Previews: 23 Jan 2020

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

Four by-elections for five seats on 23 January 2020:


Alperton;
Barnhill; and
Wembley Central

Brent council, North London. The Alperton by-election is caused by the resignation of James Allie; the Barnhill double by-election by the resignations of Sarah Marquis and Michael Pavey; and the Wembley Central by-election by the resignation of Luke Patterson. All were Labour councillors.

Beyond Neasden there was an unimportant hamlet where for years the Metropolitan didn’t bother to stop. Wembley. Slushy fields and grass farms.
– John Betjeman, Metro-Land

Welcome to the London suburb where all football teams aspire to play one of these days, Wembley. We’re some distance out of central London here and Wembley remained in Middlesex up to the creation of Greater London in 1965.

Until the 18th century this was agricultural land, which since the Dissolution of the Monasteries had been in the hands of the Page family of Sudbury, Middlesex. In the 1790s Richard Page, lord of the manor, decided to turn some of his land into a landscaped country estate and he employed Humphrey Repton to do it. An acclaimed landscape architect, Repton turned a large area of what’s now Wembley into landscaped parkland and erected a tower on the high ground of Barn Hill. He called it Wembley Park.

Wembley’s position north-west of London meant that it has been crisscrossed by the major communication links between London and the north. First were the canals, with the opening of the Paddington arm of the Grand Union Canal in 1801 linking Alperton – south of Wembley – with central London and the Midlands. The railways came in the late 1830s, and in 1842 the London and North Western Railway opened a station called “Sudbury” next to the High Road in Wembley as the second station north out of their Euston terminus. (The only station between London and Sudbury was at Willesden, and that was opened in a very sparsely-populated area solely for the convenience of one of the railway’s managers, who happened to live there.)

But a lot of modern Wembley can be traced to the ambition of one man. That man was Sir Edward Watkin, and he wasn’t a Londoner: he came from a family of Salford cotton merchants. Having founded a liberal newspaper in Manchester Watkin entered the railway business, and for forty years he was chairman or general manager of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire railway company. He was also chairman of several other railways, including the Metropolitan in London, the South Eastern and the French Chemin de Fer du Nord. This gave rise to an ambitious scheme by Watkin to run passenger trains on his railways from Manchester to Paris, via a London extension to the MSLR and a Channel Tunnel; more than a mile of this tunnel was excavated from Shakespeare Cliff near Dover in 1880, but political opposition and national security objections led to Parliament stopping the project in its tracks. As a Liberal MP himself, representing the Kent coast constituency of Hythe, Watkin might have been none too pleased about this; and after this episode he was rather semi-detached from the Gladstone administration.

The London extension was, however, built, and it joined onto the Metropolitan Railway which had opened an extension to Harrow, through Wembley Park, in 1880. Nine years later, the railway company bought Wembley Park for Sir Edward Watkin’s last scheme: pleasure gardens centred around a steel tower which, if completed, would have been bigger than that brand-new structure which Gustave Eiffel had just erected in Paris. Watkin’s tower opened in 1896, but only the first stage of it was ever built and it wasn’t long before that started leaning. The tower closed to the public in 1902 and was demolished five years later.

The 1920s changed Wembley Park out of all recognition. To the north of Wembley Park station the Metropolitan Railway started building houses for commuters, while to the south Watkin’s pleasure gardens were turned into the British Empire Exhibition which – despite initial opposition from Wembley urban district council – brought prestige and a lot of investment into the area. Once the exhibition was over, most of its site was given over to light engineering providing jobs for the area, while the retention of the Empire Stadium – built on the site previously occupied by the ill-fated tower – kept Wembley in the public eye for generations to come. By 1930 the old landscaped park had been almost entirely built on, with only the top of Barn Hill being an open space.

