Follow the leader out

Four council leaders were toppled yesterday as a series of shock results for senior local politicians in the North-East unfolded.

From left: Bob Fleming, Heather Cairns, John Herron and John Stephenson

Four council leaders were toppled yesterday as a series of shock results for senior local politicians in the North-East unfolded.

All three main parties were affected as opposition groups saw their "decapitation strategies" pay off.

Tony Blair's exit as Labour leader was pre-empted by his own local council chief, as Sedgefield leader Bob Fleming suffered a shock defeat to an Independent, losing by two votes after several recounts.

The Liberal Democrats lost Alnwick Council leader Heather Cairns, who was defeated by Conservative Robert Thorp, a farmer and anti-wind farm campaigner, in Embleton.

She said: "It's not a huge shock to me. If you are the leader of the council, you are likely to be targeted because that's the position people want to take away from you."

But the Conservatives lost two of their own council leaders - Tynedale's John Herron and Berwick's John Stephenson.

Mr Herron said: "It is a surprise. You never go into an election expecting to lose, but it goes against the trend generally. We have been unsuccessful in this particular skirmish, but successful in many others.

"Maybe they targeted that particular seat - certainly a lot of effort was put into winning it compared to other seats."

John Stephenson was defeated in Berwick along with his deputy, Clive Hallam-Baker.

In Newcastle, the leader of the Labour opposition group, John O'Shea, was defeated in his Newburn ward. He said: "It's not because of a lack of hard work. It's possibly due to national factors - the general attitude of people towards the Labour Government and how they're performing at the moment."

But Lib Dems admitted they had targeted the ward because it was held by Mr O'Shea.

In Blyth Valley, Labour MP Ronnie Campbell's wife Deidre was defeated by five votes, as three Independent councillors swept the board in Plessey ward. The contest reached a sixth recount, with the result announced at about 6pm last night.

Better without Blair, MPs hope

The Labour Party was looking forward to the post-Blair era last night after it avoided a predicted mauling in council elections.

In a mixed bag of results for all parties in the North-East, Labour will be the most pleased after suffering only limited losses in its heartland.

The party saw a clutch of seats tumble from its grasp, but Wear Valley was the only council where it lost control.

That was due to a handful of gains from the Liberal Democrats, who also bolstered their position in Northumberland by taking seats in Berwick, Castle Morpeth, Blyth Valley and Wansbeck.

But in a result typical of the swings-and-roundabouts nature of Thursday's polls, the Lib Dems' only council leader in the county - Heather Cairns in Alnwick - lost her seat.

There were some positive signs for the Conservatives, most notably three gains in Sunderland, where they bucked their trend of poor results in northern cities. But there was little sign of an imminent resurgence on Tyneside and they lost control of Berwick.

Labour MPs maintained the party's vote had stabilised and predicted revived fortunes under a new leader, almost certainly Chancellor Gordon Brown. Newcastle East and Wallsend MP Nick Brown said: "It's time for a change."

Tony Blair's association with the Iraq war was still casting a shadow over the party's fortunes, MPs said, with Blaydon's Dave Anderson saying: "Certainly there's been an impact from Iraq. In Gateshead they were saying, `Don't give Tony Blair one last favour'. If that's the level of dialogue people want to get into, it's no wonder I'm positive for next time."

But Newcastle Central MP Jim Cousins said the result in his own city - where Labour made a net gain of three seats from the ruling Lib Dems - was typical of the national picture. "The party is renewing itself with new people and new ideas building up strong Labour values," he said.

"I think the process of the party debating the leadership and the deputy leadership will bring a lot of people back into activity inside the party and refresh us."

Newcastle North MP Doug Henderson said: "This is a base on which we've got to rebuild the Labour Party for the future. We've got to look forward, we've got to have radical and progressive policies. The change in leadership is an opportunity to introduce change and look forward, and in that sense a new leader should give the party a bounce."

Tory frontbencher Alan Duncan, who was designated shadow minister for Tyneside, was unfazed by the party's failure to take a seat in the area.

The party had made a "respectable and visible effort" which would pay off in the long term, he said. He also argued the Conservatives were stronger in the North than Labour in the South.

Berwick Lib Dem MP Alan Beith said: "I think we are making substantial progress as a party. Even though Labour's overall picture was not as bad as expected, that has not stopped us doing well against them, and the Conservatives continue to have no real presence in the North."

I hoped to pick up one vote, says Tory who made history

A North Conservative candidate made an unwelcome piece of political history by failing to attract a single vote - not even her own.

Shirley Bowes was always up against it seeking election in the Sedgefield Council ward where Tony Blair lives.

But Mrs Bowes, 72, came in with an unprecedented zero. She couldn't vote for herself as she doesn't live in the New Trimdon and Trimdon Grange ward, and none of the 10 people who nominated her voted for her.

In the home of Trimdon Labour Club, where the Prime Minister has seen in successive election victories, even the most diehard Conservative would throw in the towel.

Yesterday Mrs Bowes, who lives on a farm in the quaint village of Great Stainton, County Durham, said she had stood as a favour to a friend, knowing she was in for abject defeat.

And it emerged last night that one of the people who nominated her was a stranger who voted Labour.

Mrs Bowes said: "I knew I wasn't going to win, but I hoped I might pick up at least one vote. I couldn't vote for myself because I don't live in the ward and I'm afraid no one else thought it was worth turning out for me.

"I never have had any true political ambitions, but I support the Conservatives and said I'd help out.

"There was no Tory candidate in the ward and when my friend, who is a councillor, asked me to stand I agreed so that at least the party was represented. I didn't campaign or get any leaflets done or anything."

