Yesterday’s Liberal Democrat victory in Merton’s Cannon Hill ward at Labour’s expense was the first time a London ward has changed hands between the major parties since the all-out borough elections in May 2018 (although Labour did lose a ward in Tower Hamlets to a local political party, Aspire, in February).
Merton is not one of the most famous or controversial boroughs in London. There is no strong stereotype of its politics and people as there is for neighbouring Wandsworth or for Haringey, which is Merton’s “middle London” mirror image in the north of the capital.
In broad brush terms, its politics involve a knot of strong Labour wards in the east in Mitcham, a smaller Conservative stronghold in the north west in Wimbledon, and some more politically marginal wards in the middle around Merton, Morden and South Wimbledon.
Cannon Hill is part of this middle ground. It is not one of the better known areas even within Merton, defined to its west by the Thameslink line into Wimbledon and being served only by the rather obscure South Merton station. For a middle London ward, it has fairly “middle England” demographics. Only 14 per cent of its households live in flats, compared to 38 per cent for Merton as a whole and 52 per cent across London, and it is heavily owner-occupied (80 per cent) rather than dominated by any form of renting.
It is also pretty white (only 27 per cent BAME) and pretty old (18 per cent aged over 65) for a London ward. Its complexion indicates that it might actually be one of the more difficult one in south west London for metropolitan liberalism to win. But win the Lib Dems have.
Cannon Hill is the sort of ward Labour can win only at high tide. On the previous set of ward boundaries the party was victorious in 1994 and 1998, but it was all-Conservative from 2002 until 2014, when three Labour councillors were swept in. Those 2014 elections were a nightmare for the Merton Tories, who faced splits in their own ranks, defections to UKIP and a very astute Labour targeting strategy. But in contrast to the swing across most of London, they picked up a little in 2018 as a result of UKIP’s vote falling.
The Tories regained one of the Cannon Hill seats in 2018. One of the Labour winners was Mark Kenny, but his resignation, citing health concerns, caused this by-election. While factionalism troubled the Tories in 2014, there are indications that Wimbledon Labour is internally divided and councillors like Kenny, who supported the centre-left leadership of Stephen Alambritis, have felt under pressure.
The Lib Dem campaign in Cannon Hill mixed local issues – including the troubled waste collection contract that was a major issue in the Merton and Sutton borough elections in May 2018 – and national concerns, capitalising on Merton’s vote for the party’s slate in the European Parliament elections last month.
Their candidate Jenifer Gould won 1,062 votes (35 per cent), nosing ahead of her Labour (875 votes) and Conservative (867 votes) rivals, both on 29 per cent each. Gould’s winning margin was not massive, but the swing her way was huge. This has never been a good ward for the Lib Dems before, with their vote usually around 11-13 per cent even in pre-coalition times. Gould enjoyed a 19 per cent swing against both other parties since May 2018. Turnout was a pretty good 42 per cent.
The Lib Dems are on the up across Wimbledon. They have long had an isolated area of strength in West Barnes ward, which is located between Cannon Hill and the borough boundary with the party’s Kingston stronghold. In 2018 they broke new ground, winning seats in the affluent, educated commuter wards of Dundonald and Trinity in the downhill part of Wimbledon, and took 21 per cent across the seat compared to 25 per cent for Labour and 40 per cent for the Conservatives. In the 2019 Euro election they won a clear plurality in Merton (most of it probably generated in Wimbledon) and have now gained one of the more difficult wards in the constituency to win.
Despite forbidding-looking numbers at the 2017 general election, two years later Wimbledon is emerging as a viable Lib Dem target seat for the next one as the party seeks to expand its territory in south west London. Its Conservative MP Stephen Hammond, one of the less Brexit-enthusiastic on the government benches, has some thinking to do.
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