London elections part 2

THIRD WEEK
Bexley, Hackney, Hammersmith and Fulham, Harrow, Havering, Hillingdon, Hounslow, Islington, Kingston upon Thames, Lewisham, Redbridge, Southwark, Waltham Forest

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

FIRST WEEK
Barking and Dagenhan, BexleyCamdenEnfieldGreenwichHaringeyMertonSuttonWestminster

Barnet

Throughout the count in 2014, control of Barnet council was on a knife edge. It was not until a recount in the final ward to declare (Childs Hill ward) gave the Conservatives two seats that the Conservative victory was confirmed. Going into 2018, all Labour needs to do go win control is hold all its current seats, add one seat in Childs Hill ward (where a Labour candidate was just 46 votes away from being elected), and win the final seat in Brunswick Park ward (where Labour was 79 votes behind). These two are not the only marginal wards in the borough: Labour also has chances of gaining seats in Hale ward.

Barnet’s recent history has seen the council sign a major contract under which almost all of its services were to be delivered by outsourcing company Capita. This policy was described by former leader Mike Freer (now MP for Finchley and Golders Green) as ‘EasyCouncil’ by contrast with EasyJet’s business model of no frills, streamlined service; the term is now more widely used as a criticism. In May 2016 the council’s running of the Greater London Authority elections was a shambles as polling stations were not given the full electoral register; the chief executive resigned in disgrace.

The many council housing estates in Barnet have been proposed for estate regeneration schemes by the council, with the West Hendon estate nearing completion; a TV documentary shown in 2016 was implicitly highly critical of the scheme. More recently Sadiq Khan as Mayor blocked redevelopment of Grahame Park estate in Colindale, regarding the loss of social rented homes as unacceptable; it was in Barnet that Khan and Jeremy Corbyn launched the Labour Party policy of requiring ballots on all estate regeneration schemes.

Barnet is therefore a target for Labour, but one that has some difficulties for the party. In a borough with the largest Jewish community there is widespread concern about Labour activists expressing antisemitic views without any action being taken against them. There was no swing between the 2014 local election and the 2017 general election. But Labour’s Jewish problem may not harm their chances in local elections to the same extent as in national elections: London borough councils do not have their own foreign policy and there are many Jewish members of the Labour Party locally who maintain the party’s community links.

Ladbrokes had quoted odds of 5/1 on for Labour to win a majority; 7/2 against for the Conservatives to keep their majority, and 16/1 against for no overall control. Those odds have changed, with Labour now out to 2/5. However, in the light of Londonwide trends and specific issues affecting this borough, we agree that a change of control is likely.

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Bromley

There has only been one set of London elections in which the party has failed to secure a majority in Bromley, and that was in 1998 when the Conservatives were laid low by a combination of Liberal Democrat activism and Blairite Labour appeal to middle class voters. Neither of those factors would seem to be present in 2018.

Bromley’s Conservative leadership has just had a refresh. Stephen Carr stepped down to allow a successor time to prepare for the local elections, and Colin Smith was chosen to take charge. He is staking out a position as a local champion who will make the borough’s case to central government and to a London government that Bromley often feels it has little in common with. Providing extra schools for the borough’s children is one of the biggest difficulties locally.

As in neighbouring Bexley, UKIP were strong in 2014 and won two seats in Cray Valley West ward, an area with a lot of social housing. If the UKIP vote went to Labour then it might help Labour win that ward for the first time since 2002, but the indications are that it is not doing so. The swing between the 2014 local elections and 2017 general election was nil. While Labour now has a strong base in Penge and around Crystal Palace, it has few opportunities anywhere else. The Liberal Democrats used to have a strong base in Orpington which lasted 50 years but it has disappeared and does not seem to be coming back.

A last minute split over deselection of one Conservative councillor has resulted in three going Independent, but this will only be a little local difficulty for the party in those wards. Bromley will retain a Conservative majority.

