The year 2024 will see Londoners at the polls for the Mayor and Assembly in May and probably a general election at some point. But the first London voting of 2024 was in four council by-election contests in three boroughs – two wards in Richmond-upon-Thames and one each and Wandsworth and Hackney.
The Richmond contests were triggered by the deaths of two exceptionally long-serving councillors in the same week of November. Politics in the borough will never be the same after the losses of Conservative Geoffrey Samuel and Liberal Democrat Martin Elengorn. Between them, they clocked up 85 years of public service on the council.
Samuel was first elected to the old Twickenham borough council in 1957, making him the last councillor still sitting to have experience in the role from before the current London boroughs were created in 1965.
His service was interrupted: he was a Labour representative from 1957 until 1968 and from 1971 until 1978, then came back as a Conservative at a by-election in 1997. He was still active at the time of his death, aged 92, when he was the oldest working councillor in the country. Twickenham Conservatives said:
“Age was no barrier to Geoffrey. He undertook his contribution to public life with an energy and zeal that would shame those half his age. He was hugely active as a councillor, tirelessly working for his constituents, achieving positive outcomes, and solving their problems.”
Martin Elengorn represented Teddington continuously from the first Liberal-SDP breakthrough in the borough in 1982. He was a community activist in Teddington and part of the leadership of Richmond, serving as cabinet member for the environment from 2006 to 2010 and from 2018 to 2019. Gareth Roberts, the current leader leader of Richmond borough council, paid tribute:
“His loss will be felt keenly by all of us who worked closely with him and those he represented. I know I will miss his warm humour and friendship more than I can possibly say.”
Richmond can be a volatile borough, with many seats changing hands between the Conservatives and Lib Dems in some elections, such as in 2014 and 2018. The fact that Samuel and Elengorn accumulated such long service indicates that their wards are among the safer ones for their respective parties.
Samuel represented Hampton North ward, whose demographics and history are unusual for Richmond borough. A large part of it was developed in the 1970s and 1980s, unlike the predominantly inter-war and older suburbs of Twickenham and the town of Richmond.
The large Nurserylands estate was built on land released from the Green Belt that had previously been a semi-rural market gardening area. It has a mix of housing tenures, including council homes. The ward also includes some older tree-lined suburban avenues that are closer to the stereotypical image of the borough.
Politically, it has been a marginal ward since it was created in 2002; one of its three seats has changed hands between the Conservatives and Lib Dems at each set of elections since 2010. The Lib Dems gained a seat in 2018 and again in 2022, but could not dislodge Samuel.
Hampton North was the one ward where the local electoral pact between the Lib Dems and the Greens did not pay off for both sides: two Lib Dems were elected at the top of the poll but Samuel and one of his running mates came in ahead of the Green candidate.
Samuel probably owed his survival to the Independent candidacy of Avril Coelho, the outgoing Lib Dem councillor for the ward, which split the vote with the Green. He was the only Tory survivor of the May 2022 full elections in Richmond, which produced the worst drubbing on record for his party in this prosperous suburban borough.
The contest featured four candidates, representing the principal London political parties. Businesswoman Nupur Majumdar ran for the Conservatives, now defending a seat she had fought unsuccessfully in 2022. The principal challenge came from Lib Dem fellow businesswoman Carey Bishop. Transport planner Sam Cullen stood for Labour and community activist Danielle Coleman represented the Greens.
Transport was a significant issue in the election, particularly for Labour, in ward which is dependent on buses and private cars. More than most of Richmond, there was potential for anti-ULEZ campaigning by the Tories. Candidates also complained about the loss of community facilities, such as pharmacies.
A close result had been anticipated, but in the end the Lib Dems gained the seat by a comfortable if not overwhelming margin. Bishop (top photo, second from right) was elected with 1,177 votes (53 per cent), ahead of Majumdar (771 votes, 35 per cent). Labour (159 votes, seven per cent) and the Greens (106 votes, five per cent) were far behind.
Turnout was 31 per cent. It is misleading to compile a swing figure, given the pattern of candidates in 2022, but overall there was a movement in favour of the Lib Dems.
