Political earthquake shakes Cambridgeshire to its core

Map Image – Cambridgeshire County Council

The Cambridgeshire Conservatives are sent reeling from their loss of political control of Cambridgeshire County Council, and the defeat of Mayor James Palmer to Labour’s Dr Nik Johnson – and almost lost the election for the next Police and Crime Commissioner.

I refrained from publicly backing any specific candidates in these elections or trying to make detailed predictions. A mixture of reasons including illness (I’m back at the Doctor’s this week), far too many unpredictable variables at play, and a general fatigue towards politics given the relentless tide of sleaze and corruption headlines coming from Number 10.

The circumstances of the Local Elections of 2021 were particularly gloomy – especially as it looked like the Government were going to restrict door-to-door campaigning. Only a last minute climbdown by Cabinet Office Minister Chloe Smith MP avoided giving an inbuilt advantage to the cash-rich political parties against their opponents dependent on volunteers.

The elections were for the Conservatives to lose – the other parties should not have stood a chance.

Or so I thought. I wrote in my manuscript diary that the default outcome of the local elections covering Cambridge City were for the seats to remain broadly the same, just with a few new faces replacing retiring councillors – so a Labour hold with a large majority; for the Liberal Democrats to take three or four seats off of the Conservatives on the County in the south of the county, but not much more – and certainly not enough to threaten their control of the council. For the Mayoralty I assumed that Mr Palmer would win in a second round head-to-head with Cllr Van de Weyer of the Liberal Democrats, after a close contest for the second place with Dr Johnson for Labour. For the Police and Crime Commissioner post I assumed it would be similar percentages just on a higher turnout.

In the run up to the contest, scandal hit Peterborough – both Labour here, and the Conservatives on a smaller scale here. Furthermore, the former deputy PCC for the Conservatives who resigned in 2017 emerged as re-standing for election to Peterborough City Council. (He managed to hold his seat).

“Are local elections decided on local issues?”

A question that is asked every year by the mainstream media, and every year local politicians try to remind them of very local controversial issues and they get ignored as national politicians take the limelight.

Yet we saw time-after-time, in seat-after-seat, in council-after-council that local issues were significant factors in the result. The problem is that institutionally the BBC News & Current Affairs department has not figured out how to get the best out of the highly-regarded Local Democracy Reporting Service that it funds. Ben Hatton is the current incumbent and has worked his socks off over the past few weeks. The LDR/Local Government Correspondent for the Cambridge News historically is the posting for talented, hard-working reporters making their way up through the system, and is often seen as the launchpad for a move to a national media organisation. Ben’s predecessors Josh Thomas, Jon Vale, and Chris Havergal all moved to London following their time as local government reporters in Cambridge.

And yet all too often the BBC nationally did not feed into this network of highly talented journalists who could have stopped them making basic errors.

Labour hammered in Hartlepool and Bashed by Boris across the country

In one sense I didn’t care either way about what happened elsewhere. Mainly because I don’t have the spoons to take much interest in politics outside my local area these days, and also because health has meant I’m not able to travel long distances for now. So I’m stuck in Cambridge.

There’s no denying the short term catastrophe for Labour both in Hartlepool and across many parts of England in local government. But it’s not the end of the world as some commentators are putting across. I’m old enough to remember what happened to the Tories in 1997 and how they could not get anything right in the immediate years that followed. The Prime Minister may seem invincible right now, but over the past five years, UK politics has entered an era of unprecedented turbulence in recent times. Three general elections between 2015-20 for a start. That’s not normal. And if you’ve forgotten just what it was like in the post-EURef aftermath, have a listen to Daniel Zeichner MP back in November 2017 when I caught up with him at The Guildhall.

For all of the headlines we’ve seen this week, the problems of Brexit have not gone away – just ask the fishing communities. The problems of the Pandemic have not gone away – there remains the concern that at any point a vaccine-resistant strain could emerge and have us back under lockdown again until a new vaccine is developed. And finally there’s the Climate Emergency, which, chances are will become more visible again this summer. Recall the basking hot temperatures over 30 degrees C inside the Arctic Circle in 2020? And the Forest Fires in Siberia?

