Previewing the Lewisham East by-election

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!

Alyn & Deeside by-election preview

One by-election on Tuesday 6th February 2018:

Alyn and Deeside

National Assembly for Wales; caused by the death of Labour AM Carl Sargeant at the age of 49. Sargeant had represented Alyn and Deeside in the Assembly since 2003 and had served among the Welsh Ministers since 2007, originally as Chief Whip and latterly as Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children. Sargeant was dismissed from that position on 3 November 2017, following unspecified allegations about his personal conduct in the febrile atmosphere of the 2017 Westminster sexual scandals. Four days later, he was found hanged at his home, and the coroner heard that he was believed to have taken his own life. He leaves behind a wife, a son and a daughter.

We are sure you appreciate the anxiety and distress being caused to our client particularly as he is yet to receive any details of the allegations that have led to the decisions taken to date by the First Minister of Wales, the Labour Party in Wales and the Labour Party head office. There is the potential requirement to interview a number of witnesses of fact and with the Christmas period intervening and the ongoing delay is both prejudicial to the preparation of our clients case but also to his physical and mental wellbeing.
- Letter from Bowden Jones Solicitors to Welsh Labour, 6 November 2017

A difficult subject to write about for the first major by-election of 2018. We heard a lot in late 2017 about #metoo, a viral internet movement which went mainstream to demonstrate the prevalence of sexual harassment. It started with Harvey Weinstein, a high-profile film producer with a host of allegations against him, and spread from there.

Politics, of course, is not immune to sex scandals; indeed, quite the reverse. #metoo has resulted in a large number of scalps in the UK political scene, rivalling that of the Major government. Michael Fallon resigned as defence secretary over his past behaviour, while just before Christmas Damian Green was effectively sacked as First Secretary of State and Theresa May's deputy over allegations of sexually harassing behaviour and viewing pornography on a House of Commons computer. Junior minister Mark Garnier admitted instructing his parliamentary assistant to buy sex toys for his wife and a constituent, and lost his job at the Department for International Trade in January's reshuffle. In Holyrood, Mark McDonald resigned as the Scottish Parliament's childcare minister over inappropriate sexual behaviour. And lest you think that I'm only picking on government ministers, Labour MPs Kelvin Hopkins and Ivan Lewis remain suspended from the party over sexual harassment allegations.

This column is not going to defend anyone who may have sexually harassed someone. But, at the same time, these are serious allegations being made against people in political employment. Those accused have the right to expect a modicum of support and a duty of care from their party at the investigation or disciplinary stage - after all, that's one of the things unions are for. Clearly, in the Carl Sargeant case, something went badly wrong.

After his death, Sargeant's family released correspondence relating to Sargeant's suspension, including the solicitors' letter quoted at the head of this column. That was written the day before Sargeant took his life, with him facing investigation by the party, and the passages relating to Sargeant's "anxiety and distress" and "physical and mental wellbeing" look chilling in retrospect. The letter also makes clear that Sargeant did not know the detail of the allegations made against him. We still don't know that: the Welsh Labour Party investigation into Sargeant wound up after his death on the principle that there's no point disciplining a dead man.

Instead we have a series of investigations, to report at a later date, into how Sargeant's sacking was handled by the First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones; whether news of the sacking was leaked; and into wider claims of bullying within the Labour-controlled Welsh government. It will be interesting to see what the investigations come up with, but this column suspects that the full consequences from this tragedy have yet to play out.

That's for the future, and we must now turn to Alyn and Deeside. Even seasoned UK geographers will have trouble placing this constituency on the map, for its name reflects one of the old Welsh district councils which existed from 1974 to 1996. The name refers to two rivers. The Alyn rises in the Clwydian Hills and flows south-east through Mold to reach the Dee north-east of Wrexham. The Deeside part of the name is the core of the constituency and refers to the small towns which were once located on the Dee estuary.

