As the dust settles on last week’s local elections, our Chief Executive Nick Bowes breaks down the biggest talking points and what the results mean for the capital going forward.
If I were to sum up Thursday’s local elections results in a word, it’d be ‘complicated’. What we witnessed was a collision of an unpopular national government, demographic shifts and, in two boroughs, specific local factors that led to changes in regime. Up to about lunchtime on Friday, Labour would have been cock-a-hoop at the results – having captured Westminster, Wandsworth and Barnet. But as the day wore on, and the votes were counted in the remaining boroughs, the wind was taken out of their sails by the Tories capturing Harrow and the Croydon mayoralty, and losing Tower Hamlets.
Three up, three down
For Labour, 2018 was widely thought to be the high-water mark in terms of the maximum possible number of councillors they could win. Yet, four years later, the party has managed to surpass that figure. Barnet’s capture was widely expected, and Keir Starmer’s visit on Friday morning to meet the victorious local Labour councillors a sign of the importance for him of winning in an area with a high Jewish population. Wandsworth going red was seen as the icing on the cake. But Labour winning Westminster was beyond most people’s predictions – the cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake.
Come Friday, when the rest of the boroughs started counting, Harrow was snatched by the Tories from Labour. That so many were surprised by this result is in itself surprising – it has long been an unpredictable borough and the trends have been there for a while, especially in both recent Mayoral contests. There is a deeper trend with the voting habits of the Hindu community as it increasingly shifts towards the Tories. Similarly, the Tories winning Croydon’s new Mayoral contest should not be a surprise given the mess Labour has made of the council’s finances. But the fact it was so close – and Labour’s candidate, the irrepressible Val Shawcross, came within 600 votes of winning – demonstrated just how unpopular the Tories are nationally. The new Conservative Mayor will be keen to quickly demonstrate the party’s ability to bring stability to the borough and restore some financial credibility, but without a majority on the council that task could be made harder.
What to say about Tower Hamlets, other than it’s a stunning comeback for Lutfur Rahman and his Aspire Party. As Mayor, he now also has a majority on the council, something he didn’t manage when previously in charge. For Labour, there’ll be a post mortem about what went wrong. But the fact is, while some will argue he should not be allowed to hold elected office ever again, there is no denying that Lutfur has proven incredibly popular locally.
Blues in retreat in large parts of the city
There are now seven boroughs which have been under Tory control in the last 12 years – Redbridge, Merton, Ealing, Kingston, Richmond and Hounslow – where the party is left with just a handful of councillors. Merton (7), Redbridge (5), Ealing (5), Kingston (3), Richmond (1), Hammersmith and Fulham (10) and Hounslow (10), and in Ealing and Merton the Lib Dems are now the second party behind Labour. In Richmond, the Greens overtook the Tories to sit second to the Lib Dems, and the Tories failed to capture top target Sutton. Vast swathes of inner London are now Tory-free zones – Lambeth, Southwark, Lewisham, Newham, Haringey, Islington – with just a smattering in Hackney, Camden and Tower Hamlets. Just one borough is left in Tory control in inner London (Kensington and Chelsea), leaving the centre a huge red blob on the political map.
Stealing the crown jewels
Much will be written about Westminster and Wandsworth. It is easy to dismiss this as being down to an unpopular Tory government. But there have been unpopular Tory governments before, and neither Westminster nor Wandsworth fell. It can’t be pinned solely on Labour’s popularity either – while leading the polls, the party isn’t at the zenith Tony Blair was at in 1998 when both boroughs stayed resolutely blue. Instead, it is a complicated combination of factors.
What happened last week was in part the culmination of a trend that’s been building over the last decade. Between 2006-10, I was a Labour councillor in Wandsworth – one of only 9, facing 51 Conservatives. In 2010, the parliamentary constituencies of both Battersea and Tooting were in their sights – the former fell, the latter stayed red. But that proved to be the high point for the Tories. Labour’s councillor total increased in 2010, 2014 and 2018 elections, with first the Battersea constituency in 2017 and then Putney in 2019 captured by Labour.
