Could the Conservatives lose control of Westminster Council? It’s easier to describe how they might be defeated – something that’s never happened before – than it is to believe it will happen.
There are 18 three-seat wards being contested in 2022, a reduction from 20 thanks to the Boundary Commission’s deliberations, which means Labour would need to win 28 out of the 54 seats to secure a historic majority.
They can depend on retaining 15 of those they already have: all three in the Queen’s Park, Church Street, Westbourne and Harrow Road wards and the slightly less certain Maida Vale. Then come the varyingly marginal wards where the battle with the Tories is most intense.
In two of these, Labour gained one of the three seats in 2018 and will need to take the lot this time: Bayswater and the symbolically potent West End. That would bring their total up to 21 seats, which would be their biggest haul since 1986, the year Labour has come nearest to seizing the Tory fortress at the heart of the UK capital.
Also on the Labour target list is Lancaster Gate ward, adjoining Bayswater, which returned a trio of Tories four years ago. Labour will have to emulate that to get to 24 seats. A further hat trick will be required in the newly-created ward of Pimlico South, assembled from the now abolished Churchill ward, where Labour won 2-1 in 2018, and part of the similarly expunged Tachbrook, where the Tories won 3-0.
If Labour hit all of those 12 target seats, the result would be a 27-all draw and an interesting constitutional situation, which the council’s press office is very kindly looking into on On London‘s behalf. To secure a majority next Thursday Labour would also have to wring a single seat out of a strongly Tory ward to bring their total up to a majority-clinching 28. They have chosen as their best bets Vincent Square, Little Venice and Hyde Park.
In the last of these, Labour needs to overcome a notional disadvantage of around 17 percentage points. The candidate attempting that feat is Paul Dimoldenberg, who led Westminster’s Labour group from 1987 until 1990 and from 2004 until 2015, when he was succeeded by Adam Hug. Dimoldenberg, a Westminster Council member since 1982, is standing down as a Queen’s Park councillor this time and has chosen Hyde Park for what he jokingly calls “my bit of private enterprise” because he lives literally across the road from it.
His long uphill experience as a highly-respected Labour stalwart amply qualifies him to assess his party’s chances next Thursday. “We’ve got a mountain to climb,” he says. “We need all the stars to be aligned to pull it off. I’m pretty confident we’ll run them close in the popular vote but we could still end up with just a third of the seats.”
This warning against over-excitement about Labour’s prospects – the same message being sent by Labour’s London Region – is made against the backdrop of Big Media reports that the Tories are on the brink of being toppled in Westminster, which the party has controlled since the first council elections there in 1964.
Projections based on successive huge London-wide opinion poll leads for Labour, which in any case possibly exaggerate the lead, fail to take into account the uneven distribution of support for the two big parties across the Westminster wards. In 2018, for example, Labour received 41.1 per cent of the popular vote compared to the Tories’ 42.8 per cent, but won only 19 seats while the Tories won 41 and retained a fat majority.
That said, Labour picked up three seats at Conservative expense, including those single ones in Bayswater and West End, where they weren’t far from getting all three (the total Labour vote in West End was actually higher than the Tories’).
Given this and the national government’s ingrained muddles and mires, it’s reasonable to wonder if Dimoldenberg is being unduly downbeat. Then he shows you figures estimating the effects of the Boundary Commission’s redrawing of Westminster’s wards.
Of Labour’s four targets, West End might have tipped a little in Labour’s favour. But Bayswater now includes more Conservative-leaning streets than before, and had the 2018 campaign been fought on this year’s designations Labour thinks the Tories would probably have won all three seats. There is a notional five-to-six point gap for Labour to overcome in Pimlico South and one of more than 10 in Lancaster Gate – a “huge gap” in Dimoldenberg’s eyes.
That is why informed judges – such as Philip Cowley, Lewis Baston and Ben Walker of Britain Elects – anticipate Labour falling short in Westminster and why Dimoldenberg has a good case for dampening expectations. But even though experience has taught him pessimism, hope of a realistic kind springs eternal in what he describes as a “glass half full” local Labour culture.
