Election counts are funny events. While the overall result was never in doubt, there were enough mini-dramas to make spending most of Friday in a hall at Woolwich’s Waterfront leisure centre a strangely compelling experience. Maybe it’s the hypnosis that kicks in after staring at ballot papers being counted.
Anyway, enough waffle. Here are the headlines:
- Labour tightened its grip on Greenwich Council after taking three seats from the Tories, giving them 43 councillors to the Conservatives’ eight.
- Tory deputy leader Nigel Fletcher was the night’s biggest scalp, losing his Eltham North seat to Labour along with fellow Conservative Adam Thomas. Their leader Spencer Drury clung on, but Labour’s Linda Bird and Wynn Davies surged ahead of their rivals, both finishing less than 30 votes behind Drury.
- Labour also nicked a seat from the Tories in Blackheath Westcombe ward, with Cherry Parker and Paul Morrissey topping the poll. Veteran Tory Geoff Brighty held on, edging out Labour rival Damien Welfare.
- But the Tories held off surging Labour and Ukip votes in Eltham South and Coldharbour & New Eltham to retain all their councillors there.
- Strong Ukip votes wrecked Tory polling in many wards in the south and east of the borough – coming second in five wards – but early fears that they would eat into Labour votes in Abbey Wood and Eltham West weren’t realised.
- But in the north and west, it was the Greens who picked up votes, notably in Greenwich West where Robin Stott polled a party record 1,108 votes. They also came second in five wards, beating the Liberal Democrats in all 17 wards, mostly comfortably.
- The Lib Dem vote collapsed completely, with their strongest vote being just 557 votes in Greenwich West, a target for them in 2010. Former councillor Paul Webbewood slumped to just 273 votes in Middle Park & Sutcliffe, behind the British National Party.
- Full results are on the Greenwich Council website.
For the next four years, all that really matters is the bit in bold. Labour won, eating away at traditionally Tory Eltham. The urban/suburban divide in Greenwich borough used to be expressed by where voted Labour and where voted Conservative. Now Labour have snuck deeper into Eltham, the great divide is now summed up by where the Greens came second, and where Ukip ended as runners-up.
The count took up two big sports halls at the Waterfront. The heroes were the counters, all given Royal Borough of Greenwich bags and sugary sweets to see them through the long day. Polling boss Stephen O’Hare prowled around with a smile on his face – his team toils for years building up to days like this. You have to admire the skills involved in putting all this together.
It was Christmas Day for polling geeks, and there were lots of presents to unwrap. The counters had to sort the yellow ballot papers out (did you spot the little Cutty Sark on them?) and flatten them – and make sure the white European ballots were packed away for their separate count on Sunday. This alone took two or three hours. Only then could the counting actually start.
And they did this while being watched by candidates and party helpers. Some sat back, relaxed and good-natured, like Labour’s Don Austen, poised as if he was soaking up summer sun. Some manage to do it in the creepiest possible fashion – like the one bent right over one desk, showing off rather too much of his backside. If he’d hung around, one of the Greens could have parked her bike there. (Lib Dem veteran Bonnie Soanes later told me he always wears braces to election counts to prevent this.)
There were more intriguing sights. The perfect Judas kiss, as one politician got a smacker on the cheek from a same-party rival suspected of a stitch-up operation. The grandest of Greenwich politics’ grand fromages, Nick Raynsford, greeting all with a statesman-like smile. Labour councillor Clive Mardner, also beaming away, brought his mum along to take a look.
And there was the camaraderie across party lines, as rivals talked, gossiped and joked after a stressful battle – a lot more unites than divides after the polls have shut, and after all, it’s the ones who wear the same rosette as you who are more likely to stab you in the back. There were two groups who weren’t really chatting, though – one was Ukip, the other the clique around outgoing leader Chris Roberts.
There’s an old joke about weighing the Labour vote. But despite the thumping win, that wasn’t strictly true – it was all about the split votes. And there were a huge number of them – far higher than in previous elections, experienced campaigners told me. These told as much of a story as the big piles of Labour votes that emerged later.
