Not quite ‘the morning after the night before’, considering the night before did not actually end until 4 o’clock this morning and I am now writing this at 7 o’clock in the evening on what is technically the same day, having just regained some sense of equilibrium – but you take my meaning. I am obviously still feeling a little dazed from last night’s ordeal but I wanted to quickly record a few impressions.
First and foremost, obviously, huge elation at having been re-elected to serve the residents of Billericay East for a full four-year term as their councillor. Really just a tremendous privilege and I cannot put into words exactly how it feels. The depth of responsibility that comes as a result of the faith residents placed in me is something I feel very keenly. I must just take this opportunity to record my thanks to my wonderful agent and ward colleague, Cllr Stuart Sullivan, and also to all those who supported my re-election campaign. I would also like to thank my other ward colleague, Cllr David Dadds, for supporting me both during the election and at the count yesterday. Thanks also to my two other very special counting agents – my mother and my beautiful fiancée Nicole (both of whom are now famous as the Conservative ‘losers’ from the BBC’s coverage of the count – actually, they were just cream-crackered and wanting to go home!). Without the unstinting love and support of Nicole in particular, none of this would have been possible. She has literally been my rock.
In light of the results elsewhere in the Borough, I was really pleased that my vote held up so strongly and that I once again secured a plurality of votes. My UKIP opponent’s share of the vote actually went down slightly and presumably he knew the gig was up, as he did not bother to attend the count.
It was also gratifying to see my neighbouring colleague in Billericay West, Cllr Anthony Hedley, re-elected with a stonking majority. Following on from the retirement of Paul Arnold in Burstead ward, we also welcome Andrew Baggott, formerly a councillor for Pitsea North-West, back into the Tory fold as the new councillor for Burstead. I really look forward to working with Tony and Andy in serving the interests of Billericay. Congratulations must also go to Cllr Terri Sargent, successfully re-elected for Crouch ward.
Unfortunately, the good news for my party ended there and we saw devastating losses elsewhere in the Borough – not just of seats but of colleagues and public servants, some of whom counted their service to their local communities in terms of decades rather than years. In Basildon, we knew we would have a tough fight in the two Pitsea seats and in Laindon. In Pitsea North-West, a very kind and generous man, Ron Livesey, decided not to seek re-election due to personal reasons and I know he will be much missed on the Council by both colleagues and also by his constituents, whom he served so well. I shall particularly miss Ron. When I was first elected in the by-election last year to replace the late Tony Archer, I was seated in the Council chamber for meetings in Tony Archer’s old place, which just happened to be seated next to Ron. Throughout my time on Basildon Council, therefore, I have had the great good fortune to have Ron sat next to me, mentoring me and entertaining me with his witty asides. He has always been forthcoming with help and advice and I shall miss having him around. Luke Mackenzie fought a valiant attempt to retain Ron’s Pitsea North-West seat for the Conservatives but, ultimately, it was not to be. Similarly, we lost David Abrahall in Pitsea South-East, a respected councillor of long-standing.
We also knew that we faced a strong challenge in Laindon Park but, nevertheless, it is sad to see a councillor of John Dornan’s calibre go. John has been a colourful and often controversial character on Basildon Council. He is a plain-spoken man, who does not mince words and expresses himself clearly and with withering directness. His loss will have been met with jubilation from the Labour benches but, as I told John at the count, I am reminded of what the late Baroness Thatcher once said; “If they attack you personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.” Well, John was a definitely a politician whom the Labour Group truly despised and it was because he showed them up for what they are time and time again. For a politician like John, exiting the political scene to the sound of Labour members whooping and jeering is like an actor exiting the stage to sound of thunderous applause. He knows he has done his job well. He did it very well and I have no doubt he will be back before too long for an encore!
Possibly the saddest and most unexpected result in Basildon town was the loss of Sandra Hillier in my old stomping ground of Langdon Hills. I was fortunate to be living with Nicole in Langdon Hills at the time when I began to get active in local politics and cut my teeth campaigning with Sandra and her husband, Stephen, as a member of the Langdon Hills Branch. She was another long-serving member of the Council and I was very sad to see her lose her seat.
In Basildon, however, the result was probably worse for the Labour Party than it was for us. We had fears that we would lose Laindon and the Pitsea seats but our assumption was that we would lose them to Labour. This was Labour’s assumption also. They had lined up key figures for the two Pitsea seats (including one of their existing county councillors) and failed to win a single one. They were pipped to the post by UKIP everywhere. More than that, however, in the two seats they were defending in Fryerns and Lee Chapel North (and they would also have had a reasonable expectation of winning back the second Lee Chapel seat vacated by the Independent councillor who resigned prior to the election), they lost both seats to UKIP. With those losses compounding their failure to net any additional seats, Labour have now been reduced to the third party on Basildon Council. If I draw a single crumb of comfort from last night’s carnage it was the enduring memory I will have of seeing the smug grin wiped from Labour’s faces as the sheer horror of their electoral failure unfolded. UKIP also gained the Nethermayne seat from the Liberal Democrats’ Linda Williams, leaving her husband, veteran councillor Geoff Williams MBE, the only remaining Liberal on Basildon Council.
Of course, our most grievous losses were in Wickford, where UKIP swept the board. In Wickford Castledon, we lost Malcolm Buckley, the second-longest serving member of the Council (after Geoff Williams), Cabinet Member for Regeneration and a former Leader of the Council. We also lost Don Morris in Wickford Park, a lovely man. To our total horror, the Leader of the Council, Tony Ball, lost his seat in Wickford North. This is a catastrophic loss, not just for the Conservative Party but actually for the Borough of Basildon as a whole. Tony was a terrific leader who has served this Borough with great distinction and the loss of his inspirational leadership will be keenly felt by those of us who remain.
There is no point in denying that it was a phenomenal night for UKIP – to go from just one seat to twelve is amazing. All eyes will, however, now be on them – as they are the main opposition – to see how the Council moves forward. I think this will present particular challenges for UKIP, and especially whichever poor soul is lumbered with the unenviable task of trying to preside over this collection of loose cannons in the capacity of Group Leader. I think I would rather take a job herding cats. One this is for certain, it is going to be very difficult to secure any kind of agreements with people who pride themselves and seek to make a virtue of the fact that they ‘do not have a whip’. The party whipping system, for all its faults, was created for a reason; namely, to enable parties to function effectively as a group. This means collective responsibility and an ability to communicate a party line and stick to it. It is hard to see how any UKIP leader could make any guarantees – either to councillors from other parties or, for that matter, to the electorate – and inspire any confidence that those guarantees would be honoured; because, at the end of the day, by their own admission, UKIP councillors will individually do as they please. So, from the point of view of the effective running of the Council, securing workable agreements with UKIP as a group is going to be about as easy as nailing jelly to the wall.
We live in interesting times.