Kingston: Residents’ group wins council by-election amid claims of ‘dirty’ tactics

Kingston: Residents’ group wins council by-election amid claims of ‘dirty’ tactics

Green Lane & St James is an elaborate name for a new electoral ward that would be more identifiable to non-locals if it had the name New Malden West – because that is where it is. Built from parts of the now-extinguished St James and Beverley wards under boundary changes that came into effect at the full borough elections in May of this year, it is composed of 1930s suburban avenues lying north west of the A3 Kingston by-pass and, for the most part, south east of the main railway line out of Waterloo as it passes between New Malden and Berrylands stations. The main thoroughfare, stretching from one end of the ward to the other, is South Lane.

The Green Lane of the ward’s name reaches down towards the Hogsmill River which divides New Malden from Berrylands and Surbiton. Although the A3 is not a very good neighbour, it is a pleasant area – the houses are large and have gardens, there is open space along the waterfront, and it is convenient for commuters. Like most of suburban London it has become more ethnically diverse in the last couple of decades. New Malden’s most distinctive community is London’s Koreans: there is a Korean church within the Green Lane & St James boundaries.

The Conservatives won in ward’s area in the 2014 borough elections – it was their best recent year in Kingston – but the Liberal Democrats swept the board in 2018 when they regained control of the council. In most of Kingston they did even better in May, winning a landslide with of 44 councillors in a council of 48.

However, Green Lane & St James was their principal disappointment, as they failed to win a seat which would have been notionally theirs on 2018 numbers. The two members elected in May were Tim Cobbett of the Lib Dems and James Giles who was representing a local political party, the Kingston Independent Residents’ Group (KIRG). Councillor Cobbett resigned because he had become unable to afford to live in New Malden and continue his public service there.

The by-election was unwelcome for the Lib Dem administration, not just because Green Lane & St James is a marginal ward, but because they were facing KIRG rather than the Conservatives, weighed down by the national government’s popularity, or by Labour, whose vote the Lib Dems have expertly squeezed for years.

In some ways KIRG is a classic localist party, trading on the rhetoric of being the authentic voice of the a community against the Westminster parties and picking up anti-Town Hall issues from every direction. But it is a bit different from others nearby, such as the long-established Merton Park residents or the Residents’ Association that runs Epsom & Ewell across the border in Surrey, which has a rather cuddly, even staid public image.

During May’s elections the KIRG attracted criticism for an aggressive populist approach to campaigning. Giles, a journalist, was manager of George Galloway’s rumbustious parliamentary by-election campaign in Batley & Spen in summer 2021 and has appeared on Galloway’s Sputnik programme on Russia Today (although he stressed to the Kingston Courier that he does not agree with Galloway’s anti-NATO views on Ukraine).

KIRG’s candidate in yesterday’s by-election was Yvonne Tracey, formerly deputy manager of the New Malden Post Office. Tracey stood in St James in the 2018 elections, finishing fourth, and contested the new two-member ward in May. Defending for the Lib Dems was Mahmood Rafiq. Suniya Qureshi, who had been one of the Conservative candidates for the ward in May, tried again. Labour’s candidate was Nick Draper, an experienced former Merton councillor – from 1994 to 2018 – who in May stood in the splendidly-named Kingston ward of King George’s & Sunray.

The Green Lane & St James contest was easily distinguished from a ray of sunshine. On 30 October the Labour and Lib Dem campaigns issued a statement criticising what they called divisive campaign tactics, referring to a leaflet circulated by KIRG’s councillor Giles making allegations about Rafiq in his capacity as external affairs officer of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. The Conservative and local Green parties associated themselves with this denunciation.

The Ahmadiyya are a minority strand of Islam, who are targets both of Islamophobia from non-Muslims and denunciation from some Muslim bodies as not being properly Islamic. They are a familiar presence in south west London, being active in promoting the Quran to people in the streets.

The impact of this sharp disagreement – Giles claimed he was opposing homophobia, while all the other parties believed it was “dirty” tactics – on the election campaign is uncertain and will remain a matter for discussion. There were also a number of local concerns, including cycle paths and green spaces, and lingering ill-will about the council’s closure of the Kingfisher Leisure Centre. It was difficult for Lib Dems to make the argument that Kingston needed a 44th councillor from their ranks in preference to one with an exclusively localist approach.

When the votes were counted KIRG had gained the seat: Tracey received 855 votes (46%) and Rafiq 647 (35%). Labour’s Draper was third (265 votes, 14%) and Qureshi brought up the rear, scoring a disappointing 78 votes (4%) in an affluent suburb.

Compared to May, the Lib Dem percentage share was down four points and Labour’s up three. The Conservatives were down eight and KIRG up nine. The turnout, at 40%, was high for a by-election. KIRG now becomes a full group on the council, although not the official opposition, as the three Conservative Kingston councillors still hold that position.

The election left a bitter taste in the mouth for most people involved in Kingston local politics, although Tracey, who had pledged to give her £8,800 a year councillor allowance to charity, and Giles were understandably delighted with the result. Whether the onward march of populism is a good thing for the ward, or for Kingston as a whole, we will have to wait and see.

Photo from Yvonne Tracey’s Twitter feed.

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Categories: Analysis

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