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Election: The Final Lap

Election: The Final LapThe candidates in the Fylde Borough and St Annes Town Council elections are now in the final stages of their campaigns.

Footsore and letterbox-weary, those who have leafleted alone will have trudged around 3,000 or so electors to deliver their leaflets.

Orally assaulted by unhappy voters and, more worryingly, sometimes physically assaulted by dogs (the great unseen threat are the ones that lurk *behind* the letterbox that also take your fingers as they grab the leaflet as you post it through), the tired candidates will soon know their fate.

So how are their campaigns going?

Well, we hear reports that the Conservatives are worried. Those who would unseat them (whose claims always need to be taken with a pinch of electoral salt of course), say they are being much-criticised on the doorsteps, and it's a combination of both the local and national picture that's causing them grief.

Certainly they're out in force with party workers and some quite big guns to try to shore up their vote.

We were told that the central party organisation has required all seats to be contested wherever possible. We referred to this in the introduction to 'Pre-Election Review: Runners and Riders 2011'. Well, they have done well. They've managed to field almost one Conservative candidate for every seat overall (50 out of 51).

But this is a mixed blessing. It means in some wards Conservatives are competing against each other (For example - in Ashton Ward - where they currently have no sitting Councillors, they are fielding three new candidates this time). This risks splitting the overall Conservative vote and letting more of the 'opposition' in than they would want (because each of three candidates risks getting less individual votes than if only two or one candidate stood).

The policy of 'maximum voter exposure' also brings significant electoral risk with it.

Actually, Ashton is a pretty good example of how not to run a ward if you are a political party. When the former Commissar got rid of Saint Barbara Pagett from the Conservative Party after she voted according to her conscience, they lost a (mostly solid) vote from a well respected Councillor. Then they lost the support of lifelong and dyed in the wool Conservative the late Collin Walton when the de-selected him at the LCC election.

Up to then, Ashton Ward had consistently returned at least two Conservative councillors, and party activists in the ward regularly exceeded their target for fundraising for the party.

But when they saw how such long standing existing councillors had been treated, that support has melted away and, for several years now, there has been no proper Conservative infrastructure in the ward.

It has fallen by the wayside and needs a lot of effort to simply get back to where they were.

We also hear tell of a collapse in support (and positive hostility in some cases) for some of the Liberal Democrat candidates.

That's mostly a national situation and almost nothing to do with local issues of course. And it may well be that the 'beans' effect will work locally (If you say 'beans' to most people they will think Heinz).

It's the same with candidates who are a household name - well known local figures (like the Henshaws, or Tony Ford for example) are likely to transcend the national picture to some extent at least, and will only be dented by it, rather than demolished.

We're also told the postal vote is slow coming in.

There's usually a surge when the first (main mailshot of) postal votes go out, but they have been dribbling back in, so it looks as though either people were pre-occupied with the holidays (and maybe the Royal Wedding) or they're struggling to make up their minds who to vote for.

One of the smaller parties said they had come across an unusual view on the doorsteps - people were saying they were reluctant to vote for any of the big parties (seemingly based on what had happened nationally). But then, in true Mandy Rice-Davies fashion, because that came from someone from a minority party we might well think "well, he would say that, wouldn't he"

But even after taking that pinch electoral salt we spoke of earlier, it's likely to be an uncertain result, with a particularly complicating factor being what happens to the Lib Dems if they do suffer from national policy issues.

That could be quite a worrying sign for those that are hoping for a hung - or balanced - Council after May.

If Fylde's Lib Dem voters decide to meet out punishment to try to effect policy change at the national level, and local Lib Dems lose some of their existing places, it's not at all clear which way their former supporters would turn (if they turn at all).

That could have all manner of implications.

The present composition of the closing Council is:

  • Conservatives 30; (That includes the people who 'crossed the floor' and became Conservatives after they were elected last time)
  • Liberal Democrats 3;
  • Independents 12;
  • Ratepayers 3;
  • Individually Non Aligned 3.