The centrepiece came in 1940 with the completion of the modernist Wembley town hall on Forty Lane, one of the high points of interwar municipal architecture (although the Second World War had broken out by the time it was completed). Pevsner, writing eleven years after its opening, described the building as “the best of the modern town halls around London, neither fanciful nor drab”. When the London Borough of Brent was formed in the mid-1960s the local politicians agreed with that, and Wembley town hall became Brent town hall. The council moved out in 2013, and the building is now occupied by the Lycée International de Londres Winston Churchill, a French independent school which was opened by President François Hollande in 2015.

That gives you some idea that modern Wembley is a multicultural area. And then some. In the 2011 census 61% of Wembley Central ward’s residents were born outside the EU, the third-largest proportion of any ward in England and Wales; Alperton ward came in at number 6 with a score of 56%, and Barnhill ward was in the top 50. Alperton ward was 47% Hindu, the third-largest proportion of any ward in England and Wales; Wembley Central ward came in at number 5 with a score of 45%, and Barnhill ward was in the top 50. On the census ethnicity question, Wembley Central and Alperton both had a return over 64% Asian, and were in the top 40 wards in England and Wales for that metric. Across the three wards Gujarati is the major foreign language, with pockets of Tamil and Polish speakers in Alperton and some Somalis, Romanians and Arabic speakers in Barnhill.

Brent council has been Labour-controlled on and off since a Tory majority elected in the 1968 landslide was defeated in 1971, but Labour haven’t had it all their own way since then. There have been periods of No Overall Control, most recently in the 2006-10 term when politics here had been shaken up by the 2003 parliamentary by-election in Brent East. The Lib Dems had taken that seat after Paul Daisley, who had been leader of Brent council before his short parliamentary career, died at an appallingly young age. None of these wards were in Brent East: at the time Alperton nnd most of Wembley Central were in the Brent South constituency, while Barnhill formed part of Brent North. That’s a seat which has had just two MPs since its creation in 1974: the Conservative Rhodes Boyson enjoyed large majorities in Brent North until his defeat in the 1997 landslide by Labour’s Barry Gardiner, who has enjoyed equally large majorities since. The boundary changes of 2010, which cut Brent’s parliamentary representation from three seats to two-and-a-half, left all three of the Brent wards up for election today in Gardiner’s constituency.

The first elections on the present Brent ward boundaries were in 2002, when Barnhill ward was safely in the Conservative column, Wembley Central elected three Lib Dems narrowly over Labour and Alperton elected the Lib Dem slate easily over Labour. Labour broke through in 2010, gaining Barnhill, Wembley Central and one of the three seats in Alperton; they picked up a second seat there in 2012 with the defection of Lib Dem councillor James Allie, and the third and final Alperton seat in 2014. At the most recent Brent elections in 2018 all three wards were in the Labour column with the Conservatives in second place: Alperton voted 56% Labour and 24% Conservative, Barnhill saw a 64-25 Labour lead while Wembley Central was the safest of all at 66% Labour to just 16% for the Conservatives. Just three of many good results for Labour in Brent two years ago; Labour ended up with 60 seats out of a possible 63, with three Tories as the opposition.

Two years earlier, the 2016 GLA elections saw some bizarre things going on here at the bottom end of the ballot. Alperton and Wembley Central were by far the two best wards in London for Ankit Love of his One Love Party, who finished last of the twelve mayoral candidates across the capital with 0.2% of the vote. Love claims to be the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir and his parents founded a socialist political party there which he now leads, so presumably this was the Indian-heritage vote at work. (He was nearly killed in an Islamist terror attack in Jammu and Kashmir in August 2017.) Rather more inexplicably, Alperton was the only ward in London to give more than 100 votes to the Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol candidate Lee Harris; and George Galloway’s 149 votes in Barnhill was his best total for any ward in the capital (although not his best percentage score). Things were more predictable at the top end, with Sadiq Khan carrying all three wards: his margins over Tory candidate Zac (now Lord) Goldsmith were 53-25 in Alperton, 52-31 in Barnhill and 52-28 in Wembley Central. Unusually, Khan underperformed the Labour list in the London Members ballot in the strongly-Hindu wards of Alperton (where the Labour lead over the Conservatives was 56-22) and Wembley Central (55-24), suggesting that as a Muslim his appeal in these areas might have been limited. There have been some indications in recent years that the Conservatives have been gaining ground among Hindu voters in an echo of politics far away on the subcontinent; indeed Narendra Modi himself turned up at Wembley Stadium a few years ago, addressing a rally of around 60,000 British Indians. In the general election a month ago Brent North swung fairly strongly to the Conservatives, although Gardiner was safe enough.

