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Conservative dominance in Tunbridge Wells could be under threat at forthcoming county and borough elections, say opponents


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It has long been regarded as true blue Tory heartland but against a shifting political landscape, Tunbridge Wells may not be quite the safe bet it once was for the party.

Could its grip be loosened at the forthcoming borough election and county council elections? Political editor Paul Francis reports.

There will be a lot of interest in the results of the count for the various Tunbridge Wells seats. Stock image
There will be a lot of interest in the results of the count for the various Tunbridge Wells seats. Stock image

Like hundreds of others, Mike Tapp is spending the next few weeks pounding the streets, delivering leaflets and canvassing support in the hope electors will be persuaded to back his bid to become a Labour county councillor for Tunbridge Wells North.

The 36-year-old knows something about campaigns. He joined the Army Intelligence Corp at the age of 20 and was deployed on three operational tours, to Iraq once and Afghanistan twice. He has also worked for the National Crime Agency, working on counter terrorism.

His confidence that he can win may, on the surface, look misplaced.

At the last county council election, Labour went into meltdown under the divisive leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, contriving to lose seats when it should have won more.

Labour candidate Mike Tapp
Labour candidate Mike Tapp

Tapp acknowledges Corbyn proved a major faultline when it came to voters measuring up who to back.

Replacing him with Sir Keir Starmer has, he says, meant less hostility on the doorsteps.

“Without a doubt, he has helped," he said. "People see him as potentially the next Prime Minister. And I think he's had a really difficult introduction to becoming leader of the opposition during a very difficult time.”

On local issues, he says voters are registering long-standing concerns such as traffic congestion and are beginning to recognise the impact of targets to curb carbon emissions.

"It's still the same problems they had 10 years ago plus new ones. The same problems are issues like traffic congestion; the new ones that are starting to come through are linked to climate change - people are starting to worry about charging points.”

"If I come back, I come back. If I don't, I don't. There's plenty of other jobs. I am never ever going to assume that I will win it.”

The man he hopes to topple is Conservative candidate Peter Oakford, the deputy leader of Kent County Council, who is banking on his experience and 14 years representing the division to see him through.

“I think I'm the only candidate that's got any experience of being a councillor. I think, too, for anybody to go straight into county council could be quite difficult. I would hope that 14 years experience as a councillor and seven as a cabinet member and four as deputy leader would carry some weight.”

He is aware his opponents are characterising him as “yesterday’s man” and as someone who has had his time.

“At the end of the day, I'm continuing to do what I've always done. If I come back, I come back. If I don't, I don't. There's plenty of other jobs. I am never ever going to assume that I will win it.”

Some Conservatives believe they are fighting on two flanks with tacit agreements between the other parties to vote tactically.

Peter Oakford (Con) will be hoping he can retain his seat on the county council
Peter Oakford (Con) will be hoping he can retain his seat on the county council

At the same time, changing social demographics across the borough, with many more professionals decamping from London, means voters may not automatically support the Conservative party.

Oakford concedes both could have an impact: “That's always possible. How much that has happened thus far, I don’t know but it’s going to happen. I think national politics will play some part in it. And the performance of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council will play a part.”

That is a pointed reference to the hugely controversial saga of the redevelopment of Calverley Gardens, which still casts a shadow despite the £100million scheme being scrapped in 2019.

That is largely as a result of the campaign waged against it by a new political force, the Tunbridge Wells Alliance, which turned it into a major election issue in 2019 and succeeded in returning six councillors.

Its scalps included the ward then represented by the Conservative council leader, David Jukes.

Nicholas Pope, founder of the Tunbridge Wells Alliance
Nicholas Pope, founder of the Tunbridge Wells Alliance

The alliance, which describes itself as a “bold local group of independent like-minded councillors” and apolitical, has fed off voter disenchantment with the mainstream political parties to the extent that it has ambitions to pick up enough seats to deprive the Conservatives of overall control.

Nicholas Pope, who founded the alliance, said there was a good chance that a rainbow coalition could take over: “I think there is a lot of disillusionment in Tunbridge Wells about the way the Conservatives have been running the council. Having had that project cancelled, the same group is still running the council.”