Teddington ward reaches a small stretch of the left bank of the Thames at Teddington Lock, which is notable for being the limit of the tidal section of the river and of the jurisdiction of the Port of London Authority. It takes its name from the affluent Teddington village, whose station giving ready access to trains on the Kingston Loop to Waterloo.
The ward’s population is highly educated – over 60 per cent have a degree or equivalent, compared to 45 per cent in Hampton North – and professional. Even by Richmond standards it is a strongly Lib Dem area, electing a full slate of Lib Dem councillors in every set of borough elections since Martin Elengorn first won in 1982. It is the sort of place where people are inclined to liberal views anyway, and the Lib Dem techniques of community engagement and frequent leafleting on very local issues also go down well.
Five candidates stood. Defending for the Lib Dems was Richard Baker, who represented the ward under its old boundaries from 2018 to 2022. The Conservative candidate was local resident Elizabeth Foster, who is an assistant for adults with learning difficulties. The Labour flag was flown by James Thompson, who is interested in disability and environmental policies, and the Green candidate, Chantal Kerr-Sheppard, works in sustainability and start-ups. They were joined by James Stockford, pastor of the evangelical Christ Church Teddington.
One of the prominent local issues was Thames Water’s plan for what is called the Teddington Direct River Abstraction, which would take water out of the Thames at Teddington for drinking and replace it with treated water from the Mogden sewage works in Isleworth. Local opinion appears to be sceptical about its merits.
As expected, the Lib Dems held the seat with a large majority, meaning Baker has returned to the council with the support of 1,716 voters (64 per cent). The Conservatives finished a distant second (561 votes, 21 per cent), the Greens third (184, seven per cent), Labour fourth (163, six per cent) and Stockford last (46, two per cent). Vote shares were similar to those of 2022, allowing for the extra Green and Independent candidates. The turnout was 34 per cent, which although respectable is low by Richmond standards.
The Richmond results mean the elimination of the Conservatives from the borough council. Such a borough becoming a Tory-free zone like Labour-controlled Lewisham and Islington is a symbol of how far the Tories have fallen among the professional middle classes: in 2015 they had a majority on Richmond Council and held both of the local parliamentary seats.
Politics in Richmond’s civic centre now takes on a slightly East German flavour, with 46 Lib Dems facing an opposition of six Greens, all of whom were elected as part of an electoral pact with the governing party that dates from 2018.
The Tooting Broadway by-election in Wandsworth arose because Labour councillor Kate Forbes resigned to take a post at City Hall. She had previously been a political assistant to Tooting MP Rosena Allin-Khan and therefore now works for her predecessor, Sadiq Khan. Forbes was
The ward’s name describes it very accurately, and I wrote about it in the context of a July 2022 by-election. The multi-ethnic community around the station on the southern stretch of the Northern Line has long been loyal to Labour, even when the Conservatives were dominant in Wandsworth politics.
Four candidates stood in the by-election: for Labour, Sean Lawless, who heads Allin-Khan’s office; for the Tories, Otto Jacobsson for the Conservatives; for the Lib Dems, Haren Thillainathan, who also contested the ward in July 2022; and Nick Humberstone for the Greens.
The closely-knit Tooting Labour machine held the set convincingly. There was no sign that the electors of Wandsworth regret their decision in 2022 to eject the Tories after 44 years. Lawless received 1,888 votes (67 per cent), with the Conservatives far behind on 542 votes (19 per cent) and the Greens (261, nine per cent) and Lib Dems (113, four per cent) lagging even further.
Compared to the May 2022 election there was a swing to Labour of three per cent. Turnout was 24 per cent, which is an improvement on the 19 per cent of July 2022. Labour’s good showing is notable in a ward with a significant (15.5 per cent) Muslim population, given fears that the party leadership’s position on Gaza has alienated Muslim voters.
The results of these three by-elections show the Conservatives still in deep trouble with the London electorate and should serve as a corrective to naïve interpretations of the startling Tory gain in Hackney.
They also provide a chance to praise local representatives of all parties. The three south west London vacancies were caused by the departures of people who had put a lot into their communities: Samuel and Elengorn by racking up decades of public service, and Forbes by facing down an assault at Allin-Khan’s office last September.
On London extends its congratulations to councillors Baker, Bishop and Lawless (and Sharer in Hackney) and wishes them every good fortune as they step into the shoes of their predecessors.