This week’s Worcester Park council by-election was a great result for Sutton’s Lib-Dems, so-so for Labour, but grim for the Greens and incinerator campaigners, and worrying for the local Tories and their new political “guru”, Steve O’Connell. ANDREW PELLING goes all psephological
There’s a mystical land out to the west of us.
You can’t go there by train unless you go to Clapham Junction and change.
You can’t get there by bus unless you change at Sutton.
By car, you need to put your shock absorbers to the test via the speed humps of Cheam and North Cheam.
No wonder Worcester Park remains a mystery to Croydon people. Even Sutton politicians sometimes say it has more in common with Kingston.
In that far off place, there’s been a bit of a political earthquake this week, whose shock waves will yet reach to Croydon.
Over in Sutton, the Conservatives are not the force that they are in Croydon. The Conservatives enjoyed an encouraging performance at the council elections in 2006, when the Tories won 22 seats on Sutton council, up from a rump of just eight seats. For the 2010 election, the presumption was that one last push would take the Conservatives up to and over the 28-seat threshold needed to gain control of Sutton’s local affairs.
Send for “Super” Steve!
Yet on the night when the electorate across Britain forced Nick Clegg and David Cameron into a shot-gun marriage of a coalition government at Westminster, the Tories in Sutton were routed by those tricky Lib-Dems. Sutton’s Conservatives lost half their seats, clinging on to just 11, as their rivals on the council, running on the coat tails of the two local Liberal Democrat MPs running in the General Election, produced a very good result.
Another 350 votes for the Lib-Dems in key wards would have reduced the Conservative representation on Sutton’s council even further, to just six.
Following this electoral debacle, Sutton’s Conservatives turned to the Croydon and Sutton London Assembly member, Steve O’Connell, and asked him to be the Conservative Parliamentary spokesman for the borough of Sutton, with a view to plot a Tory return to power on the council.
For O’Connell, who is also the Croydon councillor for Kenley, of course, this added yet another job to his bulging portfolio. At the time, we reckon that the former mortgage salesman was trying to fulfil five jobs – though he’s back down to a “mere” four now, since last month’s abolition of the Metropolitan Police Authority, where he was once the chairman of the finance committee.
We live in interesting times. When Sutton’s Tories called for “Super” Steve to mastermind their revival, the Lib-Dems – in government for the first time in almost a century – were being vilified in the national media for breaking their extravagant election promises. In Sutton, the Tories hoped to capitalise on the Lib-Dems’ weak showing in the national opinion polls to allow them to pick up a council seat in a by-election in Worcester Park, called after a Liberal Democrat councillor stood down.
The by-election took place on Thursday and the result was an astounding further swing from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats, beyond even the victory secured when Nick Clegg was basking in the bright lights of his General Election TV debates.
On Thursday, the Conservatives slumped, failing to secure even 1,000 votes in a ward where they had managed to hold one of the three seats less than two years ago. The Lib Dem candidate, Roger Roberts, took 47 per cent of the vote (nearly a 3 per cent improvement), while the Tories were down from 41 per cent in 2010 to just 33 per cent, for a seat where they had serious ambitions of victory.
The swing from the Conservatives to Liberal Democrats was so large that if it was repeated at an election for the whole of Sutton council, the Conservatives would be left with just two councillors, against 52 Lib-Dems. Even O’Connell was forced to concede that the Tories’ performance was “poor”.
Labour also suffered, just putting on 1 per cent to their 2010 share of the vote, though at least they got into double figures.
That was all a welcome relief compared to their previous fourth placed crushings by tactical voting squeezes orchestrated by the Lib-Dems in neighbouring wards’ by-elections. Labour had been shamed in securing just 3.2 per cent behind UKIP in 2008 in Cheam and an even worse 2.7 per cent behind the BNP in 2009 in Nonsuch ward.
Certainly, Labour did better than the Greens on Thursday, who polled a pitiful 1.6 per cent. Worcester Park is up-wind of Beddington Lane, so while it is Sutton Council which is to build the waste incinerator, neither Greens nor Labour made the incinerator issue count in the election.
