Labour has become still stronger in London but weaknesses have been exposed

by Dave Hill

Competition over the meaning of Labour’s results on Thursday has been almost as fierce as the battle for votes itself, with the more fervent of Jeremy Corbyn’s admirers insisting that the party’s failure to hit its top two targets of Barnet and Wandsworth, and Westminster besides, masks a set of good results for the party in the capital overall.

They have a point. With Tower Hamlets council resoundingly Labour-dominated once more, there are now Labour majorities on 21 of London’s 32 councils. As many have pointed out, that matches the record set way back in 1971. Labour candidates have also won more seats than four years ago and strengthened Labour’s representation across a string of boroughs.

These range from single seat increases in Tory strongholds Bromley and Bexley and the relatively marginal Labour ones Croydon and Harrow to big consolidations in Redbridge (up 13 seats) and Hammersmith & Fulham (up nine).

There are now three “one party state” boroughs, with Lewisham joining Newham and Barking & Dagenham in having councillors from no party other than Labour. And although Labour did not come close to winning Westminster, their vote share across the borough rose to something very close to the Tories’ while in Wandsworth it was actually bigger.

The Conservatives can only give thanks that the latest damage done to them in the capital, following their disastrous 2016 mayoral challenge and their defeats in the general election last year, was not much worse. It is hard to see the party recovering here until it can bring itself to align more closely with the sorts of people most Londoners are and more of the things they want.

The Liberal Democrats, by contrast, are entitled to feel pleased that they held on to Sutton and took Richmond and Kingston decisively from the Tories. But Labour remains hugely ascendant. On top of those councillor gains, all four borough mayors are Labour too – Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Newham and Lewisham – and with Sadiq Khan still winning strong approval ratings halfway through his four-year term as London Mayor, Labour’s grip on London government just keeps on growing stronger.

However, just as some in Labour circles got carried away with their hopes of chasing Tories out of all their London flagships – in some cases, even the pretty much unassailable Kensington & Chelsea – so should they be careful not to kid themselves about the underlying picture beneath the headline stories of falling short. It should be recorded that there were small Labour slippages in Greenwich, Hillingdon and Merton. But the really bad news stories for the party are bigger and worse and have national significance for them too.

Barnet is, of course, the prime example. Contrary to predictions that the Tories there would be swept aside by a popular wave of opposition to their arrangements with out-sourcing giant Capita, Labour’s organisers on the ground knew that any victory was likely to be slim. And as campaigning got underway, their fears that antisemitism in the ranks since Corbyn became party leader would cost them were confirmed. They hoped that gains in Barnet wards where Jewish Londoners are small in number would outweigh losses in those where they are a substantial and potentially electorally decisive minority, but it was not to be.

Corbyn supporters who insist that Labour’s antisemitism problem is entirely got up by right wing media have pointed to a small rise in Labour’s vote share in Barnet compared with 2014. They do not highlight that the Tories’ share rose by more. This could be an indicator of tactical voting of a particularly pointed kind, in the sense that some Barnet residents went out of their way to support Conservative candidates in order to teach Labour’s national leadership a lesson about the poison in some of its admirers. Daniel Allington’s analysis of Barnet’s voting pattern – including the graph below – will take some refuting.

Labour in Barnet now has five fewer councillors than before the election. But the borough where Labour has lost the most ground – in this case six councillors compared with 2014 and seven with directly before the election – is Haringey, where a successful campaign by Momentum and non-Labour allies to get rid of Labour councillors who supported a plan to form a joint venture property development company with regeneration giant Lendlease prepared the ground for what one local activist has characterised as the nation’s first “Corbyn Council” – a view largely confirmed by Labour’s manifesto for the borough.

Yes, Labour still has a commanding majority in Haringey. But before the election there were grounds for thinking the party might win every seat there, clearing out the Lib Dem opposition completely. In fact, Vince Cable’s party has thrown a yellow blanket over the wards in the west of Haringey, enabling local Labour members aghast at Corbynite advances to have a consoling chuckle over an organiser’s choice of a pub in Crouch End as a venue for a celebration. Three Labour councillors represented Crouch End ward before Thursday, and all were prevented from defending their seats because Corbynites replaced them as candidates. All of those seats are now occupied by Lib Dems.

It is hard not to see the Lib Dem gains in Haringey as indications that voters can be persuaded to take fright when the prospect of Corbynite Labour actually running things is very real – a quite different situation from last year’s general election, when Labour looked so far from national power that it also looked a safe place to deposit a protest vote, whether against the Conservatives, Brexit or both. Antisemitism has played a part in the Haringey story too, and the triumphalism of those who organised and encouraged the ousting of so many now former Labour councillors seems premature as well as unappealing. The unfolding story of who will next lead the council could deflate the Corbynite bubble still more.

Another borough where Labour has slipped back, albeit just a little, is Lambeth. Its majority remains massive and it turfed two Tories out of Clapham Common, leaving them with just a single councillor. Yet Labour won two seats fewer than in 2014, while the Greens increased their representation from one to five – part of an overall haul of 11 seats in London, which the party will be very pleased with.

Greens will now form the Opposition Group in Lambeth. Momentum’s attempts to do in that borough what it would later do in Haringey failed some time ago, but the Greens appear to have tapped in to local concerns about the scale and type of property development nurtured by the Labour administration and perhaps other issues too, taking a seat from Labour in the Herne Hill and Gipsy Hill wards and two from them in St Leonards to complete a full house there.

The story here is similar to that of Haringey insofar as it relates to planning and regeneration strategies. The big difference is that in Lambeth, voters have brought about a significant shift, if only a small one, in the composition of the council, whereas in Haringey a fundamental one has been brought about by a group of Hard Left activists. Both, though, reflect aspects of Londoners’ disquiet about the nature of change taking place in London’s housing and wider built environment landscape. And that is a subject for another article on another day.

Political map image from London Councils. The full On London results round up is here.

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