The Lewisham East by-election, a preview

House of Commons; caused by the resignation of Labour MP Heidi Alexander, who had served since 2010.

by Andrew Teale, 14 Jun 2018


Fifty-three weeks on from the snap general election and we come to the second parliamentary by-election of the 2017 Parliament, and the first in Great Britain. It’s also the first time in six months that Andrew’s Previews has had cause to visit London, as every councillor in the 32 London Boroughs was up for re-election last May so there have not been any by-elections in the capital so far this year. With your columnist being based in that unusually sunny part of the world (for the moment, touch wood), Greater Manchester, London was not high up my list of things to write about regarding the 2018 local elections, and I managed to deliver multiple pieces to Britain Elects on those polls without mentioning the capital once. Would that some commentators could have done likewise. Nevertheless it is legitimately London’s turn for the limelight this week.

General election vote share:


London has always been a cosmopolitan city, and the name Lewisham refers to an immigrant of an earlier age: a man from Jutland called Leof or Leofsa, who came over in the Jutish invasion of the late fourth century (or later) and made his home here. As did so many others in the last century and a half. Leof’s home – Lewisham – was still a rural area until the railway came in the 1840s, encouraging the rapid development of commuter housing in a district just six or seven miles from Charing Cross; in those days the area now covered by this constituency was part of Kent, before being incorporated into the County of London on its creation in 1889.

When the Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham was created in that year much of its area was still farmland, but the gaps were progressively filled in. The East constituency’s housing stock still predominantly dates from the nineteenth century; and by the 1930s, with the completion of the London County Council’s Downham estate, there was no more room left. The Downham estate still occupies much of the southern end of this constituency: developed in the late 1920s, it was considered a showpiece estate and described by Lewisham council as a “garden city”. Much of the estate’s original population was working-class people rehoused from substandard housing in places such as Rotherhithe and the East End, to the disgust of locals over the county boundary in Bromley who went so far as to build a wall to keep the riff-raff out. History doesn’t record whether Lewisham paid for the wall.

Further in is the constituency’s main commercial centre, Catford. Despite there being a large fibreglass sculpture of a cat here, the name actually refers to a cattle ford on the River Ravensbourne. Lewisham council is based in Catford, and is overseeing extensive redevelopment of the town centre.

To the east lie the railway suburbs of Grove Park and Hither Green, together with Lee which was one of the two parishes which merged to create Lewisham borough in 1889. Karl Marx lived in Lee for a time, and at the northern end of the seat is another area which, although for many years it has been the most affluent part of this constituency, has a radical political history. The Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, Jack Cade’s rebellion of 1450 and the Cornish rebellion of 1497 all mustered at Blackheath. It’s easy to see why. To this day Blackheath is an area of high ground and open space with excellent communications: the Roman Watling Street and the modern A2 pass over the heath on the way to Canterbury and the Channel Ports, leading to the area being a haunt of highwaymen in the eighteenth century. If the Nazi Operation Sealion had ever come to fruition, Blackheath would have been the last line of defence before London.

The open space of Blackheath and easy distance from London led to strong associations with sport. By tradition this was the first place that golf was played in England; Kent played several first-class cricket matches on the heath in the eighteenth century; three Blackheath clubs were among the founder members of the FA in 1863; and the first rugby match between England and Wales was played here in 1881. Each April Blackheath comes to prominence as the starting point for the London Marathon.

However, the main industry on the heath in days gone by (if you discount the predations of highwaymen) was gravel extraction, which made a pretty penny for the landowner: the Lord of the Manor of Lewisham, the Earls of Dartmouth. And this is an appropriate point to start to consider those former MPs whom the winner of this by-election will tread in the footsteps of, for the first MP for a seat to bear the name “Lewisham” was William Legge, the 6th Earl of Dartmouth. A Conservative, Legge was first elected to Parliament in 1878 in an uncontested by-election for the predecessor seat of West Kent, and at this point in time he was generally known by the courtesy title of Viscount Lewisham. He had the traditional upper-class education: Eton, Christ Church Oxford, officer in the South Staffordshire Regiment; and the year before being elected to Parliament he had played first-class cricket for the MCC.

