Greens, residents and LibDems put squeeze on Tory Surrey

Follow the yellow brick road: political editor WALTER CRONXITE takes a flight of fancy over the new political map of south-east England after last week’s local elections, which have given the LibDems much encouragement

Pathway to success?: the LibDems are targeting Tory ministers’ seats in Surrey after last week’s results

The fields of Surrey, Sussex and Kent are awash in vibrant green and yellow this damp spring. For those are the colours of the new political maps across south-east England after last Thursday’s local elections.

You can now drive, or perhaps more appropriately, cycle, through four Green wards down the A23 from the border of Coulsdon all the way to Horley.

And remarkably, Reigate and Banstead, which neighbours Croydon to the south, is now the only local council in Surrey where the Conservatives still hold a majority.

If Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove – the minister who personally approved the 15per cent Council Tax hike in Croydon – needed any kind of reminder that outsourcing the misery of spending cuts to local authorities might have some kind of consequence, then he only had to look at the council election results from last week, when nationally more than a thousand Conservative councillors paid the price for a decade of Tory-imposed austerity.

Even the Surrey Heath council, which covers Gove’s parliamentary constituency, was won by the LibDems, as 12 out of 18 Conservative councillors lost their seats. Surrey Heath has never been under anything other than Tory control.

Surrey Heathed: Michael Gove

What was once true blue Surrey has become a yellow brick road that runs from the Thames at Weybridge through Cobham to Dorking, where the LibDems are entirely dominant, and then continues on to Horsham and the South Downs.

Encouraged by the sea of yellow Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat leader, put 20 Tory MPs – including cabinet ministers and a former deputy Prime Minister – on notice that they were on his party’s target list. A quarter of those targets are in the west of Surrey, and they include Gove, Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt (South West Surrey).

Guildford fell to LibDem control for the first time in four decades, while Elmbridge, where Raab is the MP, stayed as no overall control but with six seats going to the LibDems and the Tories losing three. Waverley, in Hunt’s constituency, also remained NOC, but the Liberal Democrats have five extra councillors there.

As Conservative councillor after councillor lost their easy ticket to the council allowances gravy train, LibDem activists allowed themselves to dream of a “Portillo Moment” at any forthcoming General Election, matching the occasion in 1997 when the former defence secretary had the smile wiped off his face, his defeat to Stephen Twigg coming to symbolise the extent of Labour’s landslide that night.

It’s fair to say that the LibDems have had target lists before, and that they have included the unpleasantly named “decapitation” strategy against prominent Tories, too. It is also true that such plans have failed, repeatedly.

But the “blue wall” was well and truly breached last Thursday, and while Labour have benefited in Crawley and Medway, the party has done less well south of the Croydon borough boundary.

New targets: the LibDems’ Ed Davey thinks his party’s made a breakthrough

What was most notable as the results rolled in, slowly, was how Tory votes had been lost in all directions – to LibDems, to the Greens and also to increasingly angry and active residents’ groups. Labour only really thrived in urban settings like Crawley, central Epsom and central Redhill.

Thrasher and Rallings, the long-established local government election gurus, have the national equivalent Labour vote at 36per cent, somewhat short of where Keith Starmer needs to be to secure a parliamentary majority. The Thrasher Rallings NEV poll analysis has Labour up 1per cent on last year, the Conservatives down 4per cent to 29per cent and the LibDems up 1per cent to 18per cent.

Residents remain dominant in Epsom and Ewell and made further progress in Tandridge. The Greens continued to establish themselves as the principal challengers in Reigate, as the Tories just held on through focused campaigning.

In Chaldon, just across the borough boundary from Old Coulsdon, a paltry 21 votes for Labour underlines how Surrey remains out of Starmer’s reach, however much Sir Keith tries to out-Tory the Tories.

There was a face familiar to Croydon voters getting elected elsewhere, with Shasha Khan, the Green activist who challenged the Beddington incinerator all the way to the High Court, who is now the Green councillor for Hooley, Merstham and Netherne, a Reigate ward neighbouring Croydon. Khan took the Greens from third place, overtaking Labour on a huge 13.8per cent swing from the Tories. The ward had previously been represented by the Tory leader of the council who stood down at this election.

Green knight: Shasha Khan, who stood up to Viridor and SLWP, is now a councillor

A massive squeeze on the other non-Tory parties took place with Labour losing over half their vote share and the Liberal Democrats down by over two-thirds. The Green vote was 37.4per cent, up 12.8per cent, and Conservatives 20.4per cent down 14.9per cent. There was no UKIP this time.

Labour suffered a similar third party squeeze in Horley East and Salfords, where the Greens gained a second seat to establish themselves as the principal opposition on Reigate and Banstead council, with 11 seats in total (in common with many councils holding elections last week, only one-third of council seats were being contested this year). This seat and Khan’s ward are at either end of that new A23 Green corridor.

