LETTER: A new force in local government

Despite an 8.76 per cent lower turnout at the 2013 West Sussex County Council elections on May 2, the results were perhaps one of the most, if not the most, interesting in recent times.

There has been a lot of discussion in the days following the elections as to who won and who lost, with passionate debates from all parties involved. However, as a non-party, independent observer, I think that this is perhaps the first time that it is not a simple case of who won the most seats.

If that were the case, then the Conservatives are undoubtedly the victors of this election, having retained overall control of the council, gained the most number of new seats, and having completely knocked out the Liberal Democrats in both Mid-Sussex and Chichester Districts.

However, they also lost the largest number of previously held seats and their share of the vote fell by over ten per cent from 2009.

Regarding the Liberal Democrats, I think it can be safely said that they fared the worst of all the main parties having lost 13 seats compared to just a single gain (Littlehampton Town where the Conservative candidate was pushed down to fourth place), and lost a staggering 14.5 per cent share of the vote since the last elections – in other words, the Lib Dems lost more votes since 2009, than they actually polled in 2013.

UKIP and Labour, on the other hand, are the parties that no one can deny are the real winners of these elections.

These are the only two parties to have considerably increased their share of the votes (some of the smaller parties – Green, Independents, Socialist Labour and PATRIA - also increased, but only by fractions of a percent each), and furthermore, Labour is the only party to have not lost a single seat to UKIP whilst having gained four seats from the Conservatives at the same time and in only seven of the 68 electoral divisions where a Labour candidate stood did they poll a lower share of votes when compared to 2009.

The UKIP share of the vote must be one of those real earth shattering moments in politics in this county, having increased by almost 21 per cent since 2009.

Therefore, it cannot be said that the lower turnout alone contributed to this surge in UKIP support, since in 2009, UKIP achieved 18.8 per cent of the EU Constituency vote, whilst in the council elections on the very same day only achieved 8.5 per cent in West Sussex.

They took ten seats in total (nine from Conservatives and one from Lib Dems) and took 29.3 per cent of the total votes to become the second largest party on West Sussex County Council and have well and truly established themselves from being a minor fringe party to now the official opposition in West Sussex, beating the Lib Dems into third position.

Furthermore, in almost a third of all individual electoral divisions where they didn’t gain the most votes, the UKIP candidates were less than only 200 votes away from being elected.

So what can we learn from these results? The most obvious thing from the new political map is that the old Lib Dem strongholds (mostly the more urban areas of the county, namely Burgess Hill, Haywards Heath, Worthing, Steyning and Bognor Regis) have turned blue, the only exception being Horsham where they managed to retain all but one of their 2009 seats.

With the exception of the Bourne Electoral Division, all the UKIP gains lie along the coastal areas, Labour have reclaimed their domination of the Crawley Borough and the Conservatives hold the larger rural divisions.

From the huge decline in the share of votes for the two coalition parties, I think this sends a clear message that the majority of voters in West Sussex are not impressed by the direction this current Government is going and the massive cuts at County Hall, particularly as only 11 divisions elected a candidate with 50 per cent or more of the popular vote, compared to 32 divisions in 2009.

In fact, in 2009 Pulborough had the highest percentage of Conservative voters in the entire county at 73.2 per cent, but in 2013 that has fallen to just 43.7 per cent.

I also believe that many people decided on which candidate should get their vote based upon district, rather than county, responsibilities, such as planning matters and the increasing development of greenfield land in and around our villages and towns.

And with the significant increase in Labour votes, it cannot be said that the UKIP rise is purely a protest vote.

With the district council elections falling in 2015, the message to the current Conservative and Liberal Democrat members is clear – watch out, there is a new force in local government, one with an unprecedented rise in voter popularity.

MARTIN DALE

Stane Street Close, Codmore Hill, Pulborough