Exeter’s electors go to the polls on Thursday to elect seventeen people to represent them on the city council.
By the time the ballot takes place on 5 May Labour will have been in control of the city for ten straight years, making it what the Electoral Reform Society calls a “one party council” with “weak electoral accountability” which greatly increases the likelihood of cronyism, corruption and spending decisions which offer poor value for public money.
Regular readers will have seen our critique of the ruling party’s campaign claims in a series of articles examining Exeter’s housing crisis, its city centre and wider economy and its response to the climate crisis.
We also assessed last year’s attendance figures for public council meetings as a measure of councillor commitment to their constituents and examined Exeter Labour claims about the city’s council tax charges.
Today we offer an insider’s guide to who’s standing where in the city, wards to watch, what the results might look like and what they might mean. We also outline the context in which these elections are taking place and explain when, where and how to vote.
The Conservatives, Greens and Labour are each fielding seventeen candidates and the Liberal Democrats fourteen. There are also three candidates standing for the far right, anti-immigration For Britain Movement, and one independent candidate.
As last year, we will run a rolling results service complete with graphical analysis of vote shares and swings as the winners and losers are announced on the night.
Follow us @exeterobserver to stay in the loop and look out for our snap election results analysis the following day.
There are 39 seats on Exeter City Council. Each of thirteen electoral wards of between 6,500 and 7,800 electors is represented by three councillors.
A third of the seats, one in each ward, is normally contested in each of three years, with county council elections held in the fourth year. Each city councillor thus normally serves a four year term.
This year voters in four of Exeter’s wards will elect an additional councillor by casting up to two votes on their ballot papers: three Labour councillors have resigned and a fourth died in office.
In each of the Exwick, Heavitree and Pennsylvania wards the candidate who receives the largest number of votes will be elected for a four year term and the runner-up for a one year term. In the Priory ward the runner-up will be elected for a two year term.
This means seventeen seats are being contested this year: Labour is defending fourteen of them, the Conservatives two and the Liberal Democrats one.
However the ruling party has little to worry about: it only needs to win six of the seventeen to retain control of the city council as it already holds fourteen of the 22 seats that are not being contested this year.
Exwick, Mincinglake & Whipton, Priory and St. Thomas are all Labour strongholds, where the party won by margins of at least 15% of the vote last year after little recent change in party vote distribution. Popular councillor Laura Wright, who is also deputy council leader, is defending a Labour majority of nearly a quarter of the vote in St.Thomas, the largest margin in the city.
As Exwick and Priory are both electing two councillors, Labour only has to successfully defend its strongholds to retain control of the council. Council executive member Rachel Sutton is expected to retain her seat in Exwick and Labour councillor Tony Wardle is expected to retain his in Priory.
Naima Allcock, who was elected to represent Mincinglake & Whipton for a one year term in 2021 following the death of Judy Pattison, is also expected to successfully defend her seat.
Labour also won in Pennsylvania with a margin of nearly 24% last year, where high-profile pro-nuclear campaigner Zion Lights won a larger share of the vote than council leader Phil Bialyk in her first election.
The party’s vote share rose by more than 16% compared with 2019 in a ward which had been a two-way Conservative/Liberal Democrat contest until the 2016 boundary changes.
Pennsylvania is also electing two councillors following the death of deputy Lord Mayor Ian Quance. While Labour are expected to win one seat, previous results suggest the Liberal Democrats may win the other.
Liberal Democrat candidate Nigel Williams, who increased the party’s vote share by nearly 14% last year, is standing again this year. The Conservative vote share in the ward has been falling steadily since the 2016 boundary changes, down nearly 10% over the period, putting the Liberal Democrats on course to overtake them into second place.
The Greens did not stand in the ward in 2021 as part of an electoral pact with the Liberal Democrats, despite polling 24% of the vote in the previous contest.
However as there eight candidates on the ballot and each elector’s two votes are not cast in order of preference, vote distribution may produce unexpected results.
Duryard & St. James
Adjacent Duryard & St. James is also difficult to call. Labour councillor Martin Pearce frustrated Liberal Democrat hopes of three wins in a row there last year by increasing the party’s vote share by nearly 15%, beating Liberal Democrat Will Aczel by a margin of 7.5%.
As in Pennsylvania the Greens, who polled 12% in 2019, did not field a candidate. At the same time Women’s Equality Party candidate Bea Gare took 7.5% of the vote, slightly more than the margin by which Martin Pearce won. She is not standing this year.
The ward turnout was also the lowest in the city at 32.45%, possibly reflecting the absence of many of the students who now dominate it.