The ward was won by Labour's Lucy Howels with 441 votes. Mrs Bowes fought such a low key campaign that she didn't even tell her farmer son Graham. She said: "He'd have thought I was daft, so I kept it to myself."

Paul Wilson, of Trimdon, said a Tory canvasser had approached on the verge of tears to ask him to nominate Mrs Bowes. "I never would've voted for her - I've always voted Labour - but I agreed to help him out."

Martin Farr, expert in British political history at Newcastle University, said: "I can't think of a precedent for this in British political history."

Tony Blair's constituency agent John Burton said: "I've been in politics a long time and I've never heard of this. We told Downing Street and they said, `Pardon'? They couldn't believe it."

Lib Dems give ruling group scare

Labour kept control of Wansbeck Council but saw its majority slashed from 29 to seven.

The Liberal Democrats were the biggest winners, taking their seats from seven to 16 with big successes in the Bedlington and Newbiggin, where they won 11 of 14 seats.

New party Fresh was also celebrating after winning three seats on the council just four months after being set up to breathe new life into Wansbeck's political scene.

Its candidates Barry Vasey, Victor Bridges and Neil Brannigan were elected in Ashington Central, Park and Seaton wards respectively.

Fresh fielded 17 candidates but party leader Simon Ferson could finish only fifth in a seven-way fight for three Guide Post seats.

The Lib Dems, who have suffered since winning almost half the council's seats in 1999, had hoped to double their total to 14.

Group deputy leader Arthur Pegg, who topped the poll in Bedlington Central, said: "We are thrilled to bits with the result, considering where we started from. ...

"I feel this is a message to councillors of all colours that it is no good just getting out and meeting people at election time. People in Wansbeck are more concerned about what Labour has done for them in the last four years and appreciate the efforts we have put in as an opposition."

Ann Fitzsimmons, who quit the Lib Dem group last December to become an Independent councillor for Bedlington, lost her seat on standing for Labour on Thursday.

Page 2: Labour hold on to Cutter's council seat
Voters brassed off with PLAN
Gates locked at council poll
Councillor for a full 50 minutes
Tories move up on Eden

Labour hold on to Cutter's council seat

Labour has comfortably retained a seat on Northumberland County Council left vacant by the death of a senior councillor.

A by-election for the Wansbeck Choppington ward was held on Thursday following the death last year of Coun Alan Cutter, the executive member for environment and regeneration on the council's Labour executive.

The contest saw Labour candidate David Nicholson poll 841 votes to defeat Liberal Democrat challenger Pauline Thompson by 430.

Mr Nicholson, who recently stood down as a Wansbeck district councillor where he has been deputy leader for the last four years, is a former chairman of the county council's planning and regulation committee.

Result :
David Nicholson (Lab) 841
Pauline Thompson (LD) 411
Majority 430
Lab hold.

Voters brassed off with PLAN

Parish council leaders praised by a Government adviser for their work were dealt a crushing blow at yesterday's count.

Voters in the Blakelaw and North Fenham area of Newcastle overwhelmingly rejected the Parish Leaders Against Neglect (PLAN).

It came after council leaders opted to nearly treble its budget for next year. Their leadership had been praised by University of Wales academic Graham Gardner, who was commissioned to write a report for Government on parish councils.

However, PLAN was wiped out at the polls, with voters electing all 12 candidates from the rival Blakelaw Residents Against Stupid Spending (BRASS).

BRASS candidate Anita Lower - also a Liberal Democrat city councillor - said: "I'm absolutely delighted. The people who live here have shown they feel the parish council needs to change.

"This is one of the poorest wards in the city, yet people are being asked to pay an extra £80 a year for a parish council and getting nothing in return."

Gates locked at council poll

Council officers have played down complaints from the electorate about access being blocked at a polling station in Sunderland on Thursday.

Northumbria Police were called about locked gates at Mill Hill Primary School in Doxford Park, which were closed at around 6.30pm for more than half an hour. Although they say they are not looking any further at the matter, they say they have logged the complaint.

One complainant said: "While I was there I saw a lot of people driving away without having registered their votes."

However Returning Officer Ged Fitzgerald said the problem was not a major issue. He said: "It was a temporary problem involving one of the two access points at the polling station at Mill Hill Primary School.

"The car park gates were inadvertently locked for a short period of time.

"However, the pedestrian access remained open and people continued to vote throughout the 35 minutes it took for the car park gates to be reopened. The Polling Station remained open and in use for the entire period."

Councillor for a full 50 minutes

Election candidate Bill Hobson said he didn't know whether to laugh or cry after "losing" his council seat in less than an hour.

Bill, 57, was hailed as the successful candidate for Stanhope at the count at Wear Valley District council, Crook, County Durham, at 12.30pm yesterday.

Fifty minutes later the Labour candidate and successful businessman was told there had been a mistake, and he had lost to Independent Angela Bolam.

"I received a call from a Labour colleague as I was driving back to my work, at Hobson Haulage in Wolsingham, to say they had found another ballot box for Stanhope and I was not in fact the winner of the election.

"I'm going to dine out on the fact I was a councillor for less than one hour, possibly the shortest time in office in history!"

"When I thought I had won I tried to accept victory gracefully, so I must learn to accept defeat with equal grace," said the father-of-three from Front Street, Stanhope.

He said: "I thought I would try to put something back into the community by standing for office, but it looks like it wasn't to be, at least not this time."

Coun John Ferguson, leader of Wear Valley Liberal Democrats, said: "This count has been totally disorganised and a complete shambles."

Tories move up on Eden

Conservatives gained four council seats in Eden district to end the independent group's majority at the Cumbrian authority.

The independents remain the largest group on the authority, however.

Carlisle remains in no overall control after Labour could only add one more councillor to its total on Thursday.

The party remains two seats short of an overall majority.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer