Fringe Box



Election Analysis: Triumph and Disaster Are Both Impostors

Published on: 6 May, 2023
Updated on: 12 May, 2023

By Martin Giles

Local election results can be difficult to analyse but it is important that we do. What happens at the borough council is still significant, however much power has been centralised and the council stripped of much of its funding.

The reasons for any political election result are complex. I suggest there were three primary causes.

National politics

Since the inclusion of national parties in local politics, they have had an undoubted influence. Whether you think it benign or malign it exists and many view local elections as simply an opinion poll of the party standings. But while they are influential they are only one layer of complexity.

The background to this election was the widespread unpopularity of the Conservative Party. This undoubtedly played a part. Their modest gains might have bucked the national trend seen elsewhere but it could have been worse if not for the major reduction in support, locally, for the independent parties.

The 2023 GBC Election result. The Lib Dems have taken overall control.

Unsurprisingly, the Labour candidates, in an area like Guildford, were not able to increase their share of seats significantly despite their party’s standing in the national polls.

The Lib Dems were the big winners on the day, despite their national support remaining pegged at 12 per cent or less. They say that NHS Services and the cost of living crisis were the issues being raised with them on the doorstep but what can a borough council do about those?

Nonetheless, locally they are the “go-to” party for some when voters are dissatisfied with the Conservatives, who have been the dominant party in Guildford over decades. Others might have voted for them tactically, as they were encouraged to do by the Lib Dems’ campaign literature.

Local issues

But it was a local election for a borough council and local issues were also at play.

The slump in the Residents for Guildford and Villages’ (R4GV’s) vote is almost certainly, to a large extent, down to the unpopularity among some of its former supporters of the town centre development plans the party supported.

A proportion of those who had voted for R4GV in 2019 felt let down that a party who had campaigned saying they would protect the town for high-rise developments were now fully behind the controversial redevelopments of Debenhams and North Street.

Others, it should be said, were strongly for it, including all the traders spoken to by The Dragon in the town centre, but the independent residents’ party could not afford to lose such a large chunk of its support.

Yesterday, R4GV members spoken to all felt Robin Horsley’s slick “Battle for Guildford” campaign videos, which included innuendos of connections between the party leaders and developers, were to blame. Certainly the videos highlighted the building heights issue among an electorate that too often pays scant attention to local news.

The Lib Dems and the Conservatives did little to persuade voters that ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ suggestions of corruption, completely unsupported by evidence, were scurrilous.

Some Conservative councillors even promoted the videos, encouraging residents to view them while party colleagues, although privately critical and disdainful, said nothing in public.

It is hard to conclude that Horsley’s strangely hateful anti-R4GV campaign did not have an impact. Many are too ready to believe rumours and conspiracy theories.

R4GV might be to blame for misreading the level of concern over building heights but the idea that the Conservatives, who have overseen practically all the higher-rise developments in Guildford in recent decades, or the Lib Dems, who admit they are more concerned about the proportion of affordable housing units that height proportions, will be able to simply prevent a high North Street development is ridiculous.

Anyone who had been paying proper attention knew that an appeal from developers St Edward was always likely. The council’s knife-edge decision to refuse was weak. Planning officers had recommended granting permission to the application which, in their view, complied with the Local Plan.

St Edward might put in a new application, they might reduce the building heights slightly to make it harder to resist by GBC’s Planning Committee, but is that really what those opposing the bulk and style of the proposal will find acceptable?

Localised, personal followings and alienation also played a part. Some councillors retain support because they are recognised as being good, or lose it if they are considered to have been poor representatives, regardless of party affiliations.

An example of this is Sue Wyeth-Price, who was elected in Ash South having worked tirelessly to stand up for those in her community. She could probably have won with any party label.

GBC new ward boundaries wef 2023

Area interests

There is a third layer of influence; the concerns held within the different areas of the borough.

In the north eastern wards the hatred of the Local Plan, the impact of which continues to be keenly felt, is still playing a major part in political choices.

In the Ash wards, previously a bastion of Conservative support during the parties 2019 defeat, the party has been wiped out, four seats going to the Lib Dems and two to R4GV.

