Labour held a council seat in Barking & Dagenham yesterday in Heath ward in the heart of Dagenham, part an enormous inter-war council-built development that was effectively a new town to the east of Barking.
The ward is to the east of the Heathway as it runs directly northwards from the Dagenham Heathway District line station, and is bordered to the south by Oxlow Lane and to the east by Rainham Road North. It contains several educational institutions, ranging from William Bellamy primary school to Trinity School for children with special educational needs to, incongruously, Coventry University’s London outpost in the former Dagenham Civic Centre at Becontree Heath.
Many of its roads are named after British battles, including Glencoe, Marston and Naseby, and, more unusually, some after Labour peerages: Stansgate (that of the Benn family), Listowel, Kershaw and more
It has a mixture of different sorts of Dagenham housing: there are a few streets of 1930s semis and brick terraces as well as some higher density post-war council housing in the north of the ward. The inter-war housing was popular among right-to-buy tenants and the majority is owner-occupied in areas of the south of the ward, but the estates in the north are still overwhelmingly social housing.
The demographics of the ward have shifted considerably over the past couple of decades. Formerly nearly all white and working class, Heath is still working class but now has a substantial black population, mostly of African origin, and a growing Asian presence.
The by-election was caused by the death in November Labour councillor Olawale Martins at the age of 63. Martins had served on the council since 2018 and was deputy chair of the pensions committee. Council leader Darren Rodwell described him as “a great friend” and a “wonderful public servant”.
Barking & Dagenham borough politics has been a byword for stability for a long time. Labour has run the borough since it was formed in 1964 and the party has won 51 seats out of 51 in the last four sets of borough elections, starting in 2010. Some councillors have served for very long terms. Charles Fairbrass, who led the council from 1998 to 2009, represented Heath ward from 1971 until he stood down in 2010.
But even if the result of the 2023 Heath by-election went with the borough’s strong Labour tradition, the campaign was a break from the past in being a youthful contest between Labour’s 20-year-old Harriet Spoor (third from left, above) and the Conservatives’ 18-year-old Joe Lynch.
Both were local candidates. Spoor is a Dagenham-educated second year politics student at Queen Mary University of London, and Lynch is still studying at All Saints’ college in the north of the ward and is an active Young Conservative in Romford. Two other candidates stood: Kim Arrowsmith for the Greens, and Zygmuntas Adomavicius for the Liberal Democrats. Their respective parties did not contest the ward in the 2022 elections.
The campaign was routine. Unsurprisingly, given that they have used the same messages in two other recent by-elections in outer London, the Conservatives majored on Sadiq Khan’s planned extension of the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone. They also attacked the council’s introduction of controlled parking zones in the Dagenham area.
The result saw a significant looking swing of nine per cent to the Conservatives. Spoor won with 777 votes to 408 for Lynch, 41 for Arrowsmith and 26 for Adomavicius. The Conservative share of the vote rose from 26 per cent to 32.4 per cent, while Labour’s dropped from 74 per cent to 62 per cent. Turnout was an unimpressive 21.8 per cent, although that represented only a tiny fall compared with the 2022 borough election when it was 23.1 per cent.
However, before anyone gets carried away by the Tories’ improvement, we should note the borough’s well-established electoral pattern of Labour putting in its best performances at the regular borough elections, when the activists of other parties are so stretched they often don’t even stand full slates of candidates, let alone running a proper campaign in every ward.
The Conservatives’ results in by-elections and parliamentary and mayoral contests tend to be better. This was dramatically illustrated in May 2021, when Shaun Bailey and Sadiq Khan practically tied in the vote in Heath ward (then with slightly different boundaries) and Conservative London Assembly member Andrew Boff achieved a monster-sized 25 per cent swing in a by-election in Barking’s Thames ward held on the same day.
Joe Lynch did well, but not that well. He benefited from activist energy being concentrated on the contest – boosted by Conservatives from Romford in neighbouring Havering – which helped mobilise more than the usual amount of the latent Tory vote that has existed in the ward for a while.