Stonecot by-election offers LibDems chance of cheer

Sutton logoA local judgement on Gideon Osborne’s Autumn Statement will come tomorrow in Stonecot ward in Sutton, as they go to the polls in a by-election to replace an outgoing LibDem councillor.

The Osborne Budget in the spring brought a litany of U-turns and a downward spiral in Conservative party poll standings. Economics often drive voter patterns. The growing public debt (“Horrendous”, according to the BBC’s right-leaning economics editor Robert Peston) and a becalmed economy was not what Osborne predicted or promised.

Even though the LibDem minister Danny Alexander drove with the Chancellor on the 100-yard journey from the Treasury to Parliament this lunchtime, Sutton LibDems will hope that voters will tomorrow concentrate on local council matters, where voters are more forgiving and generous to them.

The LibDems pulled off an impressive, polls-defying council by-election victory in Worcester Park earlier this year. There, the LibDems took 47 per cent of the vote (nearly a 3 per cent improvement up on what they got in 2010, when their party was riding high), while the Tories were down from 41 per cent in 2010 to just 33 per cent.

Voters in Worcester Park were impressed by the assiduous nature of local LibDem campaigns against their own government’s hospital and police cuts. This happened despite the local MP, Paul Burstow, being a senior government health minister until earlier this year. Burstow spoke out against proposed cuts to St Helier hospital and got sacked later in the year as a minister for his efforts.

Liberal Democrats have again been able to put party effort from outside Sutton into this contest in a ward that sits to the north of Sutton and includes St Anthony’s Hospital.

It will be interesting to see whether Nick Emmerson will be able to hold the seat for the Liberal Democrats, as the parties compete to be the most identified with opposition to cuts in services.

The 2010 local election, when turnout was aided by its coincidence with the general election, saw the the three LibDem candidates scoring 2,508, 2,664 and 3,023 votes, the Conservatives secured 1,814, 1,801 and 1,774 votes and the Labour party well behind at 632, 490 and 459 votes. The BNP had one candidate who sat at the bottom of the poll with 413 votes.

A 8.56 per cent swing is required by the Conservatives from the LibDems for them to capture the seat. This seems a difficult ask in a Conservative campaign that looks as lacklustre as that which they ran in Worcester Park.

The London Assembly election this May helpfully provides the breakdown of votes by ward (excluding postal votes) as the electronic voting machines employed are up to that task. It’s theoretically a secret ballot but actually it isn’t as there is a supermarket style bar code that identifies your vote.

The London Assembly result in Stonecot before postal votes – which will have further boosted the Conservative share of the vote – were very encouraging for both the Conservatives and Labour, as Steve O’Connell romped ahead of the LibDems by 827 votes to 572 votes. That majority will likely have been boosted by another 90 votes by the postals. The Labour party were much closer to LibDems than in local council elections at 449 votes, though they will have likely dropped a further 90 votes behind the Liberals taking account of postal votes.

Labour will have been aided by a misleading leaflet put out by the Conservatives in Stonecot using a skewed bar chart of vote shares showing Labour running the LibDems very close. The Conservative trickery tries to encourage Labour supporters to vote for their real party of choice, rather than voting tactically for the LibDems to keep the Tory out.

The candidates are LibDem Emmerson, who is active in local community bodies; self-employed Graham Jarvis and long-time local party stalwart who runs for the Conservatives; ward resident, former teacher and mum of four Bonnie Craven is Labour’s choice; 74-year-old Jeremy Wraith is UKIP’s candidate; and former Sutton LibDem councillor Joan Hartfield is standing for the Greens.

The local issues include several that affect Croydon residents: the proposed St Helier Hospital cuts, police service reductions and crime, the Beddington incinerator and commuter fares.

The Conservatives ought to be capturing the seat but the LibDems look like ending a miserable year on an upbeat note.

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