A look forward: 2018 London elections (part 1)

by Jackie_South on January 1, 2018

As a New Year begins, I am setting out the scene for this year’s London elections, a critical test for the three main English parties. This is the first of three posts, setting the scene and covering 10 boroughs (B to G, alphabetically).

May’s local elections will be a crucial test for the British political parties. Whilst there are no elections outside of England, the elections will decide who runs many of our major cities.

All 32 London Boroughs will elect all their councillors for the next four years, as will the cities of Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Hull. The remaining metropolitan boroughs, along with most unitary authorities, will be electing a third of their councillors. Five boroughs elect executive majors: the London boroughs of Hackney, Lewisham, Newham and Tower Hamlets, and Watford.

Rural England also sees a number of contests too: seven have all-out elections and another 67 will be electing half or a third of their members.

The current state of play

The London Boroughs will garner most media attention, and will be viewed as a key test of the parties’ relative fortunes. The map below shows the current state of play.

Some history

2014, the year that produced this map (with the exception of the mayoralty of Tower Hamlets) – was very good for Labour. They took majority control of 20 boroughs, its second-equal highest figure since the boroughs were created, and the highest number since Ted Heath occupied Downing Street – only 1971 had a higher tally (Labour also won 20 in the first elections for the current boroughs in 1964).

However, that does not mean that 2014 was the worst year for the Conservatives. Their nine authorities exceeds the number of majority controlled councils that they held in four elections: 1971, 1994, 1998 and 2002.

The Liberal Democrats fell to their lowest point since they first started having majority control of London councils in 1986 (they won Richmond-Upon-Thames and Tower Hamlets that year). Fewer councils have no overall control than in many previous elections – two, and one of those (Tower Hamlets) is controlled by Labour through its elected mayor. Only two rounds of elections ago, there were eight councils where no party held a majority.

The graph below shows the fortunes of each party since the London Boroughs were created in 1964. The Conservative highpoint (and Labour’s worst showing) was in 1968, at the low point of the Wilson government. Three years later, 1971 was Labour’s zenith, but the low point for the Conservatives was in the 1990s, with Major’s government and then Blair’s honeymoon period.


Our projections

Despite Labour’s strong performance in 2014, it is on their shoulders that the weight of expectations will fall, thanks to their strong showing in June’s general election in the capital. The Liberal Democrats will also be hoping to move forward, whilst the Conservatives will mainly be playing a defensive game.

Below is our run through the 32 councils. For each, we have projected the number of seats that each party will win based on the swing for that party from the 2015 general election to last year’s in the relevant constituency, and applying that swing to the 2014 result for each ward.

Note that this is a projection, not a prediction: there will be a myriad of local factors and incumbencies that will also play a role that are not factored in. They also do not fully take account of differential turnout in local elections: Labour’s strong showing in the general election might not fully be reflected in the local elections if its new youthful support stays at home in May. But the projections do give a sense of direction in each set of elections.

A further complication is the re-drawing of boundaries. Three boroughs had their wards redrawn prior to the 2014 elections – Hackney, Kensington and Tower Hamlets – meaning that some wards no longer fit entirely within a constituency. In these cases, we have used the general election swing for the constituency which the majority of the ward falls within.

Four more boroughs – Bexley, Croydon, Redbridge and Southwark – have new ward boundaries for 2018. In these cases, we have pro-rata-ed the 2014 result based on the electorate from each old ward and applied this to the new ward. This of course does not take account of where a party might have strength in a current ward – it treats the ward as a homogeneous political entity (which is unlikely). As above, we have then applied the swing from the constituency that covers most of the new ward.

Barking and Dagenham – safe Labour
Barking and Dagenham is a one-party state: every seat is currently held by Labour, and it is the only London Borough that has returned a Labour majority in every election since its creation (Newham next door almost equals this feat).

The only real question is whether Labour will retain their monopoly on representation. Our guess is that they will, despite some political currents running against them in this part of east London. This was a borough with a 62% vote to leave the EU in the referendum and where there was a 3.5% swing from Labour to Conservatives in the Dagenham and Rainham constituency in the general election (there was a 2% swing in the other direction in the Barking constituency).

In different years, the Conservatives might be able to win in some Dagenham constituency wards on the borough’s north-eastern border with Havering, such as Eastbrook or Chadwell Heath, but that seems unlikely in 2018.

