Don’t expect the Conservatives to lose control of Kensington and Chelsea Council in May, for all the criticism they’ve received over the Grenfell Tower fire. Not only do they hold 37 of the royal borough’s 50 seats but many of the 2014 ward vote deficits that challengers from other parties will need to overturn are massive.
That said, predicting the overall outcome feels as perilous as predicting, well, just about any sort of political ballot lately. Emma Dent Coad’s sensational general election victory in Kensington last year – which happened before Grenfell – serves as a warning that even if the Tories hold on to the Town Hall by a good margin, they could still suffer chastening losses.
There are a handful of wards where the numbers strongly suggest they are vulnerable. In the “split” two-seat St Helens ward four years ago, the first and fourth place candidates were separate by just 62 votes and the Conservative who topped of the poll did so by a single vote from the Labour candidate who finished second.
That winning Tory, Eve Allison, is one of around 20 of the sitting Tory councillors so far who won’t be defending their seats for various reasons. Allison’s is that she has been deselected. She has not gone quietly. Last month, Allison, who prides herself on supporting Grenfell survivors, reportedly described her removal as a “lynching” following a complaint she had made about alleged “racist, sexist, elitist bullying”.
In Chelsea Riverside, where three Tories won last time round, the Labour candidate who finished fourth was 428 votes adrift. That’s quite a gap to close, but not gigantic. There has been deselection discord among Conservatives there too, with sitting councillor Maighread Condon-Simmonds being removed. She isn’t happy either, according to a recent report in The Times.
The deficit is similar in the two-seat Pembridge ward, where Labour’s third placed candidate finished 455 votes behind the second placed Tory four years ago. And then there’s Earl’s Court ward, where Conservatives took first and second places last time and Liberal Democrat Linda Wade, a redoubtable Save Earls Court campaigner, prevented a full house by coming third. Fellow Lib Dems finished fifth and sixth, followed by a Green and then a Labour trio. All the runners up were close together and none of them were all that far behind. How strong will the Lib Dem challenge be in 2018? Could all three seats be won by non-Tories and, if so, by whom?
Asked for further details of candidate churn, the headquarters of Kensington, Chelsea and Fulham Conservatives declined to comment for the time being, with some selections still to be made. What is known is that former leader Nicholas Paget-Brown and former housing chief Rock Feilding-Mellen have stood down following rough Grenfell-related publicity. Others have done so for different reasons, including On London contributor Daniel Moylan. In a statement, Daniel, a backbencher, said his reasons are “chiefly personal” and describes growing work commitments outside his duties as a councillor, which he fears would devour too much of his time. I’m told that only one or two wards will have exactly the same Tory candidates as they had in 2014. Time will tell if this signifies a much-needed refreshment of the ranks under new leader Elizabeth Campbell or is a symptom of ongoing disarray.
If Conservatives are anxious, Labour in Kensington and Chelsea are sounding confident. And group leader Robert Atkinson says he is unperturbed by the formation of a new party in the borough called Advance. He teasingly describes them as friends of George Osborne, whose Evening Standard has given them upbeat coverage.
A founding member of Advance is Annabel Mullin, a magistrate and former policewoman who was Lib Dem candidate for Kensington in the last general election, finishing third. Advance is said to have other ex-Lib Dems in its fold and some community campaigners. They include Melvyn Atkins, who lives near Grenfell and has often spoken publicly about it. Another leading light is Todd Foreman, a former Labour councillor in the borough, former Labour candidate for the London Assembly’s West Central ward and a self-described “staunch Europhile“.
Brexit is another issue that might turn some voters away from the Conservatives. Advance seems likely to vie with Labour to speak to that sentiment in some parts of the borough. Many EU citizens live in Kensington and Chelsea and, if they have registered, are entitled to vote in the elections. Daniel Moylan’s standing down statement makes reference to this, contending that “a new party, specific to Kensington and Chelsea” will seek to exploit the situation. He also warns about Momentum and their “sinister agenda”, describing it as “a power in our midst”. What, in Royal Kensington and Chelsea? Surely not?
Updated and amended on 13 January. Photograph by Max Curwen-Bingley.