Fulham Broadway council by-election: Labour relief, Lib Dem surge, Tories abject

Fulham Broadway council by-election: Labour relief, Lib Dem surge, Tories abject

The first London council by-election of the Boris Johnson premiership took place yesterday in the Fulham Broadway ward of  Hammersmith & Fulham – a complex one, even by Inner London standards. Fulham Broadway forms an irregular rectangle on the map, lying between Fulham Broadway station and Lillie Road on the eastern side of this long, thin borough and meeting West Brompton station in its far north east corner. Its best-known landmark – certainly as far as political leaders are concerned – is the London Oratory School, attended by the children of Tony Blair, Nick Clegg and Harriet Harman. 

Fulham Broadway’s social make-up and housing supply is very polarised between mobile young professional renters and buyers and poorer families living in social housing. The biggest single element is social renting (36 per cent) thanks to several large estates – Peabody by Lillie Road, Vanston Place in the south, and Clem Attlee Court on the corner of Lillie Road and North End Road. Appropriately enough, the Clem Attlee block and others named after noted figures in the 1945 Labour government provide a solid anchor to the Labour vote.

The rest of the ward is mostly flats and maisonettes and neat, modest-sized terraced houses, with an increasing proportion rented (33 per cent) rather than owned. By Mosaic demographic classification, the leading component is “prosperous mobile single young professionals” (32 per cent), with another 20 per cent from “prosperous settled young professionals”, making this – if I may lapse into 1980s terminology – a majority-yuppie ward. For more about its demographics, see the council’s profile of the area.

Since 2002, Fulham Broadway has gone to the majority party in Hammersmith & Fulham borough elections: Labour in 2002, Conservative in 2006 and 2010, Labour since 2014. Labour’s win in 2014 was a surprise, as the borough, and this ward, were thought to be out of the party’s reach because of their increasingly upmarket demography. But a swing of 15 per cent knocked the Conservatives out and Labour took all three seats. The Labour councillors were re-elected in 2018 with another healthy swing, but then one of them, Alan De’Ath, stood down after taking a politically restricted job.

The by-election campaign was short and sharp. It involved only the three main parties – no others have stood in the ward for many years. The candidate defending the seat for Labour, Helen Rowbottom, is a project manager at the Healthy London Partnership who has previously worked for the National Foundation and the borough council on housing and health issues. The Conservative candidate Aliya Afzal Khan fought the ward in 2018. She is chair of the local party and an officer of the Conservative Friends of Pakistan. Jessie Venegas, a teacher and education researcher, stood for the Liberal Democrats.

There were some local issues, as there always are. Like most of west London – or so it seems to this north Londoner – the main roads in the ward seem permanently choked with traffic. The large estates are ageing, and the shadow of the becalmed Earls Court redevelopment pokes into the north east corner of the ward. One bit of the development that has actually got built lies within Fulham Broadway – a hypertrophic project called Lillie Square with 600 very high-end properties and 200 carefully segregated social housing units was approved by the very pro-development Conservative administration before the 2014 elections.  

Both Labour and the Conservatives tend to be well-organised in Hammersmith & Fulham, with its mobile young professional population giving both of them a decent-sized active membership. It has had hard fought local and national elections for decades. Labour are in the ascendant following strong results in the last two borough elections. The council under Stephen Cowan has continued the previous Conservative administration’s low-tax policies and emphasis on efficiency, but shifted the balance away from high-income high-density development.

Labour locally – as opposed to nationally – has carved out a strong pro-European political identity in a 70 per cent Remain borough, and Fulham Broadway has a trace of a French accent, with three per cent of the population coming from across the English Channel. In an alternative universe, it would be called Prime Minister Ed Miliband’s favourite council, just as it was David Cameron’s favourite up until 2014. 

Yesterday’s result was interesting. On a turnout of 31.7 per cent, Helen Rowbottom held the seat for Labour with 1,097 votes, a majority of 342 over a resurgent Lib Dems rather than the Conservatives, who trailed in third. The table below shows recent Fulham Broadway voting trends.

Vote share %

2010

2014

2018

2019

Conservatives

49.7

41.3

35.7

25.3

Labour

30.1

51.8

55.5

44.2

Liberal Democrats

20.2

7.0

8.8

30.4

It was not the only good Lib Dem result last night. They increased their vote across the board in all six by-elections held in England and gained a seat from the Conservatives in Taunton with a high swing from their already good local election results there four months ago. The national polls show that they have received a conference-week boost, but a result like Fulham Broadway was already to be expected. The party polled extremely well in this sort of area in the European Parliament elections in May and won the most votes across Hammersmith & Fulham. London’s electors have picked up where they left off in the last week of Theresa May’s term of office back in July. (Is it really that recent? As Lenin said, there are decades where nothing happens, and weeks where decades happen).

Labour will be relieved to have held the seat in the circumstances. They had a number of advantages heading in to the contest, including strong organisation, their local pro-European branding and a relatively popular (as these things go) local council administration. The Labour vote was also cushioned by the substantial element of social renters and BAME electors in the ward, groups that have been less likely than liberal professionals to go over to the Lib Dems. There is no consolation for the Conservatives. To be reduced to 25 per cent of the vote in a ward with such a high proportion of well-paid financial and technological sector employees is an abject performance that cannot be blamed on organisation or candidate.

It is foolish to read too much into a single conference season by-election, but the Fulham Broadway outcome does show that the Lib Dems are capable, from a standing start in a very Con-Lab marginal borough, of racking up big increases in their vote in affluent Inner London. They have already shown their strength in high-end suburbs with their June 2019 win in Cannon Hill, Merton. If they can keep it going, I would not be hugely surprised to see Chuka Umunna win under his new colours in the Cities of London and Westminster parliamentary constituency – possibly even with the Conservatives finishing third.

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Categories: Analysis

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