Hammersmith & Fulham Labour lost a stalwart in July with the sudden death of Colin Aherne, who was the majority Labour group’s chief whip. Aherne was the borough’s longest-serving councillor, having been first elected for the old Wormholt ward in 1986. Aherne’s continuing service in the same area, within a borough that has seen some sharp swings between Labour and the Conservatives, indicates that yesterday’s ensuing by-election in the Wormholt & White City ward was for a safe Labour seat.
Wormholt & White City is in the north of the borough and essentially a part of Shepherd’s Bush. It is bounded by the Westway to the north, Bloemfontein Road to the east, Uxbridge Road to the south and the western edge of the borough along Old Oak Road. It has a W12 postcode, except for a fringe on its east, which is in the Acton W3 postcode.
The name Wormolt derives from the historic name Wormhold, which covered a larger area. At some point the name divided, as worms sometimes do, and variations on the name evolved. The open space to the north became known as Wormwood Scrubs and the residential area to the south as Wormholt. White City is a more recent coinage, from the marble pavilions that were built for London’s exhibitions and trade fairs on the site in the years before 1914. London’s first Olympic Games took place there in 1908, as did the Franco-British Exhibition.
However, today’s electoral ward does not include the White City area’s best-known contemporary landmark, the large circular building that formerly served as BBC Television Centre. Neither does it contain the White City Central Line station. The Queen’s Park Rangers stadium too is just outside the ward.
The majority of Wormholt & White City is social housing. The architecture of the ward tells a story of London’s growth and change in the half century before the Second World War. In the south, off Uxbridge Road, near Shepherd’s Bush Green, there are Edwardian terraces. But as one travels north, these give way to the Wormholt estate. This was one of the fruits of the early movement for council housing and the short-lived “Homes fit for Heroes” push for better homes after the First World War. The land was purchased in 1919 and the estate was built in the 1920s with a nod to Garden City principles – individual houses, and lots of hedges and brick archways. Wormholt has a floral theme, for example Wallflower Street near the edge of the estate. The opening of East Acton Central Line station added to its attractions, as did public services such as a pleasant little library and a pioneering Infant Welfare Centre.
The White City estate was started in the late 1930s on the exhibition ground site and finished in the 1940s, built to a much higher density – five storey blocks of red brick flats. It streets are named after Commonwealth countries: it is bounded, for instance, by South Africa Road.
The last major change to the ward came with the new buildings along the Westway at the north edge of the ward. An area had been demolished in the 1990s with the intention of facilitating a road widening project, but this was cancelled in 1997. Housing was built instead. The ward’s population has changed over the years as well: it was 50 per cent BAME at the time of the 2011 Census.
Hammersmith & Fulham Council has been Labour-controlled since 2014, when the party made a surprise gain of what had been David Cameron’s favourite local authority. Labour were convincingly returned to power in 2018 and remain strong favourites for the 2022 elections.
Wormholt & White City is among a clutch of safe Labour wards around Shepherd’s Bush which have stuck with the party even in its bad years, so the by-election was never going to be exciting, particularly in the absence of any strong local controversies. There are some traffic-related political grumbles in the forever-congested narrow streets of Fulham, but few in this rather suburban part of the borough’s north. Traffic flow on the estates has long been engineered to deter rat-runners and congestion, and the streets of Wormholt in particular are quiet and liveable.
The campaign was routine, with routine national and local political arguments repeated on each side. Labour candidate Frances Umeh (pictured, from her Twitter feed), a communications professional, held the seat for her party with a secure majority – 1,462 votes (70 per cent of those cast) to 431 for the Conservatives’ Constance Campbell, and smaller totals for the Green (110) and Liberal Democrat (86) contenders. Turnout was fairly poor, at 22.6 per cent. The ward will be divided in the forthcoming boundary changes, with most of it going into a new Wormholt ward and the White City estate joining the other areas of White City in another new ward, called, unsurprisingly, White City.
It may be unwise to extrapolate from a low-turnout by-election in a safe seat, but let’s try. Both main parties can take some satisfaction from the result if they choose a helpful point from recent history as a benchmark. The Conservatives have made some net progress since the 2018 borough elections, with a swing of six per cent in their favour. But Labour did a lot better in the ward than in May’s London elections, with a six per cent swing in their direction compared to the ward’s London Assembly constituency vote (see borough and ward level data).
The outcome provides a further piece of evidence that the Tories have improved their position among social housing tenants compared to what it was a few years ago, but it also shows that their appeal is no longer at the heights of the 2019 general election or in the spring of this year.
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