The ripples from the controversy over the scheme were underlined recently when borough councillors backed an investigation into the saga – an investigation backed by two Conservatives.

Pope also subscribes to the view of social demographic changes that make the Conservatives more vulnerable. “We have a constant trickle of people moving out of London who are more likely to be centrists rather than right wing and less likely to vote Conservative,” he says.

There have been suggestions that the Conservatives could lose their grip on the former stronghold of Tunbridge Wells
There have been suggestions that the Conservatives could lose their grip on the former stronghold of Tunbridge Wells

But the alliance has had its own share of internal rifts, with Cllr Becki Bruneau, who was the party’s leader, quitting along with Christian Atwood, son of the former leader. Both blamed the party’s absence of “strategies and policies” for their exit.

If there is one striking indicator of change in the borough, it came in the Brexit referendum in 2016, when Tunbridge Wells was the only area in Kent to vote to stay, with 54.9% voting to remain and 45.1% to leave.

And while it has its own pockets of deprivation, the borough is among the most prosperous in the county: nearly a third of the working population are in the highest earning bracket – compared to one in five across Kent and a similar number for the UK.

For the Liberal Democrats, which have traditionally been seen as the natural challenger to the Conservatives, there is a mood of caution.

In the election of 2019, the parliamentary seat was targeted as one where it was considered “in play” and there was an outside chance of ousting incumbent Greg Clark. But while its candidate Ben Chapelard increased the party’s share of the vote by 18%, Greg Clark eased to victory.

“The Tories will fight tooth and nail to retain control of the borough council; they will campaign under the radar and will get their core voters out. They have a powerful election machine.”

Asked if there is a mood for change on the doorstep, Chapelard is understandably guarded but says there are signs the issue of cronyism and allegations of sleaze is getting traction.

“The Tories will fight tooth and nail to retain control of the borough council; they will campaign under the radar and will get their core voters out. They have a powerful election machine.”

“This is not going to fall into people’s laps; we have to work harder because they [Conservatives] are the incumbent party. For me, winning control of the borough council is a possibility, not a probability.”

Meanwhile, the Green party is upbeat over its prospects of making a breakthrough on the borough council and is fielding 12 candidates.

John Hurst, standing in Benenden and Cranbrook, says its campaign focus is on shortcomings in the local plan that threaten green belt land.

"We're not telling anyone how to vote; people will vote for whoever they see fit."

“A large number of people are unhappy with the lack of action from the Conservative council. It is renowned for not engaging with the public.”

With only a handful of votes separating the parties in several wards in the borough, the permutations are endless.

While the parties are not directly encouraging tactical voting, it is by Siobhan O'Connell and Sally Antram who have set up a Twitter account @VoteChangeTWBC to promote the idea.

The pair say they are encouraging people in the borough to use their vote in a way that gives candidates the best chance of preventing the Conservative candidate from winning.

"We're not telling anyone how to vote; people will vote for whoever they see fit. The issue is about the effectivenesss of their vote. It's about what is best for the town; giving them a voice. We are not people who would ever try and tell people what to do," says Siobhan, a retired IT programme manager.

It places another challenge for the Conservatives, who will not be surrendering control of what, with two brief exceptions, has been a political stronghold since 1973 without a fight.

In the end, the result will probably rest on whether the Conservatives get their voters out and whether - in the absence of tactical voting, Labour and the Liberal Democrats split the vote as they traditionally have done.

The arithmetic is simple: if the Conservatives lose five of the wards on the borough council, the other parties would have enough to run a coalition.

Once a byword for true blue Conservative heartland, the political map of Kent may turn a different colour in May but what shade is anyone's guess.

The borough council is currently made up of 26 Conservative councillors, nine Lib Dems, four Labour, four Tunbridge Wells Alliance and one Independent.

The council has elections by thirds, meaning only one third of wards are contested each year.

However, by-elections caused by resignations have added to the tally of seats available. Voters in 17 of the borough's 20 wards will now have the chance to return 18 new councillors between them.

In the county council election, all six divisions in Tunbridge Wells are up for grabs.

Head to our politics page for expert analysis and all the latest news from your politicians and councils.

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