Our projection: Lab 51, Con 0, LD 0, Others 0

Barnet – Conservative marginal
Labour narrowly missed out on wresting control of Barnet from the Conservatives in 2014, taking 30 seats to the Conservatives’ 32 (a single Lib Dem was also elected). Labour therefore only need to gain two seats to win outright control, and only need to gain one net seat from the Tories to rob them of a majority.

That would be some feat. Labour has never won outright control of Barnet, although it did run minority administrations there between 1994 and 2002. For the rest of the borough’s history, it has been resolutely Conservative.

The challenge for Labour is that whilst they have made up some ground in Barnet between the two general elections that have taken place since 2014, that progress has been slow compared to London as a whole, given its difficulties in appealing to the Jewish electorate that is particularly sizable in this part of northwest London. It is of course possible that the local party can overcome this, but neither Ed Miliband nor Jeremy Corbyn has played well here.

Labour is strongest in Finchley in the southeast of the borough, the western side of Hendon in the west and East Barnet.

To win, Labour need to pick up seats in Brunswick Park ward (where they currently hold 2 of the 3 seats), Child’s Hill ward (currently split between the Conservatives and Lib Dems) or Hale ward (where they currently hold a seat). They will also need to defend precarious 2014 wins in wards such as Underhill in Chipping Barnet.

Our projection: Lab 34, Con 28, LD 1, Others 0

Bexley – safe Conservative
Labour’s bad night in the 2002 London council elections was tempered by one surprise win: an outright majority on Bexley council for the first time since its 1971 miracle year. Despite Labour’s improving fortunes elsewhere in the capital, it is a very different story in this part of outer south-east London: the Conservatives hold 45 of the 63 seats, Labour 15 and UKIP 3.

The general election swings here give little cause for excitement that Labour can overturn this: in all three constituencies, there was a Conservative to Labour swing of less than 1%. Any Labour gains are likely to be small and could potentially be offset by the Conservatives regaining seats from UKIP.

Finally the new ward boundaries introduced for this election, which reduce the number of total seats on the council from 63 to 45, probably proportionately hurt Labour more than the Conservatives. Our calculation is that the 2014 results would have yielded 34 Conservatives, 10 Labour and 1 UKIP councillor on the new boundaries.

Based on the 2014 results, Labour would need to win seats in wards like Crayford, East Wickham and the new West Heath ward to improve their standing. Unfortunately, our projections show them failing to do so.

Our projection: Con 35, Lab 10, UKIP 0, LD 0, Others 0

Brent – safe Labour
The Conservatives have had outright control of Brent once: in their 1968 landslide of London councils. However, they have run Brent a number of times since then, as a result of hung councils, most recently between 2006 and 2010.

That feels like a distant memory when looking at the current members of Brent council: 56 Labour members, 6 Conservatives and a solitary Liberal Democrat. The demographics over the years have played to Labour’s advantage as areas such as Wembley have become more diverse. The 2017 general election shows that rent towards Labour continuing.

The Conservatives look likely to hold onto their three members Kenton ward in the north of the borough, but Labour winning everything else, winning the three seats in Brondesbury Park ward and the Lib Dem seat in Mapesbury ward in Cricklewood, both wards lying in the east of the borough.

A Conservative breakthrough would need them to win other wards in the north of the borough, such as Northwick Park, Preston or Queensbury. The Lib Dems would need to win in central wards, such as Dollis Hill, Sudbury or Wembley Central. Neither advance seems likely.

Our projection: Lab 60, Con 3, LD 0, Others 0

Bromley – safe Conservative
The Conservative Party’s hold on the outermost part of southeast London has only slipped once: a period of Lib-Lab coalition control brought about by the 1998 elections. Since their return to power in 2002, normal service has very much resumed. The current balance on the 60-member council is 51 Conservatives, 7 Labour and 2 UKIP councillors.

All of Labour’s current seats are within the Labour constituency of Lewisham West and Penge. Only one council seat in that constituency currently eludes them: one of the three council seats in Clock House ward is currently held by the Conservatives. June’s general election result suggests that Labour should easily gain this seat.

Labour’s best hopes outside of Lewisham West and Penge lie along the northern edge of the Bromley and Chislehurst constituency. The most likely is Cray Valley West ward, where Labour could benefit from the collapse of the UKIP vote (both of UKIP’s councillors represent that ward). The projections from the general election swings also put a single seat in both Mottingham and North Chislehurst ward and Plaistow and Sundridge ward in Labour’s hands.

