillor Elect” – err, no, he’s just a candidate like the rest of us.

Then, over one weekend in mid January, we discovered (scary music and echo effect) The Conservative Letter.

This letter stated “Sanjay could have been co-opted to continue as a Councillor but two of the three opposition Councillors objected to this although they were fully aware of Sanjay’s heart operation and consequent convalescence. Because of this, you will now be required to vote on February 4th in a by-election that will cost your Town Council £6,700.”

It was obvious that it was wrong – after all, it directly contradicted the mayor’s statement to the Town Council on 1 December, but it had an immediate effect. The warm reception we had received on the doors up to that point the letter was distributed was suddenly very changed. I and a couple of helpers got some verbal abuse on the doorstep which was explicitly linked to Sanjay. More doors were simply closed on us. We received emails asking us if it was true, and expressing relief when we were able to point to evidence that it wasn’t.

On the Monday morning my election agent went to the Returning Officer again. According to her, his comment was – “this is becoming a bit of a habit”. After some investigation, he agreed that it was misleading and, again according to my agent, not only did it have to be withdrawn, it actually had to be retracted by the Conservatives and an apology issued*. The postal votes were due to be despatched three days later.

On the Tuesday evening, one of the Independent councillors made a speech at the Town Council meeting condemning the letter as inaccurate. It was then that we started to hear noises that the Tories weren’t going to issue an apology or a retraction before the postal votes were sent out. They didn’t have the resources, apparently.

Fortunately we had anticipated this, and we were already drawing up our own statement to set the record straight. It took us a few days to agree the wording and emphasis. We decided to review his overall attendance figures, and found that he had never managed to attend even half of the meetings in any one year, and his average attendance was only 40% since he was first elected in 2007. He might have been ill recently, but what was his excuse for the preceding 7 years? We got this out on the Saturday but, by then it was obvious that some postal votes had already been cast. My agent also got talking to the local press, and pieces started to be published online on the Friday, at the same time that the print copies went on sale.

Our leaflet, and the ongoing press coverage, changed the mood back. In fact, more than change it back. The Tories’ campaign literature started to highlight that one of my opponent’s main campaigns was to preserve the three free parking spaces outside his local shop and Post Office. This was met with much hilarity – and actually it would be one thing he would have had to absent himself from the discussions on in council because of his financial interest.

Suddenly we seemed on the front foot, with the occasional disappointment. We were able to talk again on doorsteps about the many issues facing the area. Baroness Barker had graced us with a visit early on in the campaign, and noted that, in all her years of campaigning across the country, she’d never been in a small area with so many issues – housing development, traffic, road planning, controversial planning applications, flooding, school funding, buses redirected, and so on. Bear in mind this is just over 1,200 houses in around a square mile. The anger at the Conservatives we had found on the doorsteps in the autumn had returned, and was tied in to reports of broken promise after broken promise. It’s no wonder that the self-interest in trying to make preservation of 3 parking spaces a key campaign issue caused laughter. One disappointment was a lady who told me that she had cast her postal vote already, only to see a look of connection then horror cross her face, as she suddenly felt duped into voting Conservative.

We saw the apology when it came out on the Saturday morning before polling day. It was a repetition of the line the Tories had already given to the press – they apologised for any misunderstanding. Such an apology is effectively a transference of blame – the reader bears some fault because they weren’t able to understand. To the press, the mayor blamed a “small typo – saying that the offending sentence in the original letter should have said “Labour” councillors. One small problem, there aren’t any Labour councillors on the town council. So even this apology was factually incorrect. Certainly there was no real retraction.

And so the ward remained split between those who had read the misleading Conservative letter and had missed any subsequent communication and press coverage, and those who had understood that the letter was, indeed, extremely misleading. On top of the large number of broken promises that the Conservatives were viewed as having made on other local issues, this became toxic. Undoubtably a number of the electorate took the view “a plague on both your houses”.

When I agreed to become the candidate, I viewed the ward as just about winnable – probably a 1 in 10 chance. The letter had energised our campaign and stirred a level of interest in the electorate that was unusual. We managed to deliver 2 leaflets and 2 letters to pretty much every address in the ward. We even started on a second round of canvassing. Over 40 volunteers assisted in the latter days of the campaign. By the time we got to polling day, it seemed that the vote was simply too close to call, and that those who had cast their postal votes early, unfairly influenced by a letter the Tories sort-of apologised for much, much later on, may well be decisive.

The result – we got 449 votes, and Sanjay got 470. The squeezed Labour candidate (Brent Lees – who was also a nice guy) got 138. The turnout was 43%, highly unusual for a local council by-election, and we had missed out by just 2%. The Tory vote fell by over 600, and their majority was all-but wiped out. The arrogance and self-belief that the Tories had displayed throughout polling day had disappeared on their entrance into the count, and didn’t reassert itself when they left, despite the result.

It was a baptism of fire. My agent, who has 20 years of election experience including standing as a parliamentary candidate 3 times, said she’d never known an election like it.

I’ve given a positive public statement to the press, and I stand by every word of it. From having no candidate in May, we had gained over 42% of the vote. But I come away disgusted that an election can be won by lies and innuendo, and disgusted with the party that did it. It says something if the only way you can re-elect a candidate is by casting smears on the opposition rather than relying on the candidate’s own record, and doing so in full knowledge of when postal votes are likely to be cast. The challenge we now have is how do we defeat a party which is prepared to distort and twist the truth, and never give a straight answer to anything?+ I would suggest this is a challenge nationally, not just locally.

There is hope, though, as this approach is starting to be laid bare, and the local electorate are starting to understand what has gone on. The ramifications of the letter are still ongoing, with one, maybe two, official complaints about a councillor bringing the office into disrepute to be heard, possibly in time for this May’s elections. Also it appears that a number of the local Conservatives were so appalled by their party’s behaviour in this election, some apparently refused to take any further part in the campaign, and some have apologised to my councillor colleague. Not one, however, has apologised to me.

We are fed a Disney-fied view of life – that right should always win. Sadly that’s not always the case – but this campaign has made me more determined than ever to try and make sure that liars and cheats are not re-elected.

Because of the possibility of legal action, I’ve had to disable comments on this piece.

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EDITS – 14 Feb 2016:

*Following an email from the leader of Wokingham Borough Council, I have amended this paragraph to reflect my understanding based on what I was told at the time. The Conservative leader disputes this interpretation, saying that no such instruction was issued by the Returning Officer, merely a recommendation from the complainant.

+As a footnote, one of the more entertaining events on polling day was a chap who shook hands with the Tory mayor on his way into the polling station, and then again on the way out. Someone has voted Conservative, I think. They then started a conversation. After a while it became apparent that the conversation wasn’t going well, and I tuned in just to hear the chap say “That’s the problem with you lot. You never give a straight answer to anything. That’s why I voted for her.”

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