Exeter’s electors go to the polls next Thursday to elect thirteen people to represent them on the city council, one in each electoral ward.
Our 2023 Exeter local elections guide covers who’s standing where in the city, wards to watch and what the results might be. It also covers the wider context, new voter ID requirements, the impact of using First Past the Post in Exeter local elections.
In addition an independent candidate is standing in Exwick who last year stood for the now-dissolved far right For Britain Movement, and another independent candidate is standing in Heavitree on an anti-Low Traffic Neighbourhood platform.
There is also a candidate for Reform UK, a right-wing populist party that was previously known as the Brexit Party, standing in St Thomas.
There are 39 seats on Exeter City Council and currently nearly 90,000 registered voters in the city. Each of thirteen electoral wards of between 6,300 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 consecutive years, with county council elections held in the fourth year. Each city councillor normally serves a four year term.
This year six city councillors are not standing for re-election, including current Lord Mayor Yolonda Henson who has sat on the council for a total of 39 years after first being elected in 1979. Her run was interrupted three times: in 1983-84, 1996-98 and 2014-16.
Independent Jemima Moore is also standing down in Newtown & St Leonard’s. She has served a single four-year term after being elected in a wave of protest around the council’s plans to redevelop the Clifton Hill sports centre site as luxury housing.
Labour is defending seven of the thirteen seats that are being contested this year, the Conservatives and Greens two each and the Liberal Democrats one.
However Labour only has to win in two wards to stay in control of the city council, a position it has been in since 2012, making Exeter 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.
Labour has five Exeter electoral strongholds where the party won by large and increasing margins last year.
Yvonne Atkinson is expected to retain her seat in Alphington despite the ward being the worst represented at public council meetings in the city, and Executive member Ruth Williams is expected to retain hers in Mincinglake & Whipton. Both have just completed inaugural four-year terms.
Martyn Snow, who was elected for the first time last year after coming second in Pennsylvania, which was electing two councillors following the death of deputy Lord Mayor Ian Quance, is also expected to benefit from Labour’s recent performance in a seat which was a two-way Conservative/Liberal Democrat marginal until the 2016 boundary changes.
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. Last year they returned to campaign in the ward and overtook the Conservatives’ ballot share.
Susannah Patrick, who came in third place last year in Heavitree behind the Greens, is standing this year in Exwick for Labour.
Jane Begley, who vacated her seat in Pennsylvania to contest the ballot in St Loye’s last year after her council meetings attendance fell sharply in the second half of her four year term, is standing for the party in Priory this year.
Both are also expected to win by clear margins.
Exeter’s key electoral battlegrounds are more difficult to call.
Labour deputy council leader Laura Wright nearly lost her St Thomas seat last year despite defending a Labour majority of nearly 25% of the vote, the largest margin in the city.
Adrian Fullam, who previously held the seat for the Liberal Democrats for twelve years and was city council leader for two, came within 44 votes of reclaiming it for his party. He faces Labour newcomer Deborah Darling following incumbent Hannah Packham’s decision to give up the seat, which she won from Adrian Fullam in 2015 and held for eight years.
After standing aside for Independent Jemima Moore in 2019, the Green Party increased its vote share in Newtown & St Leonard’s by 30% in 2021 against long-term Labour incumbent Richard Branston, who held on by a margin of 126 votes after 23 years on the council, then maintained its position last year against another Labour incumbent, Matt Vizard.
The Green Party’s Andy Ketchin hopes to take the seat this year following Jemima Moore’s departure. He is up against Labour’s Carol Whitton, who is Devon county councillor for St David’s & Haven Banks and leads the Labour group at County Hall.
The Greens also surged in Heavitree in 2021, coming within sixteen votes of winning after increasing their vote share in the ward by 26%, before winning two seats there last year.
Catherine Rees was elected for a four-year term. Carol Bennett, who was elected for a one-year term following the resignation of Labour’s Chris Buswell, is standing for re-election next week. She faces another Labour newcomer, Gemma Rolstone.
Labour frustrated Liberal Democrat hopes of three wins in a row there in 2021 by increasing its vote share by nearly 15%, but the Liberal Democrats regained more ground than they had lost to keep Kevin Mitchell, who was first elected twenty years ago, in place in 2022.
Whether Labour’s 2021 result was an anomaly caused by a combination of the Greens not fielding a candidate and the Women’s Equality Party taking 7.5% of the vote, slightly more than the margin by which Martin Pearce won, remains to be seen.
The biggest surprise at last year’s local elections was the Conservative loss to Labour in Topsham. The party had held all three seats in the ward comfortably for more than twenty years. Newcomer Joshua Ellis-Jones beat Keith Sparkes by more than 250 votes to the astonishment of all involved.
The task of demonstrating that 2022’s result was a one-off for Labour falls to Conservative Rob Newby, who has held the seat since 2003. Labour’s Matthew Williams must think he is in with at least half a chance.
Pinhoe was a close two-way race between Labour and the Conservatives for more than a decade. In 2010 Labour won in the seat by just four votes. In 2015 it lost by six votes in a by-election. 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 the three winning candidates.
