Thursday, 28 April 2011

Guest Post - An Introduction to: Cannock Chase District Council Elections

Cannock Chase District Council is a 41-member authority elected in thirds and located on the northern fringes of the West Midlands conurbation. It is made up of three towns Cannock, Hednesford and Rugeley, as well as a number of villages to the north and east of the largest town of Cannock. It is named after the forest and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty that straddles the northern half of the district and which acts as what some might say in the district as a psychological barrier between Rugeley and Cannock - more about that later.

Cannock Chase historically is dominated by the mining industry. As well as the three towns, the villages of Norton Canes, Heath Hayes, Rawnsley and Prospect Village grew because of the mines and the miners who flocked here for work. Politically Labour has been strong in these areas but as the industry waned the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives began to steadily pick up seats and make inroads into traditional Labour areas. The Liberal Democrats are the strongest in Rugeley holding all 11 seats in that town. The Conservatives are strongest in the more affluent areas of the district such as Cannock West and Hawks Green as well as holding a few seats in Hednesford and in the larger villages of Heath Hayes and Norton Canes. Labour is at its most strongest in the more urban parts of Cannock, particularly in the North and the East of the town as well as many of the seats in Hednesford.

Since the creation of the council in 1973 Labour have been in control for a total of 25 years, initially from 1973 to 1982 and then from 1987 to 2003. From 2003 up to January 2010 the council had been run by a coalition between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives. This coalition split in acrimony just three months before the General Election last year, and since then there has been no love lost between the two parties. Almost immediately after the split 6 councillors defected: 3 councillors defected from the Conservatives directly to the Liberal Democrats, 2 from the Conservatives to independent and 1 councillor from the Liberal Democrats to independent (who subsequently unsuccessfully stood as a Conservative in May 2010)

Cannock has been represented by a few distinguished Members of Parliament, from the former Labour minister Jennie Lee (wife of Nye Bevan and minister responsible for creating the Open University), senior conservative Patrick Cormack, the arch-Thatcherite Gerald Howarth and Labour's recently retired Tony Wright, widely respected former chairman of the Commons Administrative Select Committee. In 2010 the Conservative Aidan Burley won Cannock Chase on an impressive 14% swing which saw a 9227 Labour majority turned into a 3195 Conservative lead. This was the Conservatives largest swing on the night. At the district council elections on the same day, however, the Conservatives gained only 3 extra councillors taking their tally to 11 (2 of these gains were from previous Conservative councillors who had defected) and this was not enough to move from being the third largest party.

The composition of the council after the May 2010 election was:









With no prospect of the Labour Party working with the Conservatives the Liberal Democrats formed a minority administration. There was a by election in August 2010 following the death of Conservative councillor John Jillings in the Heath Hayes and Wimblebury ward. Labour's Diane Todd won this seat with an 11.4% swing. This year the elections are for the following wards:


Party Defending

Brereton & Ravenhill (Rugeley)

Lib Dems

Cannock East


Cannock North


Cannock South


Cannock West


Etching Hill & the Heath (Rugeley)

Lib Dems

Hagley (Rugeley)

Lib Dems

Heath Hayes East & Wimblebury

Lib Dems

Hawks Green


Hednesford Green Heath

Lib Dems

Hednesford North


Hednesford South


Norton Canes



Lib Dems

Western Springs (Rugeley)

Lib Dems

The 2 Conservative seats up for the election this year are in the Hawks Green and Cannock West wards. These should be easy holds for the party, although in Hawks Green Keith Bennett of the Liberal Democrats was defeated here last year after defecting from the Conservatives 3 months previously and so this may prove to be an interesting battle with John Bernard of the Conservatives. The Conservatives have got to be expecting some gains on the night if they want to start challenging for the spot of official opposition to the council leadership, particularly in the villages, but they must play the long game as only a substantial voting collapse for the Liberal Democrats in Rugeley and a bad night for Labour would change the political landscape in Cannock Chase significantly in the Conservative's favour. No doubt there will be an anti government swing in Cannock Chase as demonstrated by last August's by election triumph for Labour, but with only 2 safe seats to defend the Conservatives have the easiest election out the three parties, any gains 1 year into an austerity government will be a sign of progress.

The Liberal Democrats are hoping to maintain the status of them being the largest party. To do this they need to defend their stronghold in Rugeley and hold on to their seats in Hednesford Green Heath, Rawnsley and Heath Hayes and Wimblebury. With a solid by election win under their belt Labour look strong in Heath Hayes and Chris Collis will hope that his personal vote will hold up and see off the challenge of Labour's Alison Spicer. The Liberal Democrats will be eyeing up the Hednesford wards in order to make any gains this year as they have had success here in the past. The one ward to watch on the night will be in Hagley where the Leader of the Council, Neil Stanley, is standing. Labour are hoping for a decapitation here and are putting extra resources into this ward.

To win control of the council Labour will need to make inroads into Rugeley and hope that they hold Norton Canes, where a vacant Labour seat is being defended by Michael Holder (last year's defeated sitting councillor), Cannock South and two seats in Hednesford. Their Cannock North and Cannock East seats are in the district's Labour heartland and defeat here would be a political earthquake. Labour can become the largest party on the night, but it would have to be a really good night for them to take control of the council.

It will be interesting to see how the Liberal Democrats fare after being in national government for a year and how the Conservatives can consolidate the support given to Aidan Burley and translate that into extra seats. While Conservative voters would have expected cuts, Liberal Democrat voters might not be so forgiving. Liberals Democrats may suffer a slump in their vote in some areas, but maybe not in others because for many in Rugeley there is a feeling that Labour has abandoned what was a strong mining community, and whilst Labour are hoping to change that this year it is a strong card for the Liberal Democrats in the town to play.

In the south of the district, however, there is a feeling that the council is being run by a Rugeley clique (only 4 Liberal Democrats come from wards south of Cannock Chase AONB). While Rugeley has gained a new leisure centre Cannock has had its athletics stadium demolished with its promised replacement not forthcoming and the proposed redevelopment of its leisure centre has been dragging for a few years. On paper whilst all parties are the same either side of the forest divide this underlying suspicion can go part way to explaining why the Liberal Democrats struggle outside of Rugeley and why Labour struggles in Rugeley.

The elections to Cannock Chase District Council may not be most glamorous of the elections this year but these are elections in the aftermath of a Lib Dem/Conservative coalition split. Ironically these are also the first elections in the district in which the Lib Dems are being put to the test as a party of national coalition government. Whilst national opinion polls show a significant reduction in Lib Dem support, we do not know yet how much local issues or personalities will affect the results in this district.

John Preece

John is a Labour Activist in Cannock Chase. He is a candidate in these District Elections and will soon become a Parish Councillor in Norton Canes. John cites Local Elections and American politics among his political interests and he can be found on twitter @johnpreece77.


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