Published: 06:00, 22 March 2021
The battle for control of Kent County Council will soon be underway, with 81 seats up for grabs across all parts of the county.
While the ballot is supposed to be about local services, it is also the first major test of public opinion on the government. Political Editor Paul Francis reports on what’s at stake.
Every election is fought against the political background of the day, but you would be hard-pressed to find one quite as unusual as the ones being contested in May.
Four years ago, these elections took place at the start of a longer than expected journey towards Brexit.
While there were still political undercurrents that ebbed and flowed, the national trauma and political convulsions caused by Brexit seemed to have tapered away.
Fast forward to 2021 and the country is grappling with a global pandemic that casts a long shadow which prompted elections due to be held last year to be postponed - although the county council one is taking place at its scheduled date.
Voters are heading to the polls in the midst of a virus that has triggered three national lockdowns and the tragic deaths of tens of thousands.
Instead of coming out of a period of austerity, cash-strapped councils have been confronted by their worst nightmares - struggling with catastrophic declines in income, only partially reimbursed by the government.
These conditions make predictions of the outcome even harder than normal.
The 2017 county council election saw the Conservatives romp to victory and secure a thumping majority, seizing 67 of the 81 seats up for grabs. Labour had an uncomfortable election, seeing their 13 seats more than halved and ousted as the official opposition by the Liberal Democrats.
As is often the case with local elections, it was national politics that proved as influential a factor, with Brexit still overshadowing the political landscape.
While the previous year’s referendum had seen voters back departure from the EU, the government was still some way from coming up with a deal or timetable.
After council elections that seemed to place the Conservatives in a strong position, leader Theresa May threw caution to the wind and called a snap election the following month. The gamble backfired spectacularly when she lost outright control and endured a torrid two years that eventually saw her forced out of Downing Street.
Her implosion seemed an unlikely proposition given the comfortable winning margins in true-blue Tory heartlands like Kent, where the party’s comprehensive victory owed much to the demise of Ukip, which lost every one of its 17 seats on the county council.
And while Jeremy Corbyn proved popular in parts of the country, he was not an asset in Kent, with the party actually losing ground - so much, in fact, that it was ousted as the official opposition at County Hall.
Against the uncertain and still turbulent backdrop of Covid, the election may strike some as an irrelevance. If that is the case, candidates may find it even harder to get through to voters.
On the other hand, the pandemic has, paradoxically, highlighted the important role councils have had to play as well as the devastating impact the coronavirus has had on their budgets.
Will it still be a true blue county after May 6? Here’s our political editor’s assessment of the prospects for the parties:
With 67 councillors out of 81, it would be a major upset if the party under new leader Roger Gough failed to be back at the helm after May 6. While Ukip nearly cost the party control in 2013, four years later the Conservatives won back every single one of the 17 seats it lost and capitalised on a Labour party split over the divisive leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Not that everything has been smooth running for the party: its decision to increase council tax by 5% saw a mini-revolt, with two councillors - Cllr Paul Cooper and Gary Cooke - refusing to endorse the budget, landing them with three-week suspensions. The party has also seen one of its group, Eric Hotson, decide to stand as an independent after failing to be reselected. The discovery of a vaccine for the coronavirus has come at an opportune moment.
It could be a tricky election for Labour, just as it was last time round when they paid the price for having a leader who was massively popular with left-leaning paid-up party activists but who lacked popular appeal among ordinary voters. New leader Sir Keir Starmer has steadied the ship but has yet to show any cut through with moderate voters in the same way Tony Blair did. His decision to put nurses pay at the heart of the party’s campaign might be opportunistic but if it wins the party votes, he won’t mind. Expect to see gains in Thanet, Dover and Gravesham. The question is, how many?
The party is also under a new leader, but as things stand many voters would probably struggle to know his name. Their traditional heartland over recent years has been Maidstone and Malling, where they have a number of elected members. A breakthrough elsewhere and it would be regarded as a relatively successful campaign but the prospects of a power grab are not high. Canterbury used to be a happy hunting ground but against the ascendancy of Labour and its MP Rosie Duffield, it has been less so of late.
A long-awaited breakthrough for the Green Party came in 2013 when voters elected Martin Whybrow as councillor for Hythe West. But the party’s first member on KCC is calling it a day and that might raise problems for his replacement candidate Georgina Treloar. However, there has been a non-aggression pact with the Lib Dems in the Folkestone area which may help.