Has Labour Lost the Overspill Estates for Good?
From the late 1940s to the 1960s, when land surrounding London was cheap and plentiful, many London authorities built large council estates in the surrounding Home Counties. These varied enormously in size, from a few hundred houses in places like Ashwood Road, Potters Bar, through to estates of many thousands, in places like Borehamwood, Harlow, Loughton, Hemel Hempstead, Crawley, Hatfield, and Stevenage. Such has been Londonâ€™s expansion over the years, that some of them, such as St. Helier, and Hainault, now come within the Cityâ€™s boundaries, without losing their distinctive political character.
Unsurprisingly, such places were for many years, Labour strongholds. Prior to 2002, for example, Borehamwood had only ever elected a Conservative councillor in 1976. Harlow and Loughton remained solid for Labour in local elections up to 2002; Hatfield until 2003, and Crawley until 2006. Such loyalty to Labour at local level was replicated at Parliamentary level, for many years. Up until 1979, such seats could only be won at Parliamentary level by the Conservatives if the Labour-voting estates were outvoted by Conservative-voting rural areas.
That changed in 1979, at least at Parliamentary level. This was symbolised by Shirley Williamsâ€™ defeat in Stevenage and Hertford (albeit, this seatâ€™s boundaries were much more favourable to the Conservatives than the current Stevenage). Margaret Thatcher appealed enormously to Southern working class voters, and her policy of selling off council houses began to change these areas socially. Harlow, Hemel Hempstead, and Welwyn Hatfield were held by the Conservatives throughout the Thatcher period, and Crawley would have been Conservative on current boundaries. Nevertheless, Labour remained dominant in local elections in these seats right through the Thatcher period.
What is clear is that these seats have now swung sharply to the Right at every level. Welwyn Hatfield is now very safe for the Conservatives at local and Parliamentary level. Harlow and Crawley produced swings to the Conservatives in 2005 that were well above average, and Crawley now looks a fairly safe Conservative council. Labour have been reduced to two council seats in Hemel Hempstead, and lost Borehamwood Town Council, for the first time ever, to the Conservatives in 2007. Some overspill estates have moved so far to the Right as to elect BNP councillors. Only Stevenage remains a Labour stronghold, at least at local level.
My impression is that this is not a short term reaction against a Labour government, but does actually represent a permanent shift to the Right, among a segment of the Southâ€™s working class voters. Just as some sections of society, such as middle class public sector workers, or the working classes of Glasgow and Liverpool, have moved sharply Leftwards over the years, so others have abandoned traditional Labour loyalties.
There was just one by-election, last night, in Horsham District, Holbrook West. LibDem 602, Con 554, BNP 163, Lab 54. Liberal Democrat gain from Conservatives.
This was a strong performance from the Liberal Democrats, with a swing of 9% from the Conservatives. Although not, in any sense, a seat where one would expect a large Labour vote, it must be embarrassing for them to win just one third as many votes as the BNP.
Sean Fear is a London Conservative activist and the pb.com 2006-7 poster of the year