“We’ve not had a better campaign since 1986,” he says. “We’ve got a group of young candidates which reminds me of that time.” Along with Dimoldenberg himself, Labour contenders at that election included future MPs Peter Bradley, Karen Buck and Andrew Dismore (later a London Assembly Member too) and future London Mayor adviser Neale Coleman.
It was the only time the Conservatives have come anywhere near losing control of Westminster, province of the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace and the West End as well areas of great poverty. Labour finished just five seats behind them and, with the help of a West End ward Independent, the Tory majority was cut to four.
This prompted the council’s then leader Dame Shirley Porter and her allies to embark on their notorious covert policy of selling vacant council homes in eight marginal wards (Bayswater among them) in the expectation that their purchasers would be more likely than council tenants to vote Conservative – a blatant attempt to restructure the demographics of the wards for political advantage.
Yet the furore caused by the “homes for votes” scandal during the run-up to the 1990 elections was not the nemesis Labour might have hoped, despite opinion polls indicating gains. The Tories were returned by a landslide, a feat they repeated in 1994, 1998 and 2002, even as the illegality of homes for votes was established and Porter’s name linked forever with disgrace.
Westminster is, very simply, a Tory bedrock and it would be a true political earthquake if it turned red next week. Labour’s approach is nonetheless tailored to maximise its chances in a local authority area of sharp contrasts.
The party’s advance in West End ward last time was underpinned by attentiveness to the concerns of local residents about property development, quality of life and unease about the local traffic implications of the since-abandoned plans for pedestrianising Oxford Street, backed by Sadiq Khan, which a seemingly rattled council publicly rejected shortly before polling day.
There’s no apology for that from Dimoldenberg, who says well-organised local opponents had a point. Outsiders have long been surprised that, for example, plenty of people live in Soho – follow, for example, Andrew Murray. This year’s elections take place amid calls for more al fresco dining in the West End and its environs following a popular pandemic lockdown experiment.
“It’s a big issue,” Dimoldenberg says. “The council has this vision for Soho which sees more al fresco dining. We are very cautious about it. There are some streets where it will work OK, and there are some where it will make life unbearable for residents.” He makes a crisp distinction between well-managed pavement eating and late night “al fresco drinking” on street corners with lots of late night noise and pleasant mewses turned into urinals. “Some people have lived here for 40 or 50 years,” he notes, and that includes council and housing association renters.
Labour are also sceptical about the Conservatives’ alternatives to Oxford Street pedestrianisation, which involved the temporary introduction of pedestrian squares or piazzas with the possibility of their becoming permanent, before they were shelved last autumn. “We are absolutely certain that if the Tories win, those piazzas will be reactivated and implemented,” Dimoldenberg says. Labour would “take things very slowly” with lots of consultation and a “street by street approach”.
Regarding Oxford Street, he believes retail should remain “its primary function” but advocates a greater mix of uses. He sees the coming of the Elizabeth Line, linking Central London more speedily to everywhere from Reading to Shenfield, as a boost for office uses above the lower floors and says Labour would encourage more variety and culture: “Galleries, makers’ spaces, exhibitions, performance – we think if you introduce culture it gives another reason to go to Oxford Street, which is aligned to retail.”
Labour is mindful of the Tories’ record on council tax and the power of the recurring boast that theirs is the lowest in the country. After much internal discussion they settled on pledging early and often to freeze it for two years if elected and review in 2024, when there might be a change of national government.
On housing, they say they would work closely with the Mayor to build more social rented homes on infill sites and negotiate higher percentages of social homes relative to intermediate affordable dwellings – typically shared ownership – as planning consent conditions. The Tories favour a 60-40 split in favour of the latter. Labour say they would do the opposite.
Could the earthquake actually happen?
Although the answer is probably no, the Tories have good reason for some concern. The Marble Arch Mound debacle has done them no favours and a Lancaster Gate Tory activist has reportedly confided fears that, in his own words, “a lot of our people are away” – a reference to second home owners heading for the country during the pandemic, not coming back and maybe not sorting out a postal vote. The timing of transport secretary Grant Shapps’s announcement of forthcoming new law to regulate pedicabs and rickshaws, long considered a blight on the West End, could hardly be more handy from a Tory point of view.
And if the answer turns out to be yes, Boris Johnson might very quickly cease to be one of Westminster’s more famous inhabitants.
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