Tony Newman is not the only south London council leader under increased pressure following the local elections. BELLE MONT delves into the detail of the results in Sutton, where the local LibDem leader used to boast that ‘independents don’t win here’
The venue for the Sutton local election count on Thursday night and Friday morning was the Westcroft Leisure Centre in Carshalton, just around the corner from the closed Charles Cryer Theatre. At least in politics, drama is very much alive in Sutton.
Sutton LibDems, who have had sole control of the council since 1990, managed to cling on to power, those ardent supporters of proportional representation benefiting hugely from the first-past-the-post system. They now have a much-reduced majority with 33 seats to the Tories’ 18 and the three Beddington North anti-incinerator independents.
In an example of delicious irony, Nick Mattey has been returned for another four years as a councillor. Mattey has been the bête noire of Ruth Dombey and Sutton’s Liberal Democrats since she had him kicked out of the party for blowing the whistle on the £275,000 “gift” from Viridor to a Wallington church.
But Mattey is back now as the leader of an opposition group, with all that entails… additional council allowances, dedicated support from council officers, seats on some of the council’s key committees, including environment. Niall Bolger, the council chief executive, must be delighted.The low turnout at the polls of 41 per cent would have been a relief for the LibDems.
With their core postal vote and renowned campaigning strength, it meant there was no big protest vote. Dismayed LibDems perhaps stayed at home rather than vote for another party. In the west of the borough, where Conservative Paul Scully wiped out the LibDems in the general election, the map was expected to turn blue thanks to the “Scully effect”. Scully defeated LibDem MP Paul Burstow in 2015 by out-Burstowing Burstow, knocking on thousands of doors and getting to know everyone and everybody.
In the latter stages of the 2018 campaign, though, the LibDems hammered the message of “investing” £28million in St Helier Hospital. It is an entirely bogus claim, but it may have been enough to sway some voters.
The LibDems also conducted mass telephone canvassing. Their message was: “We might have been, you know, a bit shit lately, but we’ve been here a while. Give us another chance.”
Some shocking negative campaigning also ensued.
The script seemed to work, though.
In the Tom Brake heartlands of Wallington South, Wallington North and Carshalton Central, the LibDem vote was totally solid, despite Jill Whitehead – the mastermind of #Suttonbinshame, the closing of theatres and the incinerator – being a candidate. This was the first sign that the dam had not broken.
In the northern wards, where Labour had big hopes of snatching a seat or two, pitifully low turnouts dented their chances. In St Helier (29 per cent turnout) Labour got to within 46 votes of the winning. In The Wrythe – one of a number of wards with 15 candidates – the vote was split, reducing the LibDem share but never enough to force a change. Colin Stears and Nali Patel return to the council, with a newcomer, chemical industry analyst Sam Weatherlake replacing absentee cagefighter Callum Morton.
Hilarity and wonder ensued before The Wrythe result was announced. Inside Croydon understands that Bolger, as returning officer, drew the candidates together in a huddle, and accidentally declared the Tory, Sebastian Wopinski, as the winner.
Pressed by disbelieving candidates, when Bolger rechecked… Wopinski came sixth. It was not to be the only instance on the night when tellers – many of them council officers earning a bit of overtime money – managed to provide badly misleading information to candidates.
Wandle Valley’s 31 per cent turnout again dented any chance of the LibDems being ousted. Hanna Zuchowska was re-elected with just 950 votes, while elected for the first time is charity PR executive “Bogus Ben” Andrew, who sneakily hijacked local residents’ campaign successes over Southern Rail for his electoral advantage. He’s one who will need to be watched very closely.
Sutton Central is traditionally a LibDem stronghold, but it was here that Labour came closest to ending their absence from the council benches. The Tories effectively abandoned the ward to focus elsewhere, leaving Labour a clear run. That they hugely boosted their vote share and got within 32 votes will be of little comfort to them. Especially as one of the LibDems to defeat them did so despite having a record of missing almost half of council meetings for the last three years.
David Bartolucci and Ali “Layabout” Mirhashem are joined by Rich Clare, an enthusiastic animal charity worker who was parachuted in from east London. Clare polled just 2 per cent when standing in the General Election as a LibDem candidate in Ilford North. Moving to Sutton where you’re more likely to get elected seems to be a feature of the new LibDem intake.
Belmont saw the expected Conservative landslide, with Jane Pascoe, Patrick McManus and David Hicks returning. With Neil Garratt losing his seat in Beddington South, Hicks is expected to become the new deputy leader of the Tory group. Tom Brake must be hoping that the proposed redrawn constituency boundaries don’t happen: bringing Belmont into Carshalton and Wallington, as has been proposed, means he’d be toast.
Stonecot was a target ward for the Conservatives and it proved a walkover. It was curtains for sitting councillors Nick Emmerson – who will now need to be replaced on the Sutton Housing Partnership board – and Miguel Javelot, replaced by Tory party worker and poultry expert Jed Dwight, GoVia Thameslink executive Param Nandha and former male model (seriously) Ryan Stoneman.