Viscount Lewisham took over the constituency that bore his name when it was created in the redistribution of 1885. He defeated the Liberal candidate Benjamin Whitworth, an outgoing MP who sought election here after his seat – Drogheda, in what’s now the Republic of Ireland – was abolished. Lewisham beat Whitworth in Lewisham by the margin of 58-42, and increased his majority to 69.5-30.5 the following year. The 1886 general election returned the Conservatives to power under Lord Salisbury, and Viscount Lewisham entered the government as Vice-Chairman of the Household. Under the rules in force then Lewisham had to get his government appointment confirmed by seeking re-election to the House, and nobody bothered to oppose him in the resulting by-election.

Viscount Lewisham succeeded to his father’s titles and entered the Lords in 1891. The resulting Lewisham by-election was held easily for the Conservatives by John Penn. Described as “one of the best-known Parliamentary golfers” with his own private course near North Berwick, Penn came from a business rather than an aristocratic background: he ran the family marine engineering firm of John Penn and Sons, although he wasn’t an engineer himself. So far, so Donald Trump. Penn easily won the 1891 by-election and the 1892 general election, and after that nobody bothered to oppose him for the 1895 and 1900 elections.

John Penn’s death in 1903 resulted in the third Lewisham by-election in as many decades. The 1903 by-election was contested, with the Liberals putting up a young Scottish barrister called James Cleland, who was a London county councillor for the borough and chairman of the LCC’s Parks and Establishment committees. Cleland, who would later serve as MP for Glasgow Bridgeton from 1906 to December 1910, and died in 1914 at the early age of 40, had the best Liberal result yet in Lewisham – 42.5% – but it wasn’t good enough to displace the Tories. Their winning candidate was Edward Coates, a stockbroker, Major in the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment and noted art collector. Coates had a long career in the seat, easily weathering the Liberal landslide of 1906; he would go on to serve as chairman of Surrey county council and be appointed baronet.

The growing population of Lewisham meant that it was divided into two seats at the 1918 redistribution. Sir Edward Coates sought re-election in Lewisham West, leaving the way clear in East for the new Conservative candidate Lt-Col Assheton Pownall. Pownall, who was elected unopposed in 1918 with the Coalition’s coupon, had come from an engineering family; he was a London county councillor for Lewisham from 1907 to 1910 and had fought Rotherhithe in the two 1910 elections. He had served in the London Regiment during the Great War, and shortly after his election to Parliament was appointed as a military OBE. With a safe seat Pownall could throw himself into the work of Parliament; he gained a reputation for hard work on committees, and was knighted for his political service in 1926.

But by this time demographic changes were hard at work. The completion of the Downham estate fundamentally changed the character of Lewisham East, making Labour competitive. Pownall had a close shave in the 1929 election which brought Labour to power for the first time, holding his seat by just 402 votes over Labour candidate John Wilmot. Wilmot stood for this seat three times before getting into Parliament by winning the 1933 Fulham East by-election; he was a minister under Attlee before ending his days in the Lords. Labour went on to put up another future MP against Pownall, Freda Corbet (Camberwell North West 1945-50, Peckham 1950-Feb 1974) who stood here in 1935.

Sir Assheton Pownall was finally swept away in the Attlee landslide of 1945, as Labour defeated the Conservatives nationally. The first non-Conservative MP for a Lewisham constituency was one of the major figures of the Labour Party: none other than the outgoing Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison. Morrison, who had transferred here after fifteen years (with broken service) as MP for Hackney South, can justifiably claim to be one of the people who had the most impact on what London has become today. In 1931, as transport minister in the Macdonald Labour government, Morrison introduced the bill which set up the nationalised London Transport; and in 1934 he took over the most powerful local government job in the UK, Leader of the London County Council. As LCC leader Morrison had effectively forced central government to pay for a replacement Waterloo Bridge, and introduced the Green Belt to put a stop to the relentless expansion of the city. We are still working through the long-term effects of those decisions, as we are with one of the more dubious parts of Morrison’s political legacy: he was the grandfather of Peter Mandelson.

