Lewis Baston: Lib Dem by-election boosts in two Labour seats – what do they mean?

Lewis Baston: Lib Dem by-election boosts in two Labour seats – what do they mean?

By-elections were held last Thursday (9 March) in two borough wards: Haringey’s Tottenham Hale and Hounslow’s Heston West. Neither contest was thrilling and their results were similar – Labour holds with reduced shares of the vote on low turnouts with the Liberal Democrats gaining support. But they do tell us a little about the patchwork of communities that make up modern London and about how by-election support works.

Tottenham Hale ward lies east of Tottenham High Road, which runs straight north along the course of the Roman road Ermine Street and on the north side of the rather newer Monument Way, which takes traffic from the middle of Tottenham to the much-simplified gyratory at Tottenham Hale. Its northern boundary, separating it from Northumberland Park, runs between residential streets. To the east is the flat, watery Lee Valley and the boundary with Waltham Forest, crossed here at Ferry Lane. Down Lane Park is near the geographical centre of the ward.

The best-known landmark is Tottenham Hale station, rebuilt to become one of north London’s major transport intersections where the Victoria Line meets the rail route out to Stansted and beyond. There is also the Harris Academy Tottenham secondary school, founded in 2014. Much of the ward consists of Edwardian terraced housing, with the street names indicating the period in which it was built – Boer War battles like Mafeking and Ladysmith, and British military leaders like Buller and Carew.

Despite all the culture war scare stories and the anti-imperialist politics of the “Corbyn council” elected in Haringey in 2018, the street names of Tottenham Hale have not been decolonised. However, the people who live there reflect London’s multicultural reality. There is a large black population, mostly of African origin, but also a lot of people of mixed race and smaller minority ethnic groups.

Newer housing, mostly family houses and low-rise council blocks, has gradually added to or replaced the Edwardian stock over the decades and the housing is still being renewed. Large blocks of student accommodation have been built just to the east of the station, adding a new element to the local mix. Overwhelmingly, people in Tottenham Hale rent their homes either from social providers or private landlords.

Tottenham Hale is an extremely safe Labour ward, with vote shares of over 70 per cent for the party far from uncommon and the rest divided between other parties. There has, nevertheless, been political turbulence within the ward. the now former councillor Lorna Reid was deselected in 2018 when borough Labour politics was bitterly divided between Momentum and the previous leadership. Her successor, Ruth Gordon, still represents the ward alongside veteran Reg Rice, and is Cabinet Member for Council Housebuilding, Placemaking and Development.

Screenshot 2023 03 12 at 10.37.09

The third member of the Labour trio elected in 2022 was a new face, Yannis Gourtsoyannis, a doctor of infectious diseases who had been active in campaigning nationally and within the BMA about the concerns of junior doctors and NHS issues more widely. The 2022 Haringey selections had been hard-fought as in 2018, and his selection was one of the few bright spots for Momentum, who generally suffered losses to supporters of the new leadership of Peray Ahmet. But he stood down in February, citing personal reasons.

With a safe ward like this the key contest was the Labour candidate selection, which was won by Seán O’Donovan (pictured above), a Tottenham-based advice worker who had contested Fortis Green ward in 2022, narrowly missing out to a Lib Dem, as his two Labour colleagues were elected. O’Donovan’s Tottenham Hale campaign emphasised the investment in new council housing that was taking place there and improvements to Down Lane Park. Five other candidates came forward, with Independent Miraf Ghebreawariat and Amelia Allao for the Christian People’s Alliance joining those of the other three main parties. Emma Chan stood for the Greens, Angelos Tsangarides represented the Conservatives and Allen Windsor carried the Lib Dem banner.

The campaign was routine, with the non-Labour candidates trying to capitalise on issues like fly-tipping and crime and, in the case of the Conservatives, opposing the council’s introduction of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods. It was no surprise when O’Donovan was elected. He received 818 votes – 59 per cent, down on the 68 per cent the Labour team won last year. Windsor came second with 15 per cent, up from eight per cent. All the others fell well below 10 per cent. Turnout was a low 20 per cent.