Once, but not any longer. The Dee Estuary west of Chester has extensively silted up over the centuries, as a visit to the so-called "seafront" at Parkgate on the Wirral will testify. To the north-west of Chester the river was diverted during the eighteenth century into an arrow-straight artificial channel, leading to extensive land reclamation (the appropriately-named Sealand community) by a series of polders. That's caused some interesting boundary issues, mainly related to the fact that the Ordnance Survey, when it originally looked at the area centuries ago, had drawn a rather arbitrary line through the mud and sandbanks which existed then to represent the border between Wales and England. Although the land has changed the line has not, resulting in some very weird electoral boundaries particularly around the Deeside Industrial Park. Despite being on the opposite side of the Dee, the Industrial Park is administratively part of the community of Connah's Quay and covered - in a pattern which makes no sense whatsoever on the ground - by several Connah's Quay-based electoral divisions. Closer to Chester, the Welsh-English border famously bisects Chester FC's Deva Stadium.

It may surprise readers to learn that Connah's Quay is actually the largest town in Flintshire by population - larger than the county town Mold, larger than Buckley, larger than Holywell. There are reasons for that. Like many of the small towns in Alyn and Deeside, Connah's Quay is an industrial centre. The gas-fired Connah's Quay power station dominates the Deeside area, overshadowing even the impressive Flintshire Bridge. A cable-stayed structure, the Flintshire Bridge may be a bit of a bridge to nowhere but does carry the A548 North Wales Coast road, connecting Connah's Quay with the Deeside Industrial Park. The industrial park is one of the major employment centres of North Wales, taking in among other things the large Shotton steelworks, a major Toyota engine plant and the head office of Iceland supermarkets. It's no surprise that three of the four Connah's Quay divisions, two of the three Shotton divisions and Queensferry make the top 100 wards in England and Wales for the ONS "lower supervisory, technical" employment classification.

But that pales in comparison with one of the most high-profile factories in the UK. The small village of Broughton is home to a large aerospace factory, established during the Second World War for bomber production and later home to such favourite aircraft of quiz league question-setters as the De Havilland Comet and Mosquito. Broughton's aircraft factory is now owned by Airbus, and assembles the wings for all Airbus aircraft including the flagship "superjumbo" A380. Final assembly of the A380 takes place in Toulouse, to which Broughton's wings are transported by sea. The Airbus factory employs 6,500 people, so it is highly important to the constituency's economy, and a recent order from Emirates Airlines for more A380s could help to secure the factory for several years to come. Even the local football club - sadly relegated from the Welsh Premier League last year - is called Airbus UK Broughton. Both Broughton divisions are in the top 100 wards in England and Wales for the ONS "lower supervisory, technical" employment classification, with Broughton South coming in at number 11.

Lying inland is the constituency's other major town, Buckley. This was another town created by the industrial revolution, with its heavy clay soil and accessible coal measures leading to pottery, mining and brickworking industries. The town's accent still has influences from the immigrants from Liverpool and Ireland who came here in the nineteenth century to staff those industries. Today the main export from Buckley is cement from a large and notably ugly cement works.

Not exactly tourist central. For many visitors to north Wales, Alyn and Deeside is somewhere you pass through to get to somewhere more exciting, like Snowdonia, the beach resorts on the north coast or even the Irish ferry from Holyhead. Most of those visitors pass along the A494 road, which runs from the end of the motorway in England to meet the A55 - the main road through North Wales - north of Buckley. It's a dream to drive from the English border all the way to the Dee crossing at Queensferry, which is very clearly the point where the improvement money ran out - the westbound carriageway loses a lane and makes a handbrake turn to the right to squeeze onto the existing Dee bridge. (For those who ignore the warnings and go straight on, I hope your vehicle likes salt water.) Between the Dee and the A55 the road runs along Aston Hill, a congested two-lane dual carriageway with poor sightlines, steep gradients, a 50mph speed limit and a bad accident record. A rebuilding plan for this section was thrown out by the Welsh Government in 2008 due to local opposition and high costs, and the latest idea to try and improve the Aston Hill road is to avoid it altogether, by building a new road from the Flintshire Bridge to the A55 - which would at least end the "bridge to nowhere" gibe.

