Tulse Hill Toils

It’s been an eventful week here in Lambeth, with a very sweaty Labour leadership hustings in Brixton on Wednesday and the Lambeth Council by-election in Tulse Hill on Thursday.

I’ll post some thoughts on the hustings tomorrow when I’ve (hopefully) sorted out sound issues with the video I made. I do wish people would speak up.

So yesterday, Labour won the by-election and held the council seat in Tulse Hill.

Here are the results:

Ruth Ling (Labour) 1235

Terry Curtis (Liberal Democrat) 745

George Graham (Green) 256

Will Blackburn (Conservative) 94

Robin Lambert (UKIP) 36

I’m really pleased by Ruth’s success yesterday, a convincing win with 52% of the vote; she is a good friend and was a diligent ward councillor in Clapham Common between 1994 and 2010. Sadly Ruth lost her seat to a Tory back in May, the only seat Labour lost in Lambeth. We picked up seven others elsewhere – four from the Tories, two from the Lib Dems and one from the Greens. The loss was very much due to the General Election being on the same day, combined with the blue-tinged demographics of Clapham Common.

Always ‘a fighter not a quitter’ (to borrow a phrase from the former Cllr P Mandelson, Labour councillor for Stockwell, LB Lambeth), when the by-election was announced unexpectedly, Ruth put her name forward and was selected by Tulse Hill branch members as their candidate.

As a former by-election winner myself (there are now five of us in Lambeth Labour Group, a distinguished caucus who have seen off those principle-lite, scruple-free Lib Dems) I’m pleased and proud that Ruth has been elected and I’m sure she will make an excellent ward councillor in her new patch, armed with Lambeth experience and driven by Labour values.

So, yesterday I was toiling around a sweltering Tulse Hill on my bike for most of polling day, picking up numbers from the five polling stations and keeping a watchful eye and ear on the Lib Dems I spotted on my travels.

It was interesting, leaning on my handlebars for a breather, to observe the reaction of Lib Dem tellers at polling stations at being harangued by voters because of the ConDem coalition government (‘I didn’t vote for THAT’), and also their characteristically innuendo-laden by-election campaign.

Interesting too to see Lib Dem tellers sporting badges and stickers displaying the name of their candidate and their party, an apparent failure, shall we say, to observe Electoral Commission guidance:

Tellers must not … display any campaign material in support of or against any particular political party or candidate other than a rosette.

Labour tellers yesterday were wearing plain, unbranded red rosettes. For the avoidance of doubt, surely that’s how it should be. Red, blue, yellow, green rosettes, plain and simple. A uniform approach and a level playing field.

The Commission does say:

Tellers may … display a coloured rosette displaying the name of the candidate or political party.

OK, fair enough. I imagine the name and party is allowed so as to be fair to independent candidates and smaller parties. But a rosette is not a badge or a sticker. Nor is it a small Lib Dem poster which I saw attached to one teller’s clipboard.

Anyway, back to the Lib Dem campaign. Tulse Hill residents were subjected to the regulation barrage of paper from the Lib Dems with the predictable by-election attacks on Ruth for not being ‘local’, describing her as a ‘Clapham reject’. This from a party who in May 2010 stood a long-serving Streatham councillor as a candidate in – by coincidence – Clapham Common. He was rejected, not because he wasn’t local but because more voters voted Conservative.

I’ve survived a similar ‘localism’ exercise. When I was elected in Streatham South the Lib Dems claimed I lived ‘halfway to Brixton’ despite the fact I live in the adjacent ward, Streatham Wells. My predecessor, whose death caused the by-election, actually lived in Dalberg Road in the middle of Brixton. That didn’t prevent him from doing a really good job representing Streatham South, and being fondly remembered as a ‘local champion’.

I can think of at least three Lib Dem councillors here who don’t live in the ward they represent (and indeed one former councillor who didn’t live in Lambeth). From a political party perspective, this whole ‘he/she is/isn’t local’ isn’t really about being local, it’s about opportunism. Every party lobs in the ‘local’ grenade from time to time, but it does little to improve political debate. It certainly does little for the so-called ‘new politics’ the Lib Dems love to prattle about.

But far worse than that, with a Labour councillor having resigned (his name Toren Smith and the resignation by choice) after his arrest and a court case in the offing, the Lib Dems resorted to incredibly distasteful leaflets which had little regard for sub judice, ignoring the fact no case has yet been heard. So it was all systems go with the twisted opportunism, slamming Labour in general and thereby seeking to link Ruth Ling to the ex-councillor’s situation.

There was a leaflet which regurgitated various press reports about the resignation (how these reports originated we can only guess). ‘Labour Councillor Quits in Shame’ was the headline. When voters emailed complaints to the Lib Dem agent (Cllr Ashley Lumsden, also Lambeth Lib Dem leader) he responded glibly: ‘It seemed reasonable to set the record straight, and, in the circumstances, simply to reprint what local newspapers have reported.’

Lumsden then went on to have another go at Ruth Ling for having ‘no prior connection’ with Tulse Hill whilst praising the Lib Dem candidate to the skies as ‘an excellent local candidate … whose record of action in the area is longstanding and beyond reproach’. Hmm – note that last word. Is that a dog whistle we can’t hear?

It seems likely to me that more was suggested about the police investigation on the doorsteps than appeared in lurid leaflets, based on what I heard back from uneasy voters when I was canvassing. But the Lib Dems generally escape attention for their less scrupulous canvassing techniques. They remind me sometimes of the Weeping Angels from Doctor Who – they only move and attack when you’re not looking. Which is why people should always keep an eye on them.

Yesterday, it being hot and hilly, I was cycling along slowly, past a couple of Lib Dems on the St Martin’s Estate in Tulse Hill. One was an old hand, the other obviously there for the day (‘Lib Dem canvasser is not local shock!’). The old hand was telling the (‘not local’) helper all about … the police investigation. Now why might she need to know that?

Ruth Ling was an excellent candidate and overcame a Lib Dem campaign that was described to me by a resident in Upper Tulse Hill as ‘sick’. In some ways, I recognise their strategy as textbook Lib Dem, in others they sank to new depths.

Last night, as I stood beside Ruth in Room 8 at the Town Hall, where the count took place, I watched the rictus grins of the Lib Dems fall, by degrees, as they saw a greater number of bundles of counted votes building up in the Labour trays.

As I saw those faces fall, I was reminded of the words of their leader, Nick Clegg, in the first of the leaders’ debates during the General Election: ‘What I support is something I’ve supported all my adult political life: a complete clean-up, from top to toe, of politics.’

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