London Council Elections – A Last Minute Recap

In early April, we published our Guide to the London Elections 2018 in collaboration with Alex Wilson of Psephos Consulting taking a look at background to the council elections due to be held across the capital on 3 May. In it, we made predictions of likely results based on a number of models, including the parties’ performance at the 2015 and 2017 General Elections, the 2016 Mayoral and Assembly elections, recent polls from YouGov and Lord Ashcroft Polls, longer-term polling trends from YouGov, as well as other factors like demographics.

With polling stations opening in less than 48 hours, we take one final look at the state of play, taking into account the most recent set of polls and feedback from various campaigns on the ground.


Latest data, issues and feedback

The latest YouGov/Queen Mary University London (QMUL) Survey, carried out over 20 – 24 April, showed margin of error changes in the headline voting intention question (Con -2, Lab +1, Lib Dem +2), and also in the specific local election voting intention question (Con +1, Lab -3, Lib No change). However, the splits between inner and outer London were more marked. In the local election question, Labour dropped 8 points in inner London and the Conservatives gained 5 points. There was practically no change in voting intention for outer London.

The other interesting finding from that poll was that respondents living in Conservative-controlled boroughs were more likely to say that their council was doing a good job (48%) than those living in Labour-run boroughs (43%).

On the ground, feedback suggests that Labour have more campaigners working across London than the Conservatives, as was perhaps to be expected, although it does not appear to be as much of a difference as it was at the General Election last year. However, the YouGov/QMUL survey still shows Labour as being more ‘visible’ over the past month, with 34% of respondents saying they had had contact from them, against 24% for the Conservatives and just 13% for the Lib Dems. The Conservatives fare better in terms of visibility in outer London though.

In terms of headline-generating stories, the anti-Semitism issue has not gone away for Labour, and this could hit the Party hard in the key marginal council of Barnet, which has a large Jewish population. Conversely, the Conservatives have had to deal with the fallout from the Windrush scandal and the resignation of Amber Rudd. The drawn-out nature of the saga may impact on the Party’s claims to competence. As for the Lib Dems, they have been largely anonymous nationally, perhaps not surprising given how few MPs they have these days. However, they will probably be delighted that there have been key votes in the House of Lords this week, bumping Brexit back up the agenda: they will be relying upon Remain voters’ anger to boost their performance on polling day.


So, what does it mean in the marginals?

It’s going to be close – very, very close – in a number of those key battleground councils. Here’s a recap of our predictions and how the latest information may impact on them.

  • In our guide, we predict that Labour would take Barnet 36 seats to 27. On the latest evidence, Barnet still seems set to turn red, although it may well be closer than we initially thought, largely due to the anti-Semitism scandal hitting Labour.
  • In Wandsworth, our prediction is Lab 33 seats, Con 27, which is basically just one ward’s results making the difference. The inner-London resurgence found by the latest YouGov/QMUL poll, together with the greater voter satisfaction recorded by people living in Conservative-run councils, perhaps suggests that the Conservatives have a much better chance of holding Wandsworth as we reach the end of the local election campaign. What seems likely is that the Conservatives will still lose seats and that the overall result will be extremely close. Could it now come down to a tied result of 30-30 and the casting vote of the Mayor being decisive?
  • The same could be said for Westminster. We predict the Conservatives to hang on to the council by 33 seats to 27. Whilst that recent YouGov inner London voting intention and council satisfaction polling data could also be good news for the Conservatives in Westminster, feedback from the Conservative campaign on the ground seems, if anything, worse than other boroughs, at least in key target wards. Again, a 33-27 outcome is just one ward and all three outcomes – Lab, Con, or tied with Mayor’s casting vote determining control – are on the cards.
  • Hillingdon cannot end up in a tie as it has an odd number of councillors! However, yet again, it will be extremely close, with split wards here and there with a handful of votes either way, perhaps making all the difference. We predict the Conservatives will hold the council by 34-31 seats and nothing has really done anything to change our view on that. Labour will still be fancying their chances of an upset though and probably need to win it in order to claim a successful night.
  • We said in our guide that Richmond is another example of where all three outcomes were in play, but we plumped for a 33-27 victory for the Lib Dems. The latest polling data does not change that. However, it is worth noting that the Lib Dems and Greens have formed an alliance in some key Conservative wards, to avoid splitting the anti-Tory vote. Whether this will boost the Lib Dems chances of victory or not remains to be seen.
  • In Kingston, whilst the Conservatives are working the southern-most wards of Chessington hard, it seems likely they will lose more seats than they can gain. The Lib Dems still seem likely to make a gain here on Thursday.
  • Changes to polls make little difference when looking at Havering, due to the large number of votes going to various Resident groups. We still think a hung council is on the cards, yet again.
  • We predict that Sutton will go No Overall Control after 32 years of Lib Dem control. However, the Conservatives and Labour have a huge amount of ground to make up on the Lib Dems in all the wards they are targeting. Brexit is making things harder for the Conservatives in their hitherto ‘safe’ and traditional ‘target’ wards but has made others more winnable for them. Labour have fought a targeted and energetic campaign and should still be able to pick up the 6 seats we predict in our guide. NOC is still a distinct possibility, but the Lib Dems will not give up easily.
  • Whilst we believe the Conservatives will lose seats to Labour, and maybe the Lib Dems, in Kensington and Chelsea, we do not believe the council will change hands, despite the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, as the Conservative lead in key wards is currently too large. The latest polling for inner London would still seem to bear that prediction out.
  • As we have said previously, if making any sort of political predictions in the current climate is unwise, attempting to do so in Tower Hamlets is probably certifiable. Nothing has changed recently for us to row back from our prediction of large Labour gains, enough to take back control of the council as well as holding onto the Mayoralty.
  • A number of commentators have suggested that Harrow might be under threat from the Conservatives. We have upped our predicted number of seats for the Conservatives from 22 to 24, due to Independents no longer standing in Headstone North, but cannot see them making up enough ground across the borough to take control away from Labour, who we predict will win 39 seats. It might be a bit closer than that on a good day for the Tories but if they do pull off a win here it would be seen as a major, and unexpected, success for Theresa May.


