The death of Alan Keen from cancer 0n 10 November has resulted in the sixth by-election of this Parliament, and the fifth for a Labour-held seat (the sixth was West Belfast).Â The Coalition parties must feel blessed that none have yet to be held on their own ground.
Labour has been quick to call the by-election to ensure that there is minimal fuss and chance for things to go awry – the date set is Thursday 15 December, barely a month after Keen’s passing.Â Today is the deadline for candidates to register for the election.Â The candidates announced so far are:
- Labour: Seema Malhotra – DirectorÂ of the Fabians’ Women’s Network
- Conservative: Mark Bowen – Tory candidate for this seat last year
- Liberal Democrat: Roger Crouch – Chinese community activist from Bath
- UKIP: Andrew Charalambous – former Tory candidate for Edmonton last year
- BNP: David Furness – not to be confused with Elton John’s partner David Furnish
The Result Last Time
Despite Alan Keen’s expenses issuesÂ - he and his wife Ann Keen (MP for neighbouring Brentford and Isleworth) were accused of claiming for a houseÂ that had been empty for a prolonged period – he held on to the seat against a relatively small swing to the Conservatives of 4.8%.Â His majority of 4,658Â was just below the 10% mark (9.6%). Â It remains to be seen whether thatÂ showing was as a result of Keen’s strong track-recordÂ as a constituency MP or was as a result of demographic changes in the seat.
The graph below shows the results in all the elections since the seat was created in 1974 for the three main parties (I’ve stripped out the others for clarity).Â It should be noted that there have been minor boundary changes in 1983, 1997 and 2010.
The Conservatives held the seat during Labour’s nadir in the eighties – the poor result in 1987 reflects the fact that this was the worst year for Labour in London, losing three seats to the Conservatives even though the party was slowly recovering elsewhere in the country.Â The graph also shows that the massive 15% swing to Labour in 1997 was mainly due to Tories staying away rather than new votes for Labour, and that the tightening of the result at the last two elections seem to reflect Labour’s harder job in getting their voters out.Â Turnout will be a key factor in the by-election – the ground operation to get out the vote will be critical in an election so close to Christmas.
The map below shows the constituency, stretching from the Grand Union Canal and the western edge of Osterley Park in the north to the edge of Kempton Park racecourse and the border with Surrey in the south.Â Feltham, with its Young Offenders’ Institute, lies to the south of Heathrow Airport whilst Heston, with its M4 service station, lies to the airport’s east.Â The seat stretches to take in part ofÂ the Hounslow town-centre.
It is a seat of two halves, as its name suggests, and these halves have changed their roles in the seat over time.Â Feltham is the white working class part of the constituency, where Labour’s vote used to be strongest but where now these voters often feel marginalised and cast their vote elsewhere.Â Home ownership has also grown significantly here.Â The Tories locally, and Mark Bowen in particular last time, have sought to play on these resentments to garner votes.
The Heston half, acrossÂ the River Crane,Â has moved in the other direction.Â This area of middle-class housing conveniently close to Heathrow used to be where Conservative MP Patrick Ground won his victories in the Eighties, but it has now become the area where upwardly mobile Asians from Southall move to.Â They have stayed loyal to Labour, making this the area where Labour is now strongest.
That demographic shift has been significant.Â In 2001, the seat was 31% Asian to 60% White, and 29% of the population had been born outside the UK.Â In the intervening decade, the seat has become more Asian.
Despite the Liberal Democrat advances in other seats with high Asian populations, they have made little headway here as that population is more Sikh and Hindu than Muslim.
The map below, showing the May 2010 local election results in the constituency, show this clearly.Â Labour takes a clean sweep of all 15 seats in the northern Heston half of the map but onlyÂ 5 of the 15 available in the south, with the Tories taking the other 10.
The election and beyond
Labour’s choice of Seema Malhotra is a clear recognition of the demographics of the seat, and should play well in the north as well as increasing the diversity of the Parliamentary Labour Party.Â She has worked as an advisorÂ for Harriet Harman and worked extensively as a consultant before that with different Whitehall departments.Â Assuming she is elected, she is likely to make a valuable, if technocratic, addition to the Labour benches.Â Her vulnerability will be if white Labour voters stay away and she would be wise to pitch clearly for their vote whilst also consolidating the Asian vote.
The real challenger has to be Bowen.Â This is a choice of candidate that is clearly not from the Cameron A-List philosophy andÂ shows that either that is something that Number 10 has now abandoned or thatÂ the local party has asserted its independence over Central Office.Â I think this makes it difficult for the Tories – they cannot afford to play the race card in the same way as they usually do here given the national spotlight.Â With a candidate that will be hard to pitch to the Asian community, this ties their hands a great deal.
Upset-wise, look out for a strong UKIP showing.Â Although they only got 2% last time, they are currently polling well nationally (8% in some polls) and could do well in the south of the seat if voters there feel the pinch from the economy and decide to move away from the Coalition parties.Â They should also be able to capitalise on the BNP collapse, who won 3.5% last time round. Â Chamalambous won’t win, but he could take a strong third place.
So, I think Malhotra should win with an increased percentage majority, but possibly a smaller numerical one due to low turnout.Â
However, it will be a relatively short-lived victory for whoever wins – the seat is proposed for abolition by the Boundary Commission, with Feltham joining Hayes and Harlington to form a Heathrow-centred seat, Heston joining Southall and Hanworth in the south-east being absorbed into Vince Cable’s seat.