Wandsworth’s newly elected Labour administration has been accused by the Conservatives they ousted in May of sharp practice and of breaking a high profile promise to reduce the borough’s council tax levels.
Tory councillor Aled Richards-Jones set out his group’s case on right-wing television last week. “They [Labour] stole our clothes,” he said, and further claimed that Labour had told voters prior to the 5 May elections, “if we get into power we’ll actually cut council tax by one per cent.”
Richards-Jones went on to describe how at July’s full council meeting the Tories proposed a motion designed to, as he put it, “test” Labour on its promises. He summarised the motion as putting it to Labour that “you will cut council tax by one per cent next year, as your manifesto said that you would”. Richards-Jones described himself as “flabbergasted” that Labour voted against.
Does he have a point about Labour breaking a key election pledge? Well, yes and no.
A timeline is helpful here. On 24 February 2022, Wandsworth Tories, rightly concerned that they might lose control of the council in a few weeks’ time, trumpeted their decision to reduce council tax by one percent for the coming financial year 2022/23, which began a month before the elections. “We have cut Council Tax this year,” announced the then deputy leader Kim Caddy, saying this would help residents cope with the fast-rising cost of living.
On the same day came a tweet from Wandsworth Labour. It said: “Wandsworth Labour will cut your Council Tax next year” (my emphasis). This seems to bear out Aled Richards-Jones’s subsequent claim. But hold on. The same tweet linked to the Wandsworth Labour website and a post which said: “Labour supports keeping Council Tax low – which is why we’re backing a 1% reduction this year” (my emphasis).
What exactly was Wandsworth Labour promising at that point, when the Conservatives, not Labour, were running the council and therefore the party with the power to set council tax rates this year? By “next year” did Labour actually mean “this year” in the tweet, which is, after all, what their website said?
To add to the confusion, the headline of the Labour website post said: “Wandsworth Labour will cut your Council Tax“. Given that Labour would not be a position to cut council tax “this year” even if they won the election on 5 May – because the decision about council tax “this year” had already been taken by the Conservatives, who would implement it beforehand – the claim that Labour “will cut your council tax” perhaps invited the interpretation that Labour would do so in future if they took power.
If, however, Labour’s “backing” for a one per cent reduction “this year” was the one specific thing on council tax they were committed to, then the promise that they would make the reduction was, let us say, misleading. Or maybe “crafty” would be a better word. Because what they actually did “this year” was support the Tories’ decision to make a one per cent cut.
As election day drew nearer, Wandsworth Labour’s wording on this issue seems to have become more consistent, if no less slippery. On 16 March, for example Labour group leader Simon Hogg said in a video address: “Wandsworth Labour will cut your council tax this year.” And on 19 April, on Riverside Radio, he again said: “Wandsworth Labour will cut your council tax this year“.
What exactly did he mean, given that council tax was already in the process of being cut “this year” – by the Conservatives, albeit with Labour support. Was Hogg effectively giving Wandsworth voters the impression that if Labour won on 5 May, a further cut in council tax would be forthcoming during 2022? That was never going to happen, as we’ve now seen.
Then, on 1 May, just four days before the election, Hogg’s message on council tax changed, at least through one medium. On Twitter he both repeated a very imprecise commitment to “the same low council tax” and showcased a visual stating: “Wandsworth Labour will cut your Council Tax next year” (my emphasis, see main image).
The “next year” component actually contradicted what Hogg wrote in his introduction to Wandsworth Labour’s manifesto (see below). That was in line with the previous message – “Wandsworth Labour will cut your Council Tax this year” – even though Labour wasn’t going to (the “this year” part of the manifesto pledge was, by the way, excluded from a Twitter summary of it by WandsworthWatch, an account which gives a strong impression of having Tory sympathies).
On that point then, Tory councillor Aled Richards-Jones’s summing up for GB News viewers of his party’s motion was wrong – Labour’s manifesto did not promise to cut council tax by one per cent if they were elected. What is correct, however, is that some Wandsworth Labour campaign material, including Hogg’s 1 May tweet, was, though without giving a figure, entirely explicit in saying it would cut council tax “next year” – a pledge the Labour administration has so far declined to confirm since winning power.
What about the charge that Labour has stolen Wandsworth Conservatives’ clothes? Richards-Jones was making the general point that Labour had judged it politically wise to go into the election looking as if it was fully committed to maintaining Wandsworth Tories’ long-term, vote-winning, low council tax policies. There’s not much arguing with that.
There is, though, quite a case to be made that Labour’s “this year” council tax cut pledge either sought to take credit for something the Tories actually introduced and implemented, gave the misleading impression that if they won the election they would cut council tax again “this year”, or both.
Later this year, when Hogg’s Labour administration has to think about what level of council tax to set next year – for financial year 2023/24 – it will finally become clear if those Twitter promises to cut it “next year”, as distinct from the manifesto promise, will be kept. For the moment, Hogg’s administration is offering only that rather nebulous assurance that council tax will be kept “low” – a form of words that doesn’t actually rule out an increase.
Time will tell. In the meantime, another intriguing fracture has appeared between what Wandsworth Labour promised during the election campaign and what it is saying now. Before the election, the party’s “five-point plan” included “our pledge” to “build” “1,000 new council homes”. Last month, the Labour council unveiled what it called a “radical” pledge to “deliver 1,000 genuinely affordable low-cost rent homes” through its “new approach”.
Is “1,000 genuinely affordable low-cost rent homes” the same thing as “1,000 new council homes”? If not, what will the difference be? More on this to come.
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