In 2019 Labour won by fifteen votes. However its vote share increased significantly in 2021 then again last year following a council decision to allocate £1.3 million to a community hub in the ward.
The Conservatives also hope that their candidate Alison Sheridan will prevail in St Loye’s, where Lord Mayor Yolonda Henson is standing down, and which has previously been a safe seat for the party.
Labour’s Olwen Foggin stood down in Heavitree to contest St Loye’s in 2021 but lost to Conservative Anne Jobson, who has since become Conservative group leader. Last year Peter Holland comfortably saw off Labour’s Jane Begley, increasing the Conservative vote share.
However the party faces energetic competition in the form of Labour’s Jake Bonetta who, unusually, already sits on East Devon District Council, where has represented the residents of Honiton St Michael since a July 2021 by-election, when he became both the first Labour councillor to sit on the East Devon authority for more than twenty years and also its youngest councillor at 19.
He also sits on Honiton Town Council, to which he was elected two months earlier, and stood for election to Devon County Council in the same year, when he significantly increased the Labour vote share in Feniton & Honiton.
When Green Party councillor Diana Moore won in St David’s in 2019 she polled the largest number of votes of any candidate standing in any ward, the largest margin of victory across the city and the city’s largest vote share.
The Greens then won again in the ward in the subsequent 2021 city council elections when Amy Sparling was elected (the 2020 poll was postponed because of the pandemic) and again last year when Tess Read won the party’s third seat in St David’s.
The ward is the most complex in Exeter, including many of the city’s ex-industrial areas as well as its tourist hotspots, with student accommodation blocks alongside high deprivation levels. Significant development is also planned there as part of the Liveable Exeter scheme.
The two other seats the Greens took from Labour last year in Heavitree meant the Progressive group of Green, Liberal Democrat and Independent councillors replaced the Conservative group as the official city council opposition.
The group is defending four of its eight seats this year: were it to lose all of them and the Conservatives retain their current five, the Conservatives would regain their official opposition status. Among them Diana Moore, as opposition leader, is standing for re-election next week.
Across the country nearly 8,100 councillors are to be elected in nearly 5,000 wards in 152 district councils, 32 metropolitan boroughs and 46 unitary authorities at this year’s local elections, the largest since 2019. Nearly 26,000 candidates representing 153 political parties have been nominated to stand as well as 1,880 independents.
146 councils will elect all their councillors and 84 (Exeter among them) will elect one third of their councillors. There will also be elections in all eleven councils in Northern Ireland on 18 May which have been delayed by two weeks to avoid clashing with the coronation because of the extra time Northern Ireland’s Single Transferable Vote electoral system takes to count.
These will be the first elections contested under the Elections Act which requires voters in England to produce photo identification to vote in person at a polling station. Accepted forms of photo ID include UK passports, driving licenses and some concessionary travel passes.
The new regulations apply at local government elections in England, police and crime commissioner elections, parliamentary by-elections and parliamentary general elections that are held after 5 October this year.
Electoral Commission data shows that there was not a single proven case of in-person voter impersonation, the justification for the introduction of the restrictions, at last year’s elections.
Two million UK voters are thought to lack suitable photo ID. They were able to apply for a free Voter Authority Certificate either via a government website or their local council until 5pm on Tuesday. Only 83,319 people applied by the deadline, 288 of which are registered to vote in Exeter.
Exeter City Council is intending to place staff at the entrance to each polling station to check whether prospective voters have an accepted form of photo ID. If not, they will be told they will not be able to vote without one and invited to return before the polls close with valid ID if they can.
Rachel Maclean, a junior government minister, has repeatedly refused to say whether the number of voters turned away from polling stations because they lack approved ID will be recorded, enabling assessment of the impact of the changes.
Expectations that voters would register to vote by post this year in response to the restrictions have been confounded, at least in Exeter where just over 15,000 people are now registered to vote this way, an increase of only 300 on last year.
Many factors contribute to low participation in elections, including decreasing trust in 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.
None of the elections held in Exeter since its current ward boundaries were introduced in 2016 have involved more than 43% of the city’s voters.
Fewer than 17% of Exeter’s then 93,000 registered electors voted for Labour in 2021’s city council elections, while nearly 22% voted for other parties. Labour nevertheless won eleven seats and the other parties three between them.
Last year Labour’s vote share shrunk (along with Exeter’s registered electorate, which fell by 1,500) but this time the party won twelve seats.
The skewed seat distributions that result from First Past the Post elections in Exeter is also revealed by excluding non-voting electors from the assessment.
At the past five elections Labour has secured between 36.5% and 47.5% of the ballots cast but has, in every year except 2019, won at least 70% of the seats.
First Past the Post doesn’t even guarantee that the party which wins the most votes will win the most seats: in the 1951 UK general election Labour 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 there 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.
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 in 2021, when voters were invited to cast up to two votes to elect two councillors at the same time, and in Exwick, Heavitree, Pennsylvania and Priory last 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 in 2021.
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. The Women’s Equality Party also contested 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.