North Hertfordshire: a precarious coalition may become safer
North Hertfordshire covers Hitchin, Letchworth, Royston, Baldock, Codicote, Kimpton and Knebworth. It historically represents the Tory Home Counties, but changes are afoot. Although Tories still hold the most seats, a coalition of Labour and Liberal Democrats holds precarious power.
The district has 49 seats in all, with 18 seats up for re-election. Tories defend eight, and as everywhere national politics is likely to sway voters. So rather than looking for a majority, it’s possible they will instead hope to defend existing numbers.
Canvassing reports suggest the Tories’ biggest problem may be stay-away voters, so it would be no surprise to see their vote drop. Labour is extending its canvassing into new areas, like Royston and particularly Baldock, which implies the party is confident of a good result.
Interest beyond the district will focus on the national implications
The Tory campaign doggedly features local issues, particularly bin collections and council tax. A reasonable position to take in a local election, though that noise in the distance may prove to be a tsunami of outrage at the state of national politics, which may sweep away the bins and possibly those who want to talk about them.
So as with many council elections across the East of England, commentators and voters will have their eyes set on a forthcoming general election and what May’s vote may mean.
The district is split between two parliamentary constituencies. North East Hertfordshire is safe Tory, held by Oliver Heald. However, in Hitchin and Harpenden, Tory MP Bim Afolami has a majority of 6,895. That may be tidy enough in many seats, but a progressive vote share of 52 percent makes this a Liberal Democrat target. Boundary changes may affect the outcome, but there are rumours that Afolami may be considering his options.
Traditionally Labour, Stevenage had doubts about Corbyn but may think again
Stevenage was one of the proud 1950s ‘new towns’. It is in the London outer commuter belt, on a motorway, close to Luton Airport, and has fast rail links to London. So geographical advantages and transport links have attracted a number of global businesses to the town.
It has historically voted Labour, who have controlled the council since 1973. But Tories and Liberal Democrats have been slowly eroding their majority. It has fallen from 21 in 2012 to five. Of the 13 wards up for election, five have changed hands from Labour to Conservative in recent elections.
The Stevenage parliamentary constituency includes the whole of Stevenage itself, but also parts of North Herts and East Herts districts, both of which are firmly Conservative controlled. This explains why a strongly Labour town has a Conservative MP. But this is a ‘bellwether’ seat, which has always had an MP from the party in power in Westminster. So as elsewhere, attention will be on what the vote tells us about a future general election.
Will Labour’s change of course after Corbyn show in results?
This election represents a test of whether the government’s many troubles, and the changes in the Labour Party, can reverse the slow trend against Labour. The seat’s importance can be seen by Keir Starmer’s visit to the town this month.
The Stevenage MP is Stephen McPartland, a comparative unknown though he has held the seat since 2010. Any headlines he has made have been over his extra-parliamentary jobs. His majority is 8,562 – respectable, but it may prove vulnerable if things continue to turn nasty for his party nationally. Labour’s local strength and a progressive vote share of 47% in 2019, even when Johnson’s government were in their pomp, suggests that local council results may give McPartland cause for concern. The apparent absence of Tory canvassers during this election will be another. As rumoured in other elections across the region, the Tory ground game seems weak.
Tories will keep Welwyn Hatfield, but what does the future hold?
The district has a Conservative majority and the party needs three of the 17 seats up for election to maintain its grip. No other party will be able to gain full control. Of the seats up for election, last time the Conservatives won six, Labour and the Lib Dems won five each and one was won by an independent candidate.
It is a wealthy area, predominantly of professionals, managers and the comfortably retired. Inevitably the move out of London because of the pandemic has had effects, and the green belt and intrusion into it by unwanted housing development is an issue. In March the council turned down a plan for 1,100 new homes at Hatfield, so that may take pressure off.
Apparently it has just been re-elected ‘Tree City of the World’.
The last election gave the Tories a strong result, and equally poor for Labour. The constituency MP is transport secretary Grant Shapps, and it would take a 7.1% swing to Labour to oust him, though the seat was Labour during the Blair years. Labour will look for improvement, and the Tories will hope local affairs trump national concerns.
My thanks to Stephen McNair for his electoral analysis.