By polling day last month these by-elections were already in the pipeline. There is a rare double by-election taking place in Barnhill ward where councillors Sarah Marquis and Michael Pavey have resigned; both of them were first elected in 2014. Marquis was a high-flying City lawyer until her appendix burst in 2008; this wasn’t diagnosed for three days, leading to an abdominal infection which destroyed her legal career and left her infertile. In her time on the council she rose to become chair of the Brent planning committee, while Pavey rose to become deputy leader of the council. Marquis and Pavey appear to be a couple; in the council’s register of member’s interests they gave the same address and the same job for Pavey, who is a primary school teacher some distance away in Stanwell. They have both resigned for family or personal reasons, making the choice to leave public life together before the Duke and Duchess of Sussex made that fashionable.

Another teacher standing down from Brent council is Luke Patterson, who had been a councillor for Wembley Central ward since May 2018. Patterson explained to the local press that he has been given increased responsibilities in his job and was about to become a father for the third time; accordingly he no longer has any time to devote to his democratic duties.

Unfortunately, the final Brent by-election this week appears to be one for the Councillors Behaving Badly file. That seat is vacated by long-serving councillor James Allie, a solicitor who had represented Alperton ward since 2002 and was the Lib Dem candidate for Brent North in the 2010 general election; he defected to Labour in 2012 and was subsequently twice re-elected on their ticket. The trouble started in June 2016 with the death of Ruth Ballin, a wealthy lady who had left her estate to the Canon Collins Educational and Legal Assistance Trust, a charity which does good work in the social justice and educational sector in southern Africa. Ballin’s estate was valued at just under £1.6 million, and Allie was appointed as its executor.

The High Court heard last month that, rather than carrying out Ruth Ballin’s wishes, Allie had diverted her assets to buy a property for himself (via a company of which he was sole director) at a cost of £580,000. Once this came to light last year the charity was finally told of the bequest due to it, and launched legal action to get its money; in December the High Court ordered Councillor Allie to vacate the property by the end of this month and hand over anything that’s left of the inheritance. With his reputation and his legal career in shreds (his firm had already sacked him), Allie handed in his resignation to Brent council the following day.

For Labour to lose one councillor for Alperton ward might be an accident; but to lose two smacks of carelessness. The party had selected Chetan Harpale as their defending candidate for the Alperton by-election, apparently without looking at his Twitter account first. When other people started looking at Harpale’s Twitter, all sorts of disturbing anti-Muslim nasties emerged, from tweets alleging that Pakistan is a terror state through allegations that Jeremy Corbyn is a jihadist via rants about “Londonistan” to admiration for the Conservative Harrow MP Bob Blackman. Labour are understood to have suspended Harpale, but it was too late to withdraw him from the election and he will still appear on the ballot paper as the official Labour party candidate. This unforced selection error could present an opportunity for a shock gain for another party, so keep an eye on the Tory candidate Harmit Vyas (a chef and DJ); the Lib Dems’ Anton Georgiou (who fought Brent Central in the 2017 general election at a very young age) and the Greens’ Andrew Linnie.

Things are quieter in the two other by-elections. The defending Labour candidate for Wembley Central is Sonia Shah, a “leadership advisory coordinator” (whatever that means). She’s up against Tory candidate Sai Karthik Madabhushi, who according to his Twitter is “changing the world one day at a time”. Also standing in Wembley Central are Jyotshna Patel for the Lib Dems and William Relton for the Greens.