In Worcester Park, somehow the Tories pinched a seat. With the LibDems regaining control of next-door Kingston council, this should have been a yellow-wash. Most residents think and act like Kingstonians, so Conservative candidate Tom Drummond defied the odds here. For the LibDems, former Met Police sergeant Jenny Batt and another parachutee, Drew Heffernan, took the other seats. Heffernan works for Sutton LibDems, but he is officially still the LibDem parliamentary candidate for Old Bexley and Sidcup… That might make things a bit awks for Dombey if there’s another snap General Election.
Senior LibDems Wendy Mathys and the deputy leader of the council, Simon Wales, got their marching orders in Sutton West.
The eager party agents at the counting table couldn’t quite believe what they were witnessing. Labour had a strong campaign here, and had hopes of winning a seat. The Tories also campaigned hard, but reports from residents during the campaign of arrogance and rudeness from LibDems on the doorstep should have rung some bells.
As well as the trend for the western half of the borough to turn blue – the Scully effect – there were some big factors that played here. The ward has lost the Secombe Theatre, while the proliferation of flats in the area meant #SuttonBinShame was still on voters’ minds.
Then just one working day before purdah kicked in, Ofsted announced that Sutton Council had failed an inspection of its special education needs and disabilities (SEND) service, with specific criticism of the leadership – chair of the Children, Family and Education Committee, Councillor Mathys. Hubristically, Mathys dismissed the report and insisted she was the right person to lead. The electorate thought otherwise and helped her “resign”.
As the council’s finance chief, Wales “masterminded” the £32million investment of the Oxfam HQ in Oxford as well as the aborted £18million attempt to buy a Reading retail park that had links to the Unaoil scandal. LibDem Kevin Burke – with a good prospect of being named as the new chair of the Planning Committee – did well to hold his seat. Both Mathys and Wales were crestfallen, practically in tears. Two big beasts slain. The bubble of entitlement had been burst.
In Cheam, a LibDem family tradition of a Burstow getting elected came to an abrupt end. Mary Burstow, the wife of the now former MP, is regarded as a very hard-working councillor, and bravely took a lot of criticism squarely on the chin for the botched Veolia waste collection service. On Friday morning, she wore her clear pain with much dignity, as the Conservatives steamrollered the ward. Conservative Holly Ramsey chalked up the highest personal vote of the night.
Nonsuch brought up the next splash of drama – and more tears.
The Tories had two seats in the bag with Martina Allen (wife of Cheam winner Eric Allen) and another returning councillor, Peter Geiringer (who was erroneously – or maybe not – initially described as “Peter Huge Geiringer” in the published results). LibDem Richard Broadbent was unseated, while independent Richard Johnson hoovered up 8 per cent of the vote.
But the third seat was tied, between Tory James McDermott-Hill and LibDem Sam Bourne. Then farce ensued. Returning officer Bolger explained to the candidates how the process would work – first, the toss of a coin, where the winner would then get first choice of drawing the lots. The coin was tossed, but rolled under a podium.
After scrabbling around to retrieve it, Bourne was given first choice of lots.
Understandably nervous and hesitant, she was abruptly told to get on with it by her own LibDem agent, the abrasive Pauline Penneck. Bourne snatched at the wrong lot. It was an awkward, painful and unfair way to lose. Winner McDermott-Hill showed no elation. “It’s not how you want to win,” he said. “But I’ll take it.”
The shocks continued. As the count for Carshalton South and Clockhouse came to a close, an officer informed Tory group leader, Tim Crowley, that he had lost his seat. This seemed incredible. Crowley was stunned. Dazed. Close to tears.
At the same time came the news that fears that his deputy, Neil Garratt, had lost his seat in Beddington South seemed to be unfounded. The news of Crowley’s execution spread around the hall, and the buzz from the LibDem quarters nudged into squeaks and smiles: the Tory big beast had been defeated.
For half an hour, the Tories stood like statues, sullen, not quite knowing how to react.
The rumour that another senior Tory, Tony Shields, was in trouble in Sutton South did not help the mood of the Conservatives, who by this stage must have realised that any hopes of levering the LibDems out of power had passed.
Then, suddenly, Bolger called for attention and read out the result for Carshalton South and Clockhouse. Crowley had actually retained his seat, as had fellow Tory Moira Butt. LibDem Amy Haldane also retained her seat, with an incredibly high personal vote.
LibDem Jason Reynolds, who had moved over from Wandle Valley ward, came sixth – on his home turf. The sense of relief for the Tories was as palpable as the sense of disappointment among the LibDems. But it wasn’t over yet.
Up came the result for Beddington South. Returned as councillors were avuncular Wallington Grammar teacher Ed Joyce, Manuel Abellan and Mo Saqib, a bright comms manager who edits the LibDems’ Focus leaflets. Garratt had gone. The LibDems had thrown the kitchen sink at Beddington South, and it had worked. As deputy leader, the data-driven and deep-thinking Garratt was regarded as a likely long-term successor to Crowley.
The helter skelter continued. Sutton South was announced. Former firefighter Shields, an uncompromising alpha male who in council calls a spade a shovel, had in fact increased his personal vote and won the ward. It was two LibDems, Trish Fivey and former mayor Richard “Bernie” Clifton who squeaked home by just eight and 18 respectively. These were crucial wins for the LibDems, and an agonising blow for the Tories – nearly winning is never a good feeling.