Fundamentally, Thursday’s result leaves the Conservatives wondering whether they’ll ever get close to power again in Sutton Civic Centre, where the Liberal Democrats have ruled now for 26 years.
Such a strong showing will also get Croydon Conservatives worrying about the mixing of the bloods that will come from having Parliamentary boundaries crossing the borough border with Sutton.
There is a crisis brewing for Sutton Conservatives arising from a further reduction in their vote in Worcester Park which leaves O’Connell reading the runes carefully for the London Assembly election at the beginning of May. It is not as if his new role in Sutton has been a wonderful success so far. If anything, parachuting in the country’s most overpaid local councillor seems to have had a deleterious effect on the Conservative vote in Sutton.
If the Lib-Dems repeated this improvement in their electoral standing in Worcester Park in their vote share across the whole of Sutton in the London Assembly elections in May, O’Connell could even see his own vote outpaced by the Lib-Dems by almost 2 to 1 in the smaller of the two boroughs in his Croydon and Sutton seat, based on assumptions using the 2010 local election results in Sutton.
An erosion of the Conservative vote in Sutton would also leave the Conservative candidate exposed to a strong showing by Labour in Croydon. The Lib-Dems remain weak in Croydon and this geographical split of the Conservatives’ main opponents – Lib-Dem in Sutton and Labour in the almost twice as large Croydon – gives the Tories their main buttress in defending the Assembly seat.
Tories in need of a “Boris Boost”
A likely overall result in the Croydon and Sutton Assembly seat would now see a Conservative majority over Labour of just 11,500, compared to the impressive 42,665 majority over Labour secured four years ago in 2008, when O’Connell first won a place at City Hall.
This result prediction relies on adjusting for the Worcester Park result as applied against the 2010 Sutton local council elections and using changes in national opinion poll standings to adjust the Croydon 2010 local election results. An assumption is also made using differential turnout figures from Croydon local elections, because of the lower turnout seen on Mayoral election day compared to General Election day among Labour supporters.
The likely share of the vote for Croydon and Sutton can currently be predicted as:
- Conservative 35.1%
- Labour 28.1%
- LibDem 26.4%
- Others 10.4%
Good cause then for O’Connell to motivate his troops and to sort out the crisis over the future of Conservatives in Sutton.
A different result prediction can be computed employing adjustments for opinion poll changes using the 2008 Assembly election figures in Croydon as the base assumption for performance where Boris Johnson’s strong showing in outer London gave a significant boost to Conservative Assembly candidates. Adjusting the prediction to factor in a “Boris boost” and the usually better performance by Conservatives over Lib-Dems and Labour in London government elections would see the O’Connell majority stretch to 17,000 and the overall result stand at
- Conservative 36.7%
- Labour 26.2%
- LibDem 24.1%
An important rivalry between Lib-Dems and Labour for second place is re-opening as well, after the Lib-Dems’ Worcester Park showing.
If the Lib-Dems can find the resources to export their spectacular performance in the small Worcester Park ward to the whole of Sutton on May 3, they’ll get closer to recapturing the second place they had in the Assembly seat up to 2008. That would be
important to any Lib-Dem candidate, perhaps Tom Brake MP, fighting a mixed Sutton/Croydon parliamentary seat and wanting to use the old but still effective Lib-Dem slogan “Liberal Democrats – Winning here”.
It would also have the side-effect of improving the prospects for a Conservative win in May as the Lib-Dems support in Croydon is currently so paltry that they can only distract from Labour setting a challenge to the Tories.
- Andrew Pelling is a former Conservative Assembly Member for Croydon and Sutton, and until 2010 was MP for Croydon Central
- Rollercoaster results for Tories in by-elections (independent.co.uk)
- Accountability? Not from Kenley’s £115,000pa councillor (insidecroydon.com)
- Council press officer attends LibDem election photo call (insidecroydon.com)
- “Justice prevails” for Assembly candidate Woodley (insidecroydon.com)