Morrison had run the 1945 Labour election campaign, and in the Attlee government became Deputy Prime Minster and Leader of the Commons; other than the Green Belt, his main legacy of that period was probably the Festival of Britain and the resulting redevelopment of the South Bank of the Thames.

The 1950 redistribution awarded a third seat to the Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham, and this was effected by dividing Lewisham East into two new seats, called Lewisham South and Lewisham North. Morrison moved to the South division, based on Catford, Hither Green and the Downham estate, which promised to be safe Labour and indeed was. In 1950 he defeated a future Tory MP, Frederick Gough (Horsham, 1951-64) who had won the Military Cross for action during the landing at Taranto in 1943. Herbert Morrison retired from the Commons in 1959 and passed his seat on to Carol Johnson, who had a majority of just 3,081 in his first election – the Tory candidate he defeated was John Hunt, who went on to serve for 33 years as MP for Bromley and then Ravensbourne. In 1964 Mr Johnson had a rather more comfortable win against another future Tory MP, Barney Heyhoe (Heston and Isleworth 1970-February 1974, Brentford and Isleworth Feb 1974-1992).

Lewisham South may have been a safe Labour seat, but Lewsham North was a completely different proposition. Based on Lee, Blackheath and Lewisham itself, it was won for the Conservatives in 1950 by Sir Austin Hudson, 1st Baronet, who returned to the Commons after losing Hackney North in the Labour landslide. Sir Austen did not have a safe seat: his majorities over Labour rose from 2,491 in the 1950 election to 3,236 in the 1955 election. He died in November 1956.

Sir Austin’s widow Peggy, the dowager Lady Hudson, later employed a butler called Roy Fontaine to work on the Hudson family’s estate in Dumfriesshire. Fontaine was not who Lady Hudson had thought he was: his real name was Archibald Hall and he was a career criminal who had taken the job in order to steal Lady Hudson’s valuables. He never did carry that crime out, deciding that he liked the job and the employer too much, and that was a good thing from Lady Hudson’s point of view. Archibald Hall became one of the UK’s most notorious serial killers, committing his first murder while in Lady Hudson’s service; his five victims included the former Labour MP for Accrington Walter Scott-Elliot and Walter’s wife Dorothy.

Fortunately Sir Austin Hudson’s death was not suspicious; unfortunately for the Conservatives it forced a by-election in a marginal seat. The 1957 Lewisham North by-election was duly lost to Labour’s Niall MacDermot, who came from a legal family – his grandfather Hugh MacDermot had been Solicitor-General and Attorney-General for Ireland, and his uncle Frank MacDermot had served in the Irish Dáil and Seanad in the 1930s and 1940s. MacDermot won the by-election with a majority of 1,110 on a swing of over 5%. He failed to hold on to the by-election gain, but returned to the Commons in 1962 by winning the Derby North by-election, was a junior Treasury minister under Harold Wilson, and later served for twenty years as secretary-general of the International Commission of Jurists.

As stated, Niall MacDermot lost his seat in the Macmillan landslide of 1959. The new Tory MP for Lewisham North was only 28 but was already a household name. Chris Chataway had made his name on the athletics track as a long-distance runner: he had paced Roger Bannister to the first four-minute mile in 1954, and later that year won a silver medal in the 5,000 metres at the European Athletics Championships, before breaking the world record for that distance at a London v Moscow athletics competition at White City. That race was televised across Europe and turned Chataway into a celebrity: it almost certainly won him the title of BBC Sports Personality of 1954, the first year in which the award was made. After completing his PPE degree at Oxford, Chataway briefly went into journalism – along with a young Robin Day he was one of ITV’s first two newsreaders – and then found a niche in politics, being elected to the London County Council in 1958 as one of the three councillors for Lewisham North. The following year he was in Parliament, defeating MacDermot with a majority of 4,613.

