Party leaders react to East Sussex County Council election results
Voters around East Sussex took to the polling booths last Thursday (May 6) to have their say on who should sit on the county council.
After the final ballots had been counted, we sat down with the leaders of the council’s main political parties for their views on how the election played out in East Sussex
For the Conservative Party the results painted a somewhat mixed picture, remaining in control of the council, but losing ground in some areas of the county.
The party held off challenges in some hotly-contested seats and also gained ground in one area, taking the Bexhill West ward from Independent incumbent Deirdre Earl-Williams.
However, it also saw some stinging losses, losing a total of four seats: Forest Row and Groombridge to the Green Party, Hailsham Market to the Lib Dems and both Telscombe and Peacehaven to Labour.
“I think we have done really well. The team put out a very positive message and I think the people of East Sussex accepted that,” said Conservative council leader Keith Glazier.
“We only had one existing councillor lost, which was the Peacehaven/Brighton Labour effect and apart from that I feel like we have done very well.
“The team up there put out a very positive message, there was quite a lot of negative pressure from the opposition, but clearly we didn’t have quite enough on the day. It was still very close.
“Being the party in power of course has its effect, but I think that the people of East Sussex still see our good way of managing resources and the quality of the services we deliver as being what they want.”
Cllr Glazier said the party had listened to concerns raised by voters during the campaign, but was keen to stress his group’s commitment to addressing environmental issues.
He said: “I’m very clear looking after the vulnerable still remains our main priority. Clearly we have got the message we need to do more with roads and highways and the whole environmental agenda, which is in our thinking and I just think we need to bring that out more.
“The council has done a lot on [climate change] already, but I don’t think we have been good enough at sharing the message.
“We as a county council have done an awful lot and continue to do it. If you look at our climate change plan we are saying how we are going to achieve this and we clearly have got things we can and will be doing.
“I think the results are a fair reflection of the way people see it. The electorate are never wrong. At the end of the day, now have the opportunity to continue delivering good quality services while listening to the points the electorate have raised during the campaign.”
‘We have a very strong team’
Arguably, the Liberal Democrats had a better election, staying steady on 11 members – gaining Hailsham Market as mentioned above, but losing Ringmer and Lewes Bridge to the Green Party.
“I would have liked to have seen us make a couple of gains,” said Lib Dem group leader David Tutt.
“We came close in a number of places; just 36 votes behind in one of the Crowborough seats where we had a splendid candidate in James Partridge. I hope at some point he will get himself elected to the county council, because he will be a real asset.
“We’ve got a very strong team at county. [Eastbourne borough councillor] Steve Holt has just joined that team and so has James MacCleary, who is the leader of Lewes District Council.
“Going forward we will be a very strong opposition to the Conservatives and we will challenge them on many, many issues and invite the other smaller parties to join us in doing so.”
The final results may hide some underlying concerns for the Lib Dems, however, as the party lost its share of the vote in some areas of the county. In parts of Lewes and Wealden, for example, the party lost its second party status to the Greens in several wards.
This was perhaps most notable in Chailey, where the Greens more than doubled the Lib Dems total votes and came close to winning the seat outright. The Conservatives secured 1,627 votes, while the Greens secured 1,580 – a difference of 47. The Lib Dems polled 623.
To put that into context, the same seat in 2017 saw the The Conservatives secure 1,957 votes and the Lib Dems secure 784 votes. The Greens came in last place with 200 votes, behind Labour on 311.
Cllr Tutt said: “They campaigned hard in Chailey and we need to be looking to see if we can regain that. But a lot of what they support are very strong Liberal Democrat policies in any event.
“One of the things I have already done is put in a new notice of motion on the carbon neutrality [target]. You will remember [in 2019] the Conservatives and Labour joined together to make the target 2050.
“When you’ve got the word emergency in there, giving yourself 30 years to deal with it never did make any sense. I moved an amendment at that time to make it 2030 and lost.
“With the advent of some Green councillors and a change in some of the Labour membership, I’m hoping we might actually push them close to actually making that change. Of course there are new Conservatives in there as well and they might realise 2050 is too long to wait.”
Mix of ‘fresh blood’ and experience for Labour
There were changes elsewhere in the county too, with Labour picking up two new patches – Peacehaven and Telscombe – marking the first time since 2001 that the party has won an East Sussex council seat outside of Hastings.
However, it also lost one of its home turf seats, with the Old Hastings and Tressell ward going to the Green Party’s Julia Hilton.
But for Labour group co-leader Godfrey Daniel the situation was a net positive. He said: “To not be the only place where there are Labour councillors in East Sussex is very good.
“It’s what we have always wanted and there are a few other seats, like Bexhill, where we had very good campaigns as well. We had a very good campaign in Uckfield in particular. But in a time when things are bad, to gain a seat overall is not bad is it.
“We have always fought for people in the whole of East Sussex. There are many Labour voters if you look at the results in every district.
“Having the fresh blood on the county council is always going to be good. We’ve got solid experience with us three from Hastings, mixed with our colleagues over in Peacehaven and Telscombe.”
With an increased presence on the council, Cllr Daniel said the Labour group would aim to to raise issues of particular concern, while working with other parties where possible.
He said: “We obviously have to hold the Conservatives to account. There are various issues we are concerned with. We are concerned about adult social care issues, we are concerned about the state of the roads and personally I have been involved in trying to redesign a better highways contract.
“I know down in Peacehaven there is a lot of concern about academisation and I am sure my colleague Chris Collier will highlight that as a major issue. But we have to be realistic, we are in opposition and there are still just five of us.
“But on the other hand, the Conservatives actually lost seats so their majority is not as safe as it once was. As the Chinese say, we live in interesting times.”
‘Greens finally have representation at County Hall’
While still the smallest of the national political parties to be represented on the council, Green Party candidates saw an explosion in support compared to previous years.
This change in fortunes saw the party take home four seats; the first ever county council seats in East Sussex to go Green. Those were: Forest Row and Groombridge; Lewes; Ringmer and Lewes Bridge; and Old Hastings and Tressell.
“We are feeling really positive,” said Johnny Denis, interim leader of the council’s newly-formed Green group.
“It is massive for the Greens to finally get representation on East Sussex County Council after so many years of trying.
“What is making us feel particularly positive is not just the seats we won, but that in the seats we didn’t win we came so close.”
Cllr Denis attributed the party’s gains to hard campaigning, but said the work of the relatively-recently elected Green councillors had had a major impact too.
He said: “Where people have a Green councillor they see that they get really good value for money. Somebody who is independent-minded but is able to speak up on behalf of communities about real-community issues that matter to people on the doorstep.
“Our councillors and campaigners work so hard to establish what those issues are. Through conversation on the doorstep we find out what really matters to people.
“Also when we are councillors we are able to raise the most difficult issues, such as climate change and how do we adapt to that while developing a strong local economy.”
He added: “Our biggest commiserations go to our near misses, but they are not failures by any stretch of the imagination because they were really successful campaigns.
“No other political party is safe from us. They should all consider themselves put on notice that we will persist and at other local elections in future we will be on their heels.”