UKIP were seen as doing well in May’s county council elections along the east coast. As we have seen, they notionally won three constituencies in Lincolnshire and the East of England. But they ‘won’ more in the South East. Indeed, they won three alone just in Kent. We looked at the first of these a week ago. The remaining two lie in the north east corner of the county.
Thanet is no longer the island it was in Medieval times: the Venerable Bede wrote that the old Wantsum channel separating it from the mainland was three-eighths of a mile wide. What is left of the Wantsum now forms the eastern edge of the district of Thanet, and is a tributary of the River Stour, which forms the southern edge. The largest towns on the ‘Isle’ are the seaside towns of Margate and Broadstairs, and the port of Ramsgate.
The two constituencies based on Thanet both stretch beyond the boundaries of the district. The Margate-based North Thanet constituency stretches west to take in Herne Bay and surrounding villages in the City of Canterbury district; the Ramsgate and Broadstairs based South Thanet constituency takes in the town of Sandwich to the south and its rural hinterland in the Dover district.
In the county council elections, Thanet proper was split into five electoral divisions, electing eight county councillors (one each in Birchington & Villages and Margate West, two in the other three). Herne Bay also elected two county councillors.
The remaining two electoral divisions we will be looking at were only partially in these constituencies: two-thirds of the Herne & Sturry division is in North Thanet and 80% of the Sandwich division is in South Thanet. Both of those divisions elected a single county councillor.
The Margate and Cliftonville division is split between the two constituencies: the ‘Margate’ 55 percent is in North Thanet, the ‘Cliftonville’ 45 percent is in South Thanet.
As the map below shows, UKIP won nine of these twelve seats this May, the Conservatives two (both the divisions only partially in these constituencies) and Labour one. In both constituencies, UKIP topped the poll.
North Thanet stretches along the easternmost shore of the Thames Estuary from Herne Bay to Margate, taking in Reculver, Birchington-on-Sea and Westgate-on-Sea along the shore. Inland, it includes the villages of Manston (with its airport), Minster, Monkton and St Nicholas-at-Wade in Thanet (the “Villages” and Herne, Marshside and Westbere (among others) from Canterbury district.
The constituency has always been Conservative, as have its predecessors (Thanet West and Isle of Thanet before that). Labour closed the gap to 2,766 (5.7%) in 1997, but this had widened to over 13,000 (a massive 31%) by 2010.
Despite that sizable majority, there is a potential here for UKIP, if no-one else. The long-standing MP (first elected when the constituency was created in 1983), Sir Roger Gale, is now 69 and so may be considering stepping down. Gale, a former pirate radio DJ and one-time director of children’s BBC, is fiercely Eurosceptic and it may be that UKIP can capture some of his votes if he steps down.
If he stays, UKIP will find this a difficult place to make the sort of headway indicated by the county council results which are shown below for the constituency.
Turnout in May’s county council election in North Thanet was 29%, compared to 63% in the last general election. There were a lot of Gale’s voters who must have stayed at home: the chart below compares the votes cast for the parties at these two elections.
South Thanet has had a more interesting electoral history than North Thanet. Up until 1997, the area had only had Conservative MPs, with Jonathan Aitken holding South Thanet since it was created in 1983 and its predecessor, Thanet East, since it too was created (in 1974). But Labour’s 1997 landslide, together with Aitken’s disgrace in the fallout of his attempt to sue the World In Action and The Guardian (he lost the court case a month after the election and was later imprisoned for perjury).
Given those circumstances and the relatively slender 2,878 majority at that election, Labour’s Stephen Ladyman did well to hold on to the seat until 2010, when A-lister toff Laura Sandys (daughter of Lord Duncan Sandys, the former Secretary of State for the Colonies under Macmillan and Douglas-Home) won it back for the Conservatives with a decent 7,617 vote (16.6%) majority.
The constituency, taking in the port of Ramsgate, seaside Broadstairs and Cliftonville and the historic Cinque Port of Sandwich (together with surrounding villages) still has significant levels of Labour support in the Thanet proper parts of the seat, particularly in Ramsgate. Labour currently runs a minority administration in the district and most of its members are in the South Thanet part: 18 of the 34 councillors (they had a nineteenth elected in the 2011 elections who subsequently resigned the whip). The remaining 15 elected in 2011 were Conservatives, although they have since lost two of those seats.
UKIP have two councillors here, one who won a by-election in Cliftonville the week after the county council elections (the other was a Conservative defection).
The chart below shows that UKIP won the most votes in the constituency in the county council elections (as only 80% of the Sandwich division is in South Thanet, its tally of votes has been scaled accordingly).
Again, turnout in May 2013 (31%) was less than a half of that in the 2010 general election (65%). UKIP would probably need to take votes off both the Conservatives and Labour to win through. However, like Great Yarmouth, this could make this an interesting three-way race to watch in 2015.
State of the parties
Finally, let us look at where the three parties (the Lib Dems are not considered here as they were so far behind) do well. Our first map shows that the Conservatives won the two partial (and one-member) divisions of Herne & Stury and Sandwich, Labour were just ahead in the two-member Margate & Cliftonville division (they and UKIP won a seat each) whilst UKIP were ahead in the other five divisions (Birchington & Villages and Margate West are both one-member divisions, the other three elect two members each).
The Conservatives are strongest in the two divisions that they won and the more rural parts of Thanet, taking a 20% lead over UKIP in Sandwich. They were weakest in Ramsgate (18% of the vote) and third in the Margate & Cliftonville division. They were runners-up in the other four divisions, ranging from being 5% behind UKIP in Herne Bay to 14% behind them in Birchington & Villages.
Labour were strongest in Margate & Cliftonville, where they won one of the two seats and were a couple of percent ahead of UKIP over all. They were second in Ramsgate and third everywhere else. Given their district council strength in Ramsgate, they must have been disappointed to have been 10% behind UKIP there. Labour were weakest in Birchington & Villages (only securing 14% of the vote), the only one of the five Thanet district divisions where they have no district councillors.
UKIP had a run-away victory in Birchington & Villages, taking 47% of the vote and beating the Conservatives by 14%. They were 10% ahead of Labour in Ramsgate and 11% ahead of the Tories in Margate West. They were first in five divisions and second in the other three. Their worst result, 25% in Sandwich, was better than six Labour results and two Conservative ones across the eight divisions.
UKIP will need to work hard to win either of these seats, but there is a real opportunity here for them. Their lead is not as great here as in Boston and Skegness, but is not insignificant either. Other factors will be important: will Sir Roger Gale stand down in North Thanet? Was their subsequent district council by-election win in South Thanet a flash in the pan? Can Labour galvanise itself in Ramsgate or the Conservatives in Birchington or Broadstairs in the three-way South Thanet tussle?
Another aspect is how local potential scandals develop: Sandys was a director of Security Futures with Adam Werrity, both Labour and the Conservatives on the council have been accused of financial shenanigans around the debts of a company called TransEuropa. Both may come to nothing, but a smart UKIP would be delving deep into these to try and capture disaffected voters.