In office Chataway campaigned for refugees and became a junior education minister; but in 1964 his majority fell to just 343 votes and he lost his seat in the Wilson landslide of 1966. That didn’t stop his political career though; the following year Chataway became leader of the Inner London Education Authority before returning to Parliament by winning the Chichester by-election in 1969. He retired from politics in October 1974, going into banking and charity work, and serving as chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority. It says something for our honours system that it was that, rather than anything else in Chataway’s varied career, which secured his knighthood.

The new Labour MP who defeated Chataway in 1966 was Roland Moyle, the son of Labour MP Arthur Moyle (Stourbridge 1945-50, Oldbury and Halesowen 1950-64). Roland was a Greenwich councillor, barrister and industrial relations consultant. He did well to hold onto Lewisham North in the 1970 election, with the Conservatives cutting his majority from 2,363 to 1,027. That was, of course, a defeat for Labour nationally which came shortly after England had been knocked out of the World Cup; and it’s noticeable that this by-election has been scheduled before Gareth Southgate’s team have had a chance to blot their copybook in this year’s tournament.

By now London’s local government had been reformed, with the Deptford and Lewisham Metropolitan Boroughs merging in 1964 to form the London Borough of Lewisham. The redistribution implemented at the February 1974 election cut the expanded Lewisham borough from four constituencies to three, and that meant a recreation of the Lewisham East constituency and the abolition of Lewisham North and Lewisham South. Although the details have changed, the Lewisham East constituency has been roughly the same ever since.

Roland Moyle won the Labour selection for the new seat, and in the February 1974 election saw off then Ealing councillor, future Tory MP (Hendon South 1987-97) and MEP (London North 1979-89) and recently re-elected Barnet councillor John Marshall by the much healthier majority of 6,306. Moyle now joined the ranks of government, serving as a junior Northern Ireland minister in the final Wilson administration and as a health minister under Callaghan. In the 1979 election Moyle narrowly defeated another future Tory MP, Humfrey Malins (Croydon North West 1983-92, Woking 1997-2010) by 1,593 votes.

That small Labour majority spelt trouble with the rise of the Liberal/SDP alliance and consequent split on the left wing of British politics. In the 1983 election in Lewisham East Moyle stood for a sixth term of office as the Labour candidate; the SDP candidate was Polly Toynbee (yes, that Polly Toynbee); and the Tories decided to emulate Chataway by selecting another candidate in their late 20s who had proven themselves at the highest levels of sport. Colin Moynihan had been elected President of the Oxford Union in 1976, ahead of a promising young woman called Benazir Bhutto, and won a Blue for boxing against Cambridge as a bantamweight, but he made his name on the water. Moynihan coxed the Oxford crew to victory in the 1977 Boat Race, and won a silver medal in the 1980 Moscow Olympics as cox to the British men’s eight. After that he became a political advisor to the Foreign Secretary, Francis Pym, and won the Conservative nomination for the 1983 election in Lewisham East. With Moyle polling 36% and Toynbee 22% the left-wing vote was split, and Moynihan’s 40% of the vote gave him the win by 1,909 votes. He increased his majority in 1987 and appropriately became minister for sport, later transferring to the Department of the Environment as junior minister responsible for renewable energy.

In 1991 Moynihan’s half-brother Antony, the 3rd Lord Moynihan, died of a heart attack in the Philippines. Antony’s complex life and family situation – at the time he was thought to have had five wives and six children – meant it was not clear who should inherit his peerage but Colin might have a claim on it. The situation hadn’t been resolved by the time of the 1992 election, in which Moynihan lost his seat to Labour by 1,095 votes as the left-wing vote split resolved itself. The House of Lords eventually decided that Antony Moynihan’s two sons should not inherit: his son by his fourth wife was ruled out by a paternity test, while his son by his fifth wife was found to be illegitimate because Antony had never properly divorced his fourth wife. That left Colin Moynihan as the heir, and in 1997 he resumed his political career from the red benches as the 4th Lord Moynihan. In 1999 Moynihan became an elected hereditary peer, and from 2005 to 2012 he was chairman of the British Olympic Association. Lord Moynihan is only 62, so we may not have heard the last of him yet.

