The parliamentary by-election in Mid Bedfordshire was a spectacular Labour gain in a constituency where the party had never won before. One of the issues of the campaign was the rivalry between the Liberal Democrats and Labour for the role of principal challenger to the Tories.
Part of this took place on the tedious territory of “who is more local?” Labour’s candidate Alistair Strathern was of Mid Bedfordshire origins and had moved back, but was criticised by the Lib Dems as a “councillor from London” in terms that suggested he had just arrived on a spacecraft from Mars.
Yet such was Strathern’s commitment to winning that he stood down from his council seat in September to concentrate on fighting the by-election full time. Which London ward had he represented? The answer is Higham Hill in Waltham Forest.
Higham Hill is basically north west Walthamstow. It technically borders on Tottenham Hale (where there was a by-election in March), but its residential areas are separated by the River Lea and the deep waters of several reservoirs.
The area was sparsely inhabited until the last quarter of the 19th Century, when Walthamstow grew explosively as it developed into a working-class suburb. Higham Hill still has some Victorian terraced areas, but near continuous housing development and renewal ever since has also left its mark on the physical geography.
The ward is drawn to exclude the large Priory Court estate and some of the poorer parts of Higham Hill, which find themselves in William Morris ward. But although Walthamstow has become upwardly-mobile, Higham Hill as a whole has been little affected by London fashions and remains the working-class neighbourhood it has always been. The main concession to hipsterdom is the Blackhorse Beer Mile, which draws together several local craft breweries in one convenient stagger.
The ward is a largely typical, average part of London in its demographics – plurality white but with representation from many other communities, working-class but with an admixture of people from all strata of society. If someone wants to see what London is really like, one could do worse than direct them to Higham Hill.
Its political choices now also reflect the London trend in being solidly Labour, but it has a more varied history. The Lib Dems enjoyed a long period of ascendancy, starting with a by-election victory in 1988 despite national travails and continuing all the way to 2010, when general election turnout in that year helped Labour regain Higham Hill – and overall control of Waltham Forest – in local elections held on the same day.
Strathern’s successor as Labour candidate was Shumon Ali-Rahman, who works as head of media relations for ACAS, the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service. He had stood twice before for Labour in the borough, in each case in Conservative-held wards in Chingford.
The by-election was also contested by candidates from the Conservatives (Moufazzal Bhuiyan), the Lib Dems (Alex Lewis), the Greens (Abigail Woodman) and TUSC, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (Nancy Taaffe).
The main issues were the typical ones for a London council by-election: the cost of living, green spaces (Higham Hill gets little benefit from the open spaces around the reservoirs), housing, the local environment and anti-social behaviour, such as graffiti and fly-tipping. Higham Hill lies within the North Circular and was therefore within the Ultra-Low Emission Zone before its further expansion in August.
The result was not a Labour triumph to rank alongside Mid Bedfordshire, but it was a solid hold for the party. Ali-Rahman (pictured) was elected with 924 votes (a 57 per cent share, down four points on the full borough elections in May 2022). The runners up were the Lib Dems on 268 votes (17 per cent, up seven points). The Greens (198 votes, 12 per cent) fell to third, TUSC (144 votes, nine per cent) came fourth and the Conservatives brought up the rear with 78 votes (five per cent). Turnout was a poor 17 per cent.
The unexciting result is not without wider significance. There has been some excitable coverage of unreliable surveys suggesting that Keir Starmer’s stance on Israel- Palestine has cost Labour nearly all its Muslim vote. But there was no evidence of this from Higham Hill, a ward that is 20-25 per cent Muslim where three of the candidates stood to the “left” of Labour on the issue. The contrast with two Waltham Forest by-elections in the aftermath of the Iraq War in 2003, when the Lib Dems gained Labour seats on big swings, should calm Labour nerves.
X/Twitter: Lewis Baston and OnLondon. Photo from Kira Lewis X/Twitter feed. If you value On London and its coverage of the capital, become a supporter or a paying subscriber to editor and publisher Dave Hill’s Substack for just £5 a month or £50 a year. In return you get a comprehensive weekly London newsletter and offers of free tickets to London events.