Thursday, 13 August 2015

By-election Previews: 13 August 2015

Six by-elections this week in an unusually busy August, with two each in England, Wales and Scotland.  One of the Welsh and both the Scottish polls are caused by newly-elected MPs resigning their council seats.

Powys county council
Caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Christopher Davies, who is now the Member of Parliament for Brecon and Radnorshire.

"A wild rainy night. They are holding Clyro Feast Ball at the Swan opposite. As I write I hear the scraping and squealing of the fiddle and the ceaseless heavy tramp of the dancers as they stamp the floor in a country dance. An occasional blast of wind or rush of wind shakes my window. Toby sits before the fire on the hearthrug and now and then jumps up on my knee to be stroked. The mice scurry rattling along the wainscot and Toby darts off in great excitement to listen and watch for them."

That was the curate of the Radnorshire village of Clyro, the well-known diarist Francis Kilvert, being annoyed by festivities at the pub opposite his house during the early 1870s.  The Swan is now known as the Baskerville Arms, and your columnist can recommend it for a good night's stay in the Marches: a brisk 20-minute walk to the south-east will bring you over the River Wye to Hay-on-Wye, the second-hand booklover's Mecca and also the largest town for miles in any direction; while Clyro, just outside the Brecon Beacons National Park, is located in some spectacular walking country.

The Glasbury division covers a large area of a surprisingly remote part of the Marches.  The division is rather misnamed, in that while Glasbury-on-Wye is the largest centre of population this division only contains the Radnorshire half of the village; a rather better name would have been Painscastle, as despite having comfortably under 2,000 electors the division has the same boundaries as the former Painscastle rural district of Radnorshire, which was abolished in 1974.  Painscastle itself is a village in the north of the division built around a Norman castle which saw much action during the wars between the Normans and Welsh.  In modern times the division's population is relatively old, with high numbers of households living rent-free and almost 28% of the adult population being self-employed, one of the highest figures in England and Wales.

That self-employment figure reflects the division's remoteness from large towns.  Despite the area's historic location within Radnorshire, the main service centre for the area is Brecon while, just to confuse matters, Clyro gets its post from Hereford (over twenty miles away) and so has an English postcode.  Local election results in rural Wales tend to be just as confusing to the by-election pundit, as electorates are small, personalities matter and polls are often uncontested.  Such was the case here in 2004 and 2008 when Margaret Morris was elected as independent councillor for Glasbury without opposition.  She lost her seat in 2012 to the Tory candidate Christopher Davies by 51% to 30%.

Defending for the Conservatives is James Evans, who gives an address in the hamlet of Rhosgoch near Painscastle; he works for Davies as his communications officer.  The other three candidates all give addresses in Clyro.  Independent candidate David Hood JP, a Clyro community councillor and husband of the local postmistress, stands again after coming third here in 2012 with 18%.  Louise Davies, who runs a shop in Hay-on-Wye selling fairtrade items, stands for the Green Party.

Completing the ballot paper is the division's first Liberal Democrat candidate this century, James Gibson-Watt.  Gibson-Watt is a former Mayor of Hay-on-Wye and until losing his seat in 2008 was county councillor for Hay.  His family connections deserve a paragraph of their own.  He is a nephew of the former Conservative MP David Gibson-Watt, who won the Hereford by-election in 1956 and served as MP for Hereford until October 1974, later entering the House of Lords as Lord Gibson-Watt; a sometime father-in-law to the future Labour Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt, David's parliamentary career included two spells as a junior minister (at the Treasury under Macmillan and in the Welsh Office under Heath), while before entering politics he had served with distinction in the Welsh Guards in North Africa and Italy, winning an MC and two bars.  James is also a grandson of the former Eton cricket captain, head of the World War Two Special Operations Executive, director of the Bank of England and Great Western Railway and chairman of Hambro's Bank Sir Charles Hambro.  Not only that, James Gibson-Watt comes from a family which once owned much of Radnorshire; his father Andrew Gibson-Watt, his grandfather James Miller Gibson-Watt and his great-grandfather James Watt Gibson-Watt all served as High Sheriffs of Radnorshire or (in Andrew's case) of Powys; while his great-great-great-grandfather is none other than James Watt himself.  An interesting pedigree to round off an interesting by-election.

Parliamentary constituency: Brecon and Radnorshire
ONS Travel to Work Area: Brecon
Postcode districts: HR3, LD2, LD3

May 2012 result C 502 Ind 299 Ind 180
May 2008 result Ind unopposed
June 2004 result Ind unopposed

Caerphilly county borough council
Caused by the resignation of Labour councillor Michael Gray on health grounds.  First elected in 1985, Gray was the last mayor of the old Islwyn council and served as mayor of Caerphilly in 2013/4.

The village of Cross Keys is a classic Welsh valleys mining village, located about seven miles north-west of Newport at the confluence of the Rivers Ebbw and Sirhowy.  The village has recently been reconnected to the outside world with the reopening of Crosskeys railway station, with hourly trains to Ebbw Vale and Cardiff.  The division also includes the village of Pontywaun, the next village to the north along the Ebbw valley.

There's not much to see here in terms of previous results: Gray had thirty years continuous' service as councillor for the village and there is nothing to indicate that Labour won't hold the seat very easily.  At the most recent election in 2012 Labour had 55% here, with an independent candidate coming in second on 28%.

The defending Labour candidate is Julan Simmonds of Cross Keys, a governor at the local Waunfawr Primary School; he is opposed by the regular local Plaid candidate, Pontywaun resident Christopher Cook, and by the division's first UKIP candidate, Joe Smyth.

Parliamentary and Assembly constituency: Islwyn
ONS Travel to Work Area: Newport and Cwmbran
Postcode district: NP11

May 2012 result Lab 543 Ind 281 PC 126 C 39
May 2008 result Lab 531 PC 291 C 125 Ind 115
June 2004 result Lab 749 PC 195 C 108

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