In staffing his administration, Sadiq Khan set up a sequel to the interesting by-election that took place a few weeks ago in the Lambeth ward of Thornton. Lib Peck, Labour councillor for the ward since a by-election in 2001 and leader of the council from 2012 until 2019, has taken on a high-profile role leading the new Violence Reduction Unit at City Hall. She had been an influential figure in Labour local government in London and at the Local Government Association (LGA).
Under Peck’s leadership, and that of her predecessor Steve Reed, Lambeth became something of a model council for the centre-left strand of Labour. Peck’s administration encountered activist opposition to its regeneration and financial management policies in the face of housing shortages and budget cuts, and in the wider context of rapid gentrification. Somewhat against the odds, given this and a hugely increased pro-Corbyn membership, there were no candidate deselections prior to the 2018 borough elections. There has been less unity at parliamentary level. Relations between Vauxhall MP Kate Hoey, a hard line anti-European, and her constituency party are very poor and since the previous Thornton by-election Streatham MP Chuka Umunna has defected from Labour to the Independent Group (TIG).
There is no need to update February’s description of Thornton ward, a slice of suburban London lying between Clapham and Streatham near the South Circular. And four of the candidates in yesterday’s vote also fought the contest of two months ago: Martin Read for the Conservatives, Adrian Audsley for the Greens, Leila Fazal for the Women’s Equality Party and John Plume for UKIP. The leading two candidates in the February election, though, were not on the ballot this time. Labour’s contender won, which explains his absence this time. The party’s candidate for Thornton by-election number two was legal researcher Nanda Manley-Browne. The Liberal Democrats , who finished a good second in February, also selected a different standard-bearer – Matthew Bryant, who contested Streatham South in 2018. Umunna’s new grouping, TIG within Parliament and Change UK as a political party, did not contest the election.
National and local factors interact in council by-elections. Simplistically, broad trends in changes of support for parties over a couple of months tells us something about the patterns of national politics, while big variations are usually driven by local issues. A party needs to be fit for purpose to be a repository for votes on those. No matter how unhappy people get with, say, Hackney Council, they are unlikely to turn to UKIP or the Brexit Party to express their displeasure because those are beyond the pale as far as the culture of Hackney is concerned. The 2010-15 Clegg-Cameron coalition caused a deep rupture in the relationship between the Liberal Democrats and some of their previous strong supporters, such as students and left of centre middle class professionals. They were punished by their disastrous performance in the 2014 London borough elections and their recovery in 2018 was patchy and incomplete in contests against Labour – they were again crushed in Lambeth, for instance. In contrast, they bounced back well against the Conservatives in Kingston and Richmond.
The first Thornton by-election in February suggested that the Lib Dems are now able to get a hearing in the sort of place where doors were slammed in their faces between 2010 and 2017. They were therefore able to campaign on local issues as well as exploiting pro-European unease about Labour’s contortions over Brexit. There were echoes of the SDP’s initial rise in 1981-82, when they were able to oppose both the left-wing direction of the Labour Party across London and nationally and the managerial centrist Labour administrations in many of the borough councils at that time.
The principal local issue in Thornton in both of this year’s by-elections has been the regeneration of the Clapham Park estate. It has been a long and convoluted story, reflecting political, managerial and economic trends since the early 2000s, but transfer of the housing stock has been troubled and the amount of new building in the regeneration has disappointed many locals in terms of its quantity, quality and how long it is taking to arrive. Local resident @langrabbie has often tweeted about the subject and other aspects of Thornton’s history and its debatable local identity.
The convergence of local and national factors, added to the knowledge of the ward’s electorate gained from the February campaign, made the April election a high-pressure confrontation between Lib Dem and Labour campaign machines. Activists from elsewhere in London came to help. Thsse efforts were not rewarded with a high turnout: at 26 per cent it was slightly down on the February election.
The result was a real squeaker. Labour’s majority, in a ward that looked rock-solid a year ago, was slashed to 19 votes. Even in February the party had won by a comfortable margin of 309. Manley-Browne goes to the council chamber with the backing of 998 votes while Matthew Bryant fell only just short with 979. The swing from Labour to Lib Dem is 5.6 per cent since February and a massive 27 per cent since May 2018. While the scale of the movement owes a lot to campaigning effort that cannot be replicated everywhere, Labour would be unwise to ignore the result. The two Thornton ward elections, and indeed the defection of the local MP, suggest that the party cannot take the liberal middle classes and the multicultural municipal estates that make up its London core vote for granted.