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Croydon

London’s largest borough in terms of population is also strikingly heterogenous, with the working-class north feeling like a densely populated city area that has little in common with the commuter suburbs in the prosperous south of the borough. As might be expected, that means safe Labour seats in the north, safe Conservative seats in the south, and the control of the borough decided in a small group of marginal seats in the middle. Because the Conservatives tended to build up larger majorities in their safe seats, Croydon was a council where Labour was able to win a majority in 1998 and 2002 despite the Conservatives polling more overall. The 2014 elections were the first in which Labour actually outpolled the Conservatives.

Labour’s leadership of the borough has been notably pro-development, getting the council considerable criticism on the blog ‘Inside Croydon’ which is well-informed and written from a strongly left-wing standpoint. The council has put a lot of emphasis on its company, Brick by Brick, which develops housing including a decent proportion of affordable housing; its critics charge that this is just another commercial developer.

Croydon has new ward boundaries for this election. Had they been in place in 2014 we estimate the result would have been Labour 42, Conservatives 28. The key marginal wards are Fairfield (which becomes notionally Labour held), Shirley North (replacing the current Ashburton), Waddon, and Addiscombe West. Labour’s hopes for advance may take them to Addiscombe East and South Croydon. The Conservatives are targeting Norbury Park ward where a potential marginal seat is created out of two safe Labour seats.

The general election swing to Labour in Croydon was 6%, enough to give a comfortable majority on the council.

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Ealing

Ealing again broke its reputation as a bellwether in 2014. At every previous election save 1986, the party which won Ealing in the London Borough elections went on to win the next general election. For the future it seems unlikely that Ealing will become such a good predictor of national trends, as it is increasingly turning into a Labour dominated borough.

The factors that made Ealing marginal were connected mostly to the parts of Acton, Northolt and Perivale that included a lot of middle-income families – neither properly wealthy nor suffering economic hardship, and living in a mix of private housing and council estates. Those groups are now increasingly drawn to Labour over housing costs and public services. Conservative councillors are now penned back into a small area of west Acton and east Ealing where wealthy residents live.

Ealing’s Labour leadership is also in the hands of a moderate group (Julian Bell is a supporter of Progress), and the local Momentum Group has complained about the candidate selection process when it could not get its members selected: they tried but failed to get all of the London councillor selections overturned. However a delay at releasing the 2018 manifesto hint at internal issues over policy direction. Unusually for a Labour-held borough, the Liberal Democrats have been able to keep a toehold on the council: they stand a good chance of keeping Southfield ward.

The Conservatives would need a swing of 10% in their favour to win back control. At the general election the swing was 7% to Labour. Ealing is likely to stay with its present council leadership.

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Kensington and Chelsea

Local elections in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea are normally very placid affairs, with a Conservative win assured from the outset and very few seats ever likely to change hands. At five successive elections from 1982 to 1998, the same seats elected the same party’s candidates.

Two events within a week of each other last June have changed things and made the 2018 elections in this small borough ones which will be watched closely. Late on Friday evening, the final result in the general election saw Labour win the Kensington seat. On the following Wednesday morning, 71 residents of the Grenfell Tower in north Kensington were killed in the worst fire in a century – and one quickly blamed on the council’s project to reclad the tower.

A flatfooted response to the fire forced out the Conservative leadership and the new council leaders are trying to let the local community know they are different (many sitting councillors have been deselected or persuaded to stand down). They face considerable obstacles in trying to win re-election: anger over Grenfell, a rise in the Labour vote, strong local opposition to Brexit, and a new local centrist party ‘Advance’. Can they win re-election with all that against them? We predict they will.

Kensington and Chelsea remains a very heterogenous borough with an extremely sharp divide. For the Conservatives to lose would mean losing wards full of the ‘Made in Chelsea’ set; for all that they may be saddened by Grenfell and feel the council was partly responsible, it is not likely to turn them into Labour voters. It should also be noted that the Kensington constituency was often misnamed as ‘Kensington and Chelsea’ (it includes Notting Hill but doesn’t include Chelsea) and that Labour only won it by 20 votes.

The overall swing between the 2014 local elections and the 2017 general election was 8.5% to Labour, but such is the divide in this borough that it would mean Labour gaining just one seat – and that in a ward which is currently split between Labour and Conservatives. Labour’s target seats are Chelsea Riverside and Earls Court.

