Independent Hartlepool Mayor
Stuart Drummond was re-elected for a third term in office

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Meltdown for Labour in
English local elections

By Andrew Stevens, UK Editor

5 June 2009: The governing Labour Party of Gordon Brown has suffered total meltdown in the English local elections, losing its last remaining county councils and both mayoralties it was defending. The election results, widely anticipated as a likely indicator of the embattled prime minister’s ability to cling on to office, were overshadowed by a series of cabinet resignations, designed to challenge to his authority to lead. Results from the European Parliamentary elections held the same day will not be known until Sunday, after the rest of Europe has voted.

The main opposition Conservative Party secured a clear sweep through middle England, taking the county councils and non-metropolitan unitary authorities. The Labour Party lost its four remaining counties, as predicted. In Bristol, the Liberal Democrats were able to gain a majority on the city council. The party lost their former strongholds elsewhere in the South West however, in a general swing to the Conservatives.

In the three mayoral races held, Hartlepool was first to declare, where independent Stuart Drummond became the first elected mayor to gain a third term since the offices were introduced in 2002. He held off against his nearest rival, perennial candidate and independent Ian Cameron, albeit with a reduced tally against his 2005 win. Parties of the right, such as the UK Independence Party and British National Party, beat both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats by a wide margin in the North East port town, where the turnout was 32%.

Labour failed to hold the Doncaster mayoralty, following two-term mayor Martin Winter’s end of term resignation. The English Democrats, a nationalist party, which advocates a federal Britain, took the post comfortably over its candidate Peter Davies’ nearest independent rival. Davies, a former schoolteacher, stood on a platform of allowing voters in the town a say on abolishing the mayoralty and to end the printing of council literature in minority languages.

In North Tyneside, a council, which has changed hands between the Conservatives and Labour in the recent past, former Conservative mayor Linda Arkley retook the post from sitting Labour mayor John Harrison. Arkley was elected with a comfortable lead in the seaside town, an affluent suburb of Newcastle surrounded by a number of deprived areas, which is also highly marginal parliamentary seat currently held by Labour.

These elections were always likely to be overshadowed by the rumbling expenses row over parliamentarians on both sides of the house pocketing money for claims on frivolous living costs, from make up to gardening, as angry voters sought to punish political parties for their behaviour.

Gordon Brown will not have to call a general election until as late as next May 2010, under electoral law, but demands are being made for wholesale reform of what is seen as a rotten political system following the expenses scandal. The liberal media and democratic reform groups favour electoral reform through introducing proportional representation in order to throw off Britain’s majoritarian two party “elective dictatorship”, while younger reformers in the Labour Party point to the recent Obama movement in the US and favour opening up the system via primaries and more directly elected mayors. The PM reacted to the cabinet resignations and election results by announcing a new body to propose widespread constitutional reform, the National Democratic Renewal Council.

British expenses scandal
dominates political debate

23 May 2009: Local elections will take place in England on 7 June this year, alongside those for the European Parliament. Elections will be held for all 27 county councils in England, as well as a handful of urban unitary authorities. Three of England’s 11 directly elected mayors will also be elected, while the elected mayor system in Stoke on Trent will be abolished and replaced with an indirectly elected leader on the same day. Following the scandal over British parliamentarians’ profligate expenses claims, voters are likely to turn against the two main parties amid a reported rise in the popularity of minor parties.

The elections were originally scheduled for 7 May, but as with the 2004 European Parliamentary elections, the government legislated to allow for them to be held on the same day as those taking place across Europe, due to apparent concerns over voter turnout if two separate elections were held in less than one month. The Labour government of Gordon Brown was also thought to favour reducing the number of opportunities for voters to punish his unpopular administration at the polls. Currently his party are languishing third in opinion polls, behind the small centrist Liberal Democrats and marginally ahead of the ultra-fringe anti-EU UK Independence Party. Politicians and activists in all three main parties fear that voter disillusionment over their recent conduct could see record numbers of protest votes for fringe parties such as UKIP and even the far right British National Party, both of which point to a surge in recent support.

Of the 27 county councils to be elected, only four remain under Labour control and it is thought likely that it will lose these, in its northern heartlands, on June 7. This would be a once in a generation electoral upheaval as these councils were last controlled by opposition parties in the late 1970s or even the late 1960s, towards the end of flagging Labour governments. The handful of unitary council elections, five in new councils created in April, are less likely to prove embarrassing for the government as most are in areas where Labour does not poll significantly, even in a good year. The exception here is the city of Bristol, currently under no party control following the collapse of the minority Labour administration earlier this year.

Hartlepool mayor Stuart Drummond, an independent famously elected as the town football team mascot, is seeking a third term against 12 opponents. Drummond, who remains popular in the town, faces campaigns from the three main parties, as well as the Greens, the far-right British National Party and four independents. Elsewhere in the North East region, John Harrison, who won back the North Tyneside mayoralty for Labour in 2005, seeks a second term against a national trend against his party. His Conservative predecessor as mayor Linda Arkley is standing again, alongside the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and two far right candidates.

Voters in the Yorkshire former mining town of Doncaster, England’s largest non-city council area, will have the chance to elect a new mayor following the decision of incumbent Martin Winter to stand down. Winter, elected in 2002 promising to draw a line under the previous era of infamous municipal corruption, faced numerous challenges in the post, including police investigations, high profile resignations by senior officials and even votes of no confidence brought by his own party. Having quit the Labour Party in order to seek a third term, Winter was eventually forced out by a damning central government report into the parlous state of children’s services in the town, where seven children died in council care.

Similarly, Stoke on Trent, a former potteries town in the Midlands, will consider the June 7 elections as a close in a regrettable chapter in its civic life when the elected mayor and council manager system is abolished. Introduced in 2002, the only such kind in England, the US-style model is thought to have exacerbated political tensions in the ‘ungovernable’ city. The current mayor, Labour’s Mark Meredith, handed over duties to his deputy following his arrest on charges of corruption in March 2009. The far right British National Party, which advocates the removal of immigrants, is now the second largest party on the council.  Recently the British government directly intervened in the council's constitutional arrangements to delay elections and make amendments to the council's electoral system to bring about improvements to give local people more involvement, as the council's recent turmoil has been directly linked to the rise of the far right party in the city.

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