Three seats could tip the balance
IT’S been two years since Stockport voters last went to the polls to have their say on who runs the town hall.
Back in 2019 - in the days before Covid - the election count was packed with councillors, candidates and campaigners anxiously awaiting the first results.
And as the ballot boxes began to arrive at the town hall, word was that the Liberal Democrats were in for ‘a good night’.
Those murmurings were fully borne out as the evening progressed with the group gaining all five of their target seats four at the expense of the Tories.
In the final shake up it put them on a par with Labour, both groups having 26 councillors each.
Senior Lib Dems initially indicated they would fight to take the reins. But, ultimately, Labour remained in administration by virtue of civic mayor councillor Laura Booth effectively having the casting vote.
That finely-poised situation - with the council under no overall control, but run by Labour - has remained the case for the past two years.
Last year’s elections were, of course, cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But could the balance of power once again swing to the Lib Dems - or will Labour consolidate its position, having been at the helm since 2016?
Last time around, the Lib Dems were surfing the wave of a strong night for their party nationally, seemingly benefiting from their unambiguous ‘stop Brexit’ position albeit one that would not transfer to the general election just a few months later.
The group also took advantage of a collapse of the Conservative vote, largely attributed to the party’s natural voters’ dissatisfaction with Theresa May’s failure to ‘get Brexit done’ (as her successor would say).
On the face of it, a repeat performance would almost certainly see the Lib Dems back at the helm.
But the scope for Lib Dem gains looks much more limited this year.
The five gains they made in 2019 were all seats held by the Conservatives with exception of Marple South and High Lane, where incumbent Kenny Blair was a former Tory turned independent.
This time though, those four Tory wards - Bredbury Green and Romiley, Hazel Grove, Stepping Hill and Marple North are all being defended by Lib Dems, meaning gains are impossible.
Barring some shocks elsewhere, then, this election appears to hinge on three seats - Cheadle Hulme North, Marple South and High Lane, and Offerton.
And it is Marple South and High Lane which perhaps presents a microcosm of the factors that could shape the destiny of town hall.
Back in 2019, Aron Thornley took the seat for the Lib Dems.
The right-leaning vote was split between the incumbent Kenny Blair elected as a Conservative but running as an independent - and the Tory candidate Darran Palmer.
With the Tories also on the end of a protest vote, it created a perfect storm that saw Coun Thornley poll 325 votes more than the pair combined.
Since then, of course, there have been some seismic events nationally - and locally.
The Tories have won a general election on the back of a pledge to ‘get Brexit done’ and the country has left the EU.
And despite controversy over PPE, test and trace and 150,000 deaths*, the highly successful Covid vaccine roll-out has boosted the Conservatives in the polls.
It could then be a tough ask for the Lib Dems to repeat their 2019 victory in the ward.
What could have given the group an edge here was their long-standing opposition to the controversial Greater Manchester Spatial Framework which included 500 homes on green belt at High Lane.
But the site was pulled from the plan as Labour desperately tried to get it over the line, with Tory councillor Tom Dowse and Hazel Grove MP William Wragg claiming the credit.
And having previously refused to support a Lib Dem call to ditch the contentious plan, the Tories ultimately voted alongside them to reject the GMSF last October.
This will no doubt have played well in High Lane and other areas where green belt concerns are high on the agenda.
It left Stockport as the only borough to pull out of the plan, much to the anger and frustration of the Labour group.
The Conservative-Lib Dem alignment that brought down the GMSF in Stockport couldn’t have been more short lived, however.
Fast forward to February’s budget setting meeting and you find Lib Dem leader Coun Mark Hunter railing against a LabourTory ‘unholy alliance’.
His group’s amendment proposing an increase in delegated ward budgets had been blocked, while the Tory’s free-parking proposals met with Labour’s blessing.
Clearly furious, he raged: “Sometimes it’s not what you say, it’s who is saying it and I’m afraid that’s increasingly the case here in Stockport.”
His comments reflect a widely-held Lib Dem grievance that alleges the Labour group is happy to go easy on the Tories as it helps keep them in the town hall driving seat.
Coun Hunter had previously accused Labour and the Tories of working ‘hand-in-glove’, claiming they were united by their ‘mutual dislike of the Liberal Democrats’.
In the other two key seats, however, it looks to be a straight shoot-out between Labour and the Lib Dems.
Cheadle Hulme North will be another crucial battleground for both parties.
Coun David Meller famously took one of the ward’s three seats for Labour by just two votes in 2018, although the Lib Dems’ Tom Morrison
Barring some shocks elsewhere, this election appears to hinge on three seats
won the seat comfortably the following year.
Next month’s election is something of an unknown quantity, with Lib Dem stalwart Coun John Pantall retiring after 42 years.
Jilly Julian will hope to pick up where he left off, but is sure to face strong opposition from Labour’s Rachel Wise, who also stood for Labour in 2019.
Another key figure retiring in May is Offerton’s only Labour councillor - former mayor Coun Laura Booth.
Intriguingly, however, Coun Booth won her seat in 2016 while standing as a Lib Dem. It remains to be seen whether Joe Barratt - of Foodie Friday fame - will be able to hold Offerton for Labour, or if voters will make it a clean sweep for the Lib Dems by returning Oliver Harrison.
It seems almost certain Stockport will remain under no overall control for another 12 months, with neither Labour or the Lib Dems likely to emerge with a majority.
But who will be the biggest party come the end of the night is almost impossible to call.
It could well fall to the current third largest group - the Conservatives - to act as `kingmakers’ should deals need to be done once all the votes are in.
*Government figure for deaths with Covid-19 on the death certificate, April 15 2021.