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.