Labour have held the ward of Mayesbrook in Barking & Dagenham yesterday despite a hefty swing to the Conservatives of 12.8 per cent. Is this more evidence, following a recent opinion poll and the Uxbridge & South Ruislip by-election, that Labour is in trouble in outer London and Sadiq Khan is facing a tough fight for re-election as Mayor next May?
Mayesbrook is on the western edge of the huge council-built Becontree estate, and thus part of Dagenham. It is a residential area, architecturally uniform and well-planned, consisting of inter-war terraced family houses, served by Becontree station on the District Line. The principal exception to the uniformity is a small, higher-density development in the north west of the ward on the north side of Mayesbrook Park, a green space separating Dagenham from Barking town.
For parliamentary purposes, some Dagenham wards, including Mayesbrook, are part of the safely-Labour Barking constituency, but they are to be distinguished from Barking’s dense urban core. Dagenham used to have the reputation of being a mostly white area on the periphery of diverse London, and Mayesbrook voted for the British National Party in the council elections of 2006. But this is changing rapidly. The current ward is around one third third White British, with 15-20 per cent for other White, Asian and Black populations. Part of the area’s appeal for all sorts of Londoners is the attractive yet relatively affordable housing – a third is still social rented and the remainder owner-occupied or privately rented.
The by-election arose from the resignation of Labour councillor Nashitha Choudhury and the contest was routine. The Conservatives campaigned against the expansion of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone, although the ward is far from the outer London boundary and more of its households use public transport than drive to work. Labour’s Summya Sohaib held the ward for her party with 632 votes (46.8 per cent, a large drop from 69.7 per cent last May) while Conservative Sharfaraz Khan Raj was runner-up with 444 votes (32.9 per cent).
The net swing to the Conservatives was almost entirely down to the tumble in Labour’s vote share – its own share was only a little (2.6 percentage points) higher than in last year’s full borough elections. The biggest gainers were the parties that started from scratch – Simon Anthony for the Greens (192 votes, 14.2 per cent) and Olumide Adeyefa for the Liberal Democrats (81 votes, 6.0 per cent).
It would be perverse to read an election where the principal swing was from Labour to Green as a condemnation of the ULEZ policy. Another cautionary note against over-interpretation is that turnout was an astonishingly poor 14.2 per cent, reflecting the limited appeal of a summer by-election contest in a safe Labour ward in a borough that elected 51 Labour councillors out of 51 in the last full elections. Labour’s principal loss was to abstention, as fewer than half the voters who supported the party’s slate in 2022 did so in the by-election.
This is evidence that Labour’s core vote is proving difficult to motivate, yet it should not lead to giddy celebrations in Conservative ranks. The other trend to bear in mind is that although Barking & Dagenham is consistently strong for Labour in borough elections, it can produce more interesting results in other sorts of contest, including by-elections – as recently as May, there was a nine per cent swing towards the Tories in Heath ward.
The borough’s Conservatives find it difficult to organise and fight for 51 seats in borough-wide elections, but are perfectly capable of fighting a decent campaign in a by-election: the redoubtable Andrew Boff scored a 25 per cent swing in Thames ward in May 2021. And in the mayoral election on the same day, Dagenham in particular provided some solid Tory results. Tory candidate Shaun Bailey won the previous iteration of Mayesbrook ward (it was altered in last year’s boundary changes) in the 2021 mayoral election by a significant margin – 44 per cent to 32 per cent – which suggests the Conservatives would also have carried the new version of the ward back then, at least at mayoral level.
It was a ward where voting behaviour differed between elected posts, with Labour having a lead of 12-14 points in the London Assembly ballots held on the same day. It is not, therefore, a ward Khan needs to win in order to hold on to City Hall. If by-election voting approximates to Assembly elections, he and Labour are a few points ahead – not a massive lead by any means, but more comfortable than the mood music might suggest. Mayor Khan should not lose any sleep over the swing to the Tories in Mayesbrook, but would be well-advised to think about ways of inspiring Labour supporters to come out and vote next May.