Sutton North, where council leader Ruth Dombey is a councillor, had a huge audience at its table count. The piles looked a little concerning for the leader, local party head honcho Steve Penneck, and the utterly loyal Marlene Heron. The Tories had campaigned hard here. It was not enough – though Dombey’s vote share fell from near 20 per cent to 14 per cent. Emma Scully – the wife of the Sutton and Cheam MP, chosen for this ward to use the benefit of name recognition on the ballot forms – came within 88 votes of an upset, as Penneck survived.
Nearing 4am on Friday, there was only one result to come – Beddington North, where the looming industrial menace of the Viridor incinerator is soon to fire up. It is fair to say that renegade LibDem Mattey has developed a high profile locally, after three years hammering the at his former party colleagues, sometimes recklessly, and not without a few threats of legal action (none ever carried out).
The LibDem candidates Nighat Piracha and Pat Ali, plus former mayor Dr Brendan Hudson, had put out some astonishingly inept campaign literature, and simply ignored the local issues – the incinerator, the unemptied bins, the shameful treatment of residents at Richmond Green, and the building of a new school on a green field in a built-up area with poor access.
Mattey and Beddington locals Jillian Green and Tim Foster fought the campaign on hyperlocal issues. The LibDems wrote them off – “Nick Mattey is a one-off maverick who will not be re-elected tomorrow,” retiring councillor Hamish Pollock predicted on Facebook. In a “Become a Councillor” event last year, Dombey had boasted, “Independents can’t get elected in Sutton.”
When the count started, there was no sign of Mattey. A crowd of counting agents gathered around the Beddington North counting table, but nobody could get a handle on the vote – there were 15 candidates and many split and personal votes. The only clear sign was that the LibDem vote had been crushed.
Then, at 2am, Mattey casually wandered in to the hall. Tom Brake had left, perhaps sniffing that an incinerator-based disaster was on the cards, but also to appear on television.
When the candidates were finally called up by Bolger to be told the result before the official announcement, there was a tension in the hall. The LibDems had already retained the council, but the result in Beddington North was going to prove the weathervane for the coming term.
The cheers that rang out when Mattey and his colleagues were declared elected were the biggest of the night. It was the kick in the goolies that the LibDems had feared. As a party, they didn’t even come second. Or third. But fourth.
Within minutes the disappointed Labour candidates and agents – who, despite a strong surge in vote share failed to win a seat – broke into a chorus of “Ooooo, Jeremy Corbyn”. Perhaps worryingly for them, the lead protagonist was Tory Tony Shields.
With Mattey’s role as an independent now legitimised by the electorate, Bolger and monitoring officer Jessica Crowe have a huge problem on their hands. Mattey’s tendency to speak as he sees, and to tell everyone everything, has caused untold problems for the council but especially the LibDems. Sometimes facts – or Mattey’s version of them – are most unwelcome.
With Piracha and Ali gone, the function of the various sweetheart committees that distribute funds from Viridor to local charities, to oversee the restoration of the farmlands, and monitor the incinerator, will become strained, if not impossible.
Mattey has refused to engage with these committees because he believes they are neither transparent nor genuine in their motives and decisions. Bringing in LibDem councillors from out of the ward would be against the committees’ constitutions and would look like political manipulation. In short, Mattey has played a political blinder. He has laid elephant traps.
Losing 12 seats will cost the local LibDem party’s coffers around £15,000 each year – a fall in income extracted from their councillors’ allowances and ploughed into the campaign machine. And because the Independents now become a political group, the political balance of committees will be much changed.
Will Mattey or his “group” get a seat on the Environment and Neighbourhood Committee, where Jill Whitehead is the incumbent chair? Whether that’s a fight that Whitehead wants to take, or whether she prefers to pass on the baton, remains to be seen. While Whitehead’s chairing of the committee has been often shrill and overbearing, her likely successor, current deputy Manuel Abellan, possibly lacks the political dexterity and gravitas to handle a force like Mattey. They’ll be selling tickets for this one.
The overall vote in Sutton makes for interesting reading:
LibDems 69,240 (38.8%) – 33 seats
Con 64,947 (36.4%) – 18 seats
Lab 31,953 (17.9%) – 0 seats
Green 4,478 (2.5%) – 0 seats
Others 7,955 (4.5%) – 3 seats
As a commentator on Twitter pointed out, had the election been conducted under their favourite proportional representation method, the LibDems would have lost overall control of the council.
But on a night when the LibDems routed the Tories in both neighbouring Richmond and Kingston, and picked up seats in Merton, Ruth Dombey’s party in Sutton saw its majority cut to 12. In 2014, the majority was 36.
She is perhaps fortunate that some of the senior figures who might have fomented a challenge to her discredited leadership have lost their seats. The fact that Dombey claimed the LibDems kept to “positive messages” against “some quite nasty smears and allegations” shows that Sutton LibDems can still spin black into white without a flinch.
It’s going to be an interesting four years.
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