Fellow Londoners, it’s time to vote, vote, vote in borough elections that will tell us if Labour has risen yet higher in the capital, if Tory standing has fallen still further, and if the Greens and Liberal Democrats have made ground at the two big parties’ expense. And don’t forget the small local parties and Independents.
The larger backdrop, of course, is the cost of living crisis and the troubles of Boris Johnson’s national government, whose lifespan could be significantly shortened if Labour holds what it has, gains at least one borough from the Tories, and does well in the rest of the country.
In 2018, Labour secured control of 21 of the 32 boroughs, the Conservatives won seven and the Lib Dems won three. Havering was a Tory-led No Overall Control. Labour’s vote share across the capital was 44.1 per cent, the Conservatives’ was 29, the Lib Dems’ 12.7 and the Greens’, 8.7. Labour won 1,123 of the 1,833 seats, the Tories won 511, the Lib Dems won 154, various residents’ association groupings won 25 and the Greens won 11.
Boundary changes mean the number of seats being contested this year is down to 1,817. There were four directly elected borough Mayors in 2018 – all Labour – and this year there will be five such contests.
Here are the boroughs to watch most closely and why:
Barnet really does look ready to produce a Labour majority administration for the first time in its history. A combination of long-term demographic trends, boundary changes that mostly harm the Conservatives and the fact that Jeremy Corbyn no longer leads the party should be enough to get Labour the 32 seats it needs. In terms of national “optics”, winning Barnet is the minimum requirement for Labour to be able to claim it has got stronger in London yet again. Keep an eye on Hendon ward Independent Franca Oliffe.
Wandsworth is the other borough Labour has a good chance of taking from the Conservatives, though there are grounds for doubting they will do so. Internal tensions, a hint of “long Corbyn” and nearly losing a by-election last year they should have won with ease suggest weaknesses in the Labour operation. It seems significant that Labour nationally did not pick Wandsworth as a top target despite its Tory “flagship” status. The Conservatives, meanwhile, know what their strengths are. Labour ought to win and a fiver says they will, but I’m not sure about a tenner. The winning post is 29 seats. PS: Can Independent Malcom Grimston top 4,000 votes again?
Croydon. Despite the massive London-wide opinion poll leads Labour has been enjoying, there are boroughs where the Conservatives have fancied their chances. Croydon is one of them, thanks to the financial trouble it got into under a Labour administration, which added impetus to the successful campaign to introduce a mayoral system. But Labour picked a capable mayoral candidate in Val Shawcross, a reassuring figure unconnected with the borough’s budget problems. She has gone out of her way to assuage hostility to new housing in the suburban south – some say to the point of sounding more Tory than her Tory rival Jason Perry. I think Shawcross will win and Labour councillors will be in the majority.
Harrow. Labour’s majority has been slender here and a range of local factors make this an unpredictable borough, where the Conservatives – whose councillors include the leader of the London Assembly Tory group Susan Hall, a vociferous “Boris” loyalist – seem to have put in a lot of effort. Harrow really could go either way, but I cautiously expect anti-Johnson antipathy to ensure that Labour hold on.
Westminster. Conservative and other Big Media have been talking up the prospects of Labour winning there for the first time ever, but if they looked at the local detail they would see that the distribution of party support gives the Tories a big advantage – as Labour have been stressing. The Tories, though, are clearly nervous – what else explains the timing of Grant Shapps’s recent announcement about pedicab curbs? – and it is easy to imagine Labour picking up several seats – certainly a full house in West End ward – and maybe winning the popular vote. A 27-all draw does not seem impossible, especially if rumours that wealthy Tories who left town because Covid have not returned are true. But a Labour triumph would be sensational.
Sutton. For years this has been the borough with the Conservative (and Leave) profile that the Tories have been unable to wrest from the grip of the Liberal Democrats. They’ve been getting closer, though. Both of the borough’s MPs are now Conservatives and there are Tory hopes that this will finally be the year they capture the Town Hall too. But with “Boris” on their side I wouldn’t bank on it. Albeit tentatively, I’m going for a Lib Dem hold.
Those are the six boroughs to watch most closely. In the second rank of interest, I expect Labour’s John Biggs to remain Mayor of Tower Hamlets, the Conservatives to keep hold of Hillingdon, and Labour to keep hold of Enfield, though in the latter two cases the incumbents’ majorities could be reduced. Something weird will happen in Havering, as usual, but it won’t be a transformative swing to the left.
Elsewhere, a wise friend suggests there could be a significant Lib Dem surge in Bromley – not enough to place the Tories in danger from them or from Labour, but enough to indicate that what happened in the Chesham parliamentary by-election can happen in Outer London too. Another friend tells me that Lewisham could cease to be a one-party state as opposition parties exploit dissension over low traffic neighbourhoods. The Greens, who might take votes from Labour across the city, will hope to add to their tally in Lambeth.
And what about Haringey, where in 2018 Labour, though easily keeping control, lost more seats than in any other borough, including Barnet, following a pre-election Corbynite takeover? A Labour activist there tells me he fears the Lib Dems, the main opposition, will improve their position in the west of the borough.
All will be soon be revealed and On London will be providing its customary coverage and analysis of the results. Why not become a supporter of the website? It’s just a fiver a month and you get things for your money!