The first votes cast in London during the 2019 general election campaign were actually counted last night. These were for a vacancy in the Fairfield ward of Croydon Council, most of which is in the key parliamentary marginal of Croydon Central, which Labour’s Sarah Jones gained from the Conservatives in 2017. The by-election result, a Labour hold, confirms the picture painted by national and London-wide polls that there are some close contests in parliamentary constituencies where Labour won narrowly two years ago.
Fairfield is the name of the ward in the very centre of Croydon. There were boundary changes for the borough’s wards in 2018, reflecting the growth of its population, particularly in its inner areas. Fairfield covers the space between East Croydon and West Croydon stations, including the retail centre and the concrete townscape around Wellesley Road and the infamous Home Office immigration office at Lunar House. Some of the resident population lives in Victorian streets around the town centre, but their numbers are increasingly outweighed by those occupying high rise, privately developed blocks of flats capitalising on Croydon’s good commuter connections.
Although currently smaller than average, Fairfield’s electorate is forecast to increase considerably over the next four years. Its pre-2018 version covered a larger area, including some more wealthy and settled parts of Croydon, and had been a Conservative ward with a gradually dwindling majority over Labour. The new Fairfield would probably have had a small Labour lead had it existed in 2014, and it elected a full slate of three Labour candidates with comfortable majorities in its first contest within the new boundaries last year.
Yesterday’s by-election arose in murky and difficult circumstances. One of the three Labour councillors elected in May 2018, Niroshan Sirisena, stood down abruptly on 24 September following what the local Labour party has described as a “serious incident”. Council leader Tony Newman confirmed that the police were investigating, but no further details are available.
There have been rumours that the original choice of candidate to succeed Sirisena was vetoed, enabling Caragh Skipper to stand, and some local members are unhappy. The other parties hoped to take advantage of internal divisions. The Conservatives ran a young and energetic candidate, Jayde Edwards, who is affiliated to an evangelical church, SPACnation, which is controversial with some. The Liberal Democrat candidate was Andrew Rendle, who was a Labour councillor in 2014-18 for the now-abolished Ashburton ward. The Green candidate was Esther Sutton, landlady of the Oval Tavern in Croydon. Independent and Women’s Equality Party candidates also stood.
Skipper won with 849 votes, followed by Edwards with 536. There was a small swing of three percentage points to the Conservatives, but that was because they lost a smaller share of their vote to the other parties, rather than because they improved their own position. The party that gained most was the Liberal Democrats, which improved its share by 10 points to 19 per cent.
What does the Fairfield result tell us about the parties’ prospects for Croydon Central in the general election? One should be duly cautious. The turnout of 22.8 per cent was less than half of what we can expect in the same area on 12 December, and local elections do involve different issues and candidates. Even so, the by-election outcome is in line with polling showing the top two parties losing support compared with 2017 and Labour somewhat more than the Tories.
Were the Fairfield swing replicated in the general election it would leave Croydon Central again poised on a knife-edge between a Labour hold and a Conservative gain. Labour’s struggles for tactical votes and a strong turnout will be vital if they are to retain it.
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