The Labour candidate who defeated Moynihan was Bridget Prentice, a teacher who entered the Commons at the same time as her then husband, Gordon Prentice (Pendle 1992-2010). Mrs Prentice became a Labour whip in 1995 and had a long career on and off at junior ministerial level. She made the Lewisham East seat safe in 1997, and Labour have not been seriously threatened here since. Prentice saw off two future Tory MPs: Philip Hollobone (Kettering 2005-) in 1997 and James Cleverley (Braintree 2015-) in 2005.

Prentice was reprimanded by the Parliamentary standards commissioner in 2008 for misusing her communication allowance, and didn’t seek re-election in 2010. That left the way clear for Lewisham councillor and deputy mayor Heidi Alexander to win the Labour nomination and the seat. Alexander was appointed shadow health secretary by Jeremy Corbyn and ran Sadiq Khan’s campaign in the 2016 London mayoral election. She resigned from the shadow cabinet in the wake of the EU referendum result, and is leaving the Commons to work for Khan as a deputy mayor of London, with responsibility for transport. An appropriate job for a constituency where the train is the most popular way of getting to work – with the exception of the Downham estate, which is poorly served by rail and has very high bus usage. Given that some of this constituency, particularly the Catford area, is affected by the issues with the new Thameslink timetable (issues which, let me point out, are a drop in the ocean compared to the appalling shambles which is Northern Rail), Alexander has got her work cut out in her new job.

Alexander’s successor will inherit a London constituency with a typically multicultural electorate. The 2011 census picked up significant numbers of residents born in Jamaica, Nigeria, Poland and Sri Lanka; and four of the seven wards in Lewisham East – Rushey Green, Catford South, Whitefoot and Downham – are in the top 100 in England and Wales for both black and mixed-race population. Rushey Green ward, covering Catford town centre, is number 7 on the mixed-race list at 9% and number 14 on the black list at 38% – for comparison, the ward’s White British population is under 30%. Catford South ward makes the top 30 on both lists, and Whitefoot ward is also majority BAME. Both Whitefoot and Downham still have high levels of social housing reflecting their history. By contrast, Blackheath ward is the most affluent part of the seat and clearly attracts urban professionals: a majority of its workforce hold degrees, a majority of its workforce are in managerial or professional occupations, and it is in the top 100 wards in England and Wales for the 30-44 age bracket.

You don’t see much of this reflected in Lewisham East’s local election results: at least, not these days. Ten years ago the political picture was very different, with the Lib Dems being competitive in Blackheath, Lee Green and the Downham estate wards and the Tories holding council seats in Grove Park. The Coalition put paid to that, and since 2014 Labour have held every council seat in this constituency. In last month’s Lewisham council elections Labour topped the poll with 51% across the seat; the Tories were in second with 17% and the Greens third with 15%. Those Lib Dems who are talking up their chances of a good result might want to reflect that they were fourth across the constituency only last month, with over half of their local election vote coming out of Blackheath and Lee Green wards. Going back slightly further to 2016, Alexander’s new employer Sadiq Khan carried this constituency in the London Mayoral election with 54% to 23% for the Conservatives; in the London Members ballot Labour led with 50%, to 17% for the Conservatives and 10% for the Green Party. These figures don’t include postal votes which were not broken down to ward level, but the picture with postal votes included is unlikely to be significantly different.

Those figures suggest that Labour should not have much to worry about in holding this by-election. The 2017 general election result gives further cause for optimism: Alexander got a 6% swing in her favour to defeat the Conservative candidate by 68% to 23%, with no other candidates saving their deposit.

