Last week’s election in Hackney took the political temperature of a diverse piece of the inner city, while this week’s takes us to the very edge of the London region at suburban Belmont, in the borough of Sutton.
Sutton is a Liberal Democrat stronghold at local level. The party has had majority control of the borough council since 1990 and, despite some speculation that the Conservatives might topple them in 2018, it did not come to pass – the Tories did put a dent in the large Lib Dem majority by gaining ten seats, but Vince Cable’s party still control the council with 33 councillors to 18 Conservatives and three Independents.
None of the Lib Dem councillors represent Belmont, which is the only ward in Sutton which has been completely dominated by the Conservatives since the current ward boundaries were established in 2002. Belmont is an affluent area to the south of Sutton, adjoining the Surrey county boundary; broadly, the further south of the railway line through the borough, the posher the area. It covers some Victorian terraces, some very plush avenues and the area around the Royal Marsden (Surrey) hospital.
The Belmont vacancy arose from the resignation of Conservative councillor Patrick McManus, stating personal reasons. The campaign re-fought some of the issues that had featured a few months ago, including the controversial rubbish collection contract, but the result was a lot closer in Belmont in October than it had been in May. The Conservative candidate Neil Garrett, deputy leader of the Conservative group until he lost his seat in Beddington South in the full borough election, has been returned to the council as might have been expected, but the Tory majority was trimmed from 880 votes to 259. The challenge, also as expected, came from the Lib Dems, whose candidate Dean Juster achieved a swing of more than 10 per cent compared with when he and his colleagues fought the seat in May. Turnout reached a respectable 36 per cent.
Even though the London Lib Dems have managed big swings in successive weeks in very different wards, it would be too early to say that a revival is on the way. The party is well-organised in Sutton and was able to focus resources on Belmont this time, rather than prioritise more marginal wards as it has to in full borough elections. Even so, winning in a dyed-in-the-wool Tory ward like Belmont was never likely, so the closeness of the result gives Lib Dems grounds for cautious optimism.