CAN the Conservatives loosen Labour’s hold on RMBC to regain their position as Rotherham Council’s main opposition?
It is one of the many questions to be answered by tomorrow night as local politics in the borough enters a new era, following yesterday’s long-awaited polls.
Five years ago the elections were a major stepping stone to returning democracy to Rotherham; this year’s polls – delayed from May 2020 – are a little step to returning normality to everywhere.
The Tories will be hopeful of sweeping up a little more of the red wall rubble kicking about from the general election of 2019, when Alexander Stafford made history by becoming Rother Valley MP.
The council’s current opposition, Rotherham Democratic Party – elected as UKIP on a wave of anti-EU feeling in 2016 – will discover how focusing on local issues has fared. While they might split the right-of-centre vote in Labour’s favour in places, there are some key battles they will fancy against the ruling party.
Other parties, including the Liberal Democrats and Greens, are fielding more candidates than ever amid changes in boundaries, political opinion and the way the count will work.
The local elections were delayed from last year, and the pandemic is still having an effect.
Normally, an all-nighter at Magna settles the results. This time, the votes were only verified overnight, with the count to take place over four sessions – two today and two tomorrow.
Five years have passed since the last Tory seat fell, when deputy mayor Chris Middleton was ousted. But confidence is high.
The late afternoon session today includes five Rother Valley wards, which will show the extent of the Stafford effect.
The Conservatives will be hoping to help themselves to plenty of the seats available across Anston & Woodsetts, Aston & Todwick, Dinnington, Thurcoft & Wickersley South and Wales. Success in Bramley & Ravenfield ward could symbolise an incursion into MP John Healey’s Wentworth & Dearne territory too.
But Anston & Woodsetts has arguably the only “true” independent currently sitting on RMBC (having been elected as such) in Clive Jepson. The independent options in Dinnington, Dave Smith and Jean Hart, were enough for RDP to decide not to field candidates against them. Wales ward (at least before the borders changed) boasted two cabinet members among its three Labour councillors, and fighting for RDP in Thurcroft & Wickersley South are Cllrs Brian Cutts and John Turner, who both once belonged to the Tory party. Cllr Alan Napper will hope to defend Bramley & Ravenfield for RDP.
Labour are fielding deputy leader Cllr Gordon Watson (formerly of Wales) in Dinnington, alongside incumbent councillors John Vjestica and Jeanette Mallinder, the mayoress.
Also in the later session today is Brinsworth ward, where Cllr Adam Carter – RMBC’s only Lib Dem at present – hopes to defend his seat, while wife Charlotte is among the other candidates.
Before all this is the early afternoon session, including heavyweight battles featuring RMBC’s leader and opposition leader.
Sitwell ward – traditionally Tory but a clean sweep for UKIP last time out – is shaping up to be the most hotly-contested skirmish of the weekend.
Twelve candidates are vying for the three seats, including RDP leader Cllr Allen Cowles, and Cllr Peter Short, who is back with his former colleagues in the main opposition after a stint as an independent following his anger at UKIP’s dalliance with Tommy Robinson.
Labour have targeted gains here, with extra focus during the election campaign, but the Conservatives are keen to make up for lost votes here, too. Independent Mick Bower and Lib Dem Colin Taylor are also aiming to have a say among a congested field.
Wickersley North sees a highly-placed Labour trio defending their places in the town hall chamber. Leader Cllr Chris Read, cabinet member Cllr Emma Hoddinott and chairman of licensing (but not pensions) Cllr Sue Ellis will aim to fend off the RDP challenge of Rob Felstead, Les Hince and Tracy Green, plus three others.
Wickersley voters have not been afraid to make a stand against a council leader – notably ditching Keith Billington in 2000.
Labour drafted in regional mayor and Barnsley MP Dan Jarvis for some last-minute campaign, as the ward was one of four singled out for a last push on the door-knocking front yesterday, along with Hellaby & Maltby East, Maltby West and Dinnington.
Over at Rotherham East, Labour incumbents Wendy Cooksey and Tajamal Khan might seem comfortable for two of the three seats. But this is a spot where UKIP missed out on a seat here by just 54 votes in 2016. Boundary changes have made this the home ward of Cllr Kath Reeder (RDP), who has represented Valley during the last term.
Through a variety of reasons, Labour has shed eight seats since the whole borough went to the polls in 2016. A half-time result of 20-plus seats from the 37 being announced today would put them on course for the type of majority we usually see in Rotherham. The second half kicks off at 10am tomorrow.
SESSION 1 (Count starts 1pm)
BOSTON CASTLE (3 seats)
ROTHERHAM EAST (3)
ROTHERHAM WEST (3)
WICKERLSEY NORTH (3)
SESSION 2 (Count starts 4.30pm approx.)
ANSTON & WOODSETTS (3)
ASTON & TODWICK (2)
BRAMLEY & RAVENFIELD (2)
THURCROFT & WICKERSLEY (2)