It is no wonder that many of the capital’s Conservatives are anticipating 3 May with dread. So much of the evidence points to them heading for a dreadful drubbing at the borough elections you couldn’t blame them for taking refuge in Essex for a few weeks or else beneath a very thick duvet. Labour presently has majorities in 20 of the capital’s 32 councils and holds all four borough mayoralties, including, since 2015, Tower Hamlets whose council chamber is under no overall control. The party’s all time high water mark in the 14 sets of elections held since the boroughs were created is 21 councils, secured way back in 1971. Those forecasting that that record will be beaten in 2018 have good grounds for doing so.
Opinion polls have been infrequent but their measurements of London-wide voter sentiment have made chilling reading for Tories. Expectations are high that Labour will relieve them of Barnet, having come very close last time. Wandsworth, for so long a trailblazing Tory stronghold, is seen as being at serious risk. Remarkably, Westminster too has crept on to the Labour hit list, with various straws in the wind – some of them quite substantial if local sources are sound – blowing ominously in the direction of Conservative losses that just might be heavy enough to prove fatal.
Reports that Tory high command is in a panic about Kensington & Chelsea toppling are probably fanciful and Hillingdon too looks beyond Labour’s reach, at least for now. But if the flagship administrations of Barnet, Wandsworth and Westminster are all sunk following the shock loss of Hammersmith & Fulham four years ago and a revitalised Liberal Democrats reclaim Richmond and Kingston, Conservatism will look start looking perilously marginal in the British capital. Already, there is not a single Tory councillor in five boroughs – Barking & Dagenham, Haringey, Islington, Lewisham and Newham – and there seems a real chance of their current, tiny presence being expunged or shrunk still further in half a dozen more. Gloomy forecasts of well over 100 Tory seats being lost have become familiar.
On top of all this, the national political picture is looking more ominous for Conservatives too. The nightmare that has engulfed the Windrush generation could spur many Londoners to punish the party of national government, even if they are not directly affected. A recent YouGov poll found that London politicians’ attitudes to Brexit is the one most likely to sway voters’ view of them. In this 60% Remain city, around one million non-UK EU citizens live and 37% of all residents were born somewhere overseas. The shocking revelation that even people who have lived in the UK all their lives can find themselves being stripped of their rights and have their citizenship questioned does nothing to endear such Londoners to the ground forces of Theresa May.
Given all of the above, to contemplate the possibility of the Tories being left with just four councils to their name – Bromley, Bexley, Hillingdon and K&C – and being the largest party in a Havering once more left under no overall control does not seem extreme. Beware, though, of assuming that Conservatism is in doomed reverse all over town.
In terms of its overall impact on London voters, the Windrush scandal is probably much bigger than Jeremy Corbyn’s continuing troubles over antisemitism among the more repellent of his fans. But in some areas of London the issue could impede Labour progress. Barnet, with its sizeable and politically-engaged Jewish population, is the obvious case. Even without this poisonous issue, a Labour win there would likely be by a modest margin. For this and other local reasons, not everyone in Labour circles is convinced a Labour win in Barnet is a done deal.
Meanwhile, in Sutton, where the Liberal Democrats have run the show alone since 1990, a combination of the borough’s voters’ Brexit leanings, the collapse of UKIP – apparent just about everywhere – and some local environmental difficulties have raised Tory hopes of making a large hole in the current Lib Dem majority and maybe even erasing it. In Harrow, where Labour is defending a single seat majority, the party hasn’t always excelled in local elections and the Tories will try hard to woo the large Hindu section of the electorate, as they have with a degree of success at other elections in the past few years. And don’t entirely write off some sort of Tory revival in Hammersmith and Fulham, where several wards are finely balanced and fairly small swings either way can make big differences to the final result.
As campaigning enters its final full week, the political landscape in London suggests that Labour will indeed improve its position, partly by piling up yet larger majorities in its established strongholds, squashing the Greens in the process despite the latter fielding their largest ever number of candidates in London. But the party should beware of letting expectations of sensational triumphs get out of hand. The electoral geography of London can be subtle and if the Tories are able to limit the damage to just one or two losses overall, it might be they who are in a relatively buoyant mood on the morning of 4 May, and Labourites who feel a little flat.
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