The first by-election for a London borough council seat during the 2018-22 term took place last night in the Coldharbour ward of Lambeth. There had been deferred ward elections in Southwark and Brent in June, but this was the first election caused by a seat that was filled in May and subsequently become vacant. The cause was the death of Labour councillor Matt Parr, who had represented Coldharbour since 2010.
The ward is the heart of Brixton, covering several well-known features such as Brixton Market, Electric Avenue and the Victoria Line and main line stations. It extends to the east of Brixton Road and Effra Road as far as the railway line that goes through Loughborough Junction. It was in this ward, on Coldharbour Lane, that future Conservative Prime Minister John Major lived for a while when he was young. Railton Road, the “front line” when there was rioting in Brixton in 1981, runs through the ward. South of Coldharbour Lane is the Somerleyton estate which replaced a notorious slum during the time Major was chair of housing in Lambeth. Its defensive design means it is called the “Barrier Block” – it was built to insulate residents from noise generated by an anticipated link in the London’s Ringway road project that never got built.
As it lies in the east-central part of Brixton, one would expect Coldharbour to have a large and well-established black community dating back to the early post-war years, and indeed it does despite Brixton’s increasingly fashionable and expensive aspect (on a recent fact-finding trip for the On London borough elections guide, Croydon market looked more like a traditionally Caribbean one, while Brixton’s had a fine selection of artisanal bread).
Yesterday’s by-election was not much of a contest. Coldharbour is one of Labour’s safest wards and the only way the party has lost its monopoly on representation here recently has been through a defection – incumbent councillor Rachel Heywood left the party in 2015 and stood unsuccessfully for re-election in 2018. The turnout in the by-election was only 24.8 per cent, a small drop compared with May. The Liberal Democrats, Conservatives, Women’s Equality Party and UKIP all polled poorly, but the Greens achieved a decent second place with 912 votes (30.6 per cent).
This was significantly up on their performance in May and cements their role as the principal opposition to Labour in Lambeth and owes a certain amount to the left wing vote for Heywood being up for grabs this time. The Green candidate Michael Groce is the son of Cherry Groce, who was shot and injured by police during a raid on her house in 1985. It was the incident that sparked the 1985 riots and the raid took place because the police were looking for Michael in connection with a firearms offence. He has gone on to become a respected activist, a contributor to the community in Brixton and an award-winning poet. Andrew Teale’s splendid preview article covers this history and much else on the way.
Labour’s vote share was up a couple of percentage points since May and, as a result, Scarlett O’Hara was elected the new councillor for Coldharbour with 1,739 votes (58.4 per cent). As I’m sure she’s sick of well-known expressions of candid indifference, can we just offer congratulations and best wishes for her term of office?