Finally, a number of the councils where Labour have lost seats are ones where they have dominated for decades. Maybe some time in opposition locally might be enough to refresh local parties and persuade new people to get involved. That’s not to be dismissive of the fears people might have of what a council controlled by the Conservatives might mean in terms of service cuts and privatisation – rather it’s a reflection of the state of local government (and central government too) where the First Past The Post system results in exaggerated majorities when compared with vote share.

The Cambridgeshire County Council Election Results 2021

The last time Labour and the Liberal Democrats together gained more seats than the Conservatives was in 1993. But that was at the charred ends of John Major’s crumbling administration. The election for the county council in 1997 was on general election day, and bucking the national trend, the safe-as-fortresses Conservative rural areas turned out in their thousands to deliver a Conservative majority council. Although 2013’s council was a minority Conservative administration, the presence of 12 UKIP councillors was as far as finances were concerned an extension of the Conservatives – putting council tax freezes above all else.

The bad blood between the North Cambridgeshire Conservatives and the Labour and Liberal councillors in and around Cambridge continued through the last council – resulting in the former voting to sell off or lease off Shire Hall and move the county council out to Alconbury, North West of Huntingdon and very difficult for Cambridge-based protesters to get to. The move of the County Archive to Ely from Cambridge was one that outraged local historians – the historical papers for the City of Cambridge are now no longer stored in Cambridge. And we’re supposed to be a global city? Hence asking if Local History could be picked up as an election issue – with my obvious vested interest.

Watching the results come in, there was little surprise in the northern divisions – traditionally safe as houses Conservative-voting areas. Opposition parties struggled to field local candidates, let alone run any meaningful campaigns, and it showed despite the FarmGate scandal.

But as the results came in, Liberal Democrats started winning in seats long thought to be safe Conservative seats – such as Hardwick, in South Cambs. It was the loss of Sawston & Shelfords that finally signalled the demise of the Conservatives’ control of the council as the Liberal Democrats won both seats. You can read the full report with results here. While the Liberal Democrats were winning seats around Cambridge, Labour were snatching their seats inside Cambridge – including Market and Chesterton. Along with regaining Cherry Hinton from a resigning councillor (Cllr Crawford who left after Mr Corbyn resigned), means Labour now have nine councillors, and the Liberal Democrats have 20 – making former MEP Lucy Nethsingha a prime candidate to become the Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council if all of the parties can get together to deprive the Conservatives of leading the Council.

Cambridge City Council – the net results hide some significant changes

The net additional seat gained by Cambridge Labour along with their inroads into Newnham and Market wards mean the Cambridge Liberal Democrats face a daunting task. That said, the re-elected leader of Cambridge City Council, Cllr Lewis Herbert (Lab – Coleridge) knows that climate change remains one of the top issues for local residents. That point was re-enforced by the success of Cllrs Naomi Bennett & Dr Hannah Copley in Abbey Ward for the Cambridge Green Party, returning to the ward for the first time since the death of the late Margaret Wright. This was at the cost to Labour of two of their top councillors – Nicky Massey, who came so close to winning the Police & Crime Commissioner elections, and Richard Johnson, their housing supremo who also works as a constituency caseworker for Mr Zeichner.

There was a significant turnover of candidates – Trumpington and Queen Edith’s have five new councillors, with only Jenny Page-Croft for the Liberal Democrats re-standing in the latter. She is joined by four new councillors in South Cambridge on South Area Committee – including a new trio for the Liberal Democrats. One of the stories of the night was the landslide win by Sam Davies MBE, who polled the highest number of votes for a single candidate and also the highest share of the vote. An incredible achievement for only her second election.

Above – one of the campaign videos by Cllr Sam Davies MBE (Ind – Queen Ediths).

Of Cllr Davies, Cllr Herbert said:

 “I’ve known Sam for a long time. I’m sure she’ll give us a hard time sometimes – and quite right. She’ll champion her ward. She stormed the ward and was way ahead of all of the other candidates.

“We will get challenged by her, but we look forward to her contribution. If Sam, or the Greens, come up with good ideas – we’ll be the first to listen.””