Possibly the most famous modern person associated with the constituency is the former England footballer Michael Owen, who lived in the area and bought an entire street in Ewloe for his extended family. Owen was eligible to play for England because - like many people in this constituency - he was born at the local maternity hospital, which is over the border in Chester. Saltney in particular is a part of Chester which has spilled over into Wales, and the census shows that this is the least Welsh constituency in Wales - in terms of the proportion of people born in the country. Perhaps not surprisingly, in three of the five Welsh Assembly elections to date Alyn and Deeside has returned the lowest turnout.

It wasn't always like this: eastern Flintshire was once noted for very high electoral turnout. There has been a constituency on roughly these boundaries since 1950 when Flintshire was divided into two constituencies. The county had previously been a single constituency since 1918 when the constituency of Flint Boroughs (covering eight towns and villages only one of which, Caergwrle, was in this seat) was abolished. Appropriately for an area which included Gladstone's home at Hawarden Castle, both Flintshire and the erstwhile Flint Boroughs were continuously Liberal-held from 1852 until 1924 when the Liberal MP Thomas Henry Parry lost his seat to the Conservatives. Parry had served since winning the Flint Boroughs by-election in 1913, and during the First World War served with distinction in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He was wounded four times in the war, once at Suvla Bay and three times at Gaza, and finished up with a DSO and the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. As with many veterans of the Gallipoli campaign, the peninsula cast a long shadow: Parry's war wounds rendered him unable to campaign in the 1924 election.

The Liberals recovered Flintshire from Tory MP Ernest Roberts in 1929, but their new MP Frederick Llewellyn-Jones found himself on the Simonite side of the 1931 split in the Liberal Party. Although Llewellyn-Jones was easily re-elected in 1931 on the Liberal National ticket against only Labour opposition, he retook the Liberal whip in 1932 - an action which did not go down well among the Flintshire Conservatives - and retired in 1935. And that was pretty much the end of the Liberal challenge in Flintshire, as the Conservatives' Gwilym Rowlands easily gained the seat in 1935. A former Rhondda urban district councillor and son of a colliery manager, Rowlands had fought several Valleys constituencies in the 1920s elections. He served for ten years without much distinction, standing down in 1945.

The 1945 election saw a political realignment in Flintshire as Labour had a strong result in the county for the first time. Their candidate Eirene Jones was only narrowly defeated by the new Conservative candidate Nigel Birch, who had a majority of 1,039. An Old Etonian who had served on the General Staff in World War 2, ending the war with an OBE and the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, Birch had a long parliamentary career which peaked under Eden and Macmillan when he was in the Cabinet as Air Secretary. Birch was translated to the Lords in 1970, ending his days with the title Lord Rhyl.

However, Nigel Birch now leaves our story. By 1945 the Flintshire constituency was by far the largest seat in Wales with over 93,000 electors, and the Boundary Commission divided it in two for the 1950 election. Birch sought re-election in the more Tory-inclined West Flintshire, clearing the way for Eirene White (as she now was) to win the industrial seat of East Flintshire. White had a good majority, 6,697 over the Conservatives on a turnout of 88% - an enormous figure by today's standards. A political journalist with the Manchester Evening News and the BBC before entering the Commons, White had been elected to the Labour NEC in 1947 and was one of the first female MPs for Wales.

That majority eroded over the years partly thanks to the withdrawal of the Liberals, but the high turnouts continued. In the 1959 Macmillan landslide White held onto East Flintshire by just 75 votes on a turnout of 86% - the ninth highest turnout in the UK. She increased her majority to 3,956 in the 1964 election on a turnout of 87% - the second highest turnout in the UK - and made the seat safe in the 1966 Wilson landslide, again with an 87% turnout. By now White was a junior minister in the Wilson administration, serving in the Colonial, Foreign and Welsh Offices.

Eirene White was translated to the Lords in 1970 - serving as Deputy Speaker of that chamber from 1979 to 1989 - and was replaced as MP for East Flintshire by Barry Jones, who won rather narrowly in the 1970 election before making the seat safe. Jones had served in the Royal Welch Fusiliers before becoming a teacher and president of the Flint County branch of the NUT. He had had a near-miss in the 1966 election, coming close to gaining Northwich from the Conservatives. In the two 1974 elections and 1979 he saw off a future MP - Alex Carlile, who was Liberal MP for Montgomeryshire from 1983 to 1997 and now sits in the Lords.

