Election 2016: How did Croydon vote?

By - Tuesday 24th May, 2016

Itching to know which way the borough is swinging? Tom Black and guest psephologist Tom Anderson get down and dirty with the numbers so that you don’t have to

Croydon’s electoral wards, coloured by the strength of the final vote tally for their ‘winning’ party. ‘Swing’ wards have their names written in black.
Image by Tom Anderson.

The final result on 6th May couldn’t have been clearer. Sadiq Khan became London’s first Labour mayor in eight years, and Conservative Steve O’Connell was re-elected to the London Assembly for the constituency seat of Croydon and Sutton. Why, then, has there been bit of an argument as to how exactly Croydon – as opposed to the constituency of ‘Croydon and Sutton’ – voted? Social media, egos, and politics-as-usual are easy answers. More complicated is the fact that while Labour activists insist that their man won Croydon while the Tories say that it was theirs, both are technically right. In a manner of speaking.

The London mayoral election works on a slightly odd electoral system that was effectively (some say literally) made up on the back of a napkin. Every voter has a first and second preference vote. So far, the second preferences have never changed the overall outcome of the election, but they have changed which candidate topped the polls in a particular part of London. Say, a south-eastern borough of London. Do you see where this is going?

Why both parties can claim ‘victory’

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For the first time in Croydonian history, in the 2016 election the second preferences changed which candidate topped the polls across the borough. Based on first preferences, Zac Goldsmith won Croydon by just 746 votes out of 114,621 cast, a record turnout. But when second preferences were redistributed, these considerably favoured Sadiq Khan – he surpassed Goldsmith by 2,089 votes.

Both figures illustrate just how close the contest was in Croydon this time and how every vote really did count. As in a UK general election, it comes down to who can appeal to the voters in the middle, and Croydon has ‘swing wards’ instead of swing seats. These include Addiscombe, Fairfield and Waddon; in almost every election in Croydon since 2004 the borough has obeyed the rule ‘so goes Fairfield, so goes Croydon’. Fittingly, Zac Goldsmith carried the ward on first preferences, but it flipped to Sadiq Khan on second preferences.

The merger with Sutton led to a split opposition

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We can also compare the results by ward to the last mayoral election in 2012 using a good old fashioned election night ‘swingometer’. Croydon as a whole swung 6.6% to Labour, but four northern wards in Labour’s heartland instead swung towards the Conservatives. Overall, this was the best result in a mayoral election that Labour has recorded in Croydon since 2004.

There are two types of London Assembly members, ones elected from constituencies and ones elected across London from a party list. Croydon is joined together with Sutton to form the originally-named Croydon and Sutton Assembly constituency, in which Conservative incumbent Steve O’Connell was re-elected with a majority of 6.4%. However, we can break the constituency apart to examine the results in the two boroughs separately:

Click to enlarge.

The very different pie charts for Croydon and Sutton as separate entities illustrate how artificial the London Assembly constituencies often are, pushing together neighbouring boroughs with different political cultures. Sutton remains a relative stronghold for the Lib Dems (a rare thing in the post-coalition era) and Amna Ahmad finished second there, albeit only narrowly ahead of Labour. In Croydon, however, the Lib Dems came fifth. Steve O’Connell therefore benefits from a split opposition vote.

It seems that most of the borough’s voters simply prefer the two main parties

It’s noteworthy that the Labour and Conservative vote in Croydon (unlike Sutton) equals over 75% of the vote. Is there any contest in which Croydon can be persuaded to vote for third parties to a greater degree? What about the party-list vote for a London-wide London Assembly member, in which minor parties stand a much better chance of being elected, so that there is less of a motivation to vote tactically?

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Even under these circumstances, 72.5% of Croydonians chose to cast their vote for one of the two main parties. It seems that the two-party system is not a tactical choice for most of the borough’s voters, rather that they simply do prefer either the Conservatives or Labour to the other options. The only exceptions to be found are European elections, due to the boost for UKIP (and possibly the lower turnout) in which the ‘Conservative plus Labour’ vote can sometimes slip below 60%. Interestingly, the London Assembly list vote sees Labour pull ahead (unlike the constituency vote) and Labour tops the polls despite Fairfield narrowly going Conservative — an exception to the rule mentioned above.

Looking to the future

In the immediate term, both parties would do well to declare a truce in their present squabble over victory: when the Conservatives say ‘Croydon voted for Zac!’ they’re right. But when Labour say ‘Sadiq won Croydon!’ they’re also right. And while Conservative Steve O’Connell topped the poll in both Croydon and Sutton, Labour can take heart in their 3,000 vote lead in the party-list vote in Croydon. Second preferences and list votes are probably a good thing for democracy, but they make politics a bit of a headache.

In Waddon, the unquestioned battleground of Croydon, Labour appeared to increase their lead over the Conservatives

In the medium term, the council elections in 2018 look good for Labour – these results, if replicated exactly, would give them a reduced but secure majority on Croydon Council. But the swing back to the Conservatives in Ashburton is perhaps a sign that the much-talked-about local campaign in that ward was what turned it red in 2014, not a permanent shift in the political allegiances of its residents. In Waddon, the unquestioned battleground of Croydon, Labour appeared to increase their lead over the Conservatives, something that the Tories must reverse if they are to confidently retake the council in 2018.

In the long term, these results can give us the tiniest flavour of which way the wind is blowing for the general election in 2020. Insofar as these results can be said to be comparable, that is. There’s an argument that they aren’t. General election turnout in 2020 or before will be higher than the 45% across London for the mayor. The election will also be held under ‘first past the post’ – no second preferences there. And, of course, the boundary review is very likely to comprehensively redraw Croydon North, Croydon Central, and Croydon South, so which wards swing which way may become less or more important depending on that. The list goes on – but the data that we have is the that data we have. Carrying a pinch of salt with you at all times is always worthwhile in these matters, but put it this way: Labour probably has the right to say that the borough has inched a little bit closer to being a Labour-leaning borough, but the Conservatives also have the right to tell them not to get carried away just yet.

Tom Anderson is a chemistry lecturer at the University of Sheffield and amateur psephologist. He co-authored this article and provided the data and graphics.

Tom Black

Tom Black

Tom is the Citizen's General Manager, and spent his whole life in Croydon until moving to Balham in 2017. He also writes plays that are occasionally performed and books that are occasionally enjoyed. He's been a Labour Party member since 2007, and in his spare time runs an online publishing house for alternate history books, Sea Lion Press. He is fluent in Danish, but speaks no useful languages. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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