The bartender in the stately Keele Hall watched with boredom. He had been told not to serve alcohol all day. “I don’t know why,” he shrugged. “Some people here look like they need a drink.”
So went the count of the Newcastle-under-Lyme Parish Council election – a poll that was both as close as you might like and politically significant that will now resonate well after Westminster.
“What is happening in this room today is a barometer for the next two years,” said Labor group leader Mike Stubbs, just before the count resumed at 9.30am on Friday. “That could tell us how the next general election will go.”
Seven hours later – after tears, a lot of tea and a place decided by lot – he had a verdict that he probably didn’t want. The Tories had won it.
“We are disappointed,” Mr Stubbs said. “This was our number one goal in the West Midlands and we put money and time into trying to win it. Our volunteers worked so hard. But this suggests that people have yet to be convinced of our message, and that’s something we need to correct now over the next 24 months.”
The early headlines of this year’s local elections may have been dominated by Barnet and Wandsworth after Sir Kier Starmer’s party wrested them from Tory control. But it’s places like the less-celebrated Newcastle-under-Lyme where the country’s political future may well have been foretold.
This Brexit-backed city – once known for its coal, cotton and brick manufacturing – is historically one of the Labor Party’s strongest redoubts. The party held the parliamentary constituency here for more than a century from 1918. Since the council was formed in 1974, it has been overwhelmingly red-led.
Then, in 2017, the Tories took the lead in authority and have held it ever since. Two years later, they also took over the constituency during Boris Johnson’s electoral landslide. Aaron Bell became the first Blue MP here since 1880.
That meant the results of this small county authority – population 128,000 – were widely seen as an indicator of whether Sir Keir Starmer was winning hearts and minds in his party’s old core areas of the North and Midlands. Maybe he doesn’t seem to be.
The fact that the Tories have not only maintained their previous majority of one, but increased it to three, suggests Labor is continuing to struggle in its former strongholds. Conversely, it undermines the national narrative that Partygate would avert this election from Mr Johnson.
“We are delighted,” said Conservative leader Simon Tagg with a beaming smile. “We’ve spent the last four years working hard for the people and I think that has been recognized.”
With all 44 of the Authority’s seats up for grabs, the Tories won 25 compared to Labour’s 19. No Liberal Democrats or Independents were elected here.
Several stations required recounts. One was so close that it was decided in favor of the Tories by a dead heat draw – only the third time this has happened in British electoral history.
“Like a penalty shootout win,” said Mr Tagg. “It’s not the way you want to do it, but we accept it. We will definitely take that.”
The beneficiary was Conservative Lilian Barker, who overtook Labour’s Claire Radford. At the age of 80, Barker served as a councilor for the first time. Why throw yourself into town hall politics as an octogenarian?
“Why not?” she demanded. “I’m fit, I’m active. I love my community and have worked hard for it for years.”
A point over to a Labor candidate in his fifties. “I’ve known him since he was in school,” she said. “He’s a lovely man.”
Another first-time winner here was Amy Bryan, almost certainly the Earl’s youngest witness: her eight-week-old baby. “She’s been with me all along the campaign trail, so it’s only right that she came today,” the new councilwoman noted.
National issues undoubtedly played a role here.
Partygate was (inevitably) on the doorstep, but paradoxically not always to the Tories’ disadvantage, Mr Stubbs believes. “It hurt us all,” he said. “You work hard for years as a councilor and then some Burke in Westminster breaks his own rules and people camouflage you with this paintbrush. I’d say 30 percent of the people who comment said they won’t vote for Tory, but 70 percent say they won’t vote for any major party. It’s hard to take.”
The cost of living crisis has also been raised time and time again, as has HS2, which cruises through the borough but doesn’t stop.
But local concerns may have been just as important in influencing the vote.
There seems to be a widely felt sense that the Tories have made a competent fist in running the Council. A redevelopment of the town center was widely welcomed, as was the refurbishment of one of the region’s flagship sports centers at Kidsgrove. While the agency has failed to resolve the now infamous problem of a notoriously toxic landfill in Silverdale, much of the anger is directed at the Environment Agency, which residents say has repeatedly failed to act.
“People have seen that this is council working hard for them,” said Mr Bell, who spent the whole day at the census. “For the past few weeks, Keir Starmer and John Ashworth have come here and they’ve now been sent packing with their tails between their legs because people know we’re doing the hard work here.”
This view was shared by Graham Hutton, vice-chairman of the Newcastle Conservative Association.
“Keir Starmer came here for the county council election last year and we won that one and he came here this year and we won again,” he said. “Maybe he’s our lucky charm. Maybe I’ll invite him myself before the next election.”
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/local-elections-count-newcastle-under-lyme-b2073289.html Tears, tea and a seat won by lot: How the Tories captured the Red Wall’s most important council