You get three votes for council elections, but many Greenwich votes stubbornly decided to pick and choose rather than vote on party lines, or only voted for one or two candidates. Some splits were logical – Labour/Green, or Tory/Ukip. A telling number went for logic-defying protest split of Green/Ukip. Green candidate Dave Sharman, a peace-loving Quaker, wore a look of saintly bemusement after being told one voter had picked him, Ukip and the BNP. Another voter planted three Xs in the box for another Green candidate – a misunderstanding or a declaration of love?
While the splits tell a story, they can also be misleading – they have to be separately counted, which is painstakingly done by ticking off candidates’ names on a grid. A large number of Ukip ticks led to a small flurry of excitement over Abbey Wood ward. A larger number of ticks led to real worries in Eltham West – local MP Clive Efford watching with concern for chief whip Ray Walker, one of Roberts’ henchmen.
But in the end, Labour sailed through, although many in his party would have been quietly pleased to see the back of Walker, who once accused victims of bullying in the party of being bandwagon- jumpers. That said, when the Eltham West result was announced, it was like a fog had lifted from the hall. Another early panic saw Labour’s Chris Lloyd display a look of mild terror at a pile of Green votes. By the time the Greens turned up to take a look, though, Labour were comfortably ahead.
Then there were the spoiled ballots. “There’s a cock and balls on that one!,” giggled one Labour candidate. “There’s one in Charlton that just says ‘cunts’ all down the paper,” mused a Labour helper. I saw one where the voter put a cross next to everybody. We all agreed it was better that people spoiled their papers than stayed at home – but heaven knows what the counters made of the genitalia and profanities.
When counting got under way, the looks on candidates’ faces, lined up in front of the counters, seemed to resemble the old Fry’s “five boys” advertisement – anticipation, desperation, concern, despair and elation. “Someone needs to give Matt Clare a hug,” an observer said as the Eltham South Tory looked more and more concerned.
Outside the Waterfront, the smokers turned a stretch of pavement on Woolwich High Street into Greenwich borough’s premier political salon. “I’m staying detached,” said Nigel Fletcher, puffing away and reflecting on what was to come.
Back inside, Tory chief Spencer Drury looked increasingly like a man who’d been up all night playing poker and was left with only his car keys to throw onto the table. Around lunchtime, the rosette-wearing Tories had a little pow-wow under a tree in Powis Street. Heaven knows what Woolwich’s shoppers, swimmers and winos made of the sight.
The day went on. The process started at 9am, yet it was nearly 5pm before the first seats were announced. One Labour candidate’s mum kept texting her to ask if she’d won. Not yet, not yet… big crowds built up around the Eltham counting desks. Shooters Hill’s Lib Dem Stewart Christie gave up watching his results, laughing: “I’m going to finish a very strong 9th.”
But despite the curse of being saddled with the toxic Lib Dem badge, and a local party imploding after the resignation of its leader, he made an impact beyond the ballot box, and found himself in an animated chat with Labour’s Denise Hyland about the Gallions Reach Bridge. Stewart’s campaigning will certainly go on. His Charlton colleague Paul Chapman, a complete newcomer, looks set to stay active in some form or other. I couldn’t help wondering if the Charlton Labour party were eyeing him up as a possible recruit…
Someone else who seemed to have caught the campaigning bug was the Greens’ Jo Lawbuary, bouncing with excitement when she heard boyfriend Purnendu Roy came second in unfancied Woolwich Common. She didn’t do too badly herself, beating the Tories and Lib Dems in Plumstead.
But while the Greens were proud of their second-place finish in Peninsula, one experienced Labour figure suggested it was a bit of a damp squib – they were still a good 900-1,150 votes behind Labour (789, 757 and 665 to Labour’s 1,926, 1,771 and 1,614). The lesson for the Greens should be to kick on and just carry on campaigning locally. Perhaps with people like Jo on board and a general election next year, they might do that this time.
