THIS year’s local elections have generated more debate and hype than for many years. Coupled with the European elections, thousands of people turned out in voting booths across the county to decide who they wanted to represent them on their local council and in Europe’s parliament.

With Labour hoping for big gains going into the 2015 general election and UKIP promising a “political earthquake”, local government reporter MICHAEL DAVIES was at the official counts in Crawley and Adur and Worthing to see what happened.

THE 2014 local elections could go down as the year Labour showed they could win in the South East after the party took back control of Crawley Borough Council from the Conservatives and added a councillor to their group in Hastings.

With the shadow of next year’s general election looming over the local and European elections this year the early signs were good for the Labour group after an overnight count for Hastings Borough Council showed they had increased its number of councillors to 24 compared to the Tories’ eight.

The party had extra reason to celebrate after polling results showed they had picked up increased support from the Tories even in seats they didn’t win.

Some wards saw a swing of close to 10% to the Labour group.

It was mixed night for the UK Independence Party, which saw a significant portion of the votes come their way but not enough to stop them losing their only councillor.

Following the result the Labour group took to Twitter to announce their victory.

They wrote: “Hastings Borough Council is now made up of 24 Labour councillors and 8 Conservatives - key general election seat held by the Tories.”

Jeremy Birch, leader of Hastings Borough Council, added: “Labour has done very well. It has the majority of the popular vote in the town. It's a very good bedrock to build upon.”

But the main focus at yesterday’s count and results was squarely on Crawley, which has been picked out as a key parliamentary seat for the Labour party at next year’s general election and with the K2 leisure centre packed out with councillors, candidates and supporters the tension was obvious as the count got underway.

Going into count Labour had identified four key seats – Broadfield South, Ifield, Southgate and West Green – with the party needing to win at least three of them and not lose any of its own seats to take back control on the council.

It didn’t take long for the rumours to spread around the hall with whispers of a massive UKIP surge sucking the vote from the Tory Party.

The biggest rumour came from the Pound Hill South and Worth ward, which was also subject to a by-election count after calls for recounts sparked speculation that UKIP was on the verge of winning its first elected representative to the council after its current councillor Karl Williamson defected from the Tory party.

But with the count nearing an end it became clear which party was on course for victory in the borough and the Labour group was buoyant as the results were made official.

Speaking after the win, group leader and new leader of the council Peter Lamb, who retained his seat in the Northgate ward with 821 votes, said: “Day in and day out we’re told by the Conservative Government that things are OK and the country is on course. When Ed Miliband came to Crawley on Saturday he heard a very different story. He heard of people struggling with a real cost of living crisis and we’re committed to now changing things for the better, dealing with the cost of living and over the next year we’ll show the difference a Labour council can make. We have also shown we can win in the South.”

He added the group would now set to work with officers to implement a strong agenda for the borough and promised to end evictions from social housing as a result of the bedroom tax.

In a by-election for the Pound Hill South and Worth ward Conservative Beryl Mecrow was re-elected to the council after a 2 year absence.

Councillor Mecrow, who has eight years’ experience as a borough councillor, said she was happy to be re-elected despite the efforts of UKIP and admitted some nerves prior to the results announcement.

“You never know what the electorate will do,” she added.

Speaking after the result, Pound Hill North Conservative councillor Richard Burrett said: “It’s a sad day for Crawley. I believe we’ve left the council in a better condition than we found it. We wish the Labour group the best but we’ll be a good, strong opposition. Today is their day but we can say we’ve left a good legacy so please don’t squander it.”

Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Crawley, Chris Oxlade, said the result had made him more confident going into 2015.

He said: “We’ve been out and spoken to thousands of people and we know the difficulties people have. In Crawley Labour will deal with these issues.”

And while the UKIP political earthquake didn’t bring the establishment crumbling down this year there were rumblings of momentum for the anti-establishment band ahead of next year after many candidates pushed the Conservatives into second place.

UKIP candidate Lee Gilroy, who finished third in the Southgate ward said the party had become the real alternative party in the borough.

"We've taken the Conservative vote and they've been wiped out,” he said. “Labour have got control of the council but where we've come from last year when we were relatively unknown now we've taken over the second place. It just shows that people have had enough of the mainstream parties and we've pushed the Tories into second place.”

Crawley’s only UKIP councillor, Karl Wilkinson, whose seat was not up for a vote this year, added: "We've generated quite a lot of votes and pushed the Conservatives into third place. Our share of the vote has increased and it sends a clear message to the establishment that people are sick of their positions on the bread and butter issues like immigration and Europe and they're sick to death of it."

“There was a lot of hype on the opinion polls but we'll have Labour worried as well as the Conservatives because this result proves that we don't just take votes from the Tories, we take them across the political spectrum. We'll soon be choosing our candidate for the general election and then it's all to play for."

Dr Howard Bloom, Conservative leader and now former leader of the council said: "We're very close in a lot of the wards and a small swing either way today was enough. Where the council goes is often dictated by the third party who take a proportion of votes from the top, which works for the second party. You just couldn't predict where we were going on this. Labour has been working very hard to try and get votes in the seats we're holding and we've been working very hard to get votes.”

In Adur and Worthing the result was slightly more predictable with the Tory heartland remaining faithful to its party.

The Tory group now has 9 councillors in Adur to go with 9 in Worthing and while they were mainly untroubled by a solid UKIP showing there were signs that the anti EU party had put itself in a strong position going forward with five UKIP councillors elected in Adur and one in Worthing.

Newly elected 21 year old Tory councillor James Butcher, who took the Churchill ward with 631 votes while increasing the majority from 1 at the last election to closer to 151 this time, said: “I’m feeling really positive. One of the things I want to stress is that my election in Lancing was about regeneration against stagnation. And regeneration won.”

The young councillor, who is now set to serve as policy advisor to cabinet member for regeneration Pat Beresford, said it was also reassuring the Conservative party had managed to elect so many young candidates.

There was also reassuring news for the Conservative. Analysis revealed their votes came from a broad spectrum of both men and women, aged between 20 and 70.

Councillor Neil Parkin, returning Conservative council leader for Adur and Worthing, said: “I’m delighted the people put their trust in me and this council. It will be business as usual in improving value for money and improving their services, that’s all it’s about.”

And UKIP made good grounds in a number of seats to finish second by slight margins while seemingly taking the vote from Labour.

Pauline James, who finished second to Conservative candidate Heather Mercer in the Salvington ward by 23 votes, said the day had been mixed but positive for the future.

“To come second in quite a few seats and win Durrington off the Conservatives we’re pleasantly surprised,” she said.

“We’ve done quite well and if you look at the majority we’ve lost by it’s very small.”

The European election count and results will be announced on Sunday evening and The Argus will be covering the event live from Southampton with a full story the following day.