The Labour administration in Wandsworth – a phrase that still feels unfamiliar – faced its first electoral test in the Tooting Broadway by-election yesterday. The cause of it was a sad one. Andy Gibbons, a popular Labour councillor first elected for the area in 1994 when the prospect of his party ever winning control of Wandsworth seemed remote, died suddenly on the eve of the council’s annual meeting of the council.
Colleagues across politics paid generous tributes to his memory, including Conservative and former council leader Ravi Govindia who described Gibbons as “a warm and gracious opponent who represented his constituents with hard work and steely determination. His passing is a loss for all of us who serve on the council”. Wandsworth politics is hard fought but respectful. There is a curious freemasonry of Wandsworth councillors who have gone on to other roles, including Sadiq Khan and Nadhim Zahawi.
Gibbons represented the Graveney ward from 1994 to 2022 and, following boundary changes, elected for the nearest successor ward, Tooting Broadway in May. As its name suggests, the ward covers territory that centres on Tooting Broadway Underground station, including St George’s Hospital. It is the safest Labour area of Wandsworth. Even when the party was reduced to just nine council seats at its 2006 nadir Graveney was one of only two all-Labour wards, and the Labour majority there rose steadily as the party advanced. Tooting Broadway has become their second-safest seat with 40 per cent of the vote.
The by-election was unexciting. Unlike the two held last week no strong challenge to Labour emerged and the party could not be blamed for causing the vacancy. The main business had been done in May and the by-election repeated the voting patterns two months ago, but with a much lower turnout a very poor 19 per cent compared with 34.
Rex Osborn held the seat for Labour with 1,429 votes (62 per cent). His nearest competitor was Conservative Jonathan Iliff (499 votes, 21 per cent). Wandsworth seems to have more than its fair share of interesting and accomplished people standing as candidates – Iliff is a medical doctor, a public speaker and founder of the Old Etonian Society for Mental Health. Lisa Osborne stood for the Greens (285 votes) and Haren Thillainathan (85 votes) brought up the rear for the Liberal Democrats. A small swing to the Tories can be cudgelled out of the figures – probably largely differential turnout, but Dr Iliff did as well as can be expected in what has been a challenging week or two for his party.
Osborn, the Labour winner, is another interesting character – a legendary veteran of Wandsworth politics who had represented Graveney alongside Gibbons in the past. His council service was shorter – he was a member from 2006 until 2018, when he stood down – but it includes five years as Labour group leader, from 2011 to 2016. Before that, in the 1980s, he worked for Labour headquarters and had the depressing experience of sitting on the committee dealing with opinion poll research before and during the 1987 election.
Since 2010 he has also been a Blue Badge tour guide and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of the city in general and Wandsworth in particular. With ten other former councillors, Osborn was made an honorary alderman of Wandsworth in January 2019. Aldermen used to have voting rights before the position was abolished in the 1970s, but the honorary version is the municipal equivalent of a knighthood.
It confers no powers other than access to some Town Hall facilities, but it is a recognition of public service that implies cross-party respect for the individual involved. (Full disclosure – oh, all right, filial boasting – the author’s mother is an honorary alderman of the City of Southampton). Labour leader Simon Hogg made a witty speech when nominating Osborn for the honour:
“Rex… commissioned polls and focus groups. When I took over as leader I found a note on my desk in the office from him. It revealed that focus groups of local people say that they like the low council tax, see Labour as too left-wing and Tory council as too harsh – but we can win the next election. I thought that’s good to have fresh insight. Great hand-over. We can really make some progress. But then I thought it was odd he’d typed it out on a piece of paper. So I looked at the date on the document – it was from 28 years ago!”
Labour has finally overcome this decades-long Wandsworth problem and Osborn now takes his seat on the administration side of the council chamber, albeit in circumstances no one could have wanted. Gibbons is irreplaceable but Osborn will, in his own way, add some elder statesman guile and experience to a large, ideologically heterogenous Labour group as it grapples with the challenge of running the former Tory flagship and securing a second term.
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