Brexit clearly annoyed many lifelong Tories who voted Remain, something particularly pronounced in Westminster and Wandsworth. Just as many Remain-supporting Labour politicians in Leave-voting areas were punished by the voters, the reverse clearly had an effect in Westminster and Wandsworth. But there’s also the issue of demographic change. Gentrification over four decades has shaped this part of London, but gentrification is a process, not an end point. You cannot press pause at the point at which you are happiest with gentrification – it has a life of its own, and ever-rising property prices that come with it risk areas eating themselves. The Tories locally have not been sure how to respond nor have they fully understood what has happened – their instinct is to leave it to the market, but that’s not shown itself to be a solution.
Parents with kids unable to afford to live in the boroughs, and an influx of young private renters into newly built properties or former right to buy council properties, led to a demographic increasingly unhappy at the cost of housing. This stretched to the limit whether the lowest council tax could keep the Tories in power. How both incoming Labour regimes adapt to power will be fascinating to watch – I wouldn’t be surprised if both don’t look west to Hammersmith and Fulham – a Labour council that has married maintaining low council tax with centre left policies since winning power in 2014.
Demographic change isn’t just limited to inner London – outer London boroughs have seen a big shift in the nature of their local populations, with some increasingly demonstrating similar characteristics to more central parts of the city. Hillingdon, rather under the radar, saw Labour cut the Tory majority to 13. In Bromley, the Lib Dems and Labour are eating away at the borough’s blue domination, particularly in its northern parts. In Havering, it seems likely the Tories will no longer be the largest party and potentially Labour could hold the balance of power with one of the powerful resident groups.
Steady Progress for the Greens and Yellows
For the Lib Dems and Greens, there hasn’t been quite the surge in the number of councillors that perhaps both parties would have liked. Granted, both made progress in Richmond, and the Lib Dems gained seats in Kingston, Ealing and Merton. But the Greens will be disappointed they didn’t break through more in Lambeth (where they actually shrank in number), Southwark, Islington and Camden. However, once the total vote shares are calculated, both parties are likely to have improved their performance. Just based on my corner of Lewisham, the surrounding wards of Crofton Park, Brockley and Ladywell saw the Greens put on a lot of votes and sit a few hundred votes behind Labour – a potential springboard for 2026 and a reminder to the incumbents that opposition comes from the left, not the right, in many inner London boroughs.
So what do last Thursday’s elections mean for public policy in London?
On the one hand, with the status quo maintained in many boroughs, I’d say not too much is likely to change. Boroughs that’ve been staunch supporters of low traffic neighbourhoods (and other schemes to reallocate road space to walking and cycling), will see the results as vindication of these policies and might even embolden some to go further, faster. Other councils that have been less active in this area might look at the results and follow suit.
Those who’ve already called for the return of al fresco dining in Soho and a swift pedestrianisation of Oxford Street now control of Westminster is in the hands of Labour might be disappointed. Labour’s campaign also focused on local anxiety at changes to public realm and promotion of the night time economy. Just this morning, I followed the new leader of Westminster Council on an interview on BBC Radio London in which he ruled out pedestrianising Oxford Street for the next four years. However, I would expect there to be a change in the relationship between City Hall and TfL on one side and Westminster on the other as under the previous regime, relations were pretty fractious at best.
Last week’s results aren’t likely to improve relations between central government and London. Even before these elections, there was a real sense that to the national government, London was politically unimportant. Their parliamentary majority didn’t depend on seats in the capital, but on captured constituencies across the north and Midlands in the so-called, Red Wall. But this isn’t good for the city on any level. If London is to get the attention it needs, Tory council leaders and Tory MPs in the capital are the best people to get the message across to ministers and to Number 10. With fewer Tory politicians in the city, there is a very real fear the political landscape becomes even more hostile, and ever more divisive rhetoric is used to stoke up division between London and the rest of the country.
With the problem of TfL’s long-term funding yet to be settled, a two-year war of attrition on the run up to the next Mayoral election between the Government and City Hall is widely expected. The Tories, nationally, see no benefit from helping a Labour Mayor. But as some, including former Tory cabinet minister Justine Greening, have pointed out – you can’t expect Londoners to vote for a political party which goes out of its way to tell the city all is fine and it isn’t important or worthy of attention.
To dismiss the city as unimportant poses dangers – not just to the Tories politically, but to London’s extensive levelling up challenges and the need to invest to maintain the city’s global competitiveness. Over the next two years, there will be a Mayoral election and a General Election, and it will be fascinating to watch how – if at all – the main political parties alter their approach to London.