I have by now learned not to make electoral predictions. The only major call I’ve got right in the last two years was Donald Trump’s successful storming of the White House. So I will not make a prediction here. Instead, I will explain my belief that Labour has no excuse but to win a landslide in London’s borough elections next May.
When I won my seat on Brent Council in 2014, the Liberal Democrats were still a relevant campaigning force. They had run the borough as recently as 2010, the same year in which they had dramatically unseated Dawn Butler as Brent Central’s MP with one of the biggest swings against Labour nationwide. They had both the resources and the volunteers to pump rigorously scientific bar charts through thousands of letterboxes.
But at those 2014 borough contests, the Lib Dems went from having 17 councillors to just one (who now sits as an independent). At the time of our landslide, I confided in colleagues that I thought Labour should expect to replicate in Brent the dominance the party had for decades enjoyed in boroughs like Newham. I was told by almost all those colleagues that I was being overconfident. Now they’re not so sure.
Indeed, in Brent and beyond, there have rarely been more favourable circumstances for Labour heading into a set of London elections than these. Depending on which pollster you prefer, Labour is averaging a 15-20 point lead over the Conservatives in the capital. Sadiq Khan is proving a popular and successful Mayor, who many talk up as a future Labour leader. Labour gained four seats in London at June’s general election and turned “swing” constituencies like Brentford and Isleworth and Ilford North into Labour strongholds.
Local elections are often decided by the national picture. The vacuum at the heart of power at Westminster, the government’s disastrous mishandling of Brexit, the worsening economic picture, the ever-growing housing crisis and the timing of the upcoming elections – all just one year into a parliament – provide ample incentives for voters to give the Tories an unceremonious and brutal kicking.
In London specifically, the Conservative brand is suffering. Boris Johnson regularly polled well ahead of his party here. But by the time of his second mayoral win in 2012, his Labour opponent Ken Livingstone was well on the way to becoming the discredited, toxic figure he now unquestionably is. Zac Goldsmith’s embarrassing campaign last year was a more accurate reflection of the Conservatives’ true standing in London. The hideousness that led up to the Grenfell Tower fire and its aftermath in a Conservative-run borough will live long in the memory of millions of Londoners.
I said I would steer clear of predictions, but allow me to cast your eye towards some of the boroughs where Labour will be expecting to make significant gains and possibly take control.
The party will be extremely disappointed not to capture Barnet at least. Tower Hamlets, which has a directly elected Labour Mayor, will probably be taken back from “no overall control” in the council chamber, as Tower Hamlets First, the party formed by the discredited former Mayor Lutfur Rahman, no longer officially exists. And in Westminster, Wandsworth, Kensington and Chelsea and even Hillingdon – Conservative councils previously thought impregnable – Labour are dreaming of a red tide coming in. These dreams may seem fanciful, but if the last two years have taught us anything it is to expect the unexpected.
Elsewhere, Sutton, the one remaining Lib Dem stronghold, is very unlikely to fall but where Lib Dem or Conservative gains are going to come from is hard to see. The Lib Dem appeal to Remainers appears to be helping the party not one bit, even in the Remain capital of London.
I’m standing down from Brent Council come May, but Labour in London should end up standing taller than it ever has before. Anything less than a Labour landslide in the capital would be a very strange outcome – although, of course, in the new political reality, strange is the new normal.