As the results went on, the emotional contrasts became sharper. Blackheath Westcombe Labour victor Cherry Parker‘s smile was matched by Tory opponent Thomas Turrell‘s resigned laugh. He’d had a rough day, but at least he played his part in the election.
And in a borough like Greenwich, taking part really is what counts. In next-door Charlton ward, the Tories seemed to conduct a fantasy campaign from behind a keyboard, meting out the odd tweet without even revealing who was behind the account, yet declining to even appear at a hustings or come along to the count. They rightly finished well down the ballot, and then quietly deleted their Twitter account.
There were big cheers for Labour’s win in Eltham North, but widespread sympathy for popular Nigel Fletcher. A genuinely nice guy who can do an unnervingly accurate impression of William Hague (his criticism of the Daily Mail’s campaign against Ed Miliband went viral last year), he’s a keen student of the way opposition politicians conduct themselves, but he’d had a harsh practical lesson. Even Chris Roberts popped by to pass on his condolences.
Nerves were fraying among the Tories, but in the cold light of day, perhaps they panicked a bit too much. John Hills, Mandy Brinkhurst and Matt Hartley held onto Coldharbour & New Eltham. This kind of working-class Tory vote could have been stolen by Labour or Ukip – and had been not so far away (Lewisham’s Grove Park ward falling to Labour, Bexley’s Blackfen & Lamorbey losing one to Ukip – the losing Tory there being Brinkhurst’s son, Chris Taylor). But the Conservatives dug in, and held on – in its own way, a stunning victory when judged against other London boroughs.
The clock ticked towards eight, and there was a delay as a few missing ballot papers for the final ward, Eltham South, were tracked down. A fog seemed to fall again as whispers indicated a three-way split between the Tories, Labour and Ukip. But again, the Tories held on, with both Labour and Ukip less than 100 behind, and despite disgrunted ex-Tory Eileen Glover scoring 440 votes.
Finally, Matt Clare could relax. And while it’s no comfort to Adam Thomas or Nigel Fletcher, the resillience of the Eltham Tories is striking. Stung by their losses, they could have turned on their leader Spencer Drury. Yet the Tories seem to have weathered the storm, and on Saturday they re-elected him as their leader.
More importantly for the borough’s immediate future, there’s an intriguing question over whether Labour should have gained more seats in Greenwich.
Would a Labour party that was more more willing to listen and more capable of dealing with criticism have done better? After all, the more open and consensual administration in Lewisham, with a track record of campaigning on local issues, even surged into suburban Grove Park on its way to a near-wipeout. Greenwich Labour, which had little local narrative beyond aping the Tories’ council tax freeze, couldn’t get past Eltham High Street.
One of the keenest criticisms of Chris Roberts’ administration was that it deliberately focused on the big three town centres and ignored smaller local centres. The Coldharbour & New Eltham Tory campaign focused on the state of The Mound, a small shopping parade off Mottingham’s William Barefoot Drive. If Chris Roberts’ administration had dealt with issues there earlier, could that have generated the extra votes to propel Labour’s Sandra Bauer or Rob Carr past Matt Hartley? But it didn’t, so the Tories won.
More pertinently, did Roberts and Maureen O’Mara’s pavement tax deny Simon Christie the 68 extra votes to nudge him ahead of Tories’ Nuala Geary in Eltham South, which includes part of the high street?
Labour across London had a superb night – but the Roberts regime’s chronic inability to listen to people acted as a brake on the party’s success in Greenwich.
But now Roberts has sailed off into the past on his royal barge. There are 13 shiny new Labour councillors, and one returning councillor (Woolwich Common’s David Gardner). Some elements of their jobs will be tough – such as dealing with the fallout from further Government cutbacks.
But hopefully they’ll be allowed to bring new ideas to the table – and most importantly, be allowed to express those new ideas. Can they deliver a fresh start? Good luck to them – I’ll be watching with fingers crossed.