The London Elections of 2018 represent a major challenge for a Conservative Party which is badly struggling in the Capital, an opportunity for Labour to consolidate its stranglehold and a chance for the diminished Liberal Democrats to regain a couple of former strongholds.
The battleground boroughs for the elections which will be held on 3 May are largely areas which are traditionally Conservative strongholds. Boroughs such as Wandsworth (Conservative since 1978) along with Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea (both of which have always been Conservative-controlled), are now being closely contested in an election which will have repercussions for both local and national government. The Conservatives are especially vulnerable in their former Inner London strongholds due to a number of factors which risk creating a perfect storm for the Party. The most potent issue is undoubtedly Brexit with all three boroughs having over 68 per cent of voters supporting Remain. This strong opposition to Brexit combined with a large, highly-skilled EU workforce who are eligible to vote in local elections risks a potential protest vote against the Conservative Government. In addition, the Conservatives are struggling in all three boroughs as affluent and historically Conservative areas are increasingly populated by residents from the Middle East, the Far East and Russia who are unable to vote in local elections. Moreover, the impact of the Grenfell Tower disaster is likely to be felt acutely in Kensington & Chelsea and will not be helpful for the Conservatives on the large housing estates in Westminster and Wandsworth. The fact that large numbers of Conservative councillors in all three boroughs are retiring does not suggest a high degree of confidence about the Party’s election prospects. However, this may allow a new generation of younger, energetic candidates to assert themselves.
The key question in these boroughs is can Labour capitalise on Conservative discomfort to make unprecedented advances. Despite Labour’s undoubted huge strength in activist numbers there remain question marks as to whether Jeremy Corbyn’s brand of socialism will appeal to large enough numbers of voters in the affluent enclaves of Chelsea, Putney and St John’s Wood to turn these boroughs red. However, the 2017 General Election which saw Labour gain Battersea and Kensington while slashing Conservative majorities in Putney and Cities of London & Westminster, does indicate that the Party may well come close to taking what is historically unchartered territory.
The Conservatives are better placed to survive a Labour tidal wave in their few remaining Outer London boroughs. Bexley and Hillingdon saw strong Leave votes which should help insulate the Party whereas other Leave-voting boroughs such as Havering and Sutton may be pick up opportunities on the back of the EU referendum. Sutton, while being a traditional Liberal Democrat stronghold, is seen as potentially being competitive and has already been home to a campaign visit from the Prime Minister. Furthermore, the recent appointment of Sutton & Cheam MP Paul Scully as the Conservative Party’s Vice Chairman for London will ensure that the area receives a continued focus.
The Liberal Democrats will be looking to build on their recent 2017 General Election triumphs in Twickenham and Kingston & Surbiton to assist them in winning back Richmond and Kingston. They will be hoping to mobilise discontent over Brexit and make use of Sir Vince Cable’s local connections to help them to take control of both authorities. They may find the going significantly harder in councils where their main opposition is Labour especially in boroughs such as Haringey and Southwark where they have lost much of the campaign infrastructure which they had in 2014 when they still had Parliamentary representation in these boroughs.
For Labour the campaign will largely be an opportunity to increase their already historically large number of councillors in London. They are not likely to be under significant threat in the elected Mayoral positions or those Councils which they currently hold. Therefore they have the luxury of playing a largely offensive game with their focus on winning boroughs such as Barnet (currently a majority of 1) and Wandsworth from the Conservatives.
The bigger issue for Labour is the internal battle which is taking place in many CLPs in London between the ruling moderates and the insurgent Momentum activists who have joined the Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. The starkest illustration of this potential schism has come in Haringey where Council Leader Claire Kober recently resigned following a sustained Momentum campaign against the controversial Haringey Development Vehicle – a joint venture between the Council and Lend Lease to regenerate housing estates. Haringey has also seen a large number of prominent moderate councillors deselected in favour of Momentum-backed replacements and is likely to be the first truly Corbynite local authority after 3 May. While no other councils have followed Haringey’s trajectory, there will undoubtedly be a larger number of Momentum activists on the Labour benches in town halls across London after 3 May. With Momentum campaigning hard against regeneration in a number of boroughs, the infusion of newly-elected Momentum councillors into London Labour’s ranks, has the potential to significantly impact on major regeneration schemes across the Capital.
It remains to be seen whether the London elections will herald a vote of no confidence in Theresa May’s leadership among Conservative MPs, however should the Party be decimated and lose flagship councils such as Wandsworth and Westminster to Labour then the pressure on the Prime Minister from her MPs to at least confirm her date of departure will be intense.
With fewer than 100 days to go before election day, there is all to play for.