While canvasing last week, I was disappointed to learn that some Liberal Democrat activists have been apparently been making unfounded claims about Woking Park in a bid to attract votes in Mount Hermon, such as falsely claiming that the Conservatives wish to promote house building in the park or sell parts of it off to developers. Needless to say, these claims are entirely unfounded and it is a shame that the opposition has seemingly had to resort to such scaremongering and dirty tricks to try and win an election, rather than standing on their record.
At the meeting of Full Council last week, I asked the Leader of the Council to set out what steps the Conservative administration has taken to protect and enhance Woking Park in recent years. He could point to an impressive list of improvements. The Hoe Valley flood defence work has meant that the old run down greenhouse area is now well laid out and landscape. The Hoe Valley community buildings also now allow a range of community groups to enjoy the park. There is the new grass and 3G football pitches, a new cricket pitch, the relocation and refurbishment of the bandstand, improved tennis courts, enhanced grounds maintenance, a dog-free area for bettr relaxation, new play facilities, and a modern, high quality fitness gym at the Leisure Centre.
It is clear that the Conservatives on the council have shown tremendous commitment to Woking Park and any suggestions to the contrary are entirely without foundation.
At the meeting of Full Council on Thursday night, I questioned council officers on what costs Woking Borough Council had incurred as a result of the voter fraud in Maybury & Sheerwater, which saw a Liberal Democrat councillor disqualified from office in 2013 after it was revealed he had won his seat with the help of corrupt and illegal practices.
I have now discovered that this abuse has cost Woking taxpayers more than £202,000 over the last three years. In response to my question, the Leader of the Council disclosed that the council had to pay more than £175,000 in costs and staff time to deal with the election tribunal, while the Maybury & Sheerwater by-election to choose a replacement councillor cost taxpayers £27,000. Although the council has insurance cover which paid out £82,000 towards these costs, legal action is still underway to try and recoup the remainder of the expenses incurred in combating electoral fraud.
I am appalled that the disgraceful tactics used to elect a Liberal Democrat conucillor in Maybury & Sheerwater have left local taxpayers out of pocket by such a large amount. This is money that should have been used to fund essential services such as day care centres and helping to provide much needed housing in the borough. To put it into context, the figure of £202,000 is seven times the sum that the modest 2.2% increase in council tax will raise in 2016-17.
I am pleased that some of those responsible have now been held to account, and hope that everyone involved with such practices will question their conscious. The Conservative administration on the council has also taken steps to protect the integrity of the ballot in Woking, and introduced measures such as an increased police presence on polling day, a full mini-canvass for all properties in areas where electoral fraud is more likely, and a thorough analysis of all postal vote applications. This should help ensure that such an unethical and illegal way of engaging in local politics is not repeated in the future.
The Conservatives have won another seat on Woking Borough Council and narrowly missed out on picking up a second following yesterday’s local council by-elections in Goldsworth Park. Chitra Rana won the usually safe Liberal Democrat seat of Goldsworth West by a margin of 18 votes, while Sonia Elbaraka came very close in Goldsworth East but fell 32 votes short of securing victory. Both seats were declared vacant earlier in the summer when the sitting Liberal Democrat councillors resigned and moved abroad after a period of questionable attendance at important meetings.
The results are a mixed bag for both parties. The Conservatives had hoped to win the third Goldsworth East seat given that this is a ward which already has two Tory councillors and has seen a significant change in voting behaviour over the last five years. Credit is due to the newly elected councillor James Sanderson who fought a tough and effective campaign. The Liberal Democrats will be pleased that they have stalled the Conservative advance in this seat and have continued a trend which has seen their vote hold up relatively well in council by-elections since the General Election. At the same time, they will be bitterly disappointed to have lost Goldsworth West which has long been one of their safest seats on the council. While they will be celebrating the fact that they held on to Goldsworth East, the reality is that the Liberal Democrats are a further seat down in Woking and have failed to arrest the terminal decline in their vote and support in the borough.
I would like to congratulate both of the newly elected councillors and hope that they will be effective champions for their communities. All eyes will be on the combined Goldsworth Park ward, which will be one of the most marginal seats in the borough once the changes to local government boundaries come into effect next year.
It was a long evening at the HG Wells Centre. The Conservatives increased their majority for the fourth year running, and now have 24 seats on the council. The Liberal Democrats lost further ground, failing to hold traditionally safe seats like Old Woking and Hermitage & Knaphill South and coming within 50 votes of seeing their leader deposed in Kingfield & Westfield. Labour gained a second councillor in Maybury & Sheerwater, while attempts by independent candidates to win seats failed to replicate John Bond’s success in Byfleet last year. UKIP’s share of the vote held up well, but under their current leadership they are incapable of articulating a positive vision for the borough.
I was particularly pleased to see my friend Melanie Whitehand re-elected in Knaphill with the largest majority in Woking. Somewhat dishearteningly, Melanie’s majority is greater than the entire number of votes cast to re-elect me in Mount Hermon East last year, and she secured more votes in a single council ward than I gained in the entire parliamentary constituency of Glasgow East when I stood as a candidate in 2005. Melanie has provided a fantastic service to her residents and has addressed some challenging issues over the last eight years. Completely selfless in her work, she is the epitome of what public service should be about. I was also happy to see Hilary Addison elected to another term as councillor for Goldsworth East. Like Melanie, Hilary has turned a former Liberal Democrat seat into one with a large Conservative vote thanks to her staunch advocacy of residents’ interests.
