Camden: Greens strengthen grip on Highgate ward seat

Camden: Greens strengthen grip on Highgate ward seat

London’s Green Party is celebrating a big victory in yesterday’s Highgate ward by-election for Camden Council after their candidate Lorna Jane Russell held the seat vacated by Sian Berry with an impressive swing in their favour.

There are some places where the boundaries of the London boroughs make little sense, and Highgate is one of them. The border between Camden and Haringey runs down the middle of Highgate High Street, dividing the old village and its residential neighbourhoods into two or three: go down the hill towards Archway and you are soon in Islington.

Camden’s share of Highgate village, lying south of the High Street, is small but beautiful and historic. Lanes lead out onto Hampstead Heath, towards the ponds and Kenwood. Swain’s Lane and Highgate West Hill slope steeply down. The ward contains several areas of historical and architectural interest.

The most distinctive is the 1920s mock-Tudor Holly Lodge Estate, developed on the site of the stately home of Angela Burdett-Coutts. It was intended to be a sort of garden suburb representing different classes, and to some extent it still does – the houses are part of the private trust and Camden took over the management of the blocks of flats in the 1960s.

A more recent model development is the Whittington Estate, also known as Highgate New Town, a modernist concrete utopia built to low rise and high density standards in the 1970s. The southern slopes of Highgate Hill are known as much for the dead as for the living, as Highgate Cemetery occupies two large areas to the north and east of Holly Lodge. Residents include Karl Marx, George Michael and Douglas Adams. On the lower slopes there are also the desirable suburban streets to the east of Parliament Hill around Chetwynd Road and Dartmouth Park.

Highgate’s demographics mostly conform to the image of the area as a high-class liberal metropolitan neighbourhood: 60 per cent have degrees and atheism is the principal religious alignment. However, there is more social housing than one might expect – this solid foundation is perhaps why Labour has remained so strong in the ward and the Greens have been unable to get a grip on its representation.

Highgate has an unusual electoral history. Once upon a time it was a Labour-Conservative marginal, and it elected a Tory as recently as 2006 when Camden Labour were at a low ebb. But the politics of Highgate was changing, and two Greens were elected alongside the Tory. Ever since Labour recovered control of the borough in 2010, Highgate’s electors have returned a split verdict of one Green and two Labour.

As such, Highgate is a paradox – a marginal ward with three seats which seem to be safe for two different parties. Berry was first elected to the Green seat in 2014 and held it with a large personal vote in 2022, when she topped the poll with 1,967 votes compared to 1,460 and 929 for her two Green running mates.

Berry is well-known outside Camden as a London Assembly member since 2016 and a former national leadership figure and three-time London Mayor candidate. When Caroline Lucas decided to stand down as the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, the party’s only parliamentary seat, Berry, in July, was selected as the successor candidate.

Brighton’s voters are broad-minded enough not to be outraged by a candidate coming from somewhere else – after all, Lucas’s early electoral career had been in Oxford. But Berry felt it would be inappropriate to continue to represent Highgate while devoting her time to fighting a tough parliamentary contest in Brighton, and decided to stand down from Camden.

Four candidates stood in the Highgate ward by-election, representing the principal London parties.

The Conservative banner was carried by Wakjira Feyesa, who is new to politics and draws attention to his enthusiasm for his community, his veganism and membership of the actors’ union Equity. Camden Tories are an unusual breed, considerably more liberal than the party is nationally – they condemned Suella Braverman’s comments about homeless people living in tents as a “lifestyle choice”. But there was little chance of the once-strong Tory vote recovering, and they edged down to 240 votes (nine per cent).

The Liberal Democrats have never had much success in the ward, despite its apparently sympathetic demographics and their lock on the Haringey Highgate ward across the High Street. They were represented in the by-election by accountant and football writer Farrell Monk, who polled 84 votes (three per cent). Labour’s challenge was headed by Tricia Leman, a former teacher and volunteer with the Highgate Society

Lorna Jane Russell’s was a familiar face to the electorate. Formerly a Labour councillor for Fortune Green, she defected to the Greens in 2021 and was the second-placed Green in Highgate in 2022. She also contested the South Hampstead by-election in June. Russell lives on the Holly Lodge estate and works in strategic communications.

The issues of the campaign were wide-ranging. As well as Braverman’s rhetoric, there was a local incident in which waste collection contractors for Camden threw homeless people’s tents into the rubbish van in Grafton Way near University College Hospital. Camden’s Labour leader Georgia Gould conceded that this was “completely unacceptable”, but other political parties – particularly the Greens – asked how such a thing could happen. “INHUMANE” read the headline on the widely-circulated Camden New Journal on 16 November.

As part of Keir Starmer’s constituency, the election was also a focus for activism on the Israel-Palestine conflict and recent violence in and around Gaza. The environment, both globally and locally around Highgate, was high on the parties’ agenda too. With a liberal, left-leaning electorate there was also some discussion of the implications of the result for representation on Camden Council. Labour holds 46 of the 55 council seats, and its campaign was characterised by opponents and the media as anti-pluralist. “Labour look to drum out last Green at Town Hall” said the CNJ.

The by-election had appeared close-fought, as elections in Highgate generally are. But the issues and the intensity of the Green campaign made for a comfortable Green victory, even against a Labour candidate with a respectable record in the local community.

Russell polled 1,513 votes – more than she had received in the full borough election of May 2022 – accounting for 59 per cent of those cast, while Leman mustered only 740 (29 per cent). The swing was 14 per cent from Labour to Green. Turnout was 33 per cent, down on the 49 per cent engagement Highgate recorded in May 2022. Labour must be hoping that a lot of the drop came as a result of their voters staying at home.

X/Twitter: Lewis Baston and OnLondon. Photo of Lorna Jane Russell from her X/Twitter feed. If you value On London’s coverage of the capital, become a supporter or, alternatively, a paying subscriber to editor and publisher Dave Hill’s Substack for just £5 a month or £50 a year. In return you get a comprehensive weekly London newsletter and offers of free tickets to London events.

Categories: Analysis

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