CARL SHILTON at the election count reports on how senior Liberal Democrats lost their council positions while their party clung on to power, as Labour won their first seats for 20 years
The election fight in Sutton turned feral as the Liberal Democrats worked the national politics angle to enable them to hold on to a wafer-thin majority of just three councillors.
Despite this, the Sutton’s “Local” Conservatives gained two council seats while the LibDems lost four, and a reinvigorated Labour Party finally got councillors elected in Sutton for the first time since 2002.
Sutton’s 55 council seats are now distributed thus: LibDems 29, Tories 20, independents 3, Labour 3.
Four years ago, Sutton’s Tories bucked the national trend by gaining 10 seats which, with independents winning three, cut the apparently bomb-proof LibDem majority to 12. Over the last four years some ill-conceived LibDem decisions – magnified by a slight problem with ignoring consultation results – had seen their stock diminish with the public.
Yet Partygate and Boris Johnson doomed Conservative hopes of finally regaining Sutton Council after 36 years.
In some respects, it was a Pyrrhic victory for Ruth Dombey and her LibDems, as among the casualties were three of her most trusted councillors, in the combative Jenny Batt, veteran Jean Crossby and planning committee chair Drew Heffernan.
Batt’s battle in Worcester Park North proved to be an especially bitter election contest, but the result gave the parents of children with learning disabilities the biggest cheer of the night.
Batt was taking on Tom Drummond, the leader of the Conservative opposition on the council. As the LibDems lead member for SEND and education who was also a cheerleader for the road closures in Worcester Park that literally brought residents out onto the streets to protest, Batt’s choice of ward baffled many.
Ultimately, it cost her her place on the council. Drummond beat her by more than 300 votes, and brought his Tory colleague Joe Quick over the line, too.
In the new St Helier wards, East and West, there were some difficult-to-fathom results. St Helier East, a two-member ward, was a relative walkover for the LibDems. St Helier West, however, saw a neck-and-neck race between the Tories and Labour, the Conservatives taking two seats and Labour’s Sheila Berry, who topped the poll (albeit with just 848 votes), a well-earned bonus for her party. Meanwhile, Crossby, the antagoniser of colleague Annie Moral, was rejected by the voters.
South Beddington and Roundshaw, with 14 candidates, was always going to be an electoral washing machine. Tory Ryan Stoneman moved from his Stonecot ward, while Heffernan moved from Worcester Park. Both lost their seats.
However, returning Patrick Magnus – formerly known as Patrick McManus, a Tory councillor who won Belmont in 2018 – was elected. Veteran Ed Joyce retained his seat for the LibDems. The independents standing here barely made a dent.
The boundary changes of wards since 2018 threw up a number of two-member wards, one of these being Hackbridge. Labour gained its first councillors for 20 years as, predictably, Sheldon Vestey and Dave Tchilingirian mopped up the majority of the votes, on the back of continued community work and campaigning on the council’s misfiring SDEN heat network.
The three independents elected in 2018 in Beddington easily retained the ward, showing that dumping south London’s waste and building a polluting incinerator in the area does not go down well with voters. The total LibDem vote in the ward has decreased from 7,080 in 2010 to just 1,903 in 2022, coinciding nicely with the incinerator and SDEN timetables.
There were predictable wins for the LibDems in Wallington North and South, and Carshalton Central, all long-term strongholds, thus seeing deputy leader Jayne McCoy, the increasingly fraught chair of the housing, economy and business committee, and Marian James, the out-of-her-depth chair of the people committee, both re-elected.
Carshalton South and Clockhouse ward looked to be heading for three Conservatives, but the split vote – where voters choose candidates from different parties, and which are counted last – repeated what happened in 2018. Despite not living in Sutton for three of the last four years, LibDem Amy Haldane’s personal vote saw her creep up and retain her seat.
The Tories had clearly made a decision to contest The Wrythe, a LibDem stronghold, before Partygate kicked in.
Their local party chairman Jed Dwight decamped from his Stonecot seat knowing that to gain a council majority, The Wrythe had to turn blue. It didn’t.
The LibDems’ prospective parliamentary candidate for Carshalton and Wallington, Bobby Dean, led his candidates to a tight if keenly fought win. Dwight became a Tory heavyweight casualty.
On the Sutton and Cheam half of the count, there were guest appearances on the floor by Lord Graham Tope, a former councillor and LibDem MP, and a would-be successor, the apparently ostracised LibDem PPC for Sutton and Cheam, David Campanale.
Campanale founded the somewhat illiberal Christian People’s Alliance, and many LibDems nationally have attacked his appointment as a PPC. Last night, he tried his best to schmooze his colleagues, but appeared lost. There is speculation in Sutton that, with the party having retained control of the council, Campanale can be quietly dropped as the parliamentary candidate.
In Sutton Central, Labour had big hopes of winning, with quality candidates who campaigned hard. But it seems the changing demographic of the area, with hundreds of high rise flats built over the last few years, stymied them. Again, the LibDems won more comfortably than they might have expected.
The new Sutton West and East Cheam ward saw one of the biggest surprises of the night.
Tory Catherine Gray, the opposition lead on housing, economy and business, lost her seat along with colleague Lily Bande. It was sixth-time lucky for election tourist Luke Taylor, who helped the LibDems take all three seats, though the election of Christopher Woolmer has raised some eyebrows. It seems the LibDems weren’t aware he used to be an official at the same Christian People’s Alliance where Campanale invented a new form of illiberalism.
The Cheam and Belmont wards were predictable walkovers for the Conservatives, with GLA member for Sutton and Croydon, Neil Garratt, re-elected in Belmont.
The new two-member Worcester Park South ward was a shoo-in for re-elected Tories Martina Allen and now Sutton’s longest-serving councillor, Peter Geiringer, who was first elected in 1976.
In Ruth Dombey’s own ward, the Tories landed a surprise seat through Bryony Lindsay-Charlton, though Dombey clung on. Spending about 70per cent of the whole borough’s Neighbourhood Fund in the ward was clearly worth it for the council leader. But Dombey will be wary. Across the ward, the Tories polled only 62 votes fewer than the LibDems, making it now one of the most marginal in the borough.
By the end of the evening – well, in the early hours of the morning – Dombey was smiling like never seen before, with what must be a huge sense of relief.
Under her leadership, Sutton Council still has massive problems. Winning the election doesn’t make them go away. Many residents now expect conveniently-delayed Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and road closures to be imposed on them.
SDEN will still be an issue, and the incinerator remains. SEND children still suffer.
In Sheldon Vestey, Sutton will now have a customer of SDEN sitting on the council, unable to be shut down as he was constantly in committees when appearing as a member of the public. Expect fireworks.
But the biggest challenge going forward is arguably for Sutton’s Conservatives.
Voter turnout at nearly 40per cent was just a shade below the 2018 figure of 41.4per cent, leaving the suspicion that some Tory supporters, disgusted at Partygate and the Prime Minister’s other lies and offences, simply stayed at home.
Drummond and his predecessor as opposition leader, Tim Crowley, have their work cut out.
As one observer put it at the end of another long election night, “Holding Dombey and the LibDems to account has been like trying to nail jelly to a wall.
“This result won’t make that task any easier.”
- If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, or want to publicise your residents’ association or business, or if you have a local event to promote, please email us with full details at email@example.com
- Inside Croydon is a member of the Independent Community News Network
- By having a comment section, we provide all readers with an immediate “right of reply” on all our content. Details of how this works can be read by clicking here
- Inside Croydon works together with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as well as BBC London News and ITV London
- Inside Croydon: 3.3million page views in 2021. Seen by 1.6million unique visitors in that 12-month period