Finally we come to the by-election in Barnhill, where there are two seats available and accordingly twice as many candidates to list. The defending Labour slate are Mansoor Akram and Gaynor Lloyd, both of whom will be joining relatives in the council chamber if elected; Lloyd is married to Brent Labour councillor Keith Perrin, while Akram’s brother-in-law is Muhammed Butt, the leader of the council. The Conservatives have selected Kanta Mistry and Stefan Voloseniuc; Mistry is a former Brent councillor (Queensbury ward, 2006-10) and she is deputy chair of the party’s Brent North branch, while Voloseniuc appears to be fighting his first election campaign. Also standing are Michael Brooke and Larry Ngan for the Lib Dems, and the Green Party slate of Martin Francis and Peter Murry.

Alperton

Parliamentary constituency: Brent North
London Assembly constituency: Brent and Harrow
ONS Travel to Work Area: London
Postcode districts: HA0, NW10

Anton Georgiou (LD)
Chetan Harpale (Lab)
Andrew Linnie (Grn)
Harmit Vyas (C)

May 2018 result Lab 3185/3174/2961 C 1337/1162/1026 LD 582/500/362 Grn 577
May 2014 result Lab 2370/2309/2305 LD 1691/1669/1553 C 612/506/452 Grn 325
May 2010 result LD 2608/2599/2115 Lab 2594/2206/1970 C 970/905/830 Grn 266/230/190 Ind 123
May 2006 result LD 1624/1560/1481 Lab 1126/1061/1033 C 790/699/645 Grn 151
May 2002 result LD 1623/1553/1522 Lab 991/944/857 C 432/392/381

May 2016 GLA results (excludes postal voters)
Mayor: Lab 2291 C 1099 LD 196 Grn 157 Cannabis is Safter than Alcohol 101 Respect 77 UKIP 75 Britain First 72 BNP 70 One Love 69 Women’s Equality 60 Zylinski 52
London Members: Lab 2504 C 991 LD 252 Grn 159 UKIP 130 BNP 97 Women’s Equality 89 Britain First 73 Respect 70 CPA 43 Animal Welfare 41 House Party 21

Barnhill

Parliamentary constituency: Brent North
London Assembly constituency: Brent and Harrow
ONS Travel to Work Area: London
Postcode districts: HA3, HA9, NW9

Mansoor Akram (Lab)
Michael Brooke (LD)
Martin Francis (Grn)
Gaynor Lloyd (Lab)
Kanta Mistry (C)
Peter Murry (Grn)
Larry Ngan (LD)
Stefan Voloseniuc (C)

May 2018 result Lab 2411/2408/2403 C 950/947/946 LD 290/277/271 Ind 126
May 2014 result Lab 2055/2010/1988 C 1023/983/911 LD 352/233/174 Grn 335 Ind 139
May 2012 by-election Lab 2326 C 1180 Grn 457 Ind 156
May 2010 result Lab 2796/2440/2382 C 2091/1879/1818 LD 987/903/799 Grn 421/343/310
May 2006 result C 1622/1460/1435 Lab 1012/872/851 LD 386/386/377 Grn 374
May 2002 result C 1591/1518/1501 Lab 894/890/860 LD 255/244/209 Grn 205

May 2016 GLA results (excludes postal voters)
Mayor (Barnhill): Lab 1961 C 1158 Grn 159 Respect 149 LD 104 UKIP 58 Britain First 53 Women’s Equality 43 Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol 35 Zylinski 30 BNP 15 One Love 11
London Members: Lab 1944 C 1019 Grn 186 Respect 142 LD 141 UKIP 109 Women’s Equality 86 CPA 62 Britain First 52 Animal Welfare 28 BNP 25 House Party 20

Wembley Central

Parliamentary constituency: Brent North
London Assembly constituency: Brent and Harrow
ONS Travel to Work Area: London
Postcode districts: HA9, HA0, NW10

Sai Madabhushi (C)
Jyotshna Patel (LD)
William Relton (Grn)
Sonia Shah (Lab)