With candidates who hope to become Councillors, it's a bit more difficult to say what's what, because whilst most declare themselves to be representing a party, or they state 'Independent' on their ticket - some put nothing at all in the space where a description / party name would go - so unless you know their background, you can't always tell which direction they come from. Some will be party members, but have not said that they are.

So with that as a health warning about how accurate we can be with candidatures, at the final count of who's standing, the overall candidate numbers are something like this:

  • Conservative 50;
  • Liberal Democrats 11;
  • Labour 7;
  • Independents 20;
  • Individually Non Aligned / Unspecified 5;
  • Fylde Ratepayers 5;
  • Integrity UK 4;
  • Green Party 2.

Total: 104.    Seats available: 51

So what are the predictions?

One Conservative politician and counterbalance reader has predicted to us that the result will be 30 to 35 Conservatives (with gains in both St. Annes and the Rural areas). They thought the 'others' would collectively amount to 17, and within that number there would be no Lib Dems on the Borough Council after May.

A Lib Dem reader has predicted there will be 19 Conservative seats which - by implication - suggests the other parties will hold a good majority and have 32 of the 51 seats.

These might both represent a triumph of hope over common sense.

We undertook a straw poll of a dozen or so people that we know with an interest in local political matters. We asked: "How many people who stand as Conservatives on their ticket will be elected in May?

The numbers ranged from 19 to 30, but the average was 23.

Our own prediction is 24 Conservatives - which leaves the 'others' collectively with a majority of just 3.

Of course a majority so small will cue a round of phone calls after the election to try to seduce some of the 'others' and maintain the local Conservative party's control of the Council by getting some from other persuasions to 'switch sides'.

It has happened in the past when a tight result comes in. But there might also be offers made by other groupings to some of the more 'wavery' Conservatives.

So for all these reasons, we think it's too close to call as to what the final result will be.

As we get closer to the day the tension becomes unbearable - especially for existing councillors seeking re-election. Their world focuses down to a narrow pinpoint of light that is the election and many suffer from a sort of obsession which takes over their life for a few days and rationality vanishes from view.

In this situation, long-standing friendships can be destroyed in an instant and you find squabbles of the sort that wouldn't be out of place in the playground as the participants cling to every advantage by their fingernails.

So what are the issues?

There are one or two ward-specific (or at least sub-district specific) topics like Melton Grove in Lytham which is very active at the moment and could damage the Conservative vote there.

Lytham is nothing if not civilised and instinctively protective of the worthy in need. It has been truly shocked to be told by Emma Duffy (whose dad is a resident on the picturesque estate) that the Conservatives planned to sell Melton Grove off to a developer.

And those with longer memories will no doubt be influenced by the Swimming Pool closures (even if they were opened again), the Streetscene losses, and the aborted spending of around 800,000 on plans for a new town hall that came to nothing, and the  'open spaces'  tax con that would have seen huge increases in tax charged by Town and Parish Councils.

On a district wide basis, the Liberal Democrat's headline policy is to reduce the number of Councillors - apparently to save money.

The Conservatives have been focused on pulling-in the farming vote in the hope of making inroads into the rural area. They're also wheeling out the evergreen and vote-winning policies on litter and dog control.

Amongst the other groups and individuals there is a key theme, and it's about changing the system of governance at Fylde back to the Council and Committee system.

We've been over this time and again on counterbalance so we're not going to do the pros and cons again, but suffice to say that in our view, the two main disasters that have beset the Council in recent times have been the choice (by the controlling Conservative party) of extremely ambitious politicians for their Leader and high rankers, instead of choosing a Councillor.

This position might have changed with David Eaves' appointment, but it's not yet clear, and we suspect the change - to his apparently more consensual style - might have been too late in the electoral cycle to make much of a difference.

Politicians and Councillors are, in our view, a world apart.

This is best illustrated by noting that for a politician, 'Party Policy' is paramount. They're the ones who say things like 'Finance is just a tool of policy' which actually means 'we're going to do what we want irrespective of the cost', they'll find the money somehow, even if it means selling-off long treasured assets.

Good Councillors on the other hand are much more common-sense orientated and will start everything with a budget that constrains their ambitions to what is affordable by local people.

