Election briefing reports

Today, we start serialising our election briefing reports for all the 32 London Boroughs across the capital.

THIS WEEK:
Barking and Dagenhan, BexleyCamdenEnfieldGreenwichHaringeyMertonSuttonWestminster

ALSO PUBLISHED
Barnet, Bromley, Croydon, Ealing, Kensington and Chelsea, Lambeth, Newham, Richmond upon Thames, Tower Hamlets, Wandsworth

Barking and Dagenham

Given that Labour holds 49 of the 51 seats on this council, predicting a Labour win is no great stretch. Indeed, it is one of the select few boroughs that has always been run by the same party since the present system of local government in London was established in 1964. The days when people were seriously worried of a British National Party led council seem long gone.

Labour’s strength in Barking and Dagenham is not, however, as fully comprehensive as it appears. The UK Independence Party was close to winning seats in 2014, and there is also some internal tension: former council leader Liam Smith resigned the party whip at the beginning of 2017. He is a leave supporter and backed Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid. As with many Labour groups of councillors there are internal tensions, not least the mutual distrust between Barking councillors and Dagenham councillors.

With all that, there is little opportunity for revival of other parties in the short term. The borough of Barking and Dagenham is very homogenous, so there are no wards which are obvious targets for opposition parties to concentrate their campaigning on. A further Labour shut-out may be likely for 2018.

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Bexley

This patch of outer south-east London was expected to have a reasonable chance for Labour control when the council was established, but the party has only rarely been able to win a majority. The most recent period of Labour control, with an overall majority of one seat between 2002 and 2006, was achieved with the help of favourable boundaries and the ability of the Blair era Labour Party to reach into suburban middle class communities.

Neither of those reasons apply any more. The Labour Party in the Corbyn era is not emulating the appeal of Blair, and instead Bexley is increasingly aligned with the right: it saw one of the highest UK Independence Party votes in 2014 which was enough to win them three seats. This sizeable vote collapsed to 4% in the 2017 general election, and those votes seem to have gone mainly to the Conservatives. The overall swing in Bexley between 2014 local elections and 2017 was 3% to the Conservatives – against a Londonwide trend to Labour.

Bexley has also undergone ward boundary changes. Unlike the three other boroughs which have had boundary reviews, in Bexley an opportunity was taken to make a significant reduction in the overall number of seats which have fallen from 63 to 45. Had these wards been used in 2014 we estimate the result would have been 34 Conservatives, 10 Labour and one from the UK Independence Party. The changes slightly increase the swing Labour needs to win control to 8%, and means each of the marginal wards is now larger and more mixed.

Although local social media can be derisively critical of the Conservative leadership, it is highly favoured to hold on to control of the council.

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Camden

Camden has been in Labour control for all but two terms since its creation. Labour actually performed badly in terms of vote share in the early 2000s, retaining a majority with only 33% of the vote in 2002, and being squeezed by the Liberal Democrats’ shifting to the left during the Blair era. Labour’s revival since 2007 is not surprising, but there has long been tension within the Labour group which covers a wide range of politics. Georgia Gould, a figure associated with the Blairite group Progress, has done well to keep the party united, and her decision to be highly visible when faced with the crisis evacuation of the Chalcots Estate for fire works in her first week as leader seems to have paid off in the long term.

Since the 1980s, the Conservatives have retained constant levels of support in the wealthier parts of Hampstead, and although they have a big issue over changes to bin collections (which mean fewer collections in Hampstead and more on the council estates), the national picture gives them a serious problem. Strong local opposition to Brexit has led to the defection of the party’s former leader and the resignation of one popular moderate council candidate. The Liberal Democrats had only one survivor in 2014 – the veteran Flick Rea, who is standing once again. Camden has a very lively local political scene with debates taking place on the letters page of the Camden New Journal (a local paper with an editorial line somewhat left of Georgia Gould).

The 2017 general election showed an 8% swing to Labour since 2014, and Camden counted the general election result by ward – shocking local politics by showing Labour was ahead even in Hampstead Town ward. Only Frognal and Fitzjohns ward did not have a Labour majority. In such circumstances a Labour win is strongly favoured.

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Enfield

The Conservatives ran Enfield council throughout 1968-1994, but in the last twenty years the borough has shifted strongly away from the party and towards Labour. Even while the Conservatives were winning two out of the borough’s three Parliamentary seats in 2010, Labour won back control of the council, and at the last election they made further inroads into traditionally Conservative territory in Winchmore Hill and Southgate.

