Divided we stand, divided we fail.

This is an interesting insight from Martin Shaw’s blog into the way our local democracy functions under the first past the post system. It shows how blind adherence to “old” national political allegiances and campaigning policies produces unintended, and counterproductive, consequences.

How Labour and the Lib Dems helped the Conservatives prevail in Seaton & Colyton, and across East Devon


After the sorrow comes the anger. In Thursday’s Seaton & Colyton election, I lost by 145 votes. Labour polled 306 and the Lib Dems 160. If either, and certainly if both, had stood down I could well have beaten the Conservative, Marcus Hartnell. I needed only one-third of their combined vote to prevail.

Both parties knew the seat was highly marginal. Both assured me privately they hoped I won. Both had ‘paper’ candidates. They did not campaign. Both knew, however, that with their candidates on the ballot, some voters would back them and inevitably take votes away from me.

However both parties thought that the opportunity to get a miserable share of the vote – by any measure, both 5.9 per cent and 3.1 per cent of the electorate are pathetic performances – was more important than getting a progressive, anti-Conservative councillor elected, someone they knew – based on my track record over the last 4 years – would vote with their parties most of the time.

Elsewhere in East Devon

Exactly the same thing happened in Axminster, where Independent EDA candidate Paul Hayward would also have won if half the Labour vote, or one-third the combined Labour/Lib Dem vote, had gone to him.

In Sidmouth, the Lib Dems were more enlightened, and did not stand against the Independent EDA candidate Louise MacAllister. Yet the Labour vote alone, 209, was still more than Stuart Hughes’ 170 majority. The opportunity to remove a Conservative cabinet member was lost.

It was not only Independent EDA candidates who lost the chance to beat the Conservatives. In the two-seat Exmouth division, where the two Conservatives got 7412 votes between them, the five opposition candidates shared 8164. It does not take much imagination to see that if there had been two, instead of five, there would have been a chance of edging out one or both of the Tories.

In Exmouth, the Independents (EDA did not stand), Lib Dems and Greens did at least recognise the situation by fielding only one candidate each, even if they failed to agree a common two candidates. Labour ploughed on regardless, and was rewarded with its two candidates coming in well behind the Independent and Lib Dem.

Labour’s moronic and arrogant approach

Labour’s approach is the worst of all these parties. Despite never having won either a district or county seat in East Devon, it continues with a ‘strategy’ – if you can call it that – of standing in every seat, regardless of how it benefits the Conservatives.

In this election, this resulted in miserable failure almost everywhere. The local party says that the national party forces them to stand – but if they didn’t submit their nomination papers, these sabotage, no-hope candidates would not exist. Still, local party officers carry on persuading 18-year-olds to put up in order to ‘get experience’, knowing it may hand seats to the Tories.

The exception to this story was Feniton & Honiton. There, because Independents and Greens did not stand, Labour got an unusually good 1491 votes, against the Tories’ 2094. If the Lib Dems hadn’t stood, they might have got closer. Surely there is a lesson here for the party – target one or two seats where you can reasonably hope to do well, and stop playing the Tories’ game everywhere else?

The Greens had a better strategy

In contrast, the Greens came near to such a strategy, deciding not to challenge myself, Paul Hayward and Louise MacAllister since we were poised to win in our finely balanced divisions. They clearly concentrated their resources on Broadclyst, and it seems only right that have been rewarded with their first seat in East Devon, where Henry Gent topped the poll and took a seat from the Tories. Congratulations!

The sorry tale of the Lib Dems – and an inside story of my Seaton & Colyton defeat

I have left the Lib Dems until last. This is in a way the saddest story. Unlike Labour, they acknowledge the need for cooperation. At EDDC, they are working well with the East Devon Alliance, Greens and progressive Independents to provide a historic first non-Conservative administration. In the case of Sidmouth, they did recognise that it was logical to help the Independent EDA challenger to Stuart Hughes, by not standing a candidate.

However in Seaton & Colyton, and Axminster, a different Lib Dem constituency party (Tiverton & Honiton) persevered with no-hope candidates. I can now reveal that this was despite the fact that the original Lib Dem candidate for Seaton contacted me to offer a deal where she would stand down in return for a joint public statement. This was not her private initiative – it followed discussions in the constituency party and she said that John Timperley, their 2019 General Election candidate, would contact me to discuss the detail.

She may have jumped the gun, because I never heard from Timperley, the party in its wisdom decided not to proceed, and a new candidate, Martyn Wilson, ended up on the ballot paper. I met him when he was leafleting. He too said he hoped I would win. I don’t know if his 160 votes, by themselves, would have been enough to tip the balance to me. But a Lib Dem withdrawal and a joint declaration might have had an effect larger than the numbers, benefiting both sides.

This cannot be allowed to happen again

Labour, the Lib Dems, Greens and the East Devon Alliance have a common interest in ensuring that complacent Conservative domination of East Devon, and Devon as a whole, comes to an end. This election was a historic opportunity to make real steps towards this. If Tories had been deprived of Seaton, Axminster, Sidmouth and even one of the Exmouth seats, along with Otter Valley, won by an Independent, and one in Broadclyst, 6 out of 12 East Devon county seats would have been in opposition hands.

Instead, as it was in 2017, it is 10-2 for the Tories. This does not reflect the way people voted. 29564 votes were cast for the combined opposition, compared to only 22265 for the Conservatives. We could have had results which more or less reflected that situation. Instead we are all grossly underrepresented.

Making first-past-the-post work for the opposition

Many of us recognise that the electoral system is flawed. But it is what we have, and we won’t get change until we remove the Tory government using the existing system. In the United States, where they also have the 18th-century system, the progressive forces – from socialists to greens and centrist liberals – unite in a single party. They have got rid of Trump. They have a progressive reforming administration both at federal and many state and local levels.

We’re not looking at a single party. There are strengths in each of the party traditions as well as in the Independent approach. But we MUST, each of us, look at the contribution we can make to a united electoral alternative in Devon.

I am proud that in this election, the EDA only supported Independent candidates in the 3 divisions where we were close last time, and knew we could win. We could have stood paper candidates elsewhere to boost our brand, but resisted the temptation, knowing it would only harm the national parties where they had better chances of winning. Next time round, this must be our common approach. Or Tory rule could continue more or less indefinitely … .

One thought on “Divided we stand, divided we fail.

  1. Well said Martin. I am so sorry that you are not returning to County Hall (even virtually). In South Devon we Greens did nor stand against two good Lib Dem candidates which gave them a clear run at South Brent where they managed to take a previously Tory held seat in South Brent & Yealmpton. The Lib Dems gave me a clear run at my seat. Progressive alliances work and the majority of voters would prefer to see the progressive left parties do this. We have to be responsible in this need to break the Conservative minority win pattern; politics at all tiers is not a game, public services make a real difference to people’s lives. This year on year of cuts and privatisation of local services means we have so many very able LA officers in well paid jobs but with little budget to do real work; I’m sure that many of these officers spend more time saying no or rummaging around for funding for projects rather than using their real expertise getting on with delivering good services. The tories at all levels of governance are a complete sham, they are simply Boris’ army chipping away at public services in favour of the private sector often linked to Tory party donors. We all need to wake up and work together. We owe it to the people we say we put ourselves forward to represent.


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