Previews: 14 Jun 2018

“All the right votes, but not necessarily in the right order”

Two council by-elections on 14th June 2018:


London Bridge and West Bermondsey

Southwark council, London; postponed from 3rd May following the death of Toby Eckersley, who had been nominated on the Conservative slate. Eckersley was a long-standing former Southwark councillor, first being elected for Ruskin ward in a September 1977 by-election; with a break from 1986 to 1990, he sat for Ruskin and later Village ward on Southwark council until losing his seat in 2014.

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
– T S Eliot, The Waste Land

Assuming that the trains are running, we catch the train from Grove Park in Zone 4 (for now) to London Bridge in Zone 1. This is where London began, the heart of it all. The first London Bridge was a Roman one, built as part of their first-century road-building programme to shortcut the route from the Channel Ports to their original capital at Camulodunum – the modern Colchester. As the lowest bridge on the Thames, it was natural for two trading and shipping settlements to spring up at either end: Londinium on the north bank, and what is now Southwark on the south bank.

The early London Bridges were timber, susceptible to being damaged or destroyed by war or natural disaster, and chronically unable to handle the traffic demand placed upon them. In the late twelfth century, Henry II – trying to rebuild his reputation following the murder of Archbishop Thomas of Canterbury – commissioned a new bridge in stone with a chapel in the middle dedicated to St Thomas. The Chapel of St Thomas on the Bridge became the starting point for pilgrimages to Thomas’ shrine in Canterbury Cathedral, and from then on Southwark had a tourist trade to add to everything else going on there.

Which was rather a lot. Despite damage in the Peasants’ Revolt and the rebellion of Jack Cade, whose severed head turned up on a pike at the southern end of the bridge shortly afterwards pour encourager les autres, London Bridge was a destination in its own right. There were all sorts of buildings on it to obstruct flow of the traffic on top, while the narrow stone arches obstructed the flow of the water below to such an extent that the river on the upstream side was prone to freezing over in winter. Hence the famous “frost fairs”.

The 1830s changed all that. A new London Bridge, designed by John Rennie and consisting of five arches, was erected 100 feet upstream of the original one; the old bridge was then demolished. Because of the new alignment new approach roads were needed which, given the price of land in London even then, cost three times as much as the actual bridge. Central government had to pick up some of the tab. This is the London Bridge which was sold to the Americans in 1968 and replaced by the bridge which stands today; contrary to urban legend, the Americans knew exactly what they were buying.

By the 1830s it was certainly high time for the old bridge to be replaced, for Southwark was a major centre. St Thomas of Canterbury gave his name to a hospital in Southwark (since moved to Lambeth opposite the Houses of Parliament) and still here is Guy’s Hospital, founded in 1721 by Thomas Guy who had been one of the few people to make a fortune out of the South Sea Bubble. The Pool of London, which had its western end at London Bridge, filled both the north and south riverbanks with wharves and commerce for miles from the city downstream – HMS Belfast, a cruiser moored in the Thames as a floating museum, is the only remaining vestige of this within this ward. And then the railway came. Despite its shining new rebuilt appearance, London Bridge railway station dates from 1836 making it the oldest London terminus and one of the oldest and busiest railway stations in the world; an impressive viaduct carrying eleven parallel tracks links the station with destinations in south London, Surrey and Kent. John Davidson’s turn-of-the-century complaint about London Bridge station might no longer be relevant…

Inside the station, everything’s so old,
So inconvenient, of such manifold
Perplexity, and, as a mole might see,
So strictly what a station shouldn’t be,
That no idea minifies its crude
And yet elaborate ineptitude.

…but Thameslink commuters through the station can no doubt replace this with their own particular definition of crude and yet elaborate ineptitude. Maybe Heidi Alexander can sort it out.

The shiny new London Bridge station is just one of the shiny new buildings which litter this corner of Southwark. In 2002 the Greater London Authority moved into a testicular glass building on the riverbank, City Hall; and in 2012 construction finished on a building which English Heritage had objected to at the planning stage as “a shard of glass through the heart of historic London”. The Shard is (for the moment) the tallest building in the European Union, standing 1,016 feet high; for purposes of comparison, that is the same height as the Winter Hill TV mast above Bolton.

Shiny new buildings indeed; but what of the people who live around them? Well, it might not surprise to find that this not exactly an affluent area, although population turnover means that relying on statistics from a census taken seven years ago can be problematic. For example, the census district immediately to the south of London Bridge station saw population growth of over 30% between 2011 and 2014. One corner of the ward turned up with a large Filipino population in the census, which is a feature often seen in the vicinity of major hospitals.

The high population growth also makes things difficult to compare because it meant that Southwark council got new ward boundaries in the May 2018 election. London Bridge and West Bermondsey is one of those brand new wards, mostly based on the old Grange ward (the Grange here referring to the former Bermondsey Abbey) together with part of the more yuppie Riverside ward. In 2011 Southwark Riverside was in the top 25 wards in England and Wales for the 30-44 age bracket, the top 60 for population born in the pre-2004 EU states, the top 80 wards in England and Wales for “higher management” occupations and the top 100 wards for full-time employment. Southwark Grange wasn’t quite so extreme but still had a large professional cohort. Yet both wards also turn up with substantial amounts of social housing.

