The Liberal Democrats have governed the London Borough of Sutton since 1986, winning an unbroken series of nine council elections – the first with half the seats and all the others with absolute majorities. Only seven of London’s 32 boroughs have longer-established party majorities than that of the Sutton Lib Dems.
The council’s current leader, Ruth Dombey, has been in post since 2012. Her party secured a landslide in Sutton in 2014 despite its national unpopularity at the time, and ground out a comfortable majority in 2018 despite some unhelpful local issues amid predictions that they were vulnerable to the Conservatives. But might 2022 be the year that ends this long winning streak?
Unlike the other councils with long-serving administrations – with the possible exception of Tory Wandsworth – Sutton’s Lib Dem hegemony is the product of campaigning and local activism rather than demographics. Newham is always going to be Labour and Kensington & Chelsea is always going to be Tory because those boroughs are full of the sorts of people who vote for their respective ruling parties. The Lib Dems have not enjoyed the same sort of bedrock support and to the extent that they have developed it recently, Sutton doesn’t conform.
One feels safe predicting Lib Dem holds in Kingston and Richmond because those boroughs are full of educated liberal professionals who voted Remain where the party did well in the 2017 and 2019 general elections. But Sutton voted Leave in 2016 and the Conservatives won both the borough’s constituencies in the 2019 general election, taking Carshalton & Wallington for the first time since 1992. Sutton’s population is much older, whiter, more lower middle-class and more home-owning than London as a whole, all of which points towards Conservative voting behaviour.
In some ways Sutton is a commuter town with particularly good links into London rather than part of the metropolitan whirl. It is a borough of several suburban parts. From west to east it runs through Worcester Park, Cheam, Sutton, Carshalton, Wallington and Beddington, plus Hackbridge and, to the north, half of St Helier, which has he borough’s main concentration of social housing. Broadly, the more affluent areas of each suburb are to the south. All of these, except for the very Tory Belmont area of south Sutton, can vote Lib Dem in a good year for the party, such as 2014.
The Lib Dem formula of incessant leafleting and campaigning on local issues compensates for Sutton’s unfavourable characteristics, but also has its pitfalls. Council administrations, particularly in the lean years since 2010, have to take unpopular decisions which can get them on the wrong side of local issues.
This happened in 2018 with the siting of an incinerator – never a popular neighbourhood facility – in Beddington, which led to three seats going Independent. The issue still smoulders away in the north east of the borough. The Lib Dem administration has also had its share of controversies – it frequently crops up in Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs column.
Furthermore, notwithstanding their comfortable-looking majority of 33 seats to the Conservatives’ 18, the Lib Dems were not a long way from losing their majority in 2018. Nine of their seats were held with majorities of fewer than 100 votes. Had all of those gone against them Sutton would have had a hung council with the Tories and Lib Dems tied on 24 seats each and three Labour councillors and the three Independents holding the balance.
Boundary changes in Sutton have created two new wards, one on each side of the borough. A new three-member North Cheam ward has appeared in the west, composed of territory donated from Stonecot, Nonsuch and Worcester Park, each of which goes down from three to two councillors. The remainder of Nonsuch has been renamed Worcester Park South. In the north of the borough, the previous Wandle Valley ward is divided into two – St Helier East and Hackbridge – and the previous St Helier ward is renamed St Helier West. The Sutton West ward gets East Cheam added to its name, presumably as a Tony Hancock tribute.
The Lib Dems will have to defend on two fronts in 2022 with very little room for slippage: there is the usual battle with the Conservatives that covers the majority of seats in the borough, plus a more serious contest with Labour than usual in Sutton’s northern fringe.
Labour last won council seats in Sutton in 2002 but have a realistic prospect of getting back into the Civic Centre this year. The party’s vote in the borough has been slowly increasing. Its share in 2018 was its highest since 1978 and saw the party come within 32 votes of taking a seat in Sutton Central, 46 in St Helier and 67 in Wandle Valley. Psephologist Adam Gray has concluded that had the 2018 elections taken place under the subsequent boundary changes Labour would probably have won a seat in each of the newly-defined St Helier East and Sutton Central wards .
Those wards, plus St Helier West and Hackbridge, are feasible targets this time, though Labour probably needs to prioritise rather than try for all of them which could end up with them missing out completely.
In Hackbridge the party will be helped by a new residential area, New Mill Quarter, a high-density development near the station of the sort that has helped Labour in other places, such as Fairfield in Croydon. The council-owned heating system there has had its troubles and the leader of the residents’ association is standing under the Labour banner. A couple of wards could produced split results: Sutton Central is a three-way marginal and the Tories did well in council-built St Helier West ward in the 2019 general and 2021 London elections.
There are three wards, accounting for nine councillors, which look entirely safe for the Lib Dems: Wallington North, Wallington South and The Wrythe, which is in the north side of Carshalton. On the basis of the 2018 numbers there are three safe Conservative wards, electing eight councillors: Belmont, Cheam and Stonecot. But even here, Stonecot and Cheam elected Libs Dems as recently as 2014. The gains the Conservatives made in 2018 were concentrated in the west of the borough in the Sutton & Cheam constituency, where the Lib Dems had been weakened by the loss of the parliamentary seat in 2015.
The remaining wards fall as follows:
Split between the Conservatives and Lib Dems in 2018:
- Worcester Park North (2 councillors)
- Carshalton South & Clockhouse (3)
- Sutton South (3)
- Sutton West & East Cheam (3)
Liberal Democrat but by small majorities in 2018:
- South Beddington & Roundshaw (3)
- Carshalton Central (3)
- Sutton North (3)
Conservative but with a small majority in 2018:
- Worcester Park South (2) – successor ward to Nonsuch
The new ward of North Cheam (3) should be marginal between the Conservatives and Lib Dems. Beddington North, predecessor of the new Beddington ward, was a four-way marginal in 2018 with the Independent slate coming out on top.
The Conservatives therefore have many routes to a majority. Winning all the seats in the currently split wards and adding North Cheam would give them a net gain of six, taking them up to 24. Beyond that, they need to gain four seats from five very plausible wards totalling 15 members. It doesn’t sound difficult and there must be hopes that the Tories’ gain of the Carshalton & Wallington seat in 2019 will tip the organisational advantage to them as it did in the other parliamentary seat after 2015.
However, dislodging the Lib Dems in Sutton is more difficult than it may sound. They have regularly done better in the borough at local elections than at general elections, and their campaigning and targeting knowledge is truly formidable. Any outcome from a comfortable Conservative majority to No Overall Control to a slightly increased Lib Dem majority seems possible. If you are looking for local election excitement in London this year, Barnet and Wandsworth are all very well but there is a cracking contest going on in Sutton.
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