Finding a common theme between the Tottenham Hale contest and the one across the capital in Heston West ward is an exercise in contrivance, but I am going ahead anyway. That common theme is transport.

Heston West covers the area of the former Heston Aerodrome, which for a period in the 1930s was London’s second airport after Croydon. It was closed in 1947 after the start of the expansion of Heathrow, which was called London Airport until 1966. Heston’s moment in the spotlight had come in September 1938 when Neville Chamberlain famously returned from Munich with a piece of paper which he said promised peace for our time. Part of the Heston airfield site was later used for the M4 motorway and the Heston service station, which opened in the mid-1960s.

The residential areas in the Heston West ward lie on both sides of the M4. The smaller part is around North Hyde, adjacent to Southall across the Grand Union Canal, and the larger bit is by Cranford Lane. There are no rail stations in the ward, but the Hounslow West Piccadilly Line station is not far from its southern end.

The suburban west of Heston has been settled since the airfield’s 1930s heyday in a variety of styles, including 1930s semis, low-rise council estates and a few high rises. The electorate in Heston West is ethnically mostly south Asian and highly religiously diverse – a plurality are Sikh (32 per cent), followed by Muslim (25 per cent), Christian (21 per cent) and Hindu (11 per cent). It is part of the belt of Asian communities stretching westwards from Southall through Hayes and Slough.

Heston West has consistently voted Labour, although usually by smaller margins than Tottenham Hale –  the Conservatives used to get close in this suburban ward in their better elections such as 1982. But it still counts as a safe Labour seat and in last year’s full council elections the party’s majority was well over 40 per cent.

The vacancy was caused by the resignation of Labour councillor Adriana Gheorghe. The election was fought by the main four parties plus one Independent, Bartosz Kuleba. Labour’s Emma Siddhu, described by the local party as a “local mum”, was the clear favourite from the start. The Conservatives fought an active campaign, with their young candidate Muraad Ali Chaudhry emphasising the party’s opposition to Sadiq Khan’s extension of the London Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) to the regional boundary.

Heston West is a low-income ward in outer London where, by London standards, a high proportion of people use their car to get to work – around 40 per cent compared to well below 20 per cent in Tottenham Hale. It is therefore the sort of place where Conservative campaigning on ULEZ might fall on receptive soil.

Siddhu (in main picture, centre) held the seat, but Labour’s share of the vote dropped from the 64 per cent achieved last May to 52 per cent. The Green vote also fell sharply. Yet the Conservatives were not the beneficiaries of these reductions. Their own vote share slipped too, just a little. It was Lib Dem Chaitan Shah, who gained, polling 22 per cent from a standing start. Turnout was 21 per cent.


Why did the Lib Dems pick up vote shares in these two contests? A cynic might observe that the party in London is soon to choose candidates for the London-wide list section of next year’s London Assembly elections and that this encourages aspirants to get themselves known among members – who will choose those candidates – by helping out in council by-election campaigns.

But even without such an incentive, Lib Dem party culture is such that ordinary members are prepared to travel across London to deliver leaflets on cold, wet winter evenings in hostile territory. They seem to enjoy it. The Tottenham Hale and Heston West results both demonstrate that a bit of campaign effort can be rewarded with a respectable vote, even in areas where the Lib Dems have no track record. If Labour activists have paid relatively little attention to their safer wards, it helps opponents arguing that the area has been neglected and needs a local voice to stand up to the council leadership.

Certain local issues are present in many different kinds of community, such as fly-tipping, antisocial behaviour, traffic and crime. Low turnout by-elections such as these two can produce sizeable bumps in the Lib Dem percentage share, but these don’t mean very much in the longer term. The 2023 by-elections in Tottenham Hale and Heston West will soon be forgotten, even in the wards where they took place, though they will be remembered for longer in the O’Donovan and Siddhu households.

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Categories: Analysis

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