This year Liberal Democrat Kevin Mitchell, who was first elected to the council in 2003, is defending the seat in a four-way contest. He is co-leader of the Progressive group on the council with Green Party councillor Diana Moore.
The other group members are Liberal Democrat Michael Mitchell, who also represents Duryard & St. James, community campaigner Jemima Moore, who won a landslide in Newtown & St. Leonard’s in 2019 as an independent candidate after the council closed Clifton Hill sports centre and earmarked the site for redevelopment, and Green Party councillor Amy Sparling, who was elected to represent St. David’s last year.
Since its formation the group has presented much of the effective opposition to Exeter City Council’s ruling Labour group despite the Conservative group being slightly larger.
Green Party bridgeheads
Exeter’s key electoral battlegrounds are central wards which contain some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country and have also borne the brunt of a range of unpopular council policies.
These include allowing the unbridled expansion of the university to adversely affect residential housing availability and affordability and promoting city centre vehicle use despite its impact on air quality and the public realm.
Heavitree is the city’s most marginal ward. The Green Party’s Catherine Rees came within sixteen votes of winning there last year, a margin of just 0.005%, after increasing the party’s vote share by nearly 26% in the closest contest in the city in the ward with the highest turnout, at 46.7%.
She is standing again this year as the party’s lead candidate alongside Green Party colleague Carol Bennett in a ward which will also elect two councillors.
Last year’s second closest contest saw 126 votes separate Labour from the Greens in adjacent Newtown & St. Leonard’s. Support for Labour incumbent Richard Branston fell by more than 12% as Dan Grey increased the Green Party’s vote share by more than 30% from 2018, after the party stood aside for independent Jemima Moore in 2019.
St. David’s is Exeter’s most complex electoral ward. It covers most of the city centre, juxtaposing tourist hotspots including the quay with ex-industrial areas and part of the Riverside valley park.
Significant development is planned there as part of the Liveable Exeter scheme, where the Labour administration is already very unpopular for, among other things, approving the redevelopment of the Harlequins shopping centre for co-living despite promising not to build any more student accommodation on council land.
Labour has a history of giving up on St. David’s: Lewis Keen was elected there in 2016 when still a student before moving to London to take up a job in 2018, returning only to attend just enough full council meetings to avoid disqualification.
And Labour’s Robert Lamb, who was also elected to represent the ward in 2016, was absent without submitting apologies from thirteen of seventeen meetings at which he was expected in 2020-21 following an attendance record of 39% the previous year.
He was disqualified from the city council a fortnight before last year’s local elections were held.
Should the Greens win three of the four seats that are being contested in Exeter’s central battlegrounds the Progressive group will overtake the Conservative group as the principal city council opposition, regardless of the outcome in Duryard & St. James and Pennsylvania.
Should it win all four it will equal the Conservatives as the largest opposition party on the council in its own right.
Exeter Conservatives’ prospects in this year’s elections appear more predictable, notwithstanding the party’s current national standing. They currently hold all three seats in both Topsham and St. Loye’s.
Keith Sparkes is defending a Conservative majority of 23% of the vote in Topsham after the party increased its share there in the last two elections, and Peter Holland is defending St. Loye’s after coming within twenty votes of taking the Wonford & St. Loye’s county council seat from Labour’s Marina Asvachin last year.
Labour’s Olwen Foggin stood down in Heavitree to contest St. Loye’s in 2021. She lost to Conservative councillor Anne Jobson, who has reinvigorated the Conservative group since being elected, but achieved Labour’s biggest vote share in the ward since the 2016 boundary changes.
This year Labour’s Jane Begley has similarly vacated her seat in Pennsylvania to contest the ballot in St. Loye’s, after her council meetings attendance fell sharply in the second half of her four year term, in what may be an elegant form of protest at the direction her party has taken in the city.
Were it not for the Conservative party’s current national public opinion nadir, the local party would have had higher hopes in Pinhoe, where Cynthia Thompson is standing. A former Lord Mayor, she represented the ward from 2008 to 2012 then again from 2015 to 2019.
There has been a close two-way race between Labour and the Conservatives in Pinhoe for over a decade. In 2010 Labour won the seat by just four votes. In 2016, when all three seats were elected at the same time, Labour took two and the Conservatives one, with less than a hundred votes separating all three winning candidates.
Having beaten Labour’s David Harvey by just six votes to win the seat in a by-election in 2015, Cynthia Thompson lost to the current Labour Lord Mayor, Trish Oliver, in 2019 by just fifteen votes, a margin of 0.6%.
This year Duncan Wood is defending the seat for Labour, following a council decision to approve £100,000 of funding for a project – in which he was directly involved – outside the community grants budget.
