Lewis Baston: Swings to Tories but comfort for Labour in ‘Super Thursday’ borough by-elections

Lewis Baston: Swings to Tories but comfort for Labour in ‘Super Thursday’ borough by-elections

All Londoners had three votes in the elections last Thursday – four if you count their second preference for Mayor – but there were 46 wards, more than two boroughs’ worth, where people also had a vote to fill a vacancy on their local council.

As I wrote here a few weeks ago, there was a long backlog of council by-elections caused by the resignation or death of incumbent councillors. These took place alongside the mayoral election and somewhat in its shadow. People cast votes for the composition of 22 of London’s 32 borough councils. It was the biggest set of elections for these councils between the borough elections in 2018 and those that are now approaching in 2022.

Labour had the most to lose, defending 35 seats, compared to Conservatives’ nine and one each for the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. Of the 46 contested, three changed hands. The overall net change was Conservatives up two, Labour down two, Lib Dems up one and Greens down one. The five Labour-held marginals were where most of the action happened and they fell as follows:

  • Barnet, East Barnet ward: The Conservatives gained a seat in a ward which was split two to one in favour of Labour in the 2018 elections. Their candidate Nicole Richer (pictured) won a hard-fought campaign with a below-average swing, confirming the ward’s status as a key marginal in the full contest in 2022.
  • Brent, Brondesbury Park ward: Labour’s Gwen Grahl achieved Labour’s best swing anywhere in London – 6.6 per cent – to make a convincing defence of a marginal ward Labour gained in 2018.
  • Enfield, Chase ward: Labour politics in Enfield has been troubled in recent years and this was widely expected to be a difficult by-election. The Conservative candidate Andrew Thorpe did indeed gain the seat, while his colleagues in the other two by-elections in Enfield (Jubilee and Southbury wards) also improved the party’s position, though not by enough to win..
  • Wandsworth, Bedford ward: Labour’s Hannah Stanislaus held the seat vacated by Fleur Anderson, now MP for Putney, with a tiny pro-Labour swing since 2018 on a high turnout of 51 per cent. Wandsworth is Labour’s number one target in the borough elections in 2022, and the result suggests another hard-fought campaign in the “Brighter Borough” is in the offing.
  • Westminster, Churchill ward: Labour candidate Liza Begum held this south Westminster ward, which split Labour two, Conservative one in the 2018 elections. Begum enjoyed a swing in her favour since the result in 2018.

The Conservatives also defended five marginals – two in Ealing and one each in Hillingdon, Hackney and Waltham Forest. They held all of them, although four of the five showed swings to Labour, against the national and London-wide trend.

There were two other by-elections in south west London which became interesting contests. The election in Kingston’s Chessington South ward had elements of soap opera from the start, with the outgoing Lib Dem councillor’s son contesting it for Labour and former Essex Labour MP Andrew MacKinlay defending it for the Lib Dems.

Then, by the time nominations closed, it was apparent that an army of Loonies had descended on Chessington – 13 candidates stood for the Official Monster Raving Loony Party. Their efforts were rewarded with 92 votes in total (2.4 per cent), with two Loonies polling one vote each and their top vote-getter Undertaking Director Brunskill winning the support of 16 voters. MacKinlay was elected in the serious bit of the election, by the way.

The Lib Dems picked up a seat from the Green Party in Hampton Wick, Richmond. The two parties had run in an electoral pact in 2018, but this did not apply at the by-election. When forced to make a choice between the two, voters elected the Lib Dem, Petra Fleming, in place of a departing Green. The Lib Dems look in good shape to keep control of Richmond Council next year

Local controversies were most apparent in Croydon, where Labour suffered double-digit swings to the Tories in the three wards where the party defended seats it had won in 2018 amid the fall-out of the council’s financial troubles and a controversial report into their circumstances.

Examining the trend across London more generally, the average swing in the by-elections was five per cent to the Conservatives since the 2018 elections. This falls pretty much exactly in line with the swing in the rest of the local elections in England. The 2018 elections were level-pegging or perhaps with a slight Conservative lead nationally, while in 2021 the Tories were 10-11 points ahead – a 5 per cent swing. For once, voting trends in London and the rest of England stayed in line with each other rather than diverging – as with the mayoral result.

Some of the finer-grained trends that were apparent in the rest of England were also manifest in London. The Conservatives achieved some impressive advances in Outer London “council estate wards” such as Croydon, New Addington North (15 per cent swing) and Merton, St Helier (11 per cent swing), though they were still a long way from winning. They also had good results in several Outer London wards with high BAME populations, the swing running at around 9-10 per cent from Labour across several wards in Hounslow and Redbridge.

The best Tory swings came in Newham, East Ham Central (21 per cent swing) and Barking & Dagenham, Thames ward (25 per cent swing), though the latter is flattered by Labour losing votes to Independents and others. In Thames, the Conservative effort was boosted by the candidacy of the irrepressible Andrew Boff, who was re-elected as a London-wide Assembly Member on the same day and has previously served on Hillingdon and Hackney councils. Labour’s Fatuma Nalule was the winner on this occasion.

Although this was a fairly poor set of elections for Labour, there is some comfort in the detail. The overall swing was driven by bad results in wards where the party had not faced serious challenge before. In “safe” Labour-held wards, where the party was more than 20 percentage points ahead in 2018, the swing to the Conservatives was a meaty eight per cent. But in the ten marginal wards, where the Conservatives or Labour were defending small majorities, the swing was actually one per cent in favour of Labour.

If these straws in the wind are anything to go by, the 2022 borough elections are going to be an interesting experience for all involved.

Update: This piece originally referred to the Conservatives defending a marginal seat in Croydon. That should have said “Hillingdon”. It now does. Apologies. 

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Categories: Analysis


  1. Kyle Harrison says:

    Definitely feels like the Tories are holding up in the Capital, which runs against the narrative that has somewhat developed that London is becoming a no go zone for Tories and absolute Labour heartland.

    The Tories need to get a Remainer type to run for mayor next time, someone that can appeal to some of the lost Remainer type voters but at the same time can still pick up the already anti- Labour votes. Rory Stewart would probably do well, if he ran as a Tory.

    The Greens vs Lib Dem thing is going to become more interesting, they are the two parties that have agreed pacts but they are also each other’s main rival. The Greens largely pick up middle class, I reckon pretty white voters. Same as the Lib Dems in London.

  2. richard charles wentworth malim says:

    London a Tory no-go area? In 2019 Labour had a swing from Con in only 8 seats all under 2.5% except Putney 6.4%, whereas Con had 49 swings to them from Lab, and there were 5 further swings from Lab to LD

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