Update: 6 May 2021. The final number of council by-elections in London eventually reached 46 in 22 boroughs.
The long London elections drought will come to an end on 6 May, with the main event being the contests for London Mayor and the London Assembly. But they won’t be the only votes taking place on that day. There will also be referendums on mayoral systems in Newham and Tower Hamlets and by-elections for councillors in more than an entire borough’s worth of wards scattered across the capital.
I have written regularly for On London about borough by-elections, but there has been nothing to report since the first lockdown began a year ago. Seats that were vacant then and have fallen vacant since have remained unfilled, the work of representing the wards being taken up by the remaining councillors in multi-member wards.
This long pause makes me question the wisdom of the current policy of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England. In its newest maps it has created several single-member London borough wards whose residents would have been left entirely voiceless for a year had their representatives resigned or died during the pandemic.
With the mayoral and Assembly elections going ahead, these delayed borough by-elections will now surface in a sudden, colourful rush, like spring flowers after a deep freeze. There will be at least 38 seats contested, and probably a handful more vacancies will crop up as councillors decided to resign before the 30 March deadline in order for elections for their successors to be held on 6 May. This article will be appended with updates if and when further by-elections are announced.
At time of publication there are contests in 20 of London’s 32 boroughs. The reasons for them vary widely. Nine of them result from the death of the incumbent councillor over the past year and a bit. Their obituaries are a story of public service and the complex patchwork of communities that makes up the metropolis.
- Brian Gordon (Barnet, Edgware ward), had been designated mayor but could not take office because of his illness. He was a well-known member of the Orthodox Jewish community.
- Anna Tomlinson (Ealing, Hobbayne) was one of Ealing’s Polish community and an enthusiast for sustainable transport.
- Christine Grice (Greenwich, Kidbrooke with Hornfair) was cabinet member for finance in the borough and had been elected Deputy Leader of the Labour Group just before she died of cancer in April last year.
- Chris Bond (Enfield, Southbury) was first elected in 1986 and spent the next 34 years in public service on the council.
- Neil Fyfe (Hillingdon, Charville) was a well-liked ward member and a keen gardener.
- Poonam Dhillon (Hounslow, Cranford) died of Covid in February 2021. She had lived in Cranford since 1984, worked in airline catering supply and was a proud trade unionist.
- Sue Hordijenko (Lewisham, Bellingham) was elected in 2016 but already much loved. In her professional life for the British Science Association she was a tireless promoter of scientific knowledge.
- Stuart Bellwood (Redbridge, Seven Kings) was a ward champion who had served voluntarily on the backbenches since 2002, applying his professional knowledge as a clinical psychologist to help his community and his colleagues.
- Geoff Walker (Waltham Forest, Hatch Lane) had served for 26 years and in his term as mayor of the borough in 2011/12 raised a record amount for local charities.
Most of the vacancies have arisen because councillors have resigned. It is sometimes difficult to disentangle the reasons why someone chooses to step down: political disaffection, individual health, family responsibilities and work and family-related reasons for moving away from London can all be factors. Young people early in their careers and with limited income to navigate London’s housing market, are particularly prone to find the competing pressures impossible to manage.
There are a few resignations that have happened for reasons that are completely clear. Four seats are vacant because the councillors were elected MPs in 2019: two Ealing Conservatives, Joy Morrissey and Alexander Stafford, their Bexley colleague Gareth Bacon (who is also leaving the London Assembly) and Feryal Clark, a Labour member from Hackney. They have just been joined by Claudia Webbe, elected MP for Leicester East in 2019, who has only just resigned from her seat in Islington. Other promotions or moves to politically restricted jobs have taken Joe Dromey and Tom Copley out of Lewisham Council, while Marina Ahmad is standing down in Bromley to contest the safe Labour Assembly constituency of Lambeth & Southwark.
Less impressively, two resigned councillors have criminal convictions: Tonia Ashikodi (Greenwich) for property fraud and Chaudhary Mohammed Iqbal (Redbridge) for using a fraudulent address to stand in the 2018 elections.
