The Liz Truss era passed without a single local authority by-election in London, which was probably a relief for the capital’s Conservatives, although Tories did less badly than they might have in several local elections elsewhere even as their national poll ratings collapsed, and Rishi Sunak’s rise to power has blown some of the froth off Labour’s lead.
But the Tories remain in deep trouble. Yesterday’s by-election in the Selsdon Vale & Forestdale ward of Croydon – one of relatively few rhyming electoral units – was the first test of London’s political temperature under the third Prime Minister of a council term which only began in May.
The contest was needed following the death of incumbent Conservative councillor Badsha Quadir, who had represented ward since May and served for 12 years before that as a member for a Purley ward.
Selsdon Vale & Forestdale is one of the safest Conservative wards in Croydon. At the last two full council elections the Tory share of the vote was 62% (in 2018) and 67% (May 2022). Labour were runners-up with 20% and 16% respectively. It is not the most luxurious-looking area of suburbia, being composed largely of 1960s and 1970s privately developed estates, but it is comfortable enough.
Forestdale appears to be an entirely artificial name invented by the property developers in the 1960s but although Selsdon is an older name, its fame dates back to the same period. The ward includes the Selsdon Park Hotel site – currently closed for redevelopment and due to open before long as another plush leisure establishment run by Birch. Back in February 1970 the Conservative shadow cabinet, led by Edward Heath, met there for what would now be described as an “offsite” – a weekend meeting to thrash out their approach for the forthcoming general election.
The Selsdon gathering signalled a turn towards a more free-market version of Conservatism than the middle road taken by the previous Tory governments under Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home. Reginald Maudling, shadow Foreign Secretary, languidly pointed out that they did not have an answer to the problem of inflation, but nobody seemed to be listening.
Selsdon was made famous by Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who warned that “Selsdon Man” was “designing a system of society for the ruthless and the pushing, the uncaring”. If the Tories won the forthcoming election, Wilson claimed, they would “make life dearer for the many” by raising indirect taxes and food prices, cutting welfare services down “to means-tested levels” and pushing up rents “in a free-for-all in housing”.
Wilson’s nickname alluded to the infamous Piltdown Man, supposedly a missing link in human evolution but actually a forgery made from a human skull and bones from an orangutang and a chimpanzee. The Tories won power in June 1970, but Selsdon Man was a similarly incoherent mixture and the government ended up reversing course after massive tax cuts in 1972 sparked an inflationary boom that came to grief in 1974.
Today, the Forestdale area is in the Labour-held Croydon Central parliamentary seat, while Selsdon Vale is in Conservative Croydon South, whose MP Chris Philp was briefly chief secretary to the treasury under Kwasi Kwarteng.
The Selsdon Vale & Forestdale by-election took place in the aftermath of a recent administration leaving power amid messed up public finances and the dubious legacy of a previous leader, of whose tenure it has been said:
“There was a clear desire to pursue an ambitious growth agenda… and when elements of this growth could not be realised, rather than increased caution, it seems there was a continued desire to accentuate the positive.”
That might sound like a damning verdict on the Truss administration, but was actually a judgment about Labour’s stewardship of Croydon before it lost power there earlier this year.
Five candidates stepped up to fight for the votes of 2022’s Selsdon Man (and Woman). Social care manager Fatima Zaman, who contested Addiscombe West ward in May, defended for the Conservatives, and Tom Bowell stood for Labour. George Holland carried the Liberal Democrat standard and the Green candidate was Peter Underwood, who ran for Mayor of Croydon in May.
There was also Independent candidate Andrew Pelling, a familiar figure in Croydon politics who won his first council election in 1982 as a Conservative. He later secured a seat on the London Assembly (2000-08) and became MP for Croydon Central in 2005, defending it unsuccessfully in 2010 as an Independent. He subsequently served as a Labour councillor (2014-22) but fell out with the local leadership.
Although there were prominent national and borough level issues overshadowing the contest, there were also local political arguments about development – inevitably, given the ward’s location on the edge of London’s built-up area. Residents of 50-year old private housing of limited architectural charm tended to the view that further building would be appalling.
The Conservatives would have been doing badly, even by recent standards, to lose such a safe ward. They duly held on, although with a big tumble in their share of the vote. Zaman (pictured) was elected with 983 votes – 46%, a drop of 21 points since May.
The Greens, who put some effort into their campaign, were rewarded with second place and 530 votes (25%). Labour’s 372 votes (18%) represented a small increase in the party’s vote share – not a bad result given the local background and the Greens’ momentum. Pelling came fourth with 168 votes (8%) and the Lib Dems, for whom this has never been good territory, brought up the rear with 72 votes (3%). Turnout at 30% was fairly typical for a suburban council by-election.
Executive power in Croydon is held by Jason Perry, the Conservative who won the borough’s inaugural mayoral election, but council membership is finely balanced between 33 Conservatives (including this seat and Mayor Perry), 34 Labour, two Greens and one Lib Dem.
Zaman’s win will therefore be welcome among the ruling group at the Town Hall. But the steep drop in the Conservative share of the vote does not give them much encouragement locally or nationally. The Tories need much more enthusiastic support from vote banks like Selsdon Vale & Forestdale if they are to hold on to power in Croydon and indeed nationally, given that on these numbers Philp’s Croydon South looks vulnerable.
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