Labour’s administration of the council is moderate and prefers to deliver unspectacular competence rather than outstanding eyecatching innovation. This approach seems to match what local people want, and makes it difficult for both the Conservative opposition and any internal Labour critics to assail it. The Conservatives have been campaigning on the issue of local police station closures for which they are blaming the Mayor of London (Sadiq Khan appears a somewhat distant figure from Enfield Town).

The general election saw Labour achieve a swing of just under 5% since the 2014 local elections, allowing one senior council figure (Bambos Charalambous) to gain the Southgate constituency for Labour in parliament. It is difficult to see how the Conservatives can regain the council in the short term.

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Greenwich

When Greenwich was made London’s third ‘Royal Borough’ in 2012, no-one could have been happier than council leader Chris Roberts. The whole council was rebranded as ‘Royal Greenwich’ and basked in international attention over the summer when it played host to the equestrian events of the London Olympics.

But Chris Roberts’s 14 year leadership of the council came to an abrupt end in 2014. Incidents from Roberts’s past were revealed and Labour councillors made public their concerns about a culture of bullying within the council, which were backed up by a standards inquiry into a voicemail message that Roberts had left. He chose to stand down from the leadership and also from the council. Denise Hyland was narrowly elected as the new leader after the 2014 election.

Hyland has tried to open up the traditionally tight political leadership of the council, but without entire success (she retains a seat on the planning board while also being council leader), but has also engaged in populist stunts such as a motion to ‘ban’ Donald Trump from setting foot in the borough.

While Labour are favoured to hold on, it is not likely to be a walkover. In November 2016 Labour narrowly lost a byelection in the marginal Eltham North ward to the Conservatives, and the general election showed only a small swing to Labour of 3%. The Conservative opposition is being punchy in proposing increased council tax support for the low paid, and has identified wasteful council spending for cutting.

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Haringey

In the last year no London borough has had more attention paid to its internal politics than Haringey. The council’s controversial estate regeneration project, the changes in the local Labour Party and the deselection of many sitting councillors have been written about by many journalists with very different agendas. The depth of the coverage means that some issues have to be unpicked.

The first thing to note is that what the Haringey leadership were proposing to do in the ‘Haringey Development Vehicle’, in linking with developer Lendlease to redevelop council housing estates and add new housing, was different in scale but not in form to other councils. Entering into the agreement at the end of the political term after campaigners had opposed other councils was a hostage to fortune.

The second thing to note is that only in Haringey has such a policy produced mass deselection of councillors. There is much in the point made by some defenders of the council that the policy is far more unpopular with residents of middle-class areas than with estate residents themselves, but they are the group who make up most Labour Party branches.

The third thing to note is that the rebels have won, although their victory has not finally been proclaimed. While the Haringey Development Vehicle is formally on hold, it is practically impossible for it to go ahead and the new council will vote to kill it off. Council leader Claire Kober is standing down and not seeking re-election (she can have the satisfaction of rescuing the council, as she came in amid the scandal following the death of ‘Baby P’).

With those preliminary observations, how will it affect voting in May? Any hopes by opposition parties that the ructions will cause a break in Haringey’s traditional Labour support is going to be disappointed. For all the damage that is done to centre ground appeal when moderate politicians are deposed by ideological ones, there is no particular reason to think the Haringey Development Vehicle was particularly popular and several good reasons to think it would have lost Labour votes if it had been put forward at the election. It should be noted that the Liberal Democrat opposition on the council were strongly opposed.

Haringey remains a very polarised borough between a mixed and partly middle-class west of the borough (Hornsey, Crouch End, Muswell Hill), and a working class east (Tottenham). In the 2000s the Liberal Democrats cleaned up in the west but failed to break into the east. They are now in retreat, and Labour had a large swing in its favour at the general election. There are no realistic Conservative targets save for Highgate ward, where it is the Liberal Democrats under attack and not Labour.

The real fight for control of Haringey will be in the Labour group on the Saturday after the election, between various shades of left.

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Merton

Merton is a classic marginal London borough, with control moving between the main two parties in 2006 and 2010. The social mixture of the borough can tend to polarise between middle class Wimbledon and working-class Mitcham but save in some small pockets, neither tends to approach either extreme wealth or extreme poverty and there are many in the middle.