May 2018 result Lab 3210/3187/2996 C 768/755/734 LD 540/435/288 Grn 318
May 2014 result Lab 2228/1990/1726 LD 1571/1400/1300 C 525/470/402 Grn 282
December 2011 by-election Lab 1402 LD 1022 C 349 Grn 130
May 2010 result Lab 2649/2352/2277 LD 2122/1977/1917 C 1119/1092/963 Grn 210/174/144
July 2009 by-election LD 1195 Lab 934 C 423 Ind 240 Grn 100
May 2006 result LD 1824/1738/1709 Lab 1619/1443/1420 C 480/458/383 Grn 185
May 2002 result LD 1314/1287/1248 Lab 1194/1068/979 C 591/530/491 Brent Residents and Motorists 255/236 Soc All 59

May 2016 GLA results (excludes postal voters)
Mayor (Wembley Central): Lab 2046 C 1114 LD 147 Grn 145 Respect 103 BNP 75 Britain First 72 Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol 56 UKIP 56 Women’s Equality 55 One Love 51 Zylinski 21
London Members: Lab 2233 C 977 LD 176 Grn 138 Respect 98 UKIP 93 BNP 88 Women’s Equality 82 Britain First 81 CPA 70 Animal Welfare 22 Hosue Party 19

Mid Galloway and Wigtown West

Dumfries and Galloway council, Scotland; caused by the death of Conservative councillor Graham Nicol. He had served since 2007, representing the former Mid Gallwoay ward from 2007 to 2017, and was depute leader of the Conservative group on the council.

And now for something completely different as we come to the first Conservative defence of the 2019 Parliament. We’re in Galloway here, the far south-west of Scotland, with a large and remote ward into which the borough of Brent could fit several times over.

You’ve probably heard of Iona as a centre of early Christianity in Scotland (or, if you’re reading this blog, as the burial place of former Labour Party leader John Smith). Contrary to what you might have heard, Iona was not Scotland’s first Christian site. Let’s backtrack 150 years before St Columba’s time to the end of the fourth century AD, while the Romans were still guarding the west end of Hadrian’s Wall on the far side of the Solway Firth. At this point St Ninian came to the coast of Galloway, and established a church known by the Latin name of Candida Casa – the White House. This was a centre of learning, a beacon within the Dark Ages, and eventually at what’s now called Whithorn there was a cathedral, a monastery and a shrine to St Ninian. Through many unstable centuries of history, this religious complex attracted pilgrims and sent forth missionaries to preach the Holy Word all over what’s now Scotland and Ireland.

The White House may have been important in early mediaeval times, but Whithorn has now declined in importance. The main centre of population here these days is Newton Stewart, a town of just over 4,000 souls at the lowest crossing-point of the River Cree which is recognised by the ONS as the centre of its own Travel to Work Area. This is a proper new town as the name suggests, having been founded in the 17th century; its founder was William Stewart, a son of the Earl of Galloway. Newton Stewart’s traditional industries were textiles and mining (the local granite is much in demand); today there is some passing trade on the road from England to the Northern Irish ferries at Stranraer, and some tourists are drawn here by the proximity of the Southern Uplands and the filming locations for the famous 1970s horror film The Wicker Man, which may have been set on some remote Scottish island but was nearly all filmed in Galloway. What St Ninian would have thought about The Wicker Man is thankfully not recorded. Some miles north of Newton Stewart is Merrick, at 843 metres the highest point in the Southern Uplands and theoretically visible from Snowdon, 144 miles to the south. The name Merrick comes from the Gaelic word for “finger”, referring to its location in the attractively-named Range of the Awful Hand.

In between Newton Stewart and Whithorn lies Wigtown, which was designated in the 1990s as Scotland’s National Book Town, drawing inspiration from the second-hand bookshops of Hay-on-Wye, in an attempt to regenerate a town which had just lost both its major local employers (although the Bladnoch Distillery, Scotland’s southernmost whisky producer, is now back in business here). Wigtown was once important enough to give its name to the county of Wigntownshire, which occupied the south-west corner of Scotland.