Now for the politics. The by-elections are happening in a strongly Labour-leaning selection of wards. Of the 38 vacancies, 30 are in Labour seats, only six in Conservative ones, plus solitary Liberal Democrat and Green defences. Most are for wards where Labour won huge majorities in the 2018 borough elections. Without overpowering local issues or well-known candidates they are likely to be routine Labour holds. The chances of something unusual happening have been further dampened by the lack of doorstep campaigning for the last year.
The trickiest contests in normally safe wards are probably those in Croydon and Enfield, where there have been local political ructions. It is worth noting in that context that every councillor in the equally truculent borough of Haringey has stuck it out. In a different vein, the contest in Kingston’s Chessington South ward has elements of a soap opera. The son of the retiring Lib Dem councillor is contesting the ward in the Labour interest, while the Lib Dem candidate is Andrew MacKinlay, who was formerly Labour MP for Thurrock.
There are currently nine contests in what could be called marginal wards. The Conservatives are defending three suburban seats which used to be safe but where the political and demographic trends have favoured Labour: two in Ealing (Ealing Broadway and Hanger Hill) and one in Waltham Forest (Hatch Lane), although Labour’s near miss in 2019 in the Chingford & Woodford Green parliamentary constituency that includes Hatch Lane suggests that such trends can be slow and uncertain.
There are three contests in highly marginal wards where, unusually, the Conservatives made gains from Labour in 2018. Labour is on the defensive in East Barnet and Westminster’s Churchill ward, where representation is divided between them and the Tories, and the Conservatives are in Hillingdon Charville, where they took all the representation in 2018 in a ward that had previously divided its favours.
Labour will defend Enfield Chase ward. The trend there in 2018 was in their direction, but the majority is small and council politics have been scrappy. The Conservatives defend a marginal seat in the heartland of ultra-Orthodox Jewish Hackney, Stamford Hill West.
There is an intriguing contest in Hampton Wick ward in Richmond, where a Green councillor has stood down. He had been elected alongside two Lib Dems in 2018 as part of an electoral pact between the two parties in the borough, but the Lib Dems have selected a candidate to contest the by-election so they will be competing rather than cooperating this time. Either might win, with the Lib Dems have the greater chance, but so might the Conservatives, who held the ward before a 2015 by-election. Their candidate could come through the middle in this genteel but electorally volatile borough.
Going by opinion polls and political form, the Tories will emerge from the London-wide elections with nothing to cheer about. But, down in the undergrowth, there might be a few green shoots for them. It is not impossible that on 6 May they will end up a borough council seat or two ahead of where they started.
This article was updated at noon on 22 March 2021 to incorporate two more by-elections notified over the weekend. Any further additions will be appended below:
Further update 22 March 2021: Two Conservative councillors in Croydon, Vidhi Mohan (Park Hill & Whitgift ward) and Steve O’Connell (Kenley) are to stand down. O’Connell had already announced he will not be defending his London Assembly seat of Croydon & Sutton this year.
Update, 26 March 2021: In Brent, Labour will defend a seat in the marginal Brondesbury Park ward, following the resignation of Kieron Gill. In February, Gill, a newcomer in 2018, was the only Labour councillor to abstain from the Labour-run council’s budget vote. And in Islington, Labour councillors Andy Hull (Highbury West), Joe Calouri (Mildmay) and Vivien Cutler (St Peter’s) have announced their resignations. Hull, who has served his borough for more than ten years, is leaving London for Morocco.
Update 30 March 2021: In Wandsworth, Fleur Anderson, who became MP for Putney in December 2019, has resigned from her Bedford ward seat. (Footnote: two other London politicians elected to Parliament in 2019 are continuing as councillors, at least for the time being. They are Nickie Aiken (Westminster) and David Simmonds (Hillingdon). In both cases their council ward lies within their constituency. Full borough election are due next May.
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