The new ‘Advance’ party was set up by the Liberal Democrat candidate in Kensington Annabel Mullin, and has drawn support from some other former party activists in the area and at least one former Labour councillor. However it is difficult to see where it will make an impact: it needs to find particular wards to concentrate on.

Ladbrokes have offered odds on the outcome of the election (probably a first) and odds on a Conservative win have moved from a very probable 5/1 on to a rock solid 16/1 on. The other odds are No overall control, 12/1 against; a Labour majority, 12/1 against; an Advance majority, 66/1.

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Lambeth

When the Labour far left were last in the ascendancy in the 1980s, Lambeth town hall – under the control of the council led by ‘Red Ted’ Knight – was one of their headquarters. Even many years later the Liberal Democrats, briefly in the council leadership, found the council’s old red flag in storage ready for the day when the left ruled again.

That day has not come. Lambeth’s Labour leadership since 2006, when the party regained control against the Londonwide trend, has been firmly on the Blairite wing. Steve Reed and now Lib Peck remain committed to moderate policies and controversial partnerships with private sector developers to help the council regenerate its many estates.

Frustration has built up within the local party with left-wing activists who often describe Lambeth as a ‘Progress council’ rather than a Labour one (Progress being the Blairite activist group). In 2016 a Progress supporting Labour candidate was elected in a byelection in Gipsy Hill ward but by a small majority over a Green Party candidate who benefited from unofficial support from the local Momentum group.

Yet Momentum have been unable, as they were able in Haringey, to impose themselves on Labour selections. Labour also did well in the general election, increasing the majority for prominent Labour Leave supporter Kate Hoey in Vauxhall despite a strong challenge in the nation’s most Remain constituency. Lambeth’s mainly young, ethnically diverse, inner London population suffering from high housing costs are tailor-made for Labour voting. The area shows no sign of a Liberal Democrat revival and Labour may well recapture the one Green seat and be able to challenge the Conservative ward in Clapham Common.

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Newham

Newham has suddenly gone from being one of the most predictable and stable boroughs in London, to extraordinarily unpredictable in the space of a few weeks. Directly-elected Mayor Sir Robin Wales is the longest serving borough leader in London, and assumed he would be reselected on the nod – but faced a strong challenge and his reselection was overturned. He was subsequently defeated by Rokhsana Fiaz, running from the left but not, as was widely reported at the time, a fully signed up member of the Momentum faction.

Her victory as mayor is as close as possible to assured. Sir Robin Wales had over 60% of the vote last time, and it is now 12 years since anyone other than Labour won a council seat (and 24 years since a member of a mainstream party did)

It is still odds on for Labour to sweep the board in Newham. The Conservatives have based their attempt to re-establish themselves on recruiting prominent local figures in the muslim community, partly successfully but not sufficient to win seats. They previously challenged Labour in Royal Docks ward where there are expensive dockside developments, but the local population that actually votes there are now inclined to vote Labour.

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Richmond upon Thames

The Conservatives won control in 2010 and increased their hold on Richmond in 2014 as the Liberal Democrat vote fell away, but there are strong signs locally that the tide may have turned. The Liberal Democrats have re-energised their local campaigning strength, having won the Richmond Park constituency in a December 2016 byelection. Although they lost the seat narrowly in June 2017, it was by a handful of votes; as the strongest Conservative area is in Kingston borough, the Liberal Democrats must have been ahead in the Richmond part.

In 2014 the Conservatives did well in the Twickenham part of the borough, where almost all the wards were competitive. It presaged the Conservative gain of the Twickenham constituency in 2015, but this win was not sustained and the Liberal Democrats won it back in 2017. Winning back control of the borough council would be a fillip for new party leader Vince Cable.

Labour did not have any seats on the council from 2002 until it gained one through the defection of Jennifer Churchill in 2015. Although the local party is keen to fight several seats, it may find it divides its campaigning too thinly in a borough which is not naturally good Labour territory.

Richmond is one of those councils where local residents have a tendency to fall out of love with the council leadership relatively rapidly. Council control changed hands in the elections of 2002, 2006 and 2010. Although Lord True retired and allowed Paul Hodgins time to prepare for the council elections, Ladbrokes will tell you a Liberal Democrat majority is 5/4 on, and a Conservative majority is Evens.

