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Political unity and division as May elections approach

This Thursday – May 5 – the fate of three Sussex towns is in the balance, with Labour looking to gain control of both Worthing and Crawley councils. While in an opposite twist, in Hastings Labour faces a battle to retain control.

Protesters with red flags on a beach hold a banner with the words No More Shit!!
Beach protesters in Hastings make their point to Southern Water. It is also a message many would like to send to the politicians in power at Westminster. Photo credit: Rick Dillon

With a general election looming – maybe just a year away – the national spotlight on May’s local elections will be intense. In Sussex, meanwhile, there have been some positive signs of cross-party cooperation. In East Sussex, the county council’s three opposition parties recently came together to challenge the ruling Conservatives on spending for the year ahead. Also, in West Sussex, in Crawley, the pandemic brought out the best in politicians, who cooperated throughout. One seasoned council watcher said: “I’ve never seen anything like it.”  

However, the gloves will be off again in Crawley on May 5 when a third of the 36 seats are up for grabs. Crawley is finely divided, Labour-led but with ‘no overall control’: Labour holds 17 seats to the Conservatives’ 18, but currently enjoys the backing of the one independent. Based on the 2021 results, there will be close fights in at least three of the 12 wards, including Three Bridges, which was until last year a Tory stronghold. Can Labour get it over the line?

Labour leader Peter Lamb told Sussex Bylines: “We’re very hopeful of regaining majority control this year. There’s a lot of upset regarding the Conservatives both nationally and locally, including amongst life-long Tory voters. However, elections aren’t won by opinions, it all comes down to who turns up on the day and the most important thing is that people do make it out to vote.

“Crawley has a history of extremely close results and the last time the Conservatives took control of Crawley they won it on a coin toss. Had one more person made it out to vote Labour or switched their vote from the Lib Dems and Greens, years of services cuts could have been avoided.”

Progressives battle in Hastings

In Hastings Labour is hoping to defend 11 of the 16 seats being contested, after an electoral drubbing last year. Both the Conservatives and Greens took seats off them and Labour is now fighting hard to prevent power slipping from their grasp after 12 years of uninterrupted control.  A strong showing by the Greens, who are now firmly in third place locally, could deprive Labour of its majority. The hope is that they will work well with Labour to maintain its progressive policies, although on current evidence it’s not promising: there is no love lost between the two sides.

In Worthing, another knife edge

In Worthing, there is another knife edge. The Conservatives lost their majority after a by-election win by Labour in December and the council is now evenly split between Labour and Conservatives: each with 17 councillors. The Lib Dems have two, with one Independent. Labour is poised to gain as many as six of the 14 seats being contested. They only need two to gain control, which would be a first for Labour in this south coast town – and a boost for the party nationally.

In Brighton & Hove, Conservatives face a challenge in a by-election in the Rottingdean Coastal seat following the resignation of their councillor Joe Miller. The Tories are, however, very much in the minority in Brighton & Hove. Here it was heartening to observe a display of progressive unity, when, in February, Labour backed the Green-led council’s budget after a series of its amendments were accepted.

Spending challenge for Tories

In a further boost to progressive politics, in East Sussex the county council’s ruling Tory group faced a spending challenge from a united opposition. Extra spending, fully costed, was backed by the Liberal Democrats, Labour and Greens. It was the first time there had been such unity since Labour and the Lib Dems held joint power in 2002. 

Climate change protesters outside the offices of East Sussex county council in Lewes. The Conservative-run authority
is being urged to divest from investments in companies with interests in fossil fuels. Photo credit: Emily Mott

The coalition’s alternative budget was defeated by 28 votes to 21, but Conservative leader Keith Glazier was “clearly shaken” according to Labour joint group leader Chris Collier speaking to Sussex Bylines. In the past the Tories have enjoyed the sight of the opposition parties tearing lumps out of each other as they argued their own corners.

In a year when people face massive hikes in the cost of living, the opposition argued it was time to put more into vital services. The extra spending of £6.176m – out of a total council budget of £453m – would have lead to more cash going into care services, notably mental health training, and for children with special needs. There was also extra money to give hard-pressed carers a break.

The opposition’s budget would have also created a £425,000 fund to kick-start youth services. “The Tories decimated our once vibrant youth service,” Lib Dem group leader David Tutt told us, “and it has only aggravated drug crime.”  Roads are also in crisis: potholes litter the county and East Sussex has one of the worst records for road traffic accidents in the country, said Tutt. The extra spending would have led to safer crossings for primary school children and more money for vehicle activated signage to help reduce speeding.

‘A maturer form of politics’

Also proposed was a £450,000 pilot scheme for retro-fitting property using advanced eco-technology, a boost to biodiversity; and last but not least, a move to restore cuts in library spending and to boost book acquisitions. 

Moving the joint budget amendment, David Tutt said: “This is, I believe, a maturer form of politics” while Labour’s Chris Collier urged the Tories  to “show the residents of the county that you are prepared to engage in politics in a different way”.

Tutt told Sussex Bylines he knew there had been ill-feeling between Labour and the Lib Dems in the wake of the Cameron-Clegg government of 2010-15. But this had now faded: “I think politics has moved on a long way since the coalition government,” he said.

Electoral landscape has shifted

The test will be at the next county council elections, in May 2025. With the Partygate revelations still rumbling on and whatever new horrors the Johnson government can produce, the electoral landscape has, as Tutt told us, shifted considerably. He believes a lot of Tory seats will be vulnerable. In his own town – he is leader of Eastbourne council – he cites the Meads ward where last year a seemingly invulnerable 2,000 Conservative majority collapsed to just 200.

There is hope then, that a more progressive, collaborative politics in Sussex can achieve some cut through in the years ahead. In his corner of Sussex, Tutt is quietly confident: “Our joint budget proposal is a big step forward in the way in which we approach politics in East Sussex and I hope we continue it in the future.”  Let’s hope he’s right. We need this constructive collaboration at both local and national levels. The alternative is a further worsening of people’s quality of life, an escalating cost of living crisis and the threat of climate disaster remaining unchecked.

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