To nobody’s surprise, Labour’s Caroline Woodley was the comfortable winner of Thursday’s by-election for a new Mayor of Hackney, confirming her party’s dominance of the inner (mostly) east London borough and making her only the second female directly-elected Mayor in the capital.
However, Woodley’s win, though secured with an emphatic 49.8 per cent of the vote, was by a smaller margin over her nearest challenger, the Green Party’s Zoe Garbett, than her predecessor, Phillip Glanville, beat Garbett by in May 2022. It was also the smallest of Labour’s unbroken mayoral wins in Hackney since the second one in 2006. That is in spite of Labour’s enormous opinion poll lead in London as a whole.
Compared with Glanville’s performance last year, Woodley’s winning share was down by 9.3 per cent and the 18,474 votes cast for her were 17,575 fewer than Glanville received. This was the first ballot for a directly-elected Mayor in London since the Conservative government did away with the supplementary vote system (SV) for the office nationally, replacing it with the first past the post arrangement. As On London elections expert Lewis Baston points out, under SV, Woodley, having fallen just short of 50 per cent, would have depended on second preference votes to win.
By contrast, runner-up Garbett’s vote tally dropped by only 1,298 to 9,075 despite turnout being a low 20.7 per cent compared with 34.1 per cent last year. Only 37,289 people voted altogether – 15,731 of them by post – out of an electorate of 180,205. In May 2022, 61,007 took part.
Did the need to show an approved form of identification at polling stations suppress turnout to some degree? A Hackney resident, I cast my vote in person at my long-familiar polling station around lunchtime. Officials told me they hadn’t, at that stage, had to turn anyone away for not having the right proof of identity. That was heartening, but didn’t rule out the possibility that some people who would otherwise have voted simply didn’t bother trying, because they knew they lacked the necessary document.
Garbett’s share of the vote rose substantially, from 17 per cent in 2022 to 24.5 per cent. Conservative Simche Steinberger finished third with 5,039 votes, followed by Liberal Democrat Simon de Deney (1,879), Independent Peter Smorthit (1,382) and Annoesjka Valent of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (1,265).
What explains the relative slide in Labour’s position and the greater solidity of that of the Greens?
As Lewis Baston also observes, the depressed turnout and fall in Labour support can probably be partly attributed to the circumstances that brought the by-election about.
Philip Glanville resigned as Mayor of Hackney on 15 September this year following the emergence earlier that month of a photograph of him taken at a Eurovision gathering held on 14 May 2022 with, among others, Tom Dewey, who was at that time a Labour councillor in Hackney and a housemate of Glanville.
Just over a fortnight earlier, on 29 April, 2022, Dewey had been arrested at the house by the National Crime Agency (NCA). He was elected as a councillor on 5 May 2022 but resigned from the post eleven days later. In August of this year, Dewey received a 12-month suspended sentence after pleading guilty to possessing indecent images of children.
Glanville was never a subject of the NCA investigation that led to Dewey’s conviction. His difficulties arose from the photo showing him socialising with Dewey shortly after the latter’s arrest on, it turned out, the evening of the day on which Hackney’s then chief executive had informed him about it (in court proceedings concerning Dewey it was stated that no one else had been in the house at the time of the arrest itself).
Media reporting of the photo began early in September this year. Calls for Glanville’s resignation swiftly followed, along with his suspension by the Labour Party pending an investigation.
Glanville took a brief leave of absence before stepping down on 22 September. He has acknowledged that attending the party had been an “error of judgement” but said he had not known the full extent of the allegations against Dewey at the time and had decided to attend the party because he “feared to cancel the event, or not attend myself, may alert Tom to what I knew during what I understood to be a live criminal case”. He moved out of the property the following day.
Glanville has also admitted he had not been “as transparent as I should have been” about the incident. He had previously said he had not “seen or spoken to” Dewey after learning of the investigation.
I do not know who took the photo or how or why it came to wide public attention. Maybe that is for another day.
Such was the inauspicious setting for Caroline Woodley’s mayoral campaign. It can only have added an element of disapproval to the likely apathy of significant numbers of Labour-leaning Hackney voters about a contest the Labour candidate was, despite everything, the overwhelming favourite to win.