The political affiliations of the Labour leadership are firmly on the moderate wing of the party, particularly in the Mitcham and Morden constituency where most of the Labour councillors are based. Council leader Stephen Alambritis, previously known as a spokesperson for small business, is a very high profile figure.

If Labour’s general election performance looks rather below par for London, this is partly due to problems during the election campaign involving the Labour candidate in the Wimbledon constituency. The Conservatives have retreated as an electoral force in the Mitcham and Morden area, and although the seat numbers are close, it would need an 8% swing to the Conservatives for them to get an overall majority.

Merton counted the election result by ward, showing Labour were doing well in marginal wards West Barnes, Cannon Hill and Trinity. An oddity of electoral politics in Merton are the Merton Park Ward Independent Residents, who won their seats from the Conservatives in 1986 and have made them safe; if they hold the balance of power, the three Independent Resident councillors vote to support which of the other parties is closest to a majority.

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Sutton

The council election result in 2014 in Sutton was perhaps one of the most remarkable of the year. Despite the Liberal Democrats’ national support having collapsed, and the party having lost seats in most local elections, in Sutton the party stretched its lead over the Conservatives in vote share and made a net gain of two seats.

Sutton is a relatively small London borough and it has been in Liberal Democrat control for as long as that party has existed (the Alliance first won control in 1986). Voters living in reasonably comfortable suburban homes, but not quite as wealthy as those in neighbouring Purley and Coulsdon, seem to have welcomed centre politics and the Liberal Democrat tradition of community activism.

However recently there are clear signs that the council administration might find it difficult at the 2018 elections. The Liberal Democrats have been in power for long enough that there seems some validity in opposition parties’ claims that the leaders are persuading officers to use their council roles to support political campaigning. The council has also lost support over building an energy recovery facility in Beddington (which opponents tag as an incinerator).

The Conservatives did poorly in 2014 partly because the UK Independence Party did well: Sutton had a very strong Leave vote in the EU referendum. That vote went straight to the Conservatives in 2017 giving them a clear lead. Labour is also challenging hard in its areas to re-establish itself on a council where it hasn’t won any seats since 2002.

Ladbrokes make the Liberal Democrats favourites, but only as 5/4 on; the Conservatives are 5/4 against. We think those are good odds; our tip is for a surprise Conservative gain.

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Westminster

Wandsworth and Westminster councils are often bracketed together, never more so than in 1990 when both saw striking Conservative victories against the trend. However their electoral situations are somewhat different: while Wandsworth was a traditionally Labour area which the Conservatives took over, Westminster has been run by the Conservatives throughout its existence. But at the 2018 election, there is a small chance that Westminster will vote in a Labour-run council for the first time ever.

Labour came close to winning once before, when in 1986 the party noticed favourable Londonwide trends and spotted local Conservatives were not very good at campaigning. After campaigning strongly in the marginal wards, Labour came within 106 votes of winning control. The reaction of the then Conservative leadership led them to an extraordinary audit, surcharges and Dame Shirley Porter paying £12m for the illegal policy called ‘homes for votes’.

The Conservatives have moved on from the scandal, but they have other problems. Former deputy leader Robert Davis’s prodigious register of gifts and hospitality gave bad publicity early in 2018, and there are many rumours of internal strife in the Conservative group: some popular sitting councillors have been deselected. Current council leader Nickie Aiken cultivates a reputation as a political streetfighter.

Central London demographic changes have not helped the Conservatives, who traditionally counted on support from wealthy residents who use few council services and simply want low bills; increasing property prices mean many British people have sold up and been replaced by non-UK nationals who may not have votes even if they are permanent residents. Westminster’s population also includes a very large number of EU citizens who are no longer well-disposed towards the Conservative Party. People who move to Westminster are very likely to live in private rented housing, and private tenants are a group which have shifted to Labour in recent elections.

All this explains why Labour was well ahead across Westminster in the 2017 general election. However Labour faces a problem as its support is concentrated in four safe wards in the north of the city – finding the wards to target to give a Labour a majority on the council is not obvious. It is quite possible Labour will outpoll the Conservatives again, but the arrangement of that vote will allow the Conservatives to squeeze home. The odds available from Ladbrokes at the time of writing seem to bear that out: the Conservatives are 7/4 on favourites. However a Labour majority, at 5/4 against, is distinctly possible.

 

 

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