There was a by-election yesterday in Boris Johnson’s constituency. The election was not, of course, for the parliamentary seat of Uxbridge & South Ruislip but for a Hillingdon borough council seat in a ward that forms part of that constituency. The vacancy had cropped up in the Hillingdon East ward (there is no Hillingdon West any more) because of the resignation of Conservative councillor Pat Jackson, who had represented it since 2006.
Hillingdon East reflects Hillingdon borough’s ambivalent position at the edge of London. Following the A40 north west out of Central London, there is a scrap of open country just past Northolt and the Polish War Memorial – Northolt airfield to the north and woods and fields to the south. But this is a false start to rural England, because London suburbia starts up again on the far side near Hillingdon Underground station.
South of the A40, along Long Lane, is where Hillingdon East ward is located. At the south end of Long Lane it reaches the area of Hillingdon Heath, not far from Brunel University on the old road from Uxbridge to Ealing and London. The local housing stock is predominantly inter-war semis and terraces, stretching along straight suburban residential roads. It is majority owner-occupied and about one third BAME, but without a predominant minority community, as reflected in its statistics for religion which show its population to contain both fewer Hindus and Muslims than the borough average. The economic and environmental impact of Heathrow is evident even this far north and the Conservative-led council was party to this week’s successful legal challenge to Heathrow’s third runway plans.
Hillingdon’s political history has tended to run counter to trends deeper inside the metropolis. It was one of only five boroughs to vote Leave in the 2016 referendum, and the Conservatives have enjoyed a large majority on the council since they regained control in 2006. While Labour made gains in most London boroughs in the most recent contests in 2018, they slipped back in Hillingdon with two net losses and a swing of around three per cent to the Conservatives since 2014. The ward-level trends in Hillingdon East have reflected the borough-wide pattern, with the Tories increasing their majority in 2018.
The ward has some history as a marginal, electing a full slate of Liberal Democrats in 2002 and before that dividing its favours between Labour, Conservative and Independent Socialist councillor Wally Kennedy. But Hillingdon Conservatives could approach the by-election with some confidence – a comfortable council majority, a well-functioning local party flushed with success and Prime Ministerial patronage, an uncontroversial and competent regime at local level and a big lead in national opinion polls.
Although Labour put in a lot of effort Uxbridge & South Ruislip last year, keeping the swing well below average (on top of a pretty good result in 2017), the party has always struggled to get its vote out in local elections. It can be argued that Johnson’s constituency results are unimpressive when measured against those of local Tory councillors: the comparison between borough elections in which the Tories won the Uxbridge & South Ruislip wards by 61 per cent to 30 per cent for Labour in 2018 and Johnson’s majorities of less than half that margin is interesting.
Local Conservatives can feel hugely satisfied as the week ends, with both their day in Court of Appeal and the by-election result. Their candidate Colleen Sullivan cruised to an overwhelming victory, with 1,430 votes (68.8 per cent) ahead of Labour’s runner-up Annelise Roberts with 488 (23.5 per cent). Lib Dem, UKIP and Green candidates also stood but attracted few votes. Labour tried to argue that returning an opposition councillor would encourage the Tory council not to take the ward for granted, but there appears to have been little local disaffection. The swing was a hefty 11 per cent from Labour to the Conservatives. Turnout, though, was only 22.2 per cent, a very poor figure for such a settled suburban ward and sharply down on the 40 per cent reached in the full borough elections two years ago.
The result certainly tells us that the Hillingdon Tories are a powerful electoral force, capable of adapting to the demographic trends that have made the borough increasingly diverse. It also confirms the message of other by-elections that there has been a significant swing in favour of the Conservatives in the backwash from the 2019 election, reflected in falling turnout and the difficulty opposition parties have in gaining traction. There were several national and local reasons why the Tories should have been expecting a good result in Hillingdon East – and they achieved one with flying colours.
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