The outcome of yesterday’s Lewisham East by-election is being subjected to as much fevered interpretation as was the process by which Labour selected its candidate Janet Daby. She comfortably held the seat formerly occupied by Heidi Alexander, taking 50.2% of the vote, but there was big swing of 19 points from Labour to the Liberal Democrats compared with last year’s general election result, enabling the latter’s candidate Lucy Salek to secure second place with 24.6% of the vote. By contrast, the Conservatives slumped to third (14.4%).
Most post-result scrutiny has been conducted through the lens of Brexit, with the latest bewildering goings-on in parliament as the backdrop. In her acceptance speech, Daby said her win showed that Lewisham East “will not tolerate an extreme Brexit”, but Lib Dems will surely claim that their explicitly anti-Brexit stance and unequivocal support for a “peoples’ vote” on the final deal cut through the tactical ambiguity of the Labour leadership’s pro-Brexit position in a part of London that voted strongly to Remain in the European Union.
It’s a gloomy result for the Tories as they seek to revive their fortunes in the capital by picking a 2020 mayoral candidate early, and Conservative London MEP Charles Tannock, a staunch Remainer, has urged London Conservatives to “look closely at this result and understand [that a] hard Brexit policy is not a winning policy in the capital”. UKIP, represented by London Assembly member David Kurten, came nowhere, as did the For Britain Movement, whose candidate Anne Marie Waters was “not ratified” as UKIP general election candidate last year following her description of Islam as “evil”.
Daby’s emergence as the candidate from an all female ethnic minority shortlist was seen as a win for “moderates” within Labour locally, notwithstanding her having twice voted for Jeremy Corbyn to be party leader. Unlike the novice councillor backed by Momentum and its associated media to represent the party, Daby had a track record as a council cabinet member and the founder of a community food and support project – in short, she has done rather more in London politics than shout a few Corbynite slogans.
Even so, Labour in Lewisham as a whole continues to be influenced by the priorities of Momentum. As On London has documented in some detail, the borough’s new Labour Mayor Damien Egan was among those local Labour politicians stampeded by a succession of exceptionally flimsy Guardian articles about the New Bermondsey regeneration scheme. This resulted in his withdrawing his support for action to move the project forward in the face of a public relations campaign by Millwall Football Club, which culminated in a claim that the scheme might force it to move elsewhere.
Yesterday, Egan wrote on Twitter that he would be meeting representatives of the football club and New Bermondsey’s prospective developer Renewal with a view to agreeing on “a development the community gets behind” and that ensures Millwall FC stays in the borough. The backstory here is that Egan has got himself into a difficult position. Renewal has planning consent for the scheme, and no amount of public pandering to Millwall and its media allies is going to take that away.
And who does Egan mean by “the community”? Millwall supporters, many of whom live in Kent? Residents of the development area, of which there have never been more than a handful throughout the whole controversy? Or the sort of theoretical “community” habitually constructed in the ideological imaginations of Momentumites and sympathetic journalists? More on this to come.