Monday, 11 January 2016

By-election Preview: 14 January 2016

One by-election on 14th January 2016:

LAUNCESTON CENTRAL
Cornwall council
Caused by the resignation of former Liberal Democrat councillor Alex Folkes.

Launceston Town Hall and Guildhall
As the name suggests, this is the central of the three divisions wholly or partly covering the town of Launceston.  The traditional gateway to Cornwall because of its location on the A30 road, Launceston is an ancient town with a well-preserved Norman castle, which was a stronghold for the Royalist cause in the Civil War.  Today, Launceston (like much of Cornwall) depends on tourism, although there is some industry here including the Natural Fibre Company's woollen mill and a bakery formerly owned by Duchy Originals, and the town is sufficiently important that the ONS recognises it as the centre of its own Travel to Work Area.

Launceston Central division covers the town centre (including the bridge over the River Kemsey and the preserved railway station) together with some rather disconnected residential areas on both sides of the Kemsey.  It was created for the first unitary Cornwall council election in 2009; boundary changes in 2013 saw the division expanded slightly at the expense of both Launceston North and Launceston South.  Before 2009 the town as a whole had two Lib Dem county councillors and returned two Independents and one Lib Dem to the former North Cornwall district council.

Alex Folkes' first electoral test was in 2002 when he sought election to Lewisham council in London, but he was first elected to Launceston Central at the first Cornwall council election in 2009.  It's fair to say that his career on the council was a car crash.  During his first term he was repeatedly taken to court by his own council for non-payment of council tax; not that that stopped him becoming the Cornwall cabinet member responsible for finance after the 2013 Cornwall council election, in which Folkes increased his majority over the Conservatives to 71-17 and the Lib Dem group took control of the council in coalition with independents.

In November 2014 Folkes suddenly resigned from the cabinet, and shortly afterwards it was revealed that he had been arrested in 2006 on suspicion of possessing child pornography (link).  The council revealed this by writing to every school and youth group in Launceston stating that Folkes was a risk to children, a message reiterated to the press by the council's then chief executive who called on Folkes to resign from the council.  Folkes resigned the Lib Dem whip and tried to defend himself, but readmission to the Lib Dem group was not forthcoming.  The final straw for Folkes came in October last year, when he was prosecuted by his ex-landlord for leaving his former flat in a squalid state; after that he decided to resign from the council, citing mental health issues.

It remains to be seen whether the many controversies surrounding Folkes have had any effect on the Lib Dem vote in Launceston, but the loss of the North Cornwall parliamentary seat in last year's general election will not have helped the Lib Dem cause here.  In a demonstration that when history repeats itself the second time is farcical, when I put the name of the defending Lib Dem candidate Gemma Massey into Google I got ten links to a porn star of that name; however, the Gemma Massey standing in this by-election is a 31-year-old businesswoman from Launceston who organises networking and training for local businesses.  Massey is up against 60-year-old Conservative candidate Val Bugden-Cawsey, an after-dinner speaker and former cook-housekeeper to Princess Anne who runs a monthly women's lunch club in Launceston.  Also on the ballot paper are John Allman of the Christian Peoples Alliance and Roger Creagh-Osborne of the Green Party.

Parliamentary constituency: North Cornwall
ONS Travel to Work Area: Launceston

May 2013 result LD 551 C 134 Lab 73