Newham has never been synonymous with electoral excitement. Labour has won 90 per cent of seats or more in every local election since 1978, and the appearance of two Greens on the council in 2022 was more competition than usual. On Thursday, the party had to defend two seats in by-elections – always a riskier environment for a dominant party than full borough elections.
They were caused by the resignations of Labour councillors Cecilia Welsh (Boleyn ward) and Luke Charters (Wall End ward). Welsh cited family reasons, while Charters has been selected as Labour’s parliamentary candidate for York Outer, a seat adjacent to Selby & Ainsty the party should win if it is to form a government after the next general election.
Wall End is East Ham East. Its name is little-used except for the ward, but it has a reputable and logical history. It is at the end of East Ham nearest to the River Roding, and therefore a defensive wall to protect this flat area. The ward consists mostly of late Victorian and Edwardian terraced housing arranged in overlapping grids.
It is a predominantly Asian-British area, with all South Asian heritages well-represented, including Sri Lankans. By religion, the largest single community is Muslim, but Hindus and Christians are also well represented in what is one of the least non-religious wards in London. Most of the population are young, hard-working and living in private rented housing. These demographics, even outside the Newham context, point to a safe Labour seat.
Wall End was the less hard-fought of the two by-elections, and its default Labour status was reaffirmed. The turnout of 25.1 per cent could have been worse. Labour’s candidate Stephanie Garfield was runaway winner with 1,659 votes (61.1 per cent, up 12.4 points since the borough elections in May 2022).
The Conservatives came second, with their standard-bearer Durai Kannan polling 724 votes (27.2 per cent, up 12.3 points). Liberal Democrat Claire Pattie was third (138 votes) and the Greens’ Tassaduq Cheema fourth (124 votes). Reform UK’s David Sandground brought up the rear with 58 votes.
Independent and Christian People’s Alliance candidates stood last year, but not this time. Labour introduced Garfield as a woman who “works for the NHS, runs a small independent arts business and has been a British Sign Language interpreter. She is a dedicated public servant, local activist and entrepreneur, with a strong commitment to inclusive and compassionate local services”. Others note that her partner, Josh Garfield, already serves in the Newham Cabinet.
The net swing since May 2022 was a tiny one in Labour’s favour, although the Conservatives can also take satisfaction from a substantial increase in their vote in an unpromising area. A good Tory candidate and campaign is clearly capable of making progress among at least some South Asian heritage London communities. In better national circumstances for the party and with a less hard-core young private renting electorate, that might pay dividends in due course.
The other ward contested, Boleyn, is effectively East Ham West. It starts at Green Street and Boundary Road, which used to separate the pre-1965 county boroughs of East Ham and West Ham. They merged to form Newham – New plus Ham.
Boleyn covers another chunk of Newham’s terraced landscape. This one is a little different, in that it formerly contained West Ham football club’s Boleyn Ground, and the name is a nod in that direction. The area has been redeveloped since the club moved to the London Stadium on the Olympic Park. Boleyn has more new housing and more social housing than Wall End, and also older terraced housing. Like Wall End, it is majority South Asian, but here the predominant population is Muslim.
Boleyn was seen as the more winnable ward for Newham’s Green Party, which forms the opposition group on the council. But they managed only a small increase in their vote share, their candidate Joe Hudson-Small polling 572 votes (21.3 per cent), well behind Labour’s Sofia Patel with had 871 votes (32.1 per cent). But the winner was Independent candidate Mehmood Mirza (pictured), who came out on top with 1,153 votes (42.5 per cent). The other candidates – Conservative, Lib Dem and Reform – polled 69, 22 and 23 votes respectively. Turnout was 27.7 per cent.
Mirza’s win came as a surprise to most observers, although he had obviously run an effective campaign on the quiet. While Labour dominates in Newham, other candidates poll a third of the votes cast even at a peak Labour elections such as 2018. There – particularly with the focus of a local by-election – there is still the critical mass required for a challenge in the right ward at the right moment.
Boleyn was one of the three best Newham wards for Respect in 2006, when it mounted the most successful recent challenge to Labour’s ascendancy. Mirza’s vote in 2023 mobilised some of this left of Labour and independent strand of opinion, and he was assisted by left wing campaigners. Some of Mirza’s policies were not particularly socialist – he said he was in favour of free car parking and a lower council tax, so he might have attracted some Conservative-inclined voters too.
Neither by-election was great news for Labour. The Mirza gain will have been a particular blow. It is, though, too early to say whether it will reverberate or whether it is a flash in the pan. I wouldn’t lose my head over Boleyn just yet.