Jones had a scare in the 1983 Thatcher landslide - the first election under the modern name of Alyn and Deeside - when his majority fell to just 1,368 over the Conservatives. (Their candidate that year was Simon Burns, who would later serve for thirty years as MP for Chelmsford.) For most of the Kinnock leadership of Labour Jones was Shadow Welsh Secretary, although his only ministerial experience was from 1974 to 1979 when he was a junior Welsh Office minister. 1983 was Jones' last close result, and in 1997 he saw off a future Welsh Assembly member, Eleanor Burnham of the Lib Dems. That 1997 election was the first contest on the current boundaries of the Alyn and Deeside constituency, which survived the 2010 review unchanged.

Barry Jones retired in 2001 after thirty-one years' service, and now sits in the Lords as Lord Jones. He passed the Parliamentary seat on to Mark Tami who remains in situ as only the third MP for this seat since 1950. Tami had been head of policy for the Amicus union before entering Parliament, and most of his career has been spent on the Labour backbenches. Again he has had some scares - the Conservatives got within 2,919 votes in 2010 and within 3,343 in 2015. Despite speculation of a Conservative gain when the 2017 election was called amid Theresa May's huge poll leads, Tami increased his majority last June and now looks to have a seat which is safe enough: in 2017 he beat the Conservatives by 52% to 40%. At his first election in 2001 he saw off Conservative candidate Mark Isherwood, who has sat in the Welsh Assembly since 2003.

Strangely enough these close results have never been seen in the Welsh Assembly elections, in which Alyn and Deeside has been safe Labour throughout. Its first AM in 1999 was Tom Middlehurst, who handed over to Carl Sargeant in 2003. The most recent Senedd election was in 2016, when Sargeant had 46% to 21% for Mike Gibbs of the Conservatives and 17% for UKIP candidate Michelle Brown, who was elected from the North Wales UKIP list and has been
regularly courting controversy since.

The last Flintshire county elections were in May 2017, during the general election campaign. It's often the case in Wales that local elections aren't particularly helpful in clarifying the national picture, and this is true in Alyn and Deeside which at county level tends to be a battle between Labour and independent candidates. In vote terms Labour came out on top last May in the divisions making up this constituency but only narrowly: they had 43% of the vote to 41% for independents. The seat count - 22 for Labour, 13 for independents, 2 Tories and one Lib Dem - was more decisive but also reflects that Labour won five seats (in four divisions) unopposed. Since May Labour have held a by-election in Buckley Bistre West - the division which elected the Lib Dem councillor in 2017.

And so we finally come to this by-election, which is unusually being held on a Tuesday due to a Welsh Assembly rule that all vacancies should be filled within three months. Carl Sargeant died on 7 November, so today is the last possible date for the election.

Defending for Labour is Carl Sargeant's son Jack, from Connah's Quay. Just 23 years old and with a background in engineering, Jack Sargeant is seeking to continue his father's constituency work, be a voice for North Wales in the Assembly and seek justice for his father.

The Conservatives have selected Sarah Atherton. A former district nurse and social worker, Atherton lives in Gresford, near Wrexham, and sits on Gresford community council.

UKIP have decided not to nominate a candidate, ostensibly out of respect for Jack Sargeant.

Three candidates complete the ballot paper. The Plaid Cymru candidate is Carrie Harper, a Wrexham councillor. Standing for the Lib Dems is Donna Lalek, a former teacher and Broughton community councillor. Completing the ballot paper is Green Party candidate Duncan Rees, from Ruabon near Wrexham.

So that is the tragic story of the first Welsh Assembly by-election since Ynys Môn in August 2013. If Jack Sargeant successfully follows in the footsteps of his late father, he will become by far the youngest member of the Assembly - and he will also shore up the Welsh Government. Labour are short of a majority in the Assembly, holding 28 out of 60 seats plus this vacancy, and form a minority administration at Cardiff Bay in coalition with the single Liberal Democrat AM. A Labour hold in this by-election would make the Whips' task easier - but if Jack makes his first priority as an elected representative seeking justice for Carl, things could get very difficult very quickly for Carwyn Jones.

