What might be the last by-election before the full London borough elections in May 2022 proved to be a nail-biter. Labour held a seat for hotly-contested Tory-run Wandsworth Council’s Bedford ward by a single vote yesterday. It was an unexpected though hardly unwarranted close shave for Labour in a borough where the party has been making strong progress in recent years.
Council member vacancies that arise during the final six months of the normal term are left unfilled until the borough elections. We are now past that point, and the Bedford by-election took place just before the cut-off (no date has been set to fill the vacancy in Harrow created by the death of Kenton West ward Conservative councillor Vina Methani, so that seat may be left empty until May).
The Bedford ward contest was caused by the resignation of Independent ex-Labour councillor Hannah Stanislaus, who had been elected in May of this year, succeeding Fleur Anderson who had resigned her council seat following her election as MP for Putney in December 2019. That earlier Bedford by-election was bundled up with 45 others the London Mayor and Assembly elections, so it did not get a full review here at that time.
Bedford ward is where Balham shades into Tooting. Its northern end is the bit of Balham that lies south of the main line railway, and the south end is just to the east of Tooting Bec station on the Northern Line. Most of the ward has an SW17 Tooting postcode rather than Balham’s SW12, although Wandsworth’s vibrant estate agent community no doubt pushes the boundary a little south of the postcode line. The eastern part of the ward consists of Tooting Bec Common, whose football pitches, lido, tennis courts and athletics track make it one of London’s sportier public spaces. The ward’s name comes from Bedford Hill, a long curving road which parts from the main drag just north of Balham station.
Bedford is a fairly uniform product of the late Victorian and Edwardian expansion of the London suburbs, with row after row of residential terraces and semi-detached houses. The differences between them are subtler than the sharp contrasts in many London neighbourhoods: there is not much that looks either grand or shabby.
Nevertheless, household income is startlingly high in parts of the ward. The biggest newish development is Heritage Park, a large 1990s private estate, popular with young professionals and families, on the site of the former Tooting Bec Asylum. Most of the houses in the ward have been divided into flats – at 71 per cent the proportion of apartment dwellers is pretty high for a ward that has few council estates or mansion blocks. At 27.6 per cent BAME (at the time of the 2011 Census) it is relatively white for Inner London, and was the whitest ward in Wandsworth to return a Labour councillor in 2018. It is in the top tier of wards nationwide for graduates.
Bedford has nearly always been a marginal ward, in contrast to some other parts of Wandsworth where social change, new development and the peak in the popularity of the Conservative administration in the 1990s and 2000s led to some huge Tory wins in former Labour or marginal territory. One of the architects of the successful Wandsworth Tory strategy was Jean Lucas, whom I remember talking to in her house on Elmbourne Road overlooking the Common in about 1995, when I was working on a book about her protégé John Major.
Lucas represented Bedford on the council for several terms. The ward has gone to the Tories in their better election years, which in Wandsworth means 1978 and the elections in the 20 years from 1990. But it has recently swung significantly towards Labour, which gained two of the ward’s three seats in 2014 – both of the councillors elected in that year, Anderson and Rosena Allin-Khan, are now MPs – and surged to take all three with a comfortable majority in 2018.
The party held the seat with a slightly increased percentage majority in the May 2021 by-election, but in August the victorious Hannah Stanislaus left the Labour group in contested circumstances and later resigned from the council entirely, leading to yesterday’s contest.
As in May, there were four candidates, one each from the principal London-wide parties. Sheila Boswell is a mainstay of the Tooting Labour Party and represented the Tooting ward on the council from 2010 to 2014 – a familiar pair of hands for Bedford. However, a fast-tracked candidate selection process did not go down well with all Labour members and some councillors and activists were reluctant to devote many dark November evenings to the doorstep. Tom Mytton, a corporate governance specialist who stood for the Conservatives in May, did so again. The Greens and Liberal Democrats went with new candidates, respectively Roy Vickery and Paul Tibbles.
One local issue was the renewal of the sporting facilities on Tooting Common, with allegations being made that the council had arranged the timing and mode of the announcement to help the Conservative candidate. Campaigning did not dwell on the disagreements within Labour that had led to the electors of Bedford being asked back to the polling stations, but the Conservatives were clearly willing to devote a lot of attention to the election while Labour’s efforts were more subdued.
Even so, it was a surprise the Tories came so close to a shock victory. Boswell held on for Labour with 906 votes to 905 for Mytton. Vickery and Tibbles polled 306 and 135 respectively. The percentage swing was around seven per cent to the Conservatives since 2018. Turnout was a dreadful 21.7 per cent, a big drop compared to the 51 per cent turnout for the combined elections in May. In raw numbers, the Labour total fell by two thirds (Stanislaus won with 2,714 votes a few months ago) and the Conservative vote nearly halved. The electorate was clearly less than enthused by this democratic contest.
Low turnout and the murky and disputatious local circumstances clearly did not help Labour, but the result was undeniably a poor one for the party in the sort of area where it should be doing well and against the backdrop of an improved national polling position. It is a blow to the party’s hopes of ending the Conservatives’ 44-year control of Wandsworth next year and yet another example of the consistent pattern of Labour doing worse in London by-elections than in 2018. As of now, it looks as if May 2018 will prove to be a high-water mark for Labour, though there are still five months to go.
Lewis Baston will write an overview of the all the London borough by-elections of the last three- and-a-half years once a decision has been taken about the Kenton West ward vacancy.
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