Richmond: Big swing to Lib Dems in council by-election win is bad news for Zac Goldsmith

Richmond: Big swing to Lib Dems in council by-election win is bad news for Zac Goldsmith

The last London local government by-election of the Theresa May era took place on Thursday 18 July 2019 in the East Sheen ward of the London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames. East Sheen consists of attractive residential areas around Sheen Lane off the road from Richmond into Putney. There is no West Sheen, or at least not under that name: it was renamed “Richmond” in 1497 when Henry VII rebuilt his fire-damaged palace there.

East Sheen ward has some of the most elite demographics in London. Estate agents swoon over its desirability: most people live in owner-occupied houses rather than flats and in 2014 the average house price was just below £1 million. Its attractive early 20th Century houses, proximity to the verdant cervine charms of Richmond Park, the high Ofsted ratings for its oversubscribed schools and the accessibility of Central London make it an area for the wealthy, famous and successful. It is in the top 10 wards in London for the proportion of its population having degrees. It has few of the social problems one would find hidden away even in many of the more affluent neighbourhoods in the capital.

The borough of Richmond has been a battleground between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats since the mid 1970s, with frequent large swings between the two in recent borough elections. But East Sheen has been one of the more resilient Tory areas. It was the long-term base of Nicholas (Lord) True, the Conservatives’ erstwhile leader in the borough. Following the boundary changes in 2002, when it added some territory from the former Palewell ward, East Sheen returned a full slate of three Tories until the election of May 2018.

When the Tories do badly in Richmond they tend to get beaten back to the wards in the north east of the borough – Mortlake, Barnes, East Sheen – where the wealth of the citizens outweighs their liberalism. This proved to be the case in their landslide loss in 2018, which resulted in seven of their shrunken group of eleven councillors representing wards in this corner. But the Lib Dems made progress even here, winning a seat each in East Sheen and Mortlake & Barnes Common. The swing was enormous: the Lib Dem increase between 2014 and 2018 was 26 percentage points, the largest in the borough.

Yesterday’s by-election has arisen following the death in May of the Lib Dem who pulled off the party’s gain in East Sheen. Mona Adams had only been on the council for a year, having come to stand for election after a long time as an active citizen in East Sheen. Despite the shortness of her service on the council, she had gained the appreciation of her colleagues of all parties. Adams had just finished a term as deputy mayor of the borough.

Four candidates entered the race to succeed her. Labour was represented by a long-term local resident, journalist Giles Oakley. The Women’s Equality Party candidate was Trixie Rawlinson, also a journalist. The Green Party did not put forward a candidate – there was a local electoral pact between the Greens and the Lib Dems in the May 2018 elections, which seems to have helped both parties, and relations still seem co-operative. Richmond has recently declared a Climate Emergency. 

Former marketing director Helen Edward attempted to regain the seat for the Conservatives. The Lib Dem candidate was businesswoman Julia Cambridge, who had stood unsuccessfully as part of the Lib Dem team alongside Mona Adams in 2018. Cambridge has also stood as parliamentary candidate in Chesterfield in 2015 and the Lincolnshire seat of South Holland & The Deepings in 2017. She is well-connected in the party and has campaigned for gender balance, an issue on which the Lib Dems have struggled in the past. The East Sheen election attracted a lot of support from party activists and both party leadership candidates, Jo Swinson and Edward Davey, put in some time on the doorstep.

The result was a Liberal Democrat triumph, by 1,809 votes (58.9 per cent) to 1,090 (35.5 per cent) for the Conservatives. The Women’s Equality Party came third (90 votes) and Labour fourth (82 votes). Turnout in the by-election was 40.7 per cent compared to 55.2 per cent in the 2018 borough elections. The swing to the Lib Dems was a bit over 12 per cent since last year and just short of 30 per cent since 2014. On top of the European elections and the by-election in Cannon Hill in Merton, it is a third impressive recent victory for the London Lib Dems.

East Sheen is part of the Richmond Park parliamentary constituency, often the scene of a battle royal between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives. A Lib Dem council seat win on this scale is worrying for the incumbent Tory MP Zac Goldsmith, who lost the seat in a famous 2016 by-election and regained it in the 2017 general election by a margin of only 45 votes. In the next general election he will face a third contest against Lib Dem Sarah Olney, who defeated him in 2016.

Both the local and national indicators now strongly favour her. The 2016 by-election took place under the darkening shadow of the cultural divide around Brexit. Richmond is strong Remain territory and a populist, quasi-revolutionary brand of Brexit Conservatism goes down badly in places like East Sheen. The ruptured relationship between the Conservatives and the educated, professional workers and families who have long been their core vote is electoral poison for them in London’s suburbs and commuter towns. This legacy of the May government could hardly be illustrated any more fittingly than by a Tory trouncing in East Sheen during the outgoing Prime Minister’s final week in office.

Image from BBC News broadcast.

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