Following the spate of by-elections for London borough councils that took place on 6 May alongside those for London Mayor and Assembly there has been a trickle of further opportunities for Londoners to cast their votes. There were two borough by-elections yesterday (1 July): one in a marginal ward in Enfield and the other in a safe Labour ward in Islington. These followed two in Waltham Forest on 10 June.
The Enfield contest took place in Bush Hill Park ward, where there was also a by-election in November 2018, during that nearly forgotten age when Theresa May was Prime Minister. As I wrote at the time, Bush Hill Park is the odd ward out in the Edmonton parliamentary constituency – a fairly upmarket, quiet suburb with an Enfield rather than London postcode.
It was competitive territory in the 2014 and 2018 borough elections, splitting its favours in 2014 and plumping narrowly for the Tories in 2018. The previous by-election was brought about by the resignation of a newly-elected Conservative councillor because of the competing demands of work and council service.
The cause of second is perhaps more embarrassing. The vacancy arose due to the disqualification of William Coleshill for failing to attend a council meeting for the statutory six months. Though elected as a Conservative, Coleshill had been sitting as an Independent having lost the Tory whip following anti-immigrant remarks in a council meeting in 2018. He is now an anti-lockdown activist.
The Conservatives selected a safer pair of hands to defend Coleshill’s seat – Peter Fallart (pictured), who had previously represented Chase ward before being narrowly defeated in 2018. Their main competition came from Labour’s Nia Stevens, a climate campaigner.
Given the trend in the ward, the Conservatives were always favourites and Fallart won a convincing victory, with 55 per cent of the vote. This was slightly more than his colleague James Hockney won in November 2018 (52 per cent) but the overall result was very similar. The Conservatives campaigned on issues like preserving the Green Belt and against charging for garden waste collection, a concern in this “leafy” ward.
The 12 per cent pro-Conservative swing in Bush Hill Park since the full borough election of May 2018 coming on top of a gain in Chase ward in May 2021 and some decent swings in two other Enfield by-elections held that day, suggests potential for a real contest in London’s northernmost borough in the next full elections elections next year.
It is too soon to write the obituaries for the Tories in London suburbs, particularly the more mixed ones like Enfield. The Bush Hill Park result is also a sign that Enfield’s Labour administration is in some trouble with the voters. Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey had a narrow lead over Sadiq Khan in the mayoral election vote here, reversing a Labour lead in 2016.
Even so, it will be tough for the Tories to win: translating the May 2021 mayoral result into council seats (a rough process) would still have put Labour ahead by 33 seats to 30. Ward boundaries change next year, a potential source of uncertainty.
Yesterday’s other by-election was a knock-on consequence of Khan’s re-election. Richard Watts, who had led Islington Council for eight years, has taken up a politically restricted job at City Hall. His role as deputy chief of staff includes chairing the London Recovery Taskforce, which is organising the London government’s response to the economic and social challenges of recovering from the pandemic.
Watts had represented Tollington ward in the north of Islington since 2006. Tollington is a slice of inner city N19 stretching north west from Holloway Road, covering territory between Upper Holloway and Crouch Hill stations on the Overground line. Like most of Islington, the ward is a chequerboard of council estates (42 per cent of households are socially renting) and villas that were posh in the Victorian age, down at heel in 1970 and increasingly desirable now.
It’s a densely populated, typically inner London ward of working-age people living in flats, diverse in ethnicity and class. This is Corbyn country – indeed, one of the thoroughfares of the ward is called Corbyn Street – and a very reliable Labour ward. In the 2018 borough elections Labour won 70 per cent of the vote, making it the second most Labour ward in Islington after neighbouring Finsbury Park. The Greens were in second place, as they were in the 2021 Mayor and Assembly elections.
The campaign was slightly unusual in a tactical sense, in that part of the Green message was that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats couldn’t win and that it was bad for Islington Council to be so completely dominated by Labour. Green candidate Jonathan Ward also campaigned in favour of traffic calming.
Labour emerged victorious with 1,243 votes (57 per cent) to 730 for the Greens (33 per cent). A 15-point swing to the Greens since 2018 is not to be lightly dismissed and certainly suggests some interesting contests in the borough elections due in May 2022. But it could have been worse for Labour. Their candidate Mick Gilgunn, a proud Corbynite from a trade union background, joins Islington council’s Labour benches.
The two Waltham Forest by-elections in June were in Grove Green and Lea Bridge, two Labour wards in the south of that stratified borough.
Lea Bridge, part of the Walthamstow parliamentary constituency, is a long thin ward around Bridge Road with the new railway station at its western end. Grove Green is a densely packed district of Leyton, accessible via Leyton Midland Road station on the same Overground line that serves Tollington. Grove Green in particular has a high proportion of people renting privately (44 per cent in the 2011 census, placing it in the top 20 wards in London) and both wards are majority BAME.
Labour held both wards, with the result in Grove Green being more impressive. Teacher Uzma Rasool raised Labour’s share from 54 per cent in 2018 to 58 per cent, while the Lib Dems – the main opposition in the ward – remained flat on 24 per cent. In Lea Bridge, Momentum activist Jennifer Whilby retained a comfortable Labour majority, but the interesting feature was that local historian and Lea Bridge enthusiast Claire Weiss came second as an Independent.
There was no evidence from any of the four by-elections since 6 May of any significant change in voting patterns. Turnout in them all was pretty poor: 22 per cent in Tollington, 21 per cent in the two in Waltham Forest, and 29.14 in Bush Hill Park. There is no reason yet to change our expectations for the borough elections next year.
The Conservatives may be doing well enough to threaten Labour control of some suburban boroughs such as Enfield and Harrow (though Labour will challenge strongly in Tory-controlled Wandsworth), while the Greens – if they can master the art of targeting – should be able to win some seats from Labour in the inner heartlands. But there are still 10 months to go until next May and post-pandemic politics may look very different by then.
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