The decision got the council into hot water with its auditor and nearly landed it in court.
Cynthia Thompson’s assiduous pursuit of the issue prompted a full investigation by the external auditor which found that while the council might have broken the law, the cost of taking it to court to clarify the matter would not have been justified in the circumstances.
The council has nevertheless since formally floated the idea of giving the project another £1.3 million outside the community grants procedure despite its business plan still being incomplete more than five years after the council funded its development.
Well-known Conservative John Harvey stood in the ward last year, when he lost to Labour councillor David Harvey.
This year he is standing for the Conservatives in Alphington instead, where Labour executive member Bob Foale hopes to keep his seat despite a narrowing gap between the parties: last year Labour won by just 93 votes. The Conservatives’ national woes may also affect the outcome here.
2021 elections: city vs county
In 2021 Exeter Labour fought both city and county council elections in the first electoral test of Phil Bialyk’s party leadership.
While Labour lost just one seat in the city council elections, to the Green Party’s Amy Sparling in St. David’s, its performance was much more mixed than this single loss implies.
In the county council elections it lost vote share in seven of nine divisions. The exceptions were in Duryard & Pennsylvania, where the party increased its vote share by just under 1%, and in Pinhoe & Mincinglake, where the party increased its share by a little over 2%.
The Green Party, in contrast, gained the largest increase in vote share in every division in Exeter except Wonford & St. Loye’s.
Johanna Korndorfer, who is standing in Duryard & St. James in this year’s city council elections, increased the party’s vote share by more than 12% in the county council St. Sidwell’s & St. James division, while Lizzie Woodman, who is standing in Mincinglake & Whipton this year, increased it by nearly 16% in Heavitree & Whipton Barton.
And in St. David’s & Haven Banks Andrew Bell, who is standing for the Greens in Alphington this year, won more than twice as many votes as the Conservative candidate, dramatically closing the gap on Labour’s Carol Whitton with a vote share increase of more than 19%.
At the same time Conservative Percy Prowse and Andrew Leadbetter, who is Conservative group leader on the city council, held Duryard & Pennsylvania and Wearside & Topsham comfortably despite losing support in both divisions, primarily to the Greens.
The Liberal Democrats’ best result in last year’s county council elections was third place in Duryard & Pennsylvania. In every other division they polled fewer votes than the Greens.
Independent community campaigner Kate Jago notably polled nearly 7% of the vote in Pinhoe & Mincinglake in her first election.
2022 elections: possible outcomes
This year’s elections provide a second city council-focussed test of Phil Bialyk’s leadership in the context of the recent simultaneous resignations of Labour’s Ollie Pearson and Chris Buswell as councillors in Exwick and Heavitree and Jane Begley’s decision to vacate Pennsylvania.
None had attended more than half of the council meetings at which they were expected this year. Ollie Pearson only attended three of the fourteen meetings in which he was expected to participate. (Alys Martin, daughter of the late Ian Quance, also resigned.)
The resignations alone have not caused sufficient unrest in the local party to lead to calls for Phil Bialyk to follow: a subsequent loss of several seats to the Greens might.
If the Green Party emerges from these elections with the same number of seats as the Conservatives then the questions about his leadership that are currently being asked sotto voce across Exeter’s political spectrum will surely become a chorus.
Nevertheless, whether Exeter Labour fares badly or well on Thursday it is a racing certainty that is will remain the city council’s ruling party as it heads into its eleventh year in power.
The bigger picture
Across the country 6,800 seats in 4,000 wards will be elected in 60 district councils, 33 metropolitan boroughs and 21 unitary authorities in every region of England as well as 32 London Boroughs and 22 Welsh and 32 Scottish councils at this year’s local elections.
100 councils will elect all their councillors, six will elect half and 94 (Exeter among them) will elect one third of their councillors.
There will also be six local authority and one metropolitan mayoral elections, a referendum in Bristol on whether to keep its mayor and the Northern Ireland Assembly elections which could have far-reaching consequences.
Labour already holds half of the seats that are being elected in England, following its strongest showing in a decade at the 2018 local elections when many of the seats that are up this year were last contested.
Turnout in recent English local elections is typically around 35%, although it was nearly 43% at last year’s Exeter local elections which combined the pandemic-postponed 2020 city council elections with elections for Devon County Council and the Devon & Cornwall Police & Crime Commissioner.
When a general election is held on the same day as local elections turnout typically increases to 64%.
Many factors contribute to low participation in elections, including increasing mistrust of politicians and the political system, the timing of polls and the First Past the Post electoral system, which has numerous disadvantages and is the object of active electoral reform campaigns.