Overall, Labour set to make London redder than ever

Bexley and Bromley will remain largely blue, with decent Conservative majorities in both.

Elsewhere in the capital, Labour will be gaining seats across the capital and racking up huge majorities in wards they already hold. We still expect them to win clean sweeps in a record number of councils, although the Lib Dems are fighting hard to hang on to at least some of their 9 seats in Haringey. The Conservatives will be fighting hard to avoid losing any representation in places like Brent, Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Greenwich.


Expectation management management?

We can see expectation management in full play as we approach election day. But what would good and bad nights look like for the Parties on Thursday?

The bar of success for the Lib Dems is actually set quite high, as they are expected to gain Richmond and Kingston and also hold on to Sutton: that will be seen as par. A good night for them will be to hold win the aforementioned boroughs and avoid getting wiped out in places in Haringey and having close to no net losses across London. A poor night would be winning just 2 out of Sutton, Kingston and Richmond, whilst a terrible night would be winning no councils at all in the capital.

For Labour to be able to claim to be making progress under Corbyn, as a minimum they will want to be picking up Barnet and Hillingdon. Winning either of Wandsworth or Westminster would be a great night, whilst winning both would be genuinely game-changing for London politics. If they managed to win Kensington and Chelsea, well, Labour HQ may run out of champagne. Conversely, if they pick up just one of Barnet or Hillingdon or even, in a big shock, lose Harrow, they will be seen not just as losers on the night but also to have missed a massive opportunity.

After 8 years of running the country, either in coalition or on their own, commentators have been predicting a terrible night in the capital for the Conservatives and so expectations have been set extremely low for some time. In fact, those expectations are so low that Theresa May will probably be able to claim a moderately acceptable night even if she loses 4 boroughs, limiting losses to Labour of Barnet and Hillingdon, and of Richmond and Kingston to the Lib Dems. If, in addition, she loses one of Westminster or Wandsworth to Labour, there will be huge questions about the direction of the Party: losing both of those, and/or K&C, would be catastrophe. A good night for the Conservatives will involve retaining one or more of Kingston, Richmond and Hillingdon, in addition to Wandsworth and Westminster. A great night would be having no net-council losses at all, be that holding the status quo or matching any losses with gains in places like Havering or Sutton. If the Conservatives were to win in places like Harrow or even Croydon, they would claim it was a spectacularly good night for them. However, whilst judgements of success are generally made on the basis of number of councils controlled, one eye will be kept on how many boroughs the Conservatives end up with no councillors at all, and how many council seats they lose overall.


If you are interested in more information about Nudge Knowledge, or our Public Affairs practice please contact David Park (Partner) at david@nudgefactory.co.uk

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