Can Labour take control of Tory flagship Wandsworth Council?

by Dave Hill

Sadiq Khan launched Labour’s borough elections campaign on Saturday and reportedly named Barnet and Wandsworth, where he used to be a councillor, as the top Conservative targets for his party. If Barnet does not succumb, it will be a surprise. The borough was a Labour target in 2014 too, when Khan, then Labour’s shadow London minister, coordinated his party’s effort in the capital. It was missed by just two seats. But if Wandsworth falls it will be big news.

Why? For two main reasons: one, Labour will need to overhaul a few large margins in order to take control of the Town Hall; two, Wandsworth has been a Tory local government flagship since the heyday of Margaret Thatcher and its sinking would have great symbolic power.

Wandsworth in the 1980s pioneered the contracting out of council services under the leadership of Paul Beresford. These days an MP for a constituency in Surry, he was knighted for his efforts in 1990. Wandsworth was also famous for setting the lowest level of council tax in the country when it was introduced in 1993. By then, the council was led by Edward Lister, also now a knight, who held the post until 2011, when he moved to City Hall to become Boris Johnson’s chief of staff and deputy mayor for planning. He was succeeded by Ravi Govindia.

It’s not hard, then, to see why Labour would love to relieve the Tories of a borough it hasn’t won since 1974. What are its chances?

In 2014, the Conservatives won 41 seats (down six) to Labour’s 19 (up six) and everyone else’s none. Since then, two of the Tories have left their party to sit as independents, but Labour still needs to gain 12 seats on 3 May to secure a majority of 31. Last year’s general election results in Wandsworth’s three parliamentary seats – Tooting, Battersea and Putney – are boosting activists’ hopes. In each case, the party’s vote share went up by around 10% and the Tories’ down by about the same amount, which meant Labour defended the ostensibly marginal Tooting with ease, sensationally won Battersea and gave Justine Greening a fright in Putney.

A similar improvement in Labour’s performance across the borough compared with 2014 would make it likely to gain five council seats , but after that it gets more difficult. Three of Wandsworth’s wards are “split”, meaning that not all of the councillors representing it are from the same party. If Labour holds all its existing seats and unseats the single  Conservative in Bedford ward and the pair in each of Earlsfield and Queenstown, it’s total will go up to 24.

It’s next best bet appears to be West Hill ward, which returned three Tories last time (including one of the subsequent departees) with vote totals of 2,138, 1,880 and 1,810. Labour’s candidates came fourth, fifth and sixth with 1,420, 1,413 and 1,256. Add 10% to those Labour totals and subtract it from the Tory ones and you still get three Tories elected, but the margin between third and fourth becomes just 68. On that basis, if it’s a good night for Labour, they might make inroads there. If it’s a really good night they might grab all three seats, taking their total up to 27.

Where, though, would the other four come from? The next smallest gap between a third-placed elected Tory and a fourth-placed Labour runner-up in 2014 was 567 in Shaftesbury ward. That’s quite a mountain to climb, and with four even bigger ones to conquer, Labour will have to excel itself to the win the 31 seats it needs.

But there are more factors to consider than the ward micro maths. Potent local and national issues will surely have some effect. For example, Wandsworth voted by a mighty 75% to remain in the European Union, which seems unlikely help the Conservative cause. And Heathrow expansion, to which the government is committed, remains a major, not to say noisy, issue in that part of the capital. Greening, who recently resigned from the cabinet, will be important to the Tory effort – a newly-vocal Remainer who has already spoken out against the Heathrow plans from the back benches.

Conservative analyst Lord Hayward has told the Evening Standard his party faces a big fight to hold on to Wandsworth. Predicting election outcomes has become a mug’s game of late, but this one looks as if it could be very close.

See also: Could the Conservatives lose Westminster? and Change and Discord in Tory ranks in Kensington and Chelsea.

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