In recent years while the Conservatives have been advancing in local government overall, in London we have been in retreat. In the 2006 local elections for the 32 London boroughs there were 785 Conservative councillors elected – more than Labour who were on 684. In 2010 it was down to 717. In 2014 it fell again to 612. The General Election last year and the election for Mayor of London in 2016 indicated the trend was continuing. While in Staffordshire and Scotland and many other places the Conservatives are doing well, in London there is a problem.
An opinion poll of Londoners in February by YouGov for the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London was extrapolated to suggest the Conservatives “heading for defeat” not just in Barnet but also Westminster and Wandsworth. It suggested that the Conservatives would lose over a hundred seats and get the worst ever result in the capital – fewer councillors than the 519 we managed in 1994 when John Major was Prime Minister.
I expect that the results will be rather more complicated. For instance the Brexit factor will work differently depending on the borough. Of course overall, London voted remain – and that was without the nationals of other EU member states being able to vote. But in Bexley, one of the councils the Conservative are defending, there was a big majority that voted Leave. Havering and Hillingdon also voted Leave. The Lib Dems are trumpeting their anti Brexit message. That might help them in Richmond and Kingston, which voted Remain. But not in Sutton which voted Leave. I suspect the Lib Dems would do better to return to pavement politics.
In 2014 the Euro Elections were held on the same day. UKIP won few council seats in London but their vote share was significant in some outer London boroughs. Assuming it collapses this time where will their votes go?
Then there is the question of whether Londoners will really want to use their vote in the local elections to send a message about Brexit. Based on my own canvassing I don’t think many will. While I’ve spoken to plenty of Conservatives in my ward in Hammersmith who are against Brexit they overwhelmingly accept that the issue of not one for the Council elections. Also the number who raise the issue at all when I stand on their doorstep seems to be diminishing.
A Conservative minded Remainer in Wandsworth might have abstained in the General Election last year – especially given the assumption that Jeremy Corbyn had no chance of entering Downing Street. They might have felt there was no cost in such a protest (except for Jane Ellison). However if they appreciate the low Council Tax and well run services provided by their Conservative council perhaps they will return to the fold. Similarly for Westminster. I predict both councils to be held by the Conservatives.
There is also the question of demographic change. London has been falling behind the rest of the country in terms of the rate of owner occupation. Also the proportion of ethnic minority voters has been growing – although the electoral impact of that has been offset by the Conservatives broadening their support.
What of places where the Conservatives might be wiped out altogether? This has already happened in Barking and Dagenham, Islington, Haringey and Newham. In Lambeth, Hackney, and Southwark we already have perilously few councillors. The return of the far left in the Labour Party in some of these places may have an impact. For instance I see that Rokhsana Fiaz, the Labour candidate for Mayor of Newham opposes academies and free schools and will campaign to “bring all schools back under local democratic control.” In other words under the clutches of Newham Council. What will local parents feel about that threat to some very successful schools? Fiaz managed to get the incumbent Sir Robin Wales deselected.
I’m afraid it would bold to predict that the Conservatives will not make net losses in London. But my main prediction is unpredictability – uneven and unexpected results. Gains here, losses there. What if the Conservatives in Havering make sweeping gains not just from the six UKIP councillors but from the 23 councillors representing various residents groups? Perhaps the Conservatives in Upminster will discover their campaigning mojo. What if Labour scoops up seats in Tower Hamlets from the Rahmanite outfits Aspire and People’s Alliance for Tower Hamlets who between them have 16 councillors? Such developments might be ignored as not of wider political significance. But they would be significant for Havering and Tower Hamlets.
I predict local elections being decided on local issues with huge variations in the fortunes of political parties as they are punished or rewarded from one borough to the next. My sense is that voters are becoming more sophisticated and more demanding. One might even say more transactional. They have a greater inclination to vary their votes. This will be a nuisance for commentators searching for coherence where it does not exist. They seek in vain a message for Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn, and Sir Vince Cable. But maybe the elections won’t be about them.