The borough boundary between Lambeth and Southwark does not make much sense around Newington and Kennington. It runs down the middle of Kennington Park Road then zigzags around Kennington Park. The Newington ward is the area of Southwark to the east of this line, stopping short of Elephant and Castle before following the Thameslink rail viaduct behind Walworth Road down to John Ruskin Street.
Kennington station is probably the best-known landmark in the ward, although many south Londoners only experienced it under ground. It was opened in 1890 as a stop on the City and South London Railway and was the second deep-level tube railway in the world after the 1886 Mersey Railway between Liverpool and Birkenhead. The surface building is charmingly modest, but with a distinctive dome where the hydraulic machinery for the original lifts was housed.
Newington is a surprisingly old-fashioned corner of inner London for somewhere so geographically central and accessible. There is no recent expensive glass and steel development, making a stark contrast with the other side of the Elephant. The ward’s housing is predominantly council (45 per cent) and ex-council (30 per cent), though built at various times over the last century.
The population is of working age and mostly either white (45 per cent, of which two thirds are white British) or black (28 per cent), rather than being heterogeneously diverse like most of inner London. If the 2021 Census is reliable – it was affected by the pandemic – the population is working-class but with a surprising number of professionals renting ex-council flats from private landlords.
Politically, Newington has usually been solidly Labour. The party held on even at their 1968 nadir, though it suddenly lost the seat to the Liberal Democrats on a large swing in 1998. One of the Lib Dem winners on that occasion was Caroline Pidgeon, who went on to be elected to the London Assembly in 2008 and will step down next year.
Newington is part of the variously-named constituency in the north of Southwark represented by Simon Hughes from 1983 to 2015, but the Lib Dem hold there was never as secure as it was in Bermondsey, and Labour regained two of the three seats in the ward in 2010.
One of the winners that year was Neil Coyle, who defeated Hughes in the 2015 general election. The coalition government also enabled Labour to regain wards in local elections across the former Lib Dem fortress, but they were not completely wiped out. The Bermondsey Lib Dems are still formidable campaigners in the right circumstances.
Thursday’s by-election arose because Labour’s Alice Macdonald resigned from the council having been nominated to contest the marginal parliamentary seat of Norwich North. Labour’s candidate Youcef Hassaine was rapidly selected, prompting some complaints that corners were being cut and that left wing candidates were excluded from consideration. Hassaine has worked in human resources for major companies and is Birmingham-born: he tweets as Brummie Youcef.
Southwark Labour, despite its emphatic win in the 2022 borough elections, has not been an entirely happy ship in recent years.
Coyle was an outspoken critic of Jeremy Corbyn during his time as Labour leader, both in public and in private during that difficult period for the party. He later came to prominence again for the rather different reason of being suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party from February 2022 until May 2023 and from the House of Commons for five days for, among other things, Sinophobic remarks to a British-Chinese reporter.
The Bermondsey & Old Southwark MP has since spoken of his shame about that incident and his attempts to do better in future, which has involved giving up alcohol. But his misconduct created an unhelpful situation for the local party and an unfortunate impression with the electors of the Newington ward.
The main challenge to Labour came from the Lib Dems, whose candidate Vikas Aggarwal is a former diplomat and a volunteer magistrate. The Bermondsey machine, and the support of the London Lib Dem tribe who enjoy by-elections and can easily get to Kennington or Elephant & Castle, created some doorstep momentum, but they were starting a long way behind.
The local environment and the council’s housing management were the main issues. The Greens, whose candidate Reuben Buendia was standing in his first election, did not challenge strongly and this area was never going to be good territory for the Conservatives, whose candidate was Lewis Jones. The ward has several low traffic neighbourhoods, but the issue did not stir much opposition.
Labour’s Hassaine (pictured) won easily with 1,524 votes (57.5 per cent). Lib Dem Aggarwal was the runner-up with 738 votes (27.9 per cent), Buendia was third (237 votes) and Jones fourth (149 votes). The swing was 10 per cent to the Lib Dems – Labour’s share dropped by five points but the Lib Dems’ rose by 15 having squeezed the Greens and Tories. Turnout was 26.5 per cent, a fall of only five percentage points since the full borough elections last May.
The comfortable margin by which Labour held the seat reflects not only its demographic solidity, but also the local Labour party having done well in locating and getting out the vote. Both they and the Lib Dems can take some satisfaction from the result.
On the same day there was also a by-election in the Haringey ward of Hermitage & Gardens, caused by the death of Labour’s Julie Davies who had been on the council since 2018.
Hermitage & Gardens was newly-created by the 2022 boundary changes. It is in the south west of Tottenham, just across the New River from Hackney’s Woodberry Down on one side and across the road from the northern tip of Finsbury Park. It has one station, the somewhat obscure Harringay Green Lanes on the Goblin line of the Overground.
It is harder to generalise about this ward than it is about Newington, as it comprises several distinct small areas. One of them is the so-called Harringay Warehouse District with its alternative living vibe. There are also more orthodox households in this area around Eade Road and Hermitage Road, living mostly in rented flats in subdivided small houses. It is a far from well-off part of north London. The “Gardens” section is an area just across Green Lanes from the Harringay Ladder and rather similar in nature.
The four main London parties were joined in the election by the Christian People’s Alliance, whose candidate Amelia Allao polled 16 votes for her trouble. The Conservatives’ Chris Brosnan was next with 100 votes, then Lib Dem Paul Dennison with 217 (15.7 per cent), and Green Alfred Jahn on 224 (16.3 per cent). The comfortable winner was Labour’s Anna Lawton (pictured above, centre) with 822 votes (59.7 per cent). Turnout was 22.9 per cent.
Labour’s share was down a little on May 2022, but the Greens were down more and the Lib Dems were up. Lawton joins the Labour group having stood in Fortis Green in 2018. She has an interesting life as a maternity adviser and as one of the leading volunteers of the British Jewish Limmud Festival.
Taking the two elections together, what can one conclude about the political temperature of London? There were few lessons for the forthcoming Uxbridge & South Ruislip parliamentary by-election, as the two wards were in territory that does not bear much resemblance to suburban Hillingdon.
The Lib Dems are clearly able to mount decent local by-election campaigns, but they are a long way from the months in summer 2019 when they were winning. Labour can hold safe wards with only small vote slippage in boroughs it has controlled for a long time, even if the turnout is low, which is perhaps the most significant thing in these elections. It feels as if the Labour vote is solidifying, as it is in the national polls.
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