Picture of the Flintshire Bridge at sunset by Adam Tas (CC BY 2.0).

Sarah Atherton (C)
Carrie Harper (PC)
Donna Lalek (LD)
Duncan Rees (Grn)
Jack Sargeant (Lab)

June 2017 general election Lab 23315 C 18080 PC 1171 UKIP 1117 LD 1077
May 2016 result Lab 9922 C 4558 UKIP 3765 PC 1944 LD 980 Grn 527
May 2015 general election Lab 16540 C 13197 UKIP 7260 LD 1733 PC 1608 Grn 976
May 2011 result Lab 11978 C 6397 LD 1725 PC 1710 BNP 959
May 2010 general election Lab 15804 C 12885 LD 7308 PC 1549 BNP 1368 UKIP 1009
May 2007 result Lab 8196 C 4834 Ind 3241 PC 2091 C 1398 UKIP 1335
May 2005 general election Lab 17331 C 8953 LD 6174 PC 1320 UKIP 918 Forward Wales 378 Ind 215 Comm 207
May 2003 result Lab 7036 C 3533 LD 2509 PC 1160 UKIP 826
June 2001 general election Lab 18525 C 9303 LD 4585 PC 1182 Grn 881 UKIP 481 Ind 253 Comm 211
May 1999 result Lab 9772 C 3413 PC 2304 LD 1879 Ind 1333 Comm 329
May 1997 general election Lab 25955 C 9552 LD 4076 Referendum Party 1627 PC 738

What are council by-elections telling us?

TL;Dr: Recent council by-election results are telling us that the polls are pretty much spot on. By-election results to seats that were last up in 2014, 15 and 16 are now reflecting (catching up with) the changed state of public opinion in that there now exists a country where the two main parties for government are polling in the low-forties.

Over the course of the last few weeks and months we have had a boon of by-elections. Of the 79 council by-elections held since the general election, 30 have changed hands. Of that 30, thirteen have been gains made by Labour, six by the Tories, two by the Greens, three by the Liberal Democrats and the remaining six by independents and local parties.

The attention received regarding these by-elections has been unprecedented in recent months, and many a comment has been made about what these results mean for the state of what Britain thinks.

At present, the Labour and Tory gains we are seeing are simply a reflection of the general election result. Ward results, where the contests were last held in 2014, 15 and 16, are merely catching up with the changed state of Britain: a more two party country than what it once was in 2015 when Labour or the Tories were polling in the mid thirties. Now that they are both neck and neck in the forties, and with a general election result to set this shift in electoral stone rather than polling, so too should it be expected that council by-election results reflect that.

Though one ward is not entirely reflective of the entire constituency at large, and it should be said that local issues in local elections do have an impact, the recent by-election in a ward in the Weston Super Mare constituency saw Labour increase its share of the vote by 22pts on the 2015 local elections (with the absence of a popular independent candidate who took 23 per cent in 2015). This result is not too dissimilar to the general election result across the constituency, where Labour jumped 14pts.

Those attempting to make projections on local by-elections should anticipate much improved performances in the Labour vote on 2014, 15 and 16 when the party was polling in the low-to-mid-thirties.

Unless public opinion changes, we should expect further Labour gains - particularly in next year's London local elections - but note that they are indicative of little else but the validation of the general election result and the current state of the parties nationally.

For those that don't know, a council by-election is when a ward/division, featuring an electorate of on average a few thousand, has an unexpected contest caused either by the elected individual's death, resignation, disqualification or imprisonment. Our American audience will know by-elections (be they parliamentary or local) as special elections. Council by-elections can sometimes be fought with local issues taking a greater precedent than would be the case in parliamentary elections.

A note on the Sunderland Sandhill council by-election

Many a comment has been made about Sunderland’s Sandhill council by-election result from last night, about what it may or may not mean and whether it is indicative of something or nothing.