So with little realistic possibility of a seat loss here, the Westminster and media circle appears to have indulged in their favourite, if interminable, game of seeing this by-election through the prism of the two great Westminster imponderables of our time: the future of Brexit and the future of Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour selection has therefore been closely watched through that filter. It produced Janet Daby, who since 2010 has been a Lewisham councillor for Whitefoot ward (on the Downham estate). She is the deputy to Lewisham’s elected mayor, Damian Egan; has previously worked in social care; and is the director of a project tackling food poverty on the Downham estate.

The Conservative candidate is Ross Archer, who comes hotfoot from the 2018 Lewisham mayoral election in which he was a rather distant runner-up; he came closer to being elected in the simultaneous Lewisham council election where he was runner-up in the Tories’ best ward in Lewisham borough, Grove Park. Archer is described as a local scout leader who works for a not-for-profit company, and his flagship policy appears to be to get Grove Park railway station transferred from Zone 4 to Zone 3 in Transport for London’s zonal pricing system. For those not familiar with London transport, this will make trips between the city centre and Grove Park cheaper.

Standing for the Lib Dems is Lucy Salek, who chairs a refugee charity and fought Southend West in the 2017 general election. The Green candidate is Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, a schoolteacher who is campaigning on air pollution issues. UKIP have selected David Kurten, who has been a member of the London Assembly since 2016. Maureen Martin is the candidate of the evangelical Christian Peoples Alliance, which finished last here in 2015 and 2017; in May she stood for election to Lewisham council in Lee Green ward, coming last out of eleven candidates.

This being a London parliamentary by-election, there are an awful lot of other also-rans. First alphabetically is Charles Carey, an independent standing on a single issue of free, comprehensive and up-to-date access to legislation. Massimo DiMambro is standing for the UKIP splinter Democrats and Veterans Party; he was UKIP candidate for Lewisham Deptford in the 2015 general election, and contested Downham ward in the 2018 Lewisham local elections, coming last out of fifteen candidates. Sean Finch is standing for the Libertarian Party, Patrick Gray for the Radical Party, Thomas Hall for the Young People’s Party and Howling Laud Hope for the Official Monster Raving Loong Party. Possibly more serious about their candidature is Mandu Reid of the Women’s Equality Party. Completing the fourteen-strong ballot paper – and that’s already an improvement on May’s local elections, in which she messed up her nomination and wasn’t on the ballot for her home Basildon council – is Anne Marie Waters of her For Britain party, which I shall charitably describe as another UKIP splinter. Waters was the UKIP candidate for this seat in 2015, finishing in third place.

Despite the media coverage given to Lewisham East, overall this looks like one of those polls that’s strictly for the purists, with little to get excited about for the casual observer. And yet there are two local polls today which you’ve heard nothing about in the media but which look on paper far more interesting. Turn to the next section and I’ll give you the lowdown…

Lewisham council wards: Blackheath, Catford South, Downham, Grove Park, Lee Green, Rushey Green, Whitefoot
ONS Travel to Work Area: London
Postcode districts: BR1, SE3, SE6, SE9, SE10, SE12, SE13

Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah (Grn)
Ross Archer (C)
Charles Carey (Ind)
Janet Daby (Lab)
Massimo DiMambro (Democrats and Veterans Party)
Sean Finch (Libertarian Party)
Patrick Gray (Radical Party)
Thomas Hall (Young People’s Party)
Howling Laud Hope (Loony)
David Kurten (UKIP)
Maureen Martin (CPA)
Mandu Reid (Women’s Equality Party)
Lucy Salek (LD)
Anne Marie Waters (For Britain)

June 2017 result Lab 32072 C 10859 LD 2086 Grn 803 UKIP 798 Ind 355 CPA 228
May 2015 result Lab 23907 C 9574 UKIP 3886 LD 2455 Grn 2429 Lewisham People Before Profit 390 CPA 282
May 2010 result Lab 17966 LD 11750 C 9850 UKIP 771 Grn 624 EDP 426 Lewisham People Before Profit 332


LE2018: the results

Beam me up, Scotty!