Those two approaches deliver a very different sort of Council.

The second and even bigger disaster has been the introduction of the dreadful Cabinet system at Fylde. It focuses power into too few hands and is not sufficiently democratic. It is a system that lacks the capacity to ensure the breadth and depth of vision and experience available from the 51 councillors at Fylde is utilised. It fosters an aspirational culture based on patronage from the Leader (in whose gift the 'portfolio holders' rise and fall) and, unlike the former committee and Council system, it singularly fails to create a seedbed and nursery in which new councillors can gradually cut their teeth and develop the talents and experience necessary to become effective and experienced councillors.

Almost all the non-conservative and non Lib Dem candidates make reference to the need to change this system to restore democracy to Fylde, and to make the Council's working more transparent and accountable.

So it will be soon time for voters to choose.

Some will have done so already with a postal vote - these are becoming an increasingly important part of elections, with something like 20% of the electorate in Fylde now opting for them. That might not sound too high, but when you consider that typically only around 35% of the electorate actually vote at all (and most who ask for a postal vote do vote), it is a staggeringly large proportion. Whilst postal votes are helping to increase the number of voters overall, they are now a particularly important part of each candidate's campaign - to the extent that some candidates will almost conduct two campaigns, one for postal votes and one for normal ones.

We're also likely to have the 'second leaflets' delivered by the more astute, organised and experienced candidates this week.

These are the more hard hitting leaflets, put out when it's too late for 'the other side' to respond and counter what is said in them. It's also the starting gun for the internecine wars that we referred to earlier.

So how should our readers vote?

That's up to you of course. We would urge everyone to actually vote. Who you choose does actually make a difference to the tone and construction of the Council - which in turn affects how they respond to the needs and concerns of the community. Our favourite example here are the two north Wales resorts of Rhyl and Llandudno. Only a few miles apart, same climate, same transport links, same sort of scale and so on, but Rhyl is a disaster of a place (more caravan sites than houses, tacky funfairs, that sort of thing) whereas Llandudno is more like Lytham St Annes. The key difference between them are the decisions that have been made by the respective councils that their residents have elected over time.

So your vote is important. We would urge support for all those that have publicly stated they will bring about a return to the previous Council and Committee system, because without that, there is little hope of the 51 Councillors we elect turning into a properly functioning and truly democratic decision making body.

Readers in St Annes will also get to choose one or more Town Councillors (as well as Fylde Borough Councillors). This is a separate voting paper and, in some wards, it will have the names that are also on the Borough Council voting paper, but in others it will include different names (where people have chosen specifically to stand for election to only the Town Council).

When choosing a Town Councillor (whose focus is only as far as the St Annes boundary rather than the whole of Fylde) we might be tempted to have more regard for someone whose electoral effort is focussed on St Annes specifically as far as the Town Council is concerned, and go for names that are not on both the Town and Borough Council voting slips. But it's a matter of choice. We do also regret the number that have said they are standing as political party candidates for the Town Council. Party Politics is ruining Councils and turning Councillors into politicians.

One final thought. The AV vote that is being 'bundled-in' with this election (and, ironically, being decided using a 'first past the post' system) has made people think about how their votes count, and some readers have said to us that if AV were to come in, they would continue to vote only for one person rather than the 'first, second and third choices' because that would preserve the principle of first past the post - even in an AV system.

But we wonder if alerting the electorate to consider this sort of 'strategic' use of their vote might also have a spin-off in this election, especially in multi seat wards where, if you have strong views for or against some of the candidates on your voting paper, you can increase their electoral prospects by ONLY voting for the one or two candidates you like, and NOT voting for the other candidates at all - even though you might have three votes to cast.

Whatever the result is, we'll bring it to you as soon as we can, and follow it up with a subsequent analysis of what it might mean.

We've been fortunate to be invited to the count itself (which is taking place on the Friday after the election on Thursday), so we hope to bring readers both the inside story and the atmosphere of the event that will set Fylde's path for the next four years.

Dated:   1 May 2011


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