Four years ago, just as today, Wandsworth’s elections approached amid the possibility of the Conservatives national flagship being stormed by Labour. It didn’t happen, but within the larger battle there was one epic outcome: Independent candidate Malcolm Grimston, a Cleethorpes-born science academic who grew up in North Yorkshire, retained his seat in West Hill ward with 4,002 votes, the largest individual total for any candidate in Wandsworth of all time.
It was a remarkable performance, not least for defying the conventional laws of political gravity. Grimston had previously been a Conservative councillor and represented West Hill under those colours from 1994 until October 2014, when he left to go it alone. Although Independents have made their mark in London boroughs, notably in Havering and Merton, the norm is for councillors who seek re-election having shed a party label to fail.
Not Grimston, who is standing for West Hill again in 2022 and looks a very safe bet to win again. What is the secret of his success?
The answer, it seems, is enormous dedication with a personal touch, manifested in a variety of ways. One is door-knocking on major scale: Grimston says he devotes 90 minutes to two hours to it “most days” and, what is more, he enjoys it. Another is his email database. This contains about 8,400 addresses, to each of which Grimston sends a ward bulletin every month. Many, perhaps 500, will, he thinks, have moved since he signed them up, while perhaps 1,500 are not registered to vote. But this is impressive coverage in a ward with around 15,000 residents, of whom perhaps 11,000 are on the electoral register.
And it is no robotic exercise. “I’ve divided the ward into about 80 separate areas,” Grimston says, when we meet at a Caffè Nero opposite Southfields Underground station, just yards outside West Hill. These might be streets, housing estates or small neighbourhoods. If there’s an issue that’s particular to one of these ward sub-divisions, Grimston can tailor his communications accordingly. Recently, there was a signage problem on an estate. Four affecting households raised it with Grimston, who raised it with the council, which fixed it. Grimston informed the four households accordingly.
And this is how it works: bread and butter local issues taken seriously and attended to assiduously. Grimston says that being an Independent makes this easier in West Hill, which takes in everything from council homes to imposing villas, citing a “natural nervousness” on the part of some Labour voters about approaching a Tory councillor and vice versa. Of course, he can’t always deliver what residents want, but, if so, they still appreciate him trying. He leavens Town Hall news with bits of local history, and in 2107 published a history of West Hill which has sold around 1,000 copies.
Grimston’s disillusion with Wandsworth’s Tories and party politics in general reached its decisive peak after the 2014 elections when the re-elected administration considered closing more than half the borough’s libraries. A former school teacher and now a visiting fellow at Imperial College – his subject is energy policy, in particular nuclear – Grimston found the idea unacceptable and resigned from his party in order to oppose it. The idea was eventually dropped. Grimston is modest about any influence he might have had, and it is typical of his assessments of councillor colleagues, Labour and Conservative alike, that he praises the council’s subsequent library stewardship.
Another example is his qualified sympathy for Labour’s Peter Carpenter his fellow West Hill representative who won’t now be defending his seat thanks to a wildly injudicious tweet about the Chancellor of the Exchequer and his wife. Grimston describes Carpenter’s remark as “completely unacceptable” and notes that in three years his Labour counterpart did 25 pieces of casework for residents compared with his own 4,000, but nonetheless thinks it sad that what he considers Carpenter’s good work in the council chamber on financial matters will go unrecognised as a consequence.
Some other councillors, whom he does not name, he regards as doing next to nothing for their basic allowance of over £10,500 a year. Others he describes as hard working and effective. He stresses that he’ll work with any Wandsworth politician who has the interests of West Hill residents at heart.
His studied neutrality extends to declining to predict this year’s Wandsworth result, but he offers insights into the culture of Ravi Govindia’s administration. He admires its general budget management but sees a danger of slippage in some areas of responsibility, as was detected in their children’s services two years ago (there’s since been a recovery). His biggest criticism concerns a lack of what he calls “real community engagement”, citing the council’s reaction to Grenfell.
This was to move to install sprinklers in its taller housing blocks, only to meet resistance from leaseholders and tenants to the intrusive retrofitting that would be needed and what it might cost them personally. Again, Grimston believes his independence enabled him to do his job better: “At one point I was the only councillor saying that this was probably not the right thing to do and certainly not the right way to go about it.”
Grimston is also very cognisant of the long-term shifts in Wandsworth’s political character, which have incrementally worked in Labour’s favour. The council’s Tory flagship status dates from 1990, when the party won a huge majority having won by just a single seat in 1986. The key was local taxation. The Conservative government of the time had introduced its new community charge – better and notoriously known as the poll tax – in the face of huge and ultimately hugely damaging opposition, but not in Wandsworth, where the Tories reached a position where its residents paid none at all.
Its hastily-introduced successor, the council tax, has also long been low in Wandsworth – this year, cut by an average of £5 a year, it is the lowest in the country – Labour, recognising the popularity of the approach, has vowed to match this. Yet Grimston, like other students of Wandsworth local politics, thinks its potency much diminished.
“In physics terms it was a singularity – such a dramatic event that the normal laws of elections collapsed,” he says. “Something like one in three natural Labour voters, who would have voted Labour nationally, voted Conservative in the 1990 council election, so there was a landslide switch.” Having researched the matter, he reveals that in 1998, the year after the first Tony Blair landslide, “Labour was 20 points ahead in national opinion polls but the Conservatives won the council by 17 points”.
At that time, all three of Wandsworth’s MPs were Labour, a situation that later changed but is now restored. And over he years Wandsworth has, Grimston says, “voted more and more like a bog standard borough.” The “zero poll tax” was not the secret of eternal political life but “a one-off event whose effects have been diluted over the years”.
In 2018, the Conservative majority was reduced to seven and Labour won a slightly bigger vote share. This year could be even closer, raising the possibility that the 58 council seats – reduced from 60 by the Boundary Commission – could split 29-28 in favour of one of the two big parties, with Grimston, as it were, making up the numbers.
This would not necessarily leave him in the extraordinary position of holding the balance of power. It seems that a 29-28 seat margin in favour of the Tories would be good enough for them to form an administration, even if Grimston sided with Labour.
That is because in the event of full council votes being tied, the borough’s civic mayor, as is he case elsewhere, has a casting vote. The councillor currently in that role, although not seeking re-election, would continue in the job until his successor was elected by fellow councillors at the first full meeting of the new council after the elections. It seems likely that he would use his casting vote for last final time to ensure that a fellow Tory took his place.
Grimston, who has crisply rebutted Govindia’s suggestion that he has meaningfully “broken bread” with Labour group leader Simon Hogg, says the only situation in which “I get to decide every single vote that comes before the council” would be Labour taking 29 seats and the Tories 28.
This would give him the power to decide which party the new mayor came from: should he side with the Tories, creating a 29-all tie, a Tory mayor would result from effectively the same scenario described above; should he side with Labour or abstain, the result would be a Labour mayor, and even if Grimston lined up with the Conservatives in future full council votes, the mayoral tie-breaker would see Labour through.
Which course would he take? “If Labour won 29-28 they would also have won the popular vote convincingly, and I’m pretty sure I would find it difficult to prop up a Conservative administration which had neither the greatest number of seats nor the greatest number of votes,” he replies. But he insists there is only “a very small possibility” of the result on 5 May leaving him in a position to “make or break the next administration”, whatever the party permutation.
Perhaps he knows something we don’t. Given his West Hill triumph against the odds in 2018, it wouldn’t be the first time.
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