Our Sutton reporter, BERTIE WORCESTER-PARK, on a council by-election where all the political parties did poorly
Sutton’s LibDems, and their candidate with a record of serial business failures, duly retained the Wallington North council seat in yesterday’s council by-election, but with their majority halved.
Ruth Dombey, the LibDem leader of Sutton Council, can now look forward to more than three years of regular and irritating questions at meetings about newly elected Barry Lewis’s trail of £9million-worth of corporate debts left by the two businesses he placed into receivership, and how much of his council allowances are being used to refund his creditors.
Bazza Lewis’s business failures will also make any committee appointments made by Dombey subject to extremely close scrutiny, and possible ridicule.
But while reading too much into any council by-election is always a mistake, Wallington North will cause recriminations and ructions throughout all three larger political parties in Sutton, as Labour’s lacklustre campaign saw them beaten into fourth place by the independent candidate, and the Tories are kicking themselves over their strategy which tended to promote a parliamentary candidate, to the detriment of candidate Charlotte Leonard, who was actually standing for election in the ward.
The by-election was called after LibDem councillor Joyce Mellican, who pocketed six months’ worth of allowances while out of the country, stood down due to ill-health.
Wallington North council by-election, Mar 28, 2019
Barry Lewis (Liberal Democrat) – 1,039 (38.2%)
Charlotte Leonard (Conservative) – 709 (26.1%)
Gervais Sawyer (Independent) – 381 (14%)
Sheila Berry (Labour) – 301 (11.1%)
Verity Thomson (Green) – 166 (6.1%)
John Bannon (UKIP) – 104 (3.8%)
Ashley Dickenson (Christian Peoples Alliance) – 17 (0.6%)
Voters: 2,717 (from 8,692 electorate). Turnout: 31.4%
As with the Norbury and Pollards Hill by-election held in Croydon earlier in the month, the turn-out was poor, with two out of three eligible voters not even bothering to cast a ballot.
Sutton’s Conservatives will be kicking themselves, however, because on this kind of result, with the LibDems down 7.7 per cent on their vote in the same ward just 10 months ago, if that was played out across the borough the Tories could be looking at taking control of Sutton Council, with 30 ward seats to the LibDems’ 21, with three independents.
And that hasn’t been the case in Sutton since a time when the Berlin Wall was still standing.
“It’s clear that reducing an election candidate to almost a support role in her own campaign, while using the leafleting to help promote the recently selected prospective parliamentary candidate didn’t do anything to help to actually win the seat,” according to one source.
“Heaven knows, given what’s been going on at Westminster, the timing of this by-election was always going to be a challenge for the Conservative Party.”
With London Assembly elections just 13 months away, the borough-wide swing figures should be a stark reminder to Labour that they continue to fail to make any connection with voters in Sutton, something likely to undermine any aspirations of winning the Croydon-Sutton seat at City Hall from the Conservatives.
Jamie Audsley, one of the Croydon councillors hoping to be selected as Labour’s Assembly candidate, was seen out on the stump on behalf of candidate Sheila Berry in Wallington yesterday, though less visible was Patsy Cummings, another hoping for selection to contest the City Hall elections.
Canvassers operating on behalf of three candidates also related the complete absence of any sightings of Lewis from any of the ward’s polling stations throughout the day.
Some noted the irony of the used aircraft salesman’s facility for flying under the radar all day. “Perhaps Dombey thought he might scare the voters,” said one teller.
The LibDem candidate wasn’t spotted until turning up at the count after 10pm.
Wallington North had been a somewhat subdued campaign, by the usual standards of Sutton Liberal Democrats’ leafleting cult, probably as a consequence of the high potential for reputational damage which Lewis represents following Inside Sutton’s revelations about his business failures.
The LibDem campaign began with them utilising archive images of ex-councillor Millican, and later leaflets steadfastly referred to Lewis as “a scout master” only, avoiding all reference to his business credentials and ethics (or lack of them).
With the council sending out postal ballots to coincide with one LibDem leaflet drop, and days ahead of when the other parties expected them to be distributed, undoubtedly caught the Tories, Labour and independent Gervais Sawyer on the hop, too.
Notably, LibDem MP for the area Tom Brake, normally a bit of a political tart when it comes to photo ops, has not been seen in any photographs alongside Lewis, a council candidate in a ward at the heart of the Carshalton and Wallington parliamentary constituency.
After the recent embarrassment at a Tower Hamlets council by-election, when the Liberal Democrats had to withdraw their candidate when they belatedly discovered his reputation for anti-Semitism, the failures of their selection process in Sutton with Barry Lewis will be further cause for a review of their system.
According to a LibDem source, “In terms of candidate selection, I just think Sutton need to start following the advice and guidance most other local parties follow – I question whether they do.”
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