Following the wipeout of the Scottish Conservatives in the 1997 general election, this was the point where their revival started with the election in 2001 of Peter Duncan as Tory MP for the constituency then known as Galloway and Upper Nithsdale. That seat and its successor of Galloway and West Dumfries has returned Conservatives to the Scottish Parliament continuously since 2003. Boundary changes for the 2005 Westminster election, which moved Dumfries town into the seat, did for Duncan’s chances, and the new constituency of Dumfries and Galloway returned a Labour MP – Russell Brown – until the SNP landslide of 2015. The Nationalists’ Richard Arkless was defeated in 2017 by Allister Jack of the Conservatives, who was re-elected last month with a reduced majority but an increased share of the vote – no mean feat in the face of an SNP fightback across Scotland. Jack was the first MP from the 2017 intake to make it to Cabinet rank, having been appointed by Boris Johnson as his first Scottish secretary.

Scottish local councils went over to proportional representation in 2007, at which point this area was mostly part of the Mid Galloway ward. In the 2007 election this was one of only two wards in Dumfries and Galloway with the SNP carried; its three seats went to the SNP’s Alistair Geddes, new Tory candidate Graham Nicol and the Lib Dems’ Sandra McDowall. McDowall retired at the 2012 election and the Lib Dems haven’t been seen here since; her seat went to independent candidate Jim McColm.

There were boundary changes for the 2017 election which brought in a large rural area on the road towards Stranraer, which had previously been part of Wigtown West ward. This area is sparsely populated but does have enough people in it to warrant a fourth councillor for the ward and, rather more dubiously, a name change (the old Wigtown West ward included much of the Rhins of Gallwoay and was much more worthy of the compass point). The Conservatives did very well in the 2017 Scottish local elections and topped the poll in the new ward of Mid Galloway and Wigtown West, taking 39% of the vote and winning two out of four seats; the other two seats went to the SNP (who polled 24%) and McColm (18%). The indefatigable Allan Faulds of Ballot Box Scotland has crunched the numbers to see what would have happened had the May 2017 election been for one seat, and found that the Conservatives would have had a relatively narrow win over Jim McColm (55-45) once all 99votes are redistributed, but a Tory-SNP head-to-hand would have been much more comfortable for the Unionists.

The Conservatives are the largest party on Dumfries and Galloway council, which like all Scottish mainland councils has no overall majority. They ran the council from 2012 in coalition with the Scottish National Party, until October 2013 when the Tory group split and the SNP formed a new coalition with Labour. That coalition was renewed after the 2017 elections and has held steady despite some defections – including two Labour councillors and an independent walking off to form a Socialist group on the council last year. The SNP have 10 seats and Labour have 8, putting the ruling coalition in a minority against 14 Conservatives (plus this vacancy), five independent councillors, the three-strong Socialist group and a single Lib Dem.

Like in the three Brent by-elections above, there are four parties standing here. Defending for the Conservatives is Jackie McCamon; she’s a freelance small business marketer from Newton Stewart. The SNP have selected Tony Berretti, who once drove around Europe in car powered by sunflower oil and has roles in various Newton Stewart-based community organisations. This is a Scottish local election so Votes at 16 and the Alternative Vote apply; as such if Berretti and McCamon are the top two then transfers from the two other candidates – Gill Hay for Labour and Peter Barlow for the Scottish Greens – could be decisive.

Mid Galloway and Wigtown West

Parliamentary constituency: Dumfries and Galloway
Scottish Parliament constituency: Galloway and West Dumfries
ONS Travel to Work Area: Newton Stewart; Stranraer
Postcode districts: DG7, DG8, DG9

Tony Berretti (SNP)
Peter Barlow (Grn)
Gill Hay (Lab)
Jackie McCamon (C)

May 2017 first preferences C 2126 SNP 1273 Ind 976 Ind 475 Lab 368 Grn 116 Ind 48