While Labour lost two high profile councillors, so to did the Liberal Democrats with Josh Matthews (Newnham) and Anthony Martinelli (Market) to Labour – with CUSU Welfare Officer Alice Gilderdale taking the Market seat. She has promised to focus her efforts on Cambridge’s continuing homelessness crisis. Much-needed, not least with the loss of Richard Johnson, even though he’ll still be around – albeit in the background.

The shock of the weekend – Dr Nik Johnson pipping Mayor James Palmer at the post for the Mayoralty of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

This was something that the anti-Conservative vote perhaps didn’t dare dream could happen. My assumption was that it would be the county Liberal Democrat votes that would carry Cllr Aidan van de Weyer into a head-to-head with Mr Palmer, with the latter winning. Despite not getting through to the final round, Cllr van de Weyer still has an important role to fulfil as the Board Member for South Cambridgeshire on the Greater Cambridge Partnership. If his party colleagues on the county council secure the leadership of that council for Former MEP Cllr Lucy Nethsingha (Lib Dems – Newnham) or one of her colleagues, this could result in the Greater Cambridge Partnership Board having no Conservatives for the first time in its existence.

I’ll leave others to commentate/review how Dr Johnson won, but the live-reporting and analysis by Ben Hatton and Phil Rodgers was first class – and they won many plaudits. As did newspaper editor John Elworthy of the Cambs Times (County council-watchers might want to take out a subscription to the paper – if only to keep tabs on news in the north of the county). Mr Elworthy was stubbornly persistent in following through the FarmGate scandal that led to the resignation of the Deputy Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, Roger Hickford, who did not restand and has since moved out of the county.

As the results came in for the Mayoralty elections, it struck me the night before that queues outside Cambridge’s polling stations were longer than I had expected even accounting for the CV19 restrictions – not least because of postal votes.

Above – noting people posting photos of people queuing to vote. Which made me wonder whether the city council elections on the same day would boost Cambridge’s turnout vs other districts. Turns out it did.

As the numbers were declared for the various districts, I noticed that it was the safe Conservative-voting districts that were reporting back far earlier than Labour-led Cambridge and Liberal-Democrat-led South Cambridgeshire. When the final votes for the first round came in, it was clear Mr Palmer had not reached the 50% threshold needed to win outright. So it went to a second round where the third-placed candidate was eliminated and second preferences redistributed.

Thus the exchanges online focused around how many Liberal Democrat votes were available, what percentage of those votes would indicate a second preference, and what percentage of those second preferences indicated would be for Labour & Dr Johnson. Mr Rodgers crunched the numbers.

Then it was a case of trying to work out whether the percentage and numbers of votes transferred to Labour was enough.

Then Cambridge United reported that they had won promotion to the Third Tier of professional football for the first time since the early 2000s.

And needing just 11,000 second preference votes, South Cambridgeshire returned with 9,000 of them.

at which point a few of us decided it was safe to call it for Dr Johnson for Labour & Co-op Party.

And…the outpouring of emotion online was quite something to see.

Above. ***Enjoy it!***

Nicky Massey falls desperately short in the final straights of the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections

Above – a lovely photograph by veteran local photographer Keith Heppell of the Cambridge Independent.

If anything, Ms Massey had a tougher task because she did not benefit from the high profile TV media appearances, and there was also an additional candidate to the political right of the Tories. Finally, the media and political establishments decided many moons ago that ‘law and order’ was a policy area that was traditionally a Tory strong point – and it is a myth that has stuck irrespective of whether there is any statistical evidence to back up that point.

When the 2nd round votes started coming in, it became clear that it was a bridge too far.

Unfortunately South Cambridgeshire did not bring in the much-hoped for transfer votes. Cambridge also fell short.

In the end, the Conservatives won with a few thousand more votes than the previous election – though on a noticeably larger turnout.

Cambridge and Cambridgeshire will wake up on Sunday wondering if it was all a dream. But the dynamics of county politics are now very different with a Labour and Co-op Party Mayor, the Conservatives having lost political control of the County Council, and The Greens now back in Cambridge local democratic institutions, joining three of their colleagues now on Peterborough City Council.

When the political dust settles, it will be interesting to see how the County Conservatives regroup and decide how to respond to this new local political reality which will be around for the next four years unless Ministers choose to overhaul local government. Something that should take at least a couple of years to prepare for.

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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