Sutton: Lib Dems hold Wallington North council seat despite burning local issue

Sutton: Lib Dems hold Wallington North council seat despite burning local issue

The A232 road is one of London’s more important but less celebrated thoroughfares. It trundles along near the southern edge of the metropolis, linking a string of suburbs – Ewell, Cheam, Sutton, Carshalton, Wallington, Croydon, Orpington – like an underpowered version of the southern stretch of the M25. Wallington, like many of the other suburbs on this road, is mostly owner-occupied territory, much of it developed in the inter-war period. Architecturally, it is a classic stretch of London suburbia, a mix of semi-detached houses, small blocks of flats and a few older terraces.

However, the politics of the suburbs along the A232 has not been so typical. The London Borough of Sutton has been under Liberal Democrat control since 1990, and in 1997 the party gained the borough’s two parliamentary constituencies. The Conservatives took back Sutton & Cheam in 2015, but the party’s hold on Carshalton & Wallington, the eastern half of the borough, has endured – Tom Brake was the party’s sole London MP during the 2015-17 parliament.

In contrast to Richmond and Kingston, the other London boroughs Lib Dems currently control, the formula for Lib Dem success in Sutton has not been based on a demographic foundation of highly educated liberal professional voters. Partly, it has been due to happenstance – a by-election back in 1972 started it all – but mostly it has been achieved by dedicated pavement-pounding and keeping close to local issues that interest residents.

The 2018 borough elections produced fairly good results for the Lib Dems in most of Sutton. There were some losses to the Conservatives, but that was to be expected given that the 2014 elections had been a landslide and local and national issues had become less helpful (Sutton was one of the five Leave-voting London boroughs in 2016).

Wallington North has been one of the most loyal Lib Dem wards in Sutton ever since the party gained all three seats there in 1994. The majorities have not always been large and the leading Conservative candidate has got within 200 votes of the third-placed Lib Dem on several occasions, but its final allegiance has been consistent. A by-election was held there yesterday (28 March 2019) because Joyce Melican, who had represented Wallington North since 2010, suffered a stroke and understandably resigned her council seat in February. It was contested by the three main parties plus the Greens, UKIP, the Christian People’s Alliance and an Independent. The Independent is the interesting bit of the story.

There are several sorts of public amenity with the power to rile up electors and change the patterns of local politics. For instance, closing a swimming pool is something a council does at its peril. And it is also worth thinking seriously about where to site an incinerator. People don’t like the idea of a factory burning rubbish on their doorstep, no matter what assurances the council and the management can offer. In Sutton, that prize was awarded  to Beddington North ward, which is just to the east of Wallington North. The decision cost the Lib Dems all three seats there, beginning with a sitting councillor leaving the party over the issue. He and two fellow Independents won a clean sweep in Beddington North last year.

The issue has been around for a while, but its fires are still burning and they spread a little into Wallington North during the by-election. The Independent candidate Gervais Sawyer, is a retired wood-working professional (and example of nominative determinism) and a former Lib Dem, who, whilst a member of the party, signed the nomination papers for one of the Beddington Independents. But the incinerator factor was not enough, as Lib Dem candidate Barry Lewis, a local scout leader, continued the party’s long run of success in the ward.

At first glance it was a mediocre sort of result for the Lib Dems, with a swing of four per cent to the Conservatives, but there were a couple of mitigating factors. One was that the Tory share of the vote was scarcely higher than in 2018 and it was Sawyer who made the modest inroads into the Lib Dem margin, and finished third. The other is that the Lib Dems did particularly well in the ward in 2018, so the outcome is really a reversion to the normal run of things.

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So, despite another big week in British politics we had another London by-election which obeyed the old rules of electoral behaviour. The Lib Dems won in a ward where they are well organised and dug-in, and lost some votes to a candidate who was able to capitalise on a hot-button local issue. When, one wonders, is the big earthquake going to happen in local electoral politics in the capital? Is it ever?
Categories: Analysis

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