Within the town centre wards the main motivations are mixed and confused. The Lib Dems and Labour report that planning issues are not the main topic raised in Westborough and Bellfields so continuing support for their parties seems safe there but the view of R4GV’s backing of town centre developments might have played a significant part in the new ward of St Nicolas.

In the wards in the south of the borough, largely protected from building development by AONB status, the independent parties struggled, losing two seats in Shalford while the enlarged Pilgrims ward went Conservative and Tillingbourne returned once of each, a Conservative and a Lib Dem, the Greens losing their only seat. Normandy and Pirbright, where the Conservatives retained their two seats in this newly united ward, can probably also fit in this group.

Worplesdon was identified as a bellwether ward before the election and so it proved to be. R4GV’s clean sweep in 2019 was completely reversed, the Conservatives gaining a much-needed hat-trick success to help compensate for their Ash losses.

What next?

Kipling advises us to treat triumph and disaster equally as impostors. Soon enough, winners and losers will face the new challenges of their roles.

Of the 48 elected councillors, 26  (and 14 of those from the ruling Lib Dems) have no councillor experience, so they face a steep learning curve for them and a major task for those giving their training.

Taking control of the council was, of course, the Lib Dems’ aim but there will be no other party to which blame can be deflected. And anyone who has voted for them feeling they will quickly introduce an effective height limit control or prevent the North Street development might soon be disabused, especially if an appeal is successful.

And will the party keep Julia McShane as their leader? She has not appeared to be the strongest but who else is there and would any alternative bid appear churlish in the wake of their victory?

The party’s slim majority might help maintain party discipline but the party does not have the best track record in this regard and very small rebellions could allow opposition parties, if they combine, to defeat the council in votes. But complete unity among the opposition parties is also unlikely.

R4GV members will be angry with the result for some time. They feel that the Horsley video was defamatory and played a large part in their loss of support. Defamatory or not, he shone a light, however distastefully, on the development proposals they supported, which many dislike.

GGG will share R4GV’s view, they were also subject to Horsley’s “don’t vote for…” campaign, but their support in the eastern wards remains strong as it faces Taylor Wimpy’s controversial planning application for Wisley Airfield.

Will there be another proposal for them to unite with R4GV or form a single group at GBC? It would mean they would be of equal size to the Conservatives. They have their preference for non-national politics in common but there would be policy differences to resolve too.

The Conservatives are likely to be pleased that unlike many other Conservative groups throughout the county they made modest gains. Of course, this has to be measured against the nadir of their fortunes in 2019.

And who will replace Paul Spooner as leader? Will it be the ambitious, Marmite figure of Matt Furniss, who already has a Cabinet portfolio at SCC to manage, or perhaps the former government minister Bob Hughes? Who knows? Will be interesting to watch.

Labour will be pleased with their gain in Westborough and Howard Smith is likely to be a vocal councillor. We in the press always like that. No doubt over the next four years they will be planning to build on the foothold they have gained in the ward, one which used to be a stronghold for them.

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Responses to Election Analysis: Triumph and Disaster Are Both Impostors

  1. Robin Horsley Reply

    May 6, 2023 at 5:30 pm

    This is deeply shoddy journalism. There were no “innuendos of connections between the party leaders and developers…” as Martin Giles claims. There was simply a statement of fact that the R4GV Cllr for Regeneration was a former director of the applicant [Savills were acting as the agents of St Edward when making the planning application].

    “…nudge, nudge, wink, wink suggestions of corruption, completely unsupported by evidence” is also complete nonsense. I explained to the editor of The Dragon and on social media, that there was emphatically no suggestion of corruption – no one had come forward with any evidence and I made it clear that if anyone did I would suggest they contact the authorities – not my issue.

    The Dragon’s editor, oddly for a journalist, although self-admittedly untrained, seems not understand the basics of ethics.

    It’s no surprise that so many have lost confidence in this heavily biased paper. I was keen to support The Dragon’s efforts, despite warnings from others that it was heavily biased but I am afraid such warnings were correct.

