The first London council by-elections of 2019 took place yesterday, on Thursday 7 February, in Lambeth and Tower Hamlets. The Lambeth contest was in Thornton ward and, unusually, it will soon be followed by another one. That is because two of the three councillors who’ve been representing the ward have recently resigned to take up politically-restricted jobs elsewhere. The first to step down was Jane Edbrooke, previously Labour’s Chief Whip on the council and a cabinet-level figure for several years. She has become senior head of policy and public affairs for the Big Lottery Fund and it is her seat that was up for grabs first too.
Thornton is an in-between sort of place, geographically at least. It lies east of Balham, south of Clapham and north west of Streatham, and has aspects of each of these places rather than a distinct identity of its own. As a whole, the area was known at one time as “Clapham Park”, but that name’s reach has shrunk so that it now applies only to a smaller area to the north. Somewhat unusually, Thornton neither contains nor borders a London Underground or a main line railway station. The South Circular road – a concept built from suburban cut-throughs rather than an actual highway – goes through the ward at Poynders Road.
The ward’s variety could be a microcosm of the “middle London” that one finds at the radius marked out by the Circular Road. The residential areas are a real mixture. There is less private renting than usual for London, but an even split between owner-occupation and social renting. Both types of housing are themselves very varied. There are some red brick council-built blocks and some striking post-war modernist estates.
Because the area was originally planned out as a model villa suburb by Thomas Cubitt in the 1820s, the estate bears the names of some of his other developments, giving one block the incongruous name of Belgravia House. The owner-occupied areas include typical Victorian terraces but also some spacious interwar houses in the area along King’s Avenue and even a sprinkling of mock-Tudor. Thornton residents tend to be industrious (it has a high rate of economic activity and of working age population), relatively high-earning, and comfortable with a mixed and ethnically diverse neighbourhood.
Politically, Thornton is quite interesting. The two most recent sets of borough elections produced massive Labour majorities, but these were exceptions in the ward’s electoral history. When the politics of class and housing was simpler, one could read off Thornton’s status as a Labour-Conservative marginal from its demographics. It switched back and forward in 1968, 1971 – when one of the defeated Tory candidates was future Prime Minister John Major – and 1978. In 1986 and 1990, it split its favours between the two main parties. Then, almost from nowhere, it went Liberal Democrat in 1994, but its marginality has continued – Labour in 1998, split in 2002 (the first time on the current boundaries) and narrow Labour wins in the elections of 2006 and 2010. As a footnote, according to the declared results, UKIP came second in 2014 but this was almost certainly the result of a counting error.
Yesterday’s by-election was a test of how well Labour’s metropolitan voting coalition is holding together. The answer was “not very well”. On a turnout of 27 per cent, the party’s share of the vote fell from 63 per cent in May 2018 to 45 per cent. The Liberal Democrats recovered their position as the main challengers following their coalition-era slump, rising from 10 per cent last year to 33 per cent. Their candidate, retired NHS worker Rebecca Macnair re-established Thornton’s status as a marginal ward with a hefty swing of 21 per cent from Labour. She was still 309 votes short of the winning candidate Stephen Donnelly, a young LGBT Labour activist who contested St Leonard’s ward in Streatham in 2018 where he lost to the Green Party.
Even though Donnelly himself is a pro-European, according to local MP Chuka Umunna he suffered from Labour’s “incoherent Brexit policy which constantly came up on the doorstep”. The national polls have not picked up much movement from Labour to Liberal Democrat or Green among Remain voters, but the Thornton result – in a ward that was probably over 80 per cent Remain in 2016 – is sobering nonetheless. In a divided ward like this, it is reasonable to conclude that there must have been an enormous swing in the middle-class areas.
Given how central to Labour’s electoral strength places like Thornton now are, this outcome is a worrying straw in the wind. It sets up an interesting backdrop for the next by-election in the ward caused by the January 2019 resignation of council leader Lib Peck to take a senior job at Sadiq Khan’s City Hall (Jack Hopkins has been elected by the Labour Group to be her successor). The Lib Dems will seek to capitalise on their strong Thornton result. Knowledge of the ward’s electorate and local issues gained from the first campaign will help to give them a realistic chance of victory in a seat where they looked dead and buried less than a year ago. But Lambeth Labour is a formidable campaigning machine, and the only safe prediction for that election is that it will be a battle royal.
Last updated at 14.27.