Yesterday, I reported on Labour holding seats in two by-elections held on Wednesday in Haringey. Also yesterday – a Thursday, the conventional day of the week for such activities – another by-election was held in the Vauxhall ward of Lambeth.
Vauxhall is densely populated, and the ward is tightly drawn around Vauxhall station. It is a new creation resulting from the 2022 boundary changes, carved out of the previous Prince’s and Oval wards. The skyline bristles with shiny new residential tower blocks alongside that mysterious riverside ziggurat inhabited by MI6.
Well over 80 per cent of the Vauxhall ward population lives in flats. The landscape at the top of Wandsworth Road, around the new Nine Elms Northern Line Underground station, has been transformed by recent development and is still something of a building site.
The electoral impact of the new development is muted, both because it is unfinished and because the inhabitants of such areas tend not to turn out. It is difficult to deliver leaflets through the barriers of gates and private security, and residents don’t feel involved with their local government politics.
Alongside the new, there is older housing of two sorts: Victorian terraces and a couple of squares, plus an area of council housing, the Vauxhall Gardens estate. The ward is diverse in terms of class and ethnicity, with a working-class black population alongside the new professional classes. Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and Vauxhall Park provide a little relief from the urban bustle.
Vauxhall station, as well as being a crucial London interchange, is internationally famous – an early railway building here gave the word “voksal”, meaning railway station, to Russian and other languages. The ward covers most of Albert Embankment, where there are fine views over the Palace of Westminster from luxurious flats. In the 1980s, author and one-time high-profile Tory Jeffrey Archer pioneered moving into the area.
The ward’s proximity to Westminster means that Vauxhall has a sprinkling of MPs, peers, parliamentary assistants and advisers living there. They probably make up a significant proportion of the local Conservative vote in this otherwise hostile territory. The Tory be-election candidate, Lee Rotherham, is a perennial right-wing activist – he is currently Chairman of Trustees of the Museum of Brexit – and those with an interest in nominative determinism will be pleased to note that he contested the Rotherham parliamentary seats in the Tory interest in 2005.
But despite his efforts in Vauxhall, and those of the Greens and the Clapham-based Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB), the contest followed the local pattern of being fought principally between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
North Lambeth, including Vauxhall, has a long tradition of electoral competition between the Lib Dems and Labour – the local parliamentary seat, unlike many apparently similar areas of big cities, was consistently marginal between Labour and Liberal parties in the 1920s and 1930s, only decisively switching to Labour in a 1934 by-election. But the Liberals gained Vauxhall in a 1985 by-election for the then nearly defunct Greater London Council – the first of a number of startling Lib victories that have taken place on occasion in the last few decades.
Prince’s ward, which includes most of the older communities that now within Vauxhall ward, was often the Lib Dems’ best in this part of the borough. They won two of its three council seats in 1986 and then three out of three in ensuing borough elections until Labour’s against-the-tide success in Lambeth in 2006. After that, and with the negative impact of being part of the national coalition government with the Tories, the Lib Dem vote subsided at local level until they recovered second place at parliamentary level in 2017.
The Vauxall by-election was largely fought in the older areas of the ward. The Lib Dems concentrated on attacking Lambeth Labour’s record in housing management, an important issue in a ward whose largest single community is based on a council-built estate. The cityscape of Vauxhall is a painful demonstration of the contrasts of wealth and poverty that can exist in close proximity to each other and to the very centre of political power just across the river.
Labour’s defence of the ward was led by candidate Tom Swaine-Jameson, a university lecturer who grew up in the ward. Vauxhall’s Labour loyalties were tested. There was a big swing of 14 per cent to Lib Dem candidate Fareed Alderechi, but his challenge was successfully repulsed.
Swaine-Jameson won with 595 votes (42 per cent), with Alderechi runner-up on 395 (28 per cent). The Greens, who tussle with the Lib Dems to be the main anti-Labour party in Lambeth, polled creditably as well, their candidate Jacqueline Bond gaining 256 votes (18 per cent). Rotherham came fourth (160 votes, 11 per cent) and the SPGB trailed in last with nine votes, fewer than the number of signatures on their nomination papers. Turnout was 22 per cent.
Labour has had good news this week from other by-elections, most of all from the parliamentary contest in Rutherglen & Hamilton West but also in a borough by-election in Tamworth, where people will soon to go to the polls to elect a new MP. In London, Labour, having polled relatively strongly in the 2019 general election and the 2022 local elections, has less potential for dramatic progress than elsewhere. This has been shown in borough by-elections, by the detail of opinion polls and the result of the Uxbridge & South Ruislip by-election.
When times are hard, defending as the incumbent is harder than being the opposition on the attack. This week’s three London by-elections, all in Labour-run boroughs, were were less exciting than those in Rutherglen and Tamworth. South Tottenham was a pretty strong result for Labour, White Hart Lane less so, and Vauxhall was a bit of a reverse.
X/Twitter: Lewis Baston and On London. If you value On London and its writers, become a supporter or a paid subscriber to publisher and editor Dave Hill’s Substack. Photo of Tom Swaine-Jameson from Vauxhall Ward, Lambeth X feed.