On local election day, 2 May, former Mayor of London Boris Johnson announced on Twitter that he had voted Conservative and urged other people to do likewise. This caused a few raised eyebrows because, as a Londoner, Johnson was not entitled to vote in the elections that were taking place across most of the rest of England. The announcement was deleted a little later.
I record Johnson’ departure from strict standards of attention to detail and fidelity to the truth not to mock him – oh well, maybe a bit to mock him – but to note that there actually were a few votes cast in London local elections last Thursday. In the borough of Lewisham, 5,703 people exercised their democratic right to cast a ballot in two by-elections .
The wards contested were Evelyn and Whitefoot. These are more or less at opposite ends of the borough, but in both cases Labour was defending a large majority secured in the full boroughs elections held last May.
Evelyn ward is the bit of the Lewisham which forms its small piece of Thames riverfront, squashed between the larger riparian stretches belonging to Southwark and Greenwich and centred along Evelyn Street, which runs south east from Surrey Quays towards Greenwich. It includes Deptford Park and Deptford market. This part of Deptford is a working-class, ethnically mixed neighbourhood (61 per cent BAME in 2011), its housing heavily redeveloped in the post-war period into council-built slab and tower blocks. It is among the top 15 wards in all of London for its proportion of socially rented housing.
Whitefoot is another community created by municipal housing, but it is down in the south east of the borough and looks very different physically. Its municipal homes were built in the inter-war period as part of the Downham Estate, a large low-rise, green “cottage” estate constructed on the edge of London as it was then defined. Whitefoot ward comprises some of the north side of Downham and some neighbouring owner-occupied suburbs. It is now more owner-occupied (49 per cent) than social rented (35 per cent), partly because of right to buy sales. Estates like Downham are regarded as the heartlands of “white working class” London, though while it is certainly working-class it was 50 per cent BAME in 2011.
The Evelyn by-election was caused by a more junior councillor, Alex Feis Bryce, stepping down after only a year in post. The Labour group explained that he had recently taken a job that meant that he did not have sufficient time for his council duties – another example of council service proving difficult to reconcile with a professional career.
Evelyn has been safe Labour almost since Christopher Marlowe was killed in a somewhat mysterious local incident in 1593 and the result of the by-election was entirely predictable despite the presence of eight candidates. Labour’s Lionel Openshaw was returned with a comfortable majority despite a small swing to the Greens. Turnout was a poor 25 per cent.
The Whitefoot by-election was caused by the resignation of Labour councillor Janet Daby, who had been elected the MP for Lewisham East in June 2018 in succession to Heidi Alexander, now Sadiq Khan’s deputy for transport. Daby had represented the ward since 2010.
Whitefoot ward has a more varied political history than Evelyn. The Liberal Democrats had successes in the ward from 1998 until May 2014 after the coalition era axe fell and Labour swept up all three seats. Labour had a commanding majority in 2018 with well over 60 per cent of the vote. Even so, Whitefoot, with its relatively recent history of Lib Dem pavement politics, was a trickier proposition than Evelyn. But Labour still won, with a comfortable majority of 800 votes (1,314 to 514) despite an 11 per cent swing to the Lib Dems. Kim Powell takes her seat in the council chamber alongside Lionel Openshaw. Labour’s monopoly of all Lewisham Council seats has been restored.
Despite the lack of variety in elected representation – Lewisham is Labour all the way – there is still some interest in local politics. As in Lambeth Thornton and numerous wards in England outside London by the evidence of last week, the Lib Dems seem to have regained their right to a hearing in diverse metropolitan areas. Although they increased their vote in Evelyn, the Greens gained more encouragement from suburban and commuter England than inner London last week. Another, more local, thing to note is that Deptford has a reputation as a left wing area and for a while parties to the left of Labour could win seats in nearby Telegraph Hill. The local People Before Profit party is the successor to this political tradition and polled five per cent in Evelyn and nine per cent in Whitefoot. Openshaw is a loyal Jeremy Corbyn supporter. By local Lewisham standards, that puts him in the centre ground.