Just 15.73% of Exeter’s 92,000 registered electors voted for Labour at last year’s city council elections, while 21.48% voted for other parties. Labour nevertheless won eleven seats and the other parties three between them.
The 2021 turnout was higher than in 2018 and 2019, but none of the elections held in Exeter using its current ward boundaries have involved more than 45% of the city’s voters.
Assessing the representative effectiveness of First Past the Post elections in Exeter by ignoring non-voting electors reveals similarly skewed seat distributions.
At the past four elections Exeter Labour has secured between 36.5% and 47.5% of the ballots cast but has, in every year except 2019, won at least 76.9% of the seats.
A fundamental requirement of a democratic electoral system is to accurately represent the views of voters, but First Past the Post often fails to produce this outcome.
It doesn’t even guarantee that the party which wins the most votes will win the most seats: in the 1951 UK general election the Labour Party famously polled nearly a quarter of a million more votes than the Conservatives but won 26 fewer seats, with the Conservatives subsequently forming the government.
It also means some seats change hands so rarely that they become “safe” for particular parties, rendering voting preferences in such seats all but irrelevant.
Around 60% of Parliament’s 650 seats are in this position, although recent national political realignments have begun to reduce this proportion.
It favours large, well-financed, incumbent political parties which are capable of consistently high campaign spending across all electoral areas and are incentivised to resist changes to an electoral system which helps them win power with minority support and helps fund them when in opposition.
How to vote
You must be on the electoral register in order to vote. Voter registration for these elections closed on 14 April.
Everyone registered to vote should have received a poll card which says where their polling station is located. Electors who vote in person can only cast their ballots at the polling station specified on this card.
The location of Exeter’s 55 polling stations, which will be open from 7am to 10pm on 5 May, can also be found by postcode search.
Any voter who arrives at their polling station before 10pm and is in a queue waiting to vote at 10pm will be able to vote.
On entering the polling station you (or your proxy) can show your poll card to the staff, or tell them your name and address instead.
You will then receive a ballot paper on which you can cast your vote(s) by marking a cross next to the candidate(s) you want to support in one of the available polling booths, before folding your ballot paper and placing it in a ballot box.
Proxy voters – registered voters who have been appointed to vote on behalf of another elector – must also vote at the specified polling station unless they have instead made arrangements to vote by post.
The deadline for ordinary proxy vote registrations had passed, but you may be able to apply to vote by emergency proxy due to disability or because of employment circumstances, in which case your application to do so must be submitted by 5pm on polling day.
Applications for replacement spoilt or lost postal votes can also be submitted until 5pm on polling day.
Postal voters can choose between returning their vote by post, in which case it must arrive by 10pm on polling day, or delivering it by hand either to the civic centre or any polling station in their city council ward before 10pm on polling day.
Nearly one in five votes are usually cast by post in local elections. Around 17% of Exeter’s voters have taken up this option this year, as last.
When all Exeter’s polling stations have closed, the city’s ballot boxes will be taken to the Riverside Leisure Centre so ballot papers can be verified and votes counted.
Records of previous elections held in the city are also published by the city council.
As the 2016 city council elections were held using the multiple non-transferable vote system each voter was allowed to cast up to three votes which were not ranked in any order of preference.
Because not all voters cast all three of their votes a precise vote share for individual candidates cannot be derived from the recorded results.
This also applies to two individual ward elections held since then, in Priory in 2019 and Mincinglake & Whipton last year, when voters were invited to cast up to two votes to elect two councillors at the same time, as they will be in Exwick, Heavitree, Pennsylvania and Priory this year.
Calculating comparative party vote shares in Exeter City Council elections over time is further complicated because the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats stood aside for independent candidate Jemima Moore in Newtown & St. Leonard’s in 2019, then formed a cross-party alliance which led to them standing aside for each other in a total of six wards across the city last year.
Consequently, a proportional share of the ballots cast for the leading candidate in each party in each ward in which the party stood has been used to compare party support in the principal city council elections that have taken place since 2016.
This is the best available method to enable statistically meaningful comparisons between the major parties in the city. Mid-year by-elections have been excluded.
Candidates from other parties, as well as independent candidates, have also stood in each of these elections.
UKIP contested most, but not all, of the city’s wards in 2016 and again in 2019, but not in 2018. Bea Gare represented the Women’s Equality Party at city council elections in Duryard & St. James in 2018, 2019 and 2021.
These smaller parties and independent candidates have been grouped together to simplify comparison. Where more than one non-major party stood in a multiple non-transferable vote election the best performing candidate has been included in the analysis.