An interesting social mix indeed; and trying to translate this into political runes is made even more difficult by the fact that this is Southwark. Simon Hughes represented this corner of London for over two decades in the Liberal and then Lib Dem interest, and while he may be off the scene now his political machine appears to be still in fairly good working order. This election will complete the 2018 Southwark council election which currently stands at 49 Labour and 11 Lib Dem councillors – those Lib Dem councillors include full slates in the neighbouring wards of Borough and Bankside, and North Bermondsey which are not too socially dissimilar.

Looking at the two predecessor wards, the old Grange ward had a full slate of Lib Dem councillors until 2014 when Labour gained one of the three seats. Shares of the vote that year were 29% each for Labour and the Lib Dems, and 14% each for the Conservatives and UKIP. Riverside was a safe Lib Dem ward; in 2014 the Lib Dems had 40% to 20% for Labour, 15% for the Conservatives and 12% for the Greens. In the 2016 GLA elections both wards voted for Sadiq Khan as Mayor, Grange being 50% Khan, 21% for Zac Goldsmith (C) and 11% for Caroline Pidgeon (LD) and Riverside splitting 43% Khan, 26% Goldsmith and 14% Pidgeon; in the London Members ballot Labour carried Grange with 41% (to 17% for the Conservatives, 15% for the Lib Dems and 11% for the Greens) and Riverside with just 33% (to 21% for the Conservatives, 20% for the Lib Dems and 10% for the Greens).

Game on, you might say. In listing the candidates I’ll start with the Lib Dem slate where New Zealand-born Damian O’Brien, outgoing councillor for Grange ward and deputy leader of Southwark’s Lib Dem group, is seeking re-election for a second term of office. He is joined on the Lib Dem slate by Humaira Ali (who according to her biography specialises in change management) and William Houngbo (a businessman who was born in West Africa and raised in France). The Labour slate is John Batteson (works for a children’s charity), Julie Eyles (employment law solicitor) and Edward McDonagh (works for an education charity). Hannah Ginnett has been nominated to replace the late Toby Eckersley, and she joins on the Tory slate Nathan Newport Gay and Richard Packer. Completing the ballot paper is a two-man Green slate of Bernard Creely and Claude Werner. With UKIP not standing, those are your eleven candidates for the three available seats.

Parliamentary constituency: Bermondsey and Old Southwark
ONS Travel to Work Area: London
Postcode districts: SE1, SE16

Humaira Ali (LD)
John Batteson (Lab)
Bernard Creely (Grn)
Julie Eyles (Lab)
Hannah Ginnett (C)
William Houngbo (LD)
Edward McDonagh (Lab)
Nathan Newport Gay (C)
Damian O’Brien (LD)
Richard Packer (C)
Claude Werner (Grn)

No previous results on these boundaries


Town

Doncaster council, South Yorkshire; caused by the resignation of Labour councillor John McHale on health grounds. He had served since 2006, sitting for Central ward until 2015 and this ward since then.

We come out of the Great Wen to finish in another town founded by the Romans. Doncaster lies at a crossing point of the River Don, on a secondary route between Lincoln and York which avoided the Humber crossing at Brough. The Romans built a fort to protect the Don crossing, with the name Danum. Replace the Roman road with the Great North Road, and the Great North Road with the A1, and Doncaster remains today an important communications centre: it’s a junction and major station on the East Coast railway line, and distribution centres and warehouses litter the outskirts of the town. Donny was an industrial centre from the eighteenth century thanks to its transport links together with substantial coal reserves under the town. Tourist money is brought here by Doncaster Racecourse, home of the classic horse race the St Leger each September.

Running from the town centre to the racecourse, Town ward was created by boundary changes in 2015 and has no direct predecessor: it took areas from the former Wheatley, Town Moor and Central wards. All three of those wards had elected Lib Dem councillors at some point before the Coalition years, but by 2014 Labour had a full slate. That carried over to the new Town ward, which voted Labour in 2015 with UKIP in second. UKIP didn’t stand in the 2017 election and that produced a very interesting result: Labour held the ward with 39%, but finishing as runner-up was Chris Whitwood, deputy leader of the Yorkshire Party, who had 26%. The Conservatives were third with 21%. Whitwood was simultaneously the Yorkshire Party candidate for Mayor of Doncaster in 2017, coming fifth in that election across the borough and narrowly saving his deposit.

Defending for Labour is an interesting choice of candidate. In an age when every Labour selection seems to be graded on a binary scale of Corbynite or otherwise, Tosh McDonald is as Corbynite as they get: he is the president of the ASLEF railway union, although with his long white hair and biker tattoos McDonald is probably not what you expected a union boss to look like. Returning from last year is Chris Whitwood of the Yorkshire Party; for the benefit of those readers who are not from the wrong side of the Pennines, this is a serious regionalist movement campaigning for a devolved Yorkshire Parliament, and the party put up 21 candidates and qualified for a regional TV debate in last year’s general election. The Tories have selected Carol Greenhalgh, who works on various government research studies in child care and education, following a long career as a teacher. Also standing are Julie Buckley for the Green Party, independent candidate Gareth Pendry and Ian Smith of the Lib Dems.

Parliamentary constituency: Doncaster Central
ONS Travel to Work Area: Doncaster
Postcode districts: DN1, DN2, DN4, DN5

Julie Buckley (Grn)
Carol Greenhalgh (C)
Tosh McDonald (Lab)
Gareth Pendry (Ind)
Ian Smith (LD)
Chris Whitwood (Yorks Party)

May 2017 result Lab 1818/1677/1603 Yorks Party 1195 C 1003 Grn 637
May 2015 result Lab 2662/2633/2591 UKIP 1500/1452 C 1306 Grn 972 TUSC 394/296