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Opinion: Plenty of alarms and surprises in Preston’s election results

Posted on - 7th July, 2024 - 8:00pm | Author - | Posted in - Ashton-on-Ribble, Larches, Lea, Opinion, Politics, Preston Council, Preston News
The city council’s deputy leader Martyn Rawlinson and re-elected MP Mark Hendrick watch on during the Lea & Larches by-election result

A decade is a long time, and in politics it’s a lifetime.

But there were some familiar tones to this week’s election results with the surge of the right-wing parties, protest votes and more.

Why do I say familiar? In May 2014 I wrote about ‘no alarms and no surprises’ for the city’s Labour group.

Read more: See all our general election coverage

Ten years on, and there are surprises and alarms going off now.

The Town Hall has been solid red for a long time now but the city’s administration saw a second defeat in Lea & Larches in the space of two months.

As one previously rejected candidate for that party wrote on social media following the result ‘the Lea & Larches farce is over, Labour have lessons to learn, our party should not be making losses like this’.

While the national mood saw Labour seeing big swings and gaining results not seen in generations – indeed just down the road in Ribble Valley, which now has a big chunk of Preston in its constituency, returned its first ever Labour MP (in part due to the large number of votes for Reform which knee-capped the long-standing Nigel Evans).

One of those ‘surprises’, was less of a surprise. In 2014 I’d written about Labour winning back its town centre seat ‘after the departure from the political arena of maverick councillor Michael Lavelette’.

Well, the ‘maverick’ was back and causing chaos once again within a set number of wards in the city to finish second in the general election as Sir Mark Hendrick saw his majority cut for a second general election in a row. Lavelette’s votes piled up in some count areas, while in other areas of the city you’d be forgiven for even thinking he had stood for election at all. He and his supporters couldn’t pull off a Blackburn-style result, suggesting that for many in the city Gaza isn’t the be-all-and-end-all issues that it is in other places – as Sir Mark Hendrick alluded to in his post-election comments, it is the cost of living crisis, healthcare, education and issues where Labour has been campaigning on that sway the majority of voters minds, regardless of the emotional and humanitarian scenes abroad.

Disciplined, despite their air of ‘grassroots’, make no mistake about it – Lavelette knows how to organise and whip up support amongst a community. But it is also a sign of the need for a city, with ten candidates standing from across all different political spectrums, to find some common ground and to have safe, and sensible, spaces to have debates. The city’s Faith Forum is a husk of what it once was and we’ve seen increased incidents of vandalism linked to the Gaza conflict, but with a void of civic and political leadership who seem too afraid to speak out and attempt to bring differing views together. Preston has traditionally always been a tolerant place and has not experienced the kinds of tensions seen in the more eastern areas of Lancashire. Let’s hope that continues and everyone works to maintain a safe and respectful environment for all.

For Sir Mark, then it is a time for putting words into action – as he is now part of a party which is back in government. It’s not his first rodeo. He served under the Blair and Brown governments and was a parliamentary under-secretary and secretary during those times. He’s a loyalist when it comes to Labour and it will be interesting to see the dynamic between him and the local Labour groups as their narrative locally has been framed against Tory austerity and cutbacks. That’s harder to wash if it’s now red on red in Town Hall and Whitehall. Can Preston benefit from whatever starts to come down the tracks from the government? And can Sir Mark be the vocal cheerleader for the city and how will that align with Maya Ellis, who now also represents a chunk of the city council area and has worked within economic development and innovation at the county council?

Read more: Opinion: Focus on ‘run down’ Preston continues to baffle me

My piece in 2014 also spoke about the rise of Farage and UKIP. Well, it was like groundhog day as Reform (the bastard child of UKIP and the Brexit Party) rode the protest vote and pushed the Tories down into fourth place. The local Conservative party has a major rebuilding job on its hands, but you have to wonder where that will come from as apart from the ever upbeat Trevor Hart there seems little appetite for attempting to out-muscle the Lib Dems or Labour, and Reform with relatively little localised effort won a higher vote share.

Back to the local agenda, and despite a lot of on the ground effort being put into the Lea & Larches seat it was Ann Cowell who once again proved to be the foil to Labour to leave the door open for the Lib Dems to claim their second win on the bounce.

Casting back to 2014 the steady rise of the Lib Dems to become the party of opposition in the city is now complete – they’ve eaten away at traditional Tory seats within Fulwood and Cottam to make the North and West of the city their strongholds.

And it’s a reminder, most aptly seen in Preston, that local and individual issues can have the biggest impact at the ballot box. Ashton Park and the way it has been handled has proved to be Brown, Rawlinson, Bailey and co’s undoing – and the runes may have hinted at a general election seeing a surge in turnout and whether it was a tactical, cynical, move to step-down the long-standing councillor in David Burrow now or to wait until next time, it didn’t pay off. Brown spoke of the need to ‘reflect’ but also continued to point to Ashton Park being a highly localised issue.

Over the longer term, then Cllr Brown is right, Labour have consistently held more than 30 seats in the city but it only takes a few more defeats for things to begin to get a bit uncomfortable and they’ve dipped now to 28 seats, and contrast the political leanings of the Town Hall’s incumbents with the new man in Number 10 and it may suggest a difference in opinion on the way forward for the country, despite both sharing the red rose. An organised independent campaign in key wards in the city, the well drilled Lib Dems continuing their surge, Sir Keir and co not delivering nationally and any slippage on the major Animate and Harris schemes as well as the continued wrangling over the Guild Hall and the red rose may continue to lose petals in future local elections.

Read more: See the full general election results for Preston

All eyes in Lancashire now turn to the battle for County Hall next year, all-out elections are straight fights. Currently a Conservative administration governs Lancashire County Council and you’d expect localised issues like the slow-progress on Friargate roadworks, the farce of the Corporation Street bus gate implementation and the current low-ebb of the Conservative party nationally to mean Labour in theory should be rubbing their hands with glee ahead of the ballot boxes being counted.

But, a year is a long time in politics and plenty can happen between now and then. While Sir Keir and others will be enjoying their honeymoon period there will be some head-scratching and chin-stroking amongst his party members in Preston about their way forward – as it was a slightly chilly dawn in the city compared to the warm dawn in North London.

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