London: Capital City and Political Battleground 2018

Roger Evans, former Deputy Mayor of London and Assembly Member, shares some thoughts on next month’s council elections in London

With four weeks to campaign until the London wide council elections, questions are being asked about the capital’s political future. Will Labour continue their advance which started with the London elections back in 2010, or will the Conservatives be able to stem the red tide? What will become of the Liberal Democrats, and will UKIP be able to cling on to the few gains they managed to make in London? How will Brexit affect the vote?

A comprehensive piece of research conducted by the Nudge Factory and Psephos Consulting, seeks to answer these questions whilst considering multiple factors including recent votes at the General Election, the 2014 local elections and the 2016 Brexit referendum, when London bucked the national trend and voted to Remain in the EU.

The Challenge 

Theresa May’s Conservatives are clearly feeling the heat this time. Demographic change has made outer London boroughs more marginal as cosmopolitan city dwellers are forced out by spiralling property prices. A governing party always faces protest voting as people use the local elections to send a message to Westminster. And this time there is the added challenge of Brexit, a government policy that flies in the face of Londoners’ wishes – although the Labour position on this issue is far from clear.

But Labour are starting from an already high baseline that they reached four years ago when the 32 councils were last contested. This means that some surprising boroughs – previously considered Conservative strongholds – are now in play. They will hope that the current round of bad headlines about Russia and anti-Semitism will be a distant memory in a month’s time.

Where to watch on Polling Day? 

The ongoing anti-Semitism row may be a decider in Barnet, a Labour target where the parliamentary seats stayed stubbornly Conservative in 2015 and 2017, albeit with reduced majorities. On paper Labour should win this one but the large Jewish community have had their doubts about Corbyn and he has to work hard and fast to regain their trust in time for May.

Another Labour target is Wandsworth, a flagship Tory borough since 1978. Throughout the Blair years voters demonstrated an ability to differentiate between elections, keeping their cost cutting, radical Conservative council in power even as they returned three New Labour MPs to Westminster. In 2015 the Conservative vote held up but in 2017 Battersea changed hands and the large Remain vote in the borough may have been key. Even before the referendum the ground was shifting, with Labour gaining the London Assembly seat in 2016.  If Remainers wish to keep punishing the government, what better way than to end the rule of a leading Conservative borough?

Labour are also aiming for victory in Westminster City Council and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The long-term policy of pricing out the middle class in favour of a less engaged wealthy electorate, whilst maintaining largely Labour supporting estates of social housing may come back to bite the Conservatives in central London one day. But not this time, according to predictions that show Labour still has plenty of climbing to do to take these two peaks.

In outer London Labour gains in Hillingdon and Bexley are unlikely to be sufficient to take control, not least because these boroughs have a greater affinity to Brexit and may be more likely to back the government’s efforts.

My home borough of Havering is interesting, with no fewer than six political parties holding seats including a seven strong UKIP group that Labour need to unseat if they are to recapture formerly safe council wards. A big Leave vote is likely to see the council remain No Overall Control with some UKIP members possibly surviving the cull.

In Tower Hamlets, Labour are likely to make advances against the independents linked to the previous elected mayor, Lutfur Rahman and may regain control of the borough which is natural Labour territory.

Whatever happened to the Liberal Democrats? 

South West London should provide some interesting commentary on the Liberal Democrats. Previously punished for their part in the 2010 coalition agreement, they could be due for a resurrection with both Kingston and Richmond Councils in play. Remain voters are strong in both boroughs and they could feel inclined to return to the Lib Dem fold, following victory in the Twickenham and Kingston parliamentary contests last year.

Sutton council has remained strongly Lib Dem for many years but the Leave vote is quite strong here. Will voters be swayed away from the Lib Dems by their Brexit policy which goes against the grain of opinion here?

What does it all mean? 

Of course, the big question for residents, business and investors is how all this will affect policy, particularly where boroughs change hands. In the coming days the answer will become clearer as manifestos are launched and pledges are made. We do know that Momentum elements within Labour have opposed regeneration projects in Haringey and this approach may be followed in other Labour boroughs where Momentum get a strong block of councillors elected. With no alternatives suggested, development projects could find themselves placed on hold. Council tax increases to fund spending pledges are also on the cards.

All these threads will be brought together at a conference hosted by the Nudge Factory on 13th April. More details of the research will be unveiled and I will be chairing a discussion panel including David Park and Alex Wilson, the number crunchers and brains behind the figures in the report, and Dave Hill, a distinguished journalist who writes for the On London blog with very detailed insights into the personalities behind the politics in battleground London boroughs.

You can book tickets to this important presentation here and I look forward to welcoming you to this insightful event, a must-see for forward looking businesses with a stake in our World City.

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