Nick Bowes: Keys tests for the London borough elections

Nick Bowes: Keys tests for the London borough elections

For the thousands of candidates pounding the capital’s streets ahead of 5 May’s London borough elections, the longer days, lighter evenings, and warmer weather will come as a relief. Countless more doors will be knocked on and hundreds of thousands of leaflets stuffed through letterboxes as campaigning enters the final straight. What will the outcomes be?

In 2018 Labour had its best results in 45 years, increasing its number of councillors and winning 21 out of 32 councils. In three boroughs – Lewisham, Newham and Barking & Dagenham – the party won every single seat. The Liberal Democrats also did well, regaining Kingston and Richmond from the Conservatives and retaining Sutton. 

By contrast, the Conservatives had their worst results ever, losing councillors and vote share. And recent London polling makes grim reading for the Tories this time round, with Deltapoll giving Labour a 30 point lead earlier this month.

Yet there are glimmers of hope for the Conservatives. Four years ago, the backdrop was an unpopular Tory government, a remain voting London unhappy at Brexit and a Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan, still in his honeymoon period. This time round the Brexit effect is wearing off, the Mayor’s popularity has declined and, although the Tory government is suffering in the polls, Labour’s lead has narrowed.

At the same time, partygate, the government’s Covid response, the rising cost of living, the perceived neglect of London by the government, clashes with the Mayor over transport funding and now the conflict in Ukraine will all have a bearing and inject a degree of unpredictability. With six weeks of campaigning left, there’s plenty of time for further factors to come into play.

After the votes are counted, I will be applying four key tests.

First, the result in Barnet will reveal how successfully Keir Starmer has shaken off Jeremy Corbyn’s toxic legacy on antisemitism. A Labour target in 2018, the party instead ended up losing seats in this borough with many Jewish voters and others refusing to support the party. Starmer will be looking for progress and transport secretary Grant Shapps’s extraordinary decision to block Transport for London from building homes on a car park in Cockfosters in neighbouring Enfield, to loud applause from Chipping Barnet MP Theresa Villiers, shows how worried about Barnet the Tories are. 

Second, the result in Croydon, which will be a test of whether Labour’s chronic mismanagement of the council’s finances trumps the government’s unpopularity in London. The Tories are, as you would expect, fighting hard on the issue as they try to win the first Croydon elections held under the directly elected Mayor system. Labour hope its candidate, Val Shawcross,  a former deputy mayor for transport, London Assembly member and, before that, Croydon Council leader, is seen as unconnected with the recent financial mess. Added spice could come from a Mayor being elected from a different party to that which has a majority of councillors. 

Third, Wandsworth – a test of whether low council tax can outweigh the impact of demographic change and anger at the Tories nationally in a heavily remain area. Wandsworth has long been among the crown jewels of Conservative local government, but Labour made seats gains and won the popular vote last time and, ominously for the Tories, Khan came top in most wards at last year’s mayoral election. If Wandsworth turns red, it will be an awful night for the Conservatives. 

Fourth, whether noisy opposition to low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) and pro-cycling measures, many of them hurriedly introduced at the start of the pandemic, makes a difference at the ballot box. In the face of opposition, some boroughs backtracked and others made changes but some were steadfast. Battles about this issue in parts of London predominantly pitch Conservatives against a pro coalition of Labour, Greens and sometimes Lib Dems. Very localised surprises might happen, with Enfield possibly the one to watch. If this issue turns out to be the dog that doesn’t bark, councils might be emboldened to press ahead with even more “active travel” measures. 

Other boroughs to watch include the unpredictable Labour-held Harrow, Sutton, a Leave area where Tories have now taken both parliamentary seats from the Libs Dems, and Tower Hamlets, where Labour’s John Biggs faces his old adversary Lutfur Rahman in the mayoral contest. In Bromley, shifting demographics in the north of the borough might chip away at the Tory majority. In Barking & Dagenham the Tories will fancy their chances of winning seats off Labour. In Westminster, watch for a further increase in Labour’s high vote share from last time – almost 50 per cent – and how far this translates into more councillors. And it will be interesting to see if the Lib Dems and particularly the Greens win more councillors in heavily Labour inner London boroughs like Camden, Hackney, Islington, Southwark and Lambeth.

If Wandsworth and Barnet were to be captured by Labour it would be a good night for the party in London, though should that occur it will be fascinating to see if Starmer is photographed on the steps of either Town Hall. Neither he nor Boris Johnson are keen to be seen doing much in London.

And if the city turns still more red, will the Conservative government see London as even less important politically, with all that implies in terms of policy priorities and funding? On the flipside, might a better-than-expected Tory performance in London be good for the city as a whole, with the party of national government recognising London is not totally impervious to their charms and perhaps worth cultivating after all.

Nick Bowes is chief executive of think tank Centre for London and worked at City Hall from 2016 for nearly five years as Sadiq Khan’s director of policy. Follow Nick on Twitter.

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Categories: Analysis

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