Labour did, though, get a representative on to the council through their own spectacular squeeze on non-Tory parties in Redhill West and Wray Common. They went from fourth place in 2019 to win the seat on a 12.85per cent swing from Conservatives.

Banstead resident (and Croydon councillor) Mario Creatura and other politician imports from Sutton and Croydon helped the Tories concentrate their efforts in defending the very marginal Blue-Green South Park and Woodpatch ward. The Conservative vote was up 11per cent to keep the Greens at bay, even with their vote up 10.1per cent.

Hot seat: Coulsdon councillor Mario Creature is pursuing parliamentary selection for Reigate

Holding this ward meant that the Conservatives squeaked a modest one-seat majority on Reigate and Banstead Council.

The popular vote shares in Reigate and Banstead were Conservatives 38per cent, Greens 23.3per cent, Labour 17per cent, and residents’ groups 7.3per cent.

Creatura, of course, was badly defeated when he stood as the Tory candidate in Croydon Central – the place he pledged undying loyalty to – in 2019. But if Creatura does have his wishes fulfilled and get himself selected as the Tory parliamentary candidate to stand in place of retiring Crispin Blunt, the chances are he will be an MP before the end of 2024.

The residents of Coulsdon might want to check quite how much council work Councillor Creatura takes on their behalf between now and the General Election, whenever it comes…

What Inside Croydon’s research on the amount of council casework our borough councillors do conduct failed to take into account is quite how much time and effort our borough’s 70 councillors spend doing work for their political parties.

While Creatura got his Tory mates out in South Park, Croydon’s Labour activists busied themselves with the local concerns of residents in Crawley, Medway, Milton Keynes and as far away as Swindon.

‘Croydon on tour’: Croydon’s Labour councillors appeared to have party business top of their agendas last week

At local election level, it appears that the major political parties have almost come to regard Epsom and Ewell as a no-go zone, the council there having been dominated by its residents’ association since its creation in 1937. The residents took 26 seats last week, with their highest vote share in a ward being an extraordinary 84.9per cent.

Tandridge has been run by independents or residents since 2019, when Conservative support for more housing in the council’s largely Green Belt area sent the blues into oblivion.

In a district council that runs from Whyteleafe and Warlingham to Caterham and on to Bletchingly, Godstone, Lingfield and Felbridge, things got even worse for the Tories in 2023, even though the council’s independents had to go to the Government with their own begging bowl because of errors on funding the council pension fund.

Bletchingly saw the Tory vote share collapse, and Felbridge was even worse for the Conservatives, with their vote being down 30per cent. Both seats were lost to Residents.

Only one-third of seats were up for election. The share of the vote between the parties was Conservatives 24.6per cent, Labour 9.8per cent, Liberal Democrats 18.8per cent, Green 2.4per cent and Residents 44.3per cent. .

Alun Jones upped his Liberal Democrat score to an impressive 73.9per cent in Caterham Valley in the eponymous Valley ward. Anna Jones, the LibDems’ 2019 Croydon South parliamentary candidate, got on the council for Portley ward.

Residents were dominant in Limpsfield at 75.9per cent, their highest vote share, but, in the neighbouring Lingfield and Crowhurst, the Conservatives came back on a 20.8per cent swing to take back the seat by just four votes.

Taxed: this is what happened in bankrupted Slough, a month after the Labour council introduced a 10% Council Tax rise

The whole of Tandridge council will be up for election next year on new boundaries. If we have a May General Election in 2024, with its greater party partisan turnouts, the independents may be at risk.

Ed Davey’s parliamentary target lists are interesting not only for what is on the list, but also for what has been left off, too. With the Lib ems doing so well in what will be a reconfigured Dorking and Horley seat compared to those councils out in western Surrey. it is peculiar that this is not a LibDem target. The reason will be that LibDems only have limited campaign resources, so a sixth target seat in one county is just too much.

The huge variety of swings seen south of the borough boundary, and the impact of individual candidates like the Green’s Khan right next to the Coulsdon border, shows that the quality of candidates really can make a difference.

Sarah Jones, Labour’s Croydon Central MP, may feel more comfortable after these elections with a new Croydon East seat whose boundary changes are not helpful to her.

And both Labour and Conservatives in Croydon might take some encouragement from comparisons with election results at councils that have also hit the financial buffers.

Labour-controlled Slough went bust 12 months ago, and in April Gove allowed the council to hike its Council Tax by double the rate elsewhere – 10per cent. A month later, and Labour lost 15 council seats and control of the council to the Conservatives.

Tory-run Thurrock is, if anything, an even bigger basket case of a council, with a budget deficit of £500million after dodgy investments in solar farms.

Gove also allowed Thurrock to increase council tax by 10per cent, and on May 4, four of the six Conservative candidates seeking election lost. They included Mark Coxshall, the unrepentant Tory council leader.

Which ought to be an outcome Croydon’s Mr 15per cent, Mayor Jason Perry, will definitely have noticed.

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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