Fortune Green is a lovely name for a ward. It conjures up a pot of gold nestling in the greensward at the end of the rainbow. The real place is attractive, but not quite that legendary. It was one of the first places in north London I stayed overnight, amid a distinctively London conjunction of tallish redbrick mansion blocks and tree-lined avenues and small parks, the scruffy and transitory and the grand and bourgeois side by side.
It lies in the northern half of West Hampstead, stretching from Camden’s section of Cricklewood through some suburban avenues – though here, even suburban avenues have exotic names that recall East African places and classical Greek heroes – to the corner where Hendon Way accelerates away from Finchley Road.
My first visit to the ward, as a young and idealistic student, took place sometime between 1986 and 1990, during the first term of local Liberal Democrat councillor Flick Rea. She remained in the seat long enough for me to have become middle-aged and grumpy. Flick seemed to change far less. But time takes its toll even on the formidable, and she decided to retire gracefully this year, bringing about yesterday’s Fortune Green’s by-election. Rea is a Camden and a Lib Dem institution, a retired actor whose warm, whisky-and-cigarettes voice and hearty laugh enlivens any gathering. She was awarded an MBE in 2013.
Fortune Green was the Lib Dem stronghold in Camden from Flick’s original win in 1986 until 2014, when local Lib Dems paid the price for their party’s national coalition with the Conservatives. Labour gained two of the ward’s three seats and held them in 2018. Rea’s personal vote preserved a single-seat Lib Dem presence on Camden Council in 2014 and she was joined by two colleagues from Belsize ward in 2018. It was a far cry from 2006-10, when the Lib Dems were the council’s largest party.
Based on the 2018 results, Labour and Lib Dem were closely matched for the by-election contest. Rea came top that year with 1,496 votes, but all three Labour candidates finished ahead of her Lib Dem running mates by a margin of at least 117 votes. This highly marginal status and the activist base of all three main political parties, made for a battle royal in the 2021 by-election.
Inner London, particularly those bits like West Hampstead that are popular with graduates and young professionals, is unusual in that a lot of young political activists of all parties end up living there. There is therefore an ample supply of keen doorstep canvassers and leaflet deliverers to fuel a full-pressure campaign, even for a local authority by-election. The Lib Dem effort was graced by a visit from party leader Ed Davey. There may even have been more supply of than demand for campaigning in Fortune Green: some households put up posters asking canvassers and leaflet deliverers to go away because they had already cast a postal vote.
The Lib Dem candidate defending the vacancy was Nancy Jirira, who had represented Fortune Green from a by-election in February 2008 until losing her seat in 2014. She unsuccessfully contested West Hampstead ward in 2018. Jirira is an NHS nurse and a long-term local resident. Labour’s Lorna Greenwood, another local, is a project manager for charities and the arts. The Conservatives ran well behind in 2018 and in the 2021 London-wide elections here, though before 2014 they were the main challengers to the Lib Dems. Their candidate Ian Cohen, also local, is apparently “dry cleaner to the stars” and came just short of winning a seat here in 2014. Unusually, no candidates from other parties or any Independents stood for election.
The Lib Dems appeared a bit annoyed by how much the Tories were campaigning: part of their strategy was to squeeze the blue vote, using the very familiar argument that the Tories “can’t win here” They also pitched for pluralist Labour votes. Labour controls Camden with a large majority, but lacks the overwhelming dominance it has in Islington or Lewisham. Seven Conservatives, three Lib Dems and one Green were elected in 2018 alongside 43 Labour councillors. Davey told the excellent local newspaper Camden New Journal he hoped some Labour supporters would conclude that “the council will stay Labour anyway – but I’d like some competition for them, as that’s good for Labour.”
It is the sort of argument that might work in Hampstead, but few other places. The Conservatives concentrated on some of their traditional campaigning themes such as crime, but Cohen also spoke about the flooding and the environment. Labour’s Greenwood was relentlessly cheerful on the doorstep, talking about women’s safety, social housing and the environment. The two main national parties both tried to emphasise the competition between them and downplay the Lib Dem challenge.
When the votes were counted today (rather than overnight) it was clear from an early stage that the Lib Dems had held the seat with a comfortable majority. Their share of the vote – 46.7 per cent – was the highest in the ward since Jirira’s first by-election win back in 2008, when she polled more than half the vote. She received 1197 votes, Greenwood 849 and Cohen 518. Compared to the borough elections in 2018, Labour fell back slightly. The absence of a Green candidate did not help them, as might have been expected, and may have boosted the Lib Dems instead. The Conservatives can draw some comfort from not being squeezed.
Turnout was 29.8 per cent, which is not impressive given the extremely vigorous campaign though it compares favourably with other recent by-elections. The legacy of the campaign will be that, thanks to the flood of volunteers from across Camden and beyond, the Lib Dems have some fresh information about where their support is to be found and what issues matter to Fortune Green.
This would not have happened had Rea served out her full term to the borough elections next May, when Labour would probably have started favourites to win three seats out of three here. Now, the Lib Dems have a reasonable chance of holding Jirira’s seat in 2022 and of gaining one or even both the others. The manner of Flick’s retirement was a little gift to her party, which was duly appreciated and used effectively. It never pays to underestimate how canny a local political celebrity like Flick Rea can be.
Image from Nancy Jirira’s Twitter feed.
On London is a small but influential website which strives to provide more of the kind of journalism the capital city needs. Become a supporter for £5 a month or £50 a year and receive an action-packed weekly newsletter and free entry to online events. Details here.