In Byfleet, our excellent candidate Harry Briggs will now represent residents in the east of the borough. Although independent candidate Amanda Boote came a good second, pushing the Liberal Democrats into third place, voters were no doubt aware of the poor performance of the area’s other independent councillor, who failed to turn up to a large number of important meetings last year. An independent candidate standing on a platform of opposition to the Sheerwater redevelopment also failed to muster significant support, suggesting that opposition to the project might not be as widespread as is often believed.
It was going to be a tall order for the Conservatives to win in Kingfield & Westfield this time round given the high profile of the incumbent councillor, but credit goes to Natalie Bourne who represented the Conservatives extremely well in the ward. She will undoubtedly have better success next time. Colin Scott also failed to win election in Maybury & Sheerwater despite expending considerable energy campaigning in every seat in the borough as well as constituencies as far flung as Southampton and Rochester & Strood.
Finally, congratulations to our new councillors, John Lawrence and Paul Smith, who will represent the traditionally Liberal Democrat seats of Old Woking and Hermitage & Knaphill South. Both men are hugely respected in their communities and bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the council. I’m sure they will both be effective champions for their areas.
The opinion polls got it wrong. Although I went out on a limb and predicted back in October that the Conservatives would win an overall majority, commentators could not agree on the most likely outcome, with some suggesting that Labour would emerge as the largest party and others predicting that the coalition would continue in its present form.
The election has thrown up some unusual outcomes. The first is the headline result. The fact that David Cameron secured an overall majority when most people believed it wasn’t possible is testament to a well run election campaign and also reflects public confidence in his decision to focus on economic growth and stability over the next few years. During the final days of the campaign it became clear that voters were looking at the marked improvements we have seen in the economy over the last few years and were coming to the decision that we had to stick the course.
However, it wasn’t just the national campaign that helped the Conservatives gain an impressive victory. In many of the constituencies where I campaigned, such as Eastleigh, Kingston & Surbiton, Sutton & Cheam and Portsmouth South, hardworking candidates built up grassroots organisations and active campaigns by focusing on local issues, often gain support by going door to door and street to street to find out what people were really thinking. They were aided by an enthusiastic and activist volunteer base. This was my third General Election campaign and it was by far the most organised I had ever seen in terms of the Conservatives’ ability to direct activists and resources to target seats.
In contrast, Ed Miliband was never able to shake off perceptions that he would be a Prime Minister like Gordon Brown and spend too much, borrow too much and waste too much. Too many people failed to see him as a credible Prime Minister and felt he was concentrating on core Labour issues rather than bread and butter concerns. Labour also suffered a disastrous night in Scotland, losing all but one their seats to the SNP. Much will be written about this phenomenon in the next few days, but the SNP have obviously capitalised on a new engagement with politics which emerged in Scotland as a result of the referendum campaign.
The Liberal Democrats were punished heavily by voters. Although the coalition was in the national interest and the party took on a great responsibility in helping get the country through a difficult period, the public felt the Lib Dems had betrayed their principles and even national figures like Vince Cable and Simon Hughes weren’t spared from voters’ wrath.While some of these figures should have been able to count on a strong personal showing and could have run a positive campaign to secure re-election, the Lib Dem campaigns on the ground were often sneering and negative, with some terrible character assassinations and outright falsehoods being peddled about their opponents. I am glad that this style of doing politics backfired and was shown the contempt it deserves.
Another big story was the failure of UKIP to pick up more than one seat, despite winning almost 4 million votes. Nonetheless, the eurosceptic party picked up some impressive second place finishes, mainly in Labour seats in the north of England. It will be interesting to see whether they can capitalise on this progress or whether disappointment at a poor parliamentary showing will see disillusionment and division set in within the party.
The votes for the local election will be counted later this afternoon at the HG Wells Centre and my colleagues and I are hopeful that our solid record of delivering record investment in the town centre, in new housing and in top class public services while making efficiency savings and reducing waste will be rewarded with a bigger majority.
At last night’s meeting of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee I presented a short report on voter fraud in Woking. The background to this was the electoral petition in 2013 which revealed that the former Liberal Democrat councillor Mohammed Bashir won his Maybury & Sheerwater seat thanks to corrupt and fraudulent practices such as registering false voters, forging voters’ signatures and harvesting the votes of residents without their knowledge or consent.
People in Woking were rightly outraged at this blatant manipulation of the democratic process and sought reassurances that such abuse will never be allowed to happen again. The remit of my report was to consider whether the Overview & Scrutiny Committee should hold an inquiry session and examine the steps that the council has taken to safeguard the integrity of elections in the borough. It was also suggested that such a review would be a good opportunity to scrutinise the move towards the new ‘individual registration’ system which came into effect last year and will apply to voters registering for the General Election.
I met with the Chief Executive at the end of last year to discuss the issues raised in the scrutiny topic review. One aspect of our discussion was the timetable for publication of the report of the Elections and Electoral Registration Review Panel, which is independently chaired and produces an annual report into the conduct of the previous year’s elections. The Review Panel will be meeting this month and will submit its report to the next meeting of Full Council. This report will include details on work carried out in the lead up to the Borough and European elections in 2014, including the processes put in place after the electoral petition and court judgement on the conduct of Mr Bashir. As a result of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee’s request, the Review Panel will also examine the work carried out to introduce individual registration and the impact this should have on the conduct of future elections.
On the basis that Full Council will have the opportunity to review and debate the report of the Review Panel, I am satisfied that at this stage there was no need for the Overview & Scrutiny Committee to hold a separate session and call in officers or Executive members for a more formal hearing. However, the committee did take the opportunity to hold a short discussion on issues around voter fraud and electoral manipulation at last night’s meeting, which will help inform a broader debate when the subject comes before Full Council next month.