The Liberal Democrats defied all national trends and their party’s unpopular part in the ConDem coalition to hold Stonecot ward with a 7.7 per cent swing from the Conservatives in last Thursday’s Sutton Council by-election.
If repeated in the 2014 local elections, it would see the LibDems secure a “yellow wash” at Sutton civic centre, with all 54 seats.
How are Sutton’s LibDems managing to buck the trends that just a week earlier saw them lose their deposit in the Croydon North parliamentary by-election?
In two council by-elections this year, the Liberal Democrat vote has actually gone up around 3 per cent. These are higher scores even than that secured when the local council election was held on the same day as General Election day in 2010, when that nice Mr Clegg had done so well in those TV debates and promised never, ever to hike student fees.
Sutton’s new council leader Ruth Dombey must be delighted. But for the Conservatives on the other side of the borough boundary there is real trouble. It was bad enough in February when their share of the vote was down by almost 20 per cent in Worcester Park. At Stonecot, it was down by 37 per cent.
It was not meant to be like this. The Conservatives enjoyed an encouraging performance at the council elections in 2006, when the Tories won 22 seats on Sutton Council, up from just eight. The Conservatives were seriously preparing to take power in 2010. But they lost 11 seats.
Going by recent expressions of views by Sutton residents, the Tories are not a serious opposition to Dombey’s Liberal Democrats.
How has this happened? Well, in 2008, Steve O’Connell – the Kenley councillor in Croydon – became the London Assembly Member for Croydon and Sutton. More recently, Britain’s most overpaid local councillor has taken on yet another job, that of the Conservatives’ parliamentary spokesperson for Sutton. Things have not gone well: even when standing for re-election to City Hall in May, O’Connell’s majority over Labour was reduced from 42,665 to 9,418.
A strong component of the Tory team in Sutton was their previous leader Paul Scully, but he lost his Carshalton Central seat in 2010. These days, he has moved into public relations, running his Nudge Factory business with a Croydon Tory, Ahzaz Chowdhury, and looking after a juicy contract servicing the Croydon’s PR needs of Westfield.
In Sutton, Labour is clearly looking for gains. Carshalton and Wallington Labour party has become active under former councillor Andrew Theobold. With a defector from the LibDems in the form of Councillor John Keys, who joined Labour in protest at the proposed Beddington Lane incinerator, Labour has a toe-hold on the local council. From a low base, Labour’s share of the vote score in Stonecot was up 55 per cent.
In Sutton, it seems that coalition-supporting voters are choosing LibDem rather than the Conservatives to express their pro-government preference. In what one councillor has called “an all-out war on the Tories”, Sutton LibDems are targeting Conservative voters to make up the balance of lost votes bled out to Labour.
It is assisted because, as Councillor Lester Holloway said, Sutton’s Tories are “a pretty clueless lot”. O’Connell’s broken promise to deliver a tram extension to Sutton, as well as Crystal Palace, will weigh down on him and his Conservative colleagues for years to come.
Further progress for Labour will depend on whether they can convince Sutton residents that it is a bit of a nonsense for the local LibDem MPs, Burstow and Tom Brake, to campaign against cuts in services locally, particularly at St Helier Hospital, while they then go and toe the party line in Parliament and vote through the same cuts.
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