I was informed on Tuesday that the Lib Dems had been working the ward for three months, an abnormal length of campaigning for council by-election campaigns, and that it would be one of the wards keeping an eye on come Thursday night.

Ciarán Morrissey, a Liberal Democrat campaigner from the region who played a part in the campaign, said to me that he is “sceptical of narratives that say this [the Lib Dem gain] was because of Regrexit/Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn,” instead placing blame on the local council and pointing out their campaign focused on local issues rather than the national picture.

“It was just old-fashioned groundwork. Heavily targeted literature plans, lots of literature, and lots of canvassing. Our messages were clear and were being read and believed, and we put out an absolutely huge volume of Focus, blue letters, etc., including a letter from Steve’s [the candidate] nana, who lives in the ward. We canvassed every day and kept returning to doors where we’d been told where to go, and kept this intensity up until polling day, having been at it since late November.”

Is it the case that the Liberal Democrats may now regularly be outgunning their opponents in manpower and literature when it comes to council by-elections? Perhaps. It doesn’t require confidants and scientific analysis to tell you the Lib Dems regularly go over and above what other parties do in election campaigns they think they can win in.

Is it the case that the Liberal Democrats are (re)gaining support, and so, logically, gaining council seats? Yes. Our poll of polls does note an uptick in support for them, but that alone does not explain the win in Sandhills, a seat they weren’t in contention for even at their height of popularity back in the 2000s.

Does the Lib Dem win in (Leave voting) Sunderland suggest Regrexit is driving votes to a pro-EU party? Very unlikely. National polling currently does not give Regrexit much credence. The subsamples (usual caveats apply) in national polls do note, however, that the Lib Dems are taking one in five of those that voted Remain in last year’s referendum.

My impression is the Lib Dems are in the process of successfully shaking off the negative reputation attained from the coalition years. Their ability to focus on local issues in, shocker, local council by-elections and campaigning hard is paying them dividends. Nationally, they are up in the polls but not by much.

For a better, clearer picture of how national public opinion is shaping up, keep an eye on our polling averages and the coming English, Welsh and Scottish elections of May this year. More on what is up for election soon!

With thanks to those cited on the ground in the area for providing valuable information.

2016's Council By-Elections, a roundup

When it comes to council by-elections, 2016 has been unquestionably a good year for the Liberal Democrats.

There have been 317 principal authority by-elections and deferred council contests held over the course of this year. Cornwall stands out as the authority with the most number of by-elections held, at seven.

Council by-elections happen for a number of reasons. From the passing away or resignation of the incumbent to disqualification and arrest, some come with more interesting stories to tell than others.

The Lib Dems made a net gain of 29 seats for 2016, taking home 52. The Conservatives won 106, down 33. Labour, too, suffered a net loss, winning 100 but being down seven. UKIP have a net loss of three, Plaid Cymru a net gain of three and the Scottish Nationalists break even, losing four and gaining four. A smattering of independents, minor parties and local groupings net ten.

Chart: Total council by-election wins by party in 2016

The Lib Dem success came mainly at the expense of the Conservatives. Of the 32 gains made, 22 came from the Tories, five from Labour. When charting the gains by date, 24 of the 32 were made following the referendum on EU membership.

PartySeats to defendSeats heldSeats lostSeats gainedNET
Liberal Democrat2320332+29
Plaid Cymru33-3+3

Council by-election results in their bulk should not be taken with a pinch of salt or as an overruling reflection of national public opinion. It is safe to say however that a trend has developed with regards to a ‘Lib Dem fightback’ but we should be cautious about jumping to conclusions. Whether the Liberal Democrat success is down to a shift in public opinion or because the party is commendable at focusing resources on by-election campaigns is yet to be seen. Our polling model does show a slight uptick in national support for the party and of the last 10 polls, two have them in double figures.

There will be a better opportunity at drawing conclusions come May of next year where there will be council elections in England (much of the shire authorities), Scotland (all ups) and Wales (all ups).

You can find every headline result of council by-elections held during 2016 in our summary sheet here. Please direct any spotted errors or omissions to our contact page.

Edited 28/12: Article edited to account for numerical error. Conservative council by-election holds originally listed to be 87 when in fact 89.