    And to suggest that I made a suggestion that I did not is “scurrilous” indeed.

    Let’s see if The Dragon publishes this comment – they have deleted previous comments – denying me a right of reply to allegations made of me in the past and have edited comments to its own purpose.

    As I say – deeply shoddy journalism.

    Editor’s response: We are not obliged to publish any comment or letter. The Dragon is not social media. Our policy on comments and letters, is similar to those of most newspapers and is published. Comments are not edited to change meaning but to correct poor English etc. Two of Robin Horsleys comments were not published because one was misleading, as written and, in any case, as Mr Horsley was told, the subject was to be covered in an interview conducted shortly after the comment was submitted.

    • Julian Lyon Reply

      May 7, 2023 at 2:55 pm

      I am reminded of The Wind in the Willows, not quite sure why: “Toad, with no one to check his statements or to criticise in an unfriendly spirit, rather let himself go. Indeed, much that he related belonged more properly to the category of what-might-have-happened-had-I-only-thought-of-it-in-time-instead-of-ten-minutes-afterward.”

      Oh yes and there is this one: ““I’m such a clever toad” said toad”.

      What a marvellous super power it must be to be right about everything, to bully and hector anyone who disagrees, and to stand on some kind of moral cow pat (the highest ground available it seems) and spout vitriolic nastiness.

      In the Wind in the Willows no-one had the nerve to put Mr Toad right. I don’t think those of us who have been insulted, been on the end of malicious and inaccurate communications and literature will stay quiet for long!

    • Jim Allen Reply

      May 7, 2023 at 6:31 pm

      I’m sorry to say I believe Mr Horsley’s contribution to this election was an intrusion to our local democracy. He could have made a contribution if he had been less vicious and less contentious and shown a concern for the major issues of the council budges and infrastructure deficit.

      The two fictional videos detracted from these serious problems: two poison chalices to be picked up by the “winners” of these elections.

      I trust Mr Horsley will refrain from engaging in such practices in the future.

      The new councillors have enough to concentrate on without his unwanted interference.

  2. Susan Hibbert Reply

    May 7, 2023 at 10:53 am

    Fascinating analysis from Martin Giles. The Guildford Dragon plays an ever more important role in promoting democratic debate in Guildford.

  3. David Roberts Reply

    May 7, 2023 at 5:23 pm

    Well done, Martin Giles, for a spot-on analysis. Fortunately for everyone, Robin Horsley is now an irrelevance both electorally and in relation to North Street. His motives were always suspect, his methods unsavoury and his ultimate impact on Thursday’s vote both unknown and unknowable.

  4. Pat Gallagher Reply

    May 8, 2023 at 12:41 pm

    An excellent analysis by the editor and an indication how the use of polished media publications may affect opinion, whether they are genuinely objective or just post-truth.

    We all prefer to learn from easily digestible presentations, rather than doing the hard yards of researching piles of written documents and balancing our views based on that research. This new persuasive power of a “glossy” video is almost akin to that time when typeface took over from handwriting; clear printed words could be taken in without the need to decipher an author’s personal scrawl, even if it was more coherent and cogent than a sans serif font.

    Was the Battle for Guildford video another step on the road towards having to avoid thinking for ourselves, because soon artificial intelligence will do it for us? AI “opinions” will be developed from what is found in the electronic world, and presumably will develop a bias dependent on what is available, whether accurate or not; the old computing adage of “garbage-in, garbage-out”.

    There is one small item in the article that I would take issue with the editor over; the use of his metaphor concerning people’s like or dislike of a “particular brand of yeast extract”, to describe varying opinions about an individual.

    Generally, we are able to choose whatever we like when shopping for a spread for toast, and to avoid having to consume what we don’t like. Many of us are sufficiently beyond childhood not to need some “nanny” telling us that you have to have something because “trust me, it is good for you”.

    Perhaps a better metaphor would be the “Jammy Dodger figure” who wants us to add another ring to Boxgrove roundabout?

    Editor’s comment: My use of the term “Marmite” to describe Cllr Furniss was to indicate that people seem to clearly either like him or not. It was not meant to say feeling which was correct.

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