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Tower Hamlets

Tower Hamlets has not been a very good advertisement for local politics in the recent past. Creating a directly-elected Mayor allowed a group based within the Bangladeshi community to take over the council and retain it using a system found by the commissioner of an election court to amount to bribery. Strikingly, despite the manifest abuses at the 2014 election, it was not the defeated Labour Party but four individual electors who risked their life savings to challenge it.

When their challenge was successful, it was Labour’s John Biggs who took over the Mayoralty – winning a Mayoral byelection with 40% of the vote; but even after all the negative publicity, he only beat the chosen successor of ousted Mayor Lutfur Rahman by 2.2%. In council byelections, successors of Rahman have held seats where they were previously strong. Politics in Tower Hamlets remains very fragmented on racial lines, and the Bangladeshi community tends to rely on its own media.

In 2018 Tower Hamlets may have slightly less high profile local politics, with John Biggs having stabilised the council and built back up his contacts with the local Bangladeshi community. The group of Lutfur Rahman’s supporters is now now split, with most being in a new political party called Aspire. Their mayoral candidate is Oliur Rahman. The smaller People’s Alliance of Tower Hamlets under Rabina Khan is a slightly more moderate group.

The Conservative Party’s loss of seats in Tower Hamlets in 2014 was unexpected. They are still contenders in the Isle of Dogs and Wapping areas, where they are reliant on retaining decent levels of support from residents of council estates; unlike other parts of London, they seem to have succeeded. Conservative Mayoral candidate Anwara Ali was a Labour to Conservative defector in 2008.

Overall John Biggs is a clear favourite to hold on to the Mayoralty against divided opposition, and it is likely that Labour will make seat gains to give it an overall majority on the council (it was only just off doing so in 2014). However Lutfur Rahman’s victories in 2010 and 2014 were not built on sand and those hoping for a wipeout of his movement will be disappointed.

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Wandsworth

The Conservatives have controlled Wandsworth since 1978, and have wanted everyone to know it. From the start they adopted a policy of contracting out services, market driven solutions, and cutting taxes: a sort of municipal Thatcherism to counteract the municipal socialism which big city Labour authorities preferred. In the 1980s this approach chimed with young London professional voters who moved into former Wandsworth council homes sold under the right to buy, and became electorally popular. The Conservatives held control in 1986 and 1990 against adverse national trends because of local popularity.

It is as well to note at this stage that the council leadership is more pragmatic than its ideological reputation would suggest; they have been building social rented homes in unused parts of council estates long before other councils took up this policy. Ravi Govindia is a canny leader who has guided complex regeneration schemes around Nine Elms.

Why is Wandsworth’s Conservative leadership now seriously under threat? For one thing, austerity cuts to government grants force all councils to cut spending, so it is no longer distinctive. The Localism Act provisions about council tax referendums make it difficult for the Conservatives to threaten voters with tax rises if Labour took over (and Labour promise to keep council tax low). Action in the council can no longer insulate it from wider electoral trends.

Those trends now favour Labour. Wandsworth’s young population have seen wages frozen and housing costs rise (part of the reason Labour were already reviving in 2014), and now a Conservative government is taking Britain out of the EU when Wandsworth residents would prefer to remain in. Wandsworth is the home borough of Sadiq Khan who remains London’s most popular politician.

Going into the 2018 local elections, the Conservatives have lost two councillors through deselection; one of them, James Cousins, has just joined the centrist pro-EU party Renew which was founded in the borough. Renew is standing in the local elections and may be a conduit for voters to abandon the Conservatives, but winning seats would seem to be unlikely.

Labour stands to benefit from a large number of incoming campaigners who recognise the symbolism of regaining control of the borough (even if many of them were not alive to see Kenneth Baker brandishing the Evening Standard after the Conservatives retained Wandsworth in 1990). The general election saw a 9% swing to Labour compared with the 2014 borough election, and that would be enough for Labour to win 37 seats and a majority of 14. Ladbrokes make Labour 11/8 on favourites, with the Conservatives evens to retain control. We tip Labour to win.
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