Antipathy to Labour over Glanville’s conduct might also help explain the resilience of Garbett’s vote, not least because she, a Dalston councillor who is also her party’s candidate for Mayor of London, had been at the forefront of demands for an investigation of the Dewey affair. An independent review of the council’s handling of the matter was commissioned at the end of September.
The swing of 8.4 per cent from Labour to the Greens might have a further explanation, reflecting the political leanings of a particular, highly motivated, section of Hackney’s population.
It was noticeable that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour coincided with falls in support for the Greens at council by-elections in Hackney. Corbyn’s replacement by Sir Keir Starmer and the furious attacks on him by the Labour Outer Left for being too “right wing” has probably prompted some residents of that persuasion to switch their allegiance to the Greens because they see them as being more radical. Having lived in Hackney for the past 40 years, I am familiar with such people. I even know where some of them live.
Woodley’s victory means she can no longer be a councillor. The outcome of the by-election that will take place in Cazenove ward as a result will provide a further gauge of support for Labour and the Greens, perhaps influenced by the stances of candidates and their parties on the Israel-Gaza war. The Cazenove Road area has sizeable numbers of both Jewish and Muslim residents who, for many years, have lived harmoniously as neighbours. Unsurprisingly, there are concerns that this unity is coming under strain.
And so, Caroline Woodley ascends to the mayoral office with, notwithstanding the backdrop to it, a healthy mandate but also a heap of problems to deal with.
Previously Glanville’s cabinet member for families, parks and leisure, she was first elected to the council in 2018. At an online candidate selection hustings for Labour members held on 24 September, she emphasised her experience of being a single mother and her determination not to allow the torrents of threats and abuse female politicians face to deter her from seeking a high profile position.
She mentioned talking to Kim Leadbeater, successor MP for Batley & Spen to her murdered older sister Jo Cox, as helping her put her anxieties into perspective. She also talked about the first time she canvassed with Diane Abbott, one of Hackney’s two MPs but presently, like Glanville, suspended from the Labour Party and therefore sitting in the Commons as an Independent.
Abbott had the Labour whip withdrawn in April after a letter by her appeared in the Observer in which she drew a distinction between the type and degree of prejudice experienced by black people throughout history and that faced by groups she described as white, a category in which she included Jews.
Abbott is, of course, a staunch ally of Jeremy Corbyn, an MP in neighbouring Islington, who has been suspended by Labour since October 2020 after a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that under his leadership the party had failed to adequately address antisemitism in its ranks and Corbyn declined to withdraw his response to the report, in which he claimed antisemitism in the party he had led had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons”.
At the Hackney hustings, Woodley referred to canvassing with Abbott in order to highlight the racial hatred directed at her – the UK’s first black woman MP – and her persistence in the face of it. Even so, to me it seems striking that Woodley chose to highlight Abbott as an inspiration, given the MP’s current situation. It seems fair to speculate that she would not have done so had she thought her audience of Hackney Labour members had lost confidence in Abbott of late.
Woodley’s hustings pitch included other content that would appeal to what might be called a left populist activist base: she would take a hard line with property developers; the needs of the local economy were characterised as directly antipathetic to those of large businesses; she used the term “decolonise” to describe how racism within institutions could be reduced; providing more social housing would be a top priority; her administration would seek to defy Toryism.
These crowd-pleasing features were joined by more sober prescriptions. An allusion to the Glanville affair preceded explicit mentions of public confidence issues, including the Child Q police strip search scandal at a Hackney secondary school and a major cyber attack in 2020, which the council says has cost it more than £12 million and has badly affected housing services amid concerns about repairs and mould. Hackney is also without a permanent chief executive at the moment.
Woodley mentioned, too, that the borough is facing a £57 million budget shortfall – a serious sum that is going to mean cuts and savings.
And there was, as you would expect, a lot about families and children. Woodley pledged that Hackney would back a campaign by single parents against Universal Credit sanctions, join Sadiq Khan in lobbying the government for free school meals for all, and encourage dialogue between Hackney primary schools about how best to adjust to falling pupil numbers. Drawing on the knowledge and energy of local people more widely was another prominent theme.
In what was seen as a friendly contest, Woodley defeated her then fellow cabinet member Mete Coban, her sole rival for the Labour nomination, quite comfortably. She now has a larger and less agreeable battle to fight in a borough which, like so much of London, is, in different ways, dazzlingly rich and painfully poor at the same time.
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