A really good showing by Labour might also see them winning the other seats in both of those wards, and also win in Cray Valley East ward. But that would only yield a total of 19 seats, less than half as many as the Conservatives in that best-case scenario. What is more, it seems likely that Labour will probably want members there to travel west to help out in neighbouring Croydon. There is no likelihood of the Tories losing Bromley.

Our projection: Con 47, Lab 13, UKIP 0, LD 0, Others 0

Camden – safe Labour
Labour has lost control of Camden twice: 1968 and 2006, and bounced back to control in the subsequent election.

The momentum from that bounce-back saw Labour take 40 of the council’s 54 seats in 2014. The Conservatives hold 12 seats around Hampstead whilst there are also single Lib Dem (in Fortune Green ward) and Green (in Highgate ward) councillors.

Labour did well in the general election in Camden, and so looks likely to make gains under the new leadership of Georgia Gould (daughter of the late Philip Gould of Blair’s focus group fame), taking both the Lib Dem and Green seats and Conservative ones too.

Our projections show Labour easily wining all three Conservative seats in both Belsize and Swiss Cottage wards. They show a closer three-way contest in Hampstead Town ward, where both Labour and the Lib Dems (therefore offsetting their loss in Fortune Green) could gain from the Tories. That would leave the Conservatives just holding their safest ward, Frognal and Fitzjohns.

Our projection: Lab 50, Con 3, LD 1, Others 0

Croydon – likely Labour hold
The Conservatives’ dominance of the borough in its early years (they held a majority in all but two elections of the first eight elections, and those two were hung results) gave way to becoming a swing council when Labour first took control in the Conservative’s low ebb of 1994. Labour held on through the next two elections, before the Tories recaptured the council in 2006.

Eight years later, Labour took back the reins in 2014. They won 40 of the 70 council seats (the largest chamber in London), with the Conservatives taking the other 30. No other party gets a look-in.

Despite a good general election showing by Labour in the borough, the projections for the current wards show no change in the membership of the council, with wins in Croydon Central wards like Fairfield, Heathfield and Shirley looking just beyond them.

But the May elections won’t be using the current wards and that makes the picture more fluid. Unlike Bexley, the redrawing of boundaries retains the same number of seats but the number of wards increases from 24 to 28.

On the 2014 results, we calculate that these changes would have helped the Conservatives slightly, resulting in 31 Conservative and 39 Labour councillors. But some Conservative wards would become more marginal, putting all three members of Fairfield and Shirley North wards within Labour’s grasp, based on the general election swings.

Our projection: Lab 45, Con 25, LD 0, Others 0

Ealing – safe Labour
With the exception of an anomalous loss by Labour in 1990, Ealing has been a fairly good reflection of which of the two parties has the upper hand in London elections. Consequently, Labour won control off the Conservatives in 2010, and increased its majority in 2014. Labour now holds 53 of the council’s 69 seats, with the Conservatives holding 12 and the Liberal Democrats holding the remaining 4.

The extent of Labour’s win in the Ealing Central and Acton constituency surprised Labour headquarters (who had not only written off the seat but had advised the local party to put its efforts instead into holding on to the safer Ealing North seat), but all three constituencies saw swings to Labour and the Acton seat in particular: over 12%.

The results weren’t quite good enough to turn Ealing into a one-party state, but not far off: we project Labour taking 10 of the Conservative seats and 2 of the Liberal Democrat ones, with gains in every ward not currently held (the holdouts would be a Conservative in both Hanger Hill and Northfield wards and two Lib Dems in Southfield ward).

Our projection: Lab 65, Con 2, LD 2, Others 0

Enfield – safe Labour
Ealing is a borough that is clearly trending towards Labour over time. Until 1994, Labour had only had a majority there once. Since then, it has had one in four of the six elections.

The Conservatives held the borough for eight years during Labour’s Noughties’ local government nadir. Labour retook the borough in 2010, increasing its members to 41 of the 63 seats in 2014. The other 22 seats are held by the Conservatives: in some ways, Enfield looks politically like Croydon on the other side of the capital.

In 2010, Labour only won one of the borough’s three constituencies: Edmonton. The 2014 local elections preceded labour retaking another – Enfield North – in 2015. Last June, the final constituency – Enfield Southgate – fell to Labour. The latter two seats saw swings in excess of 9% in 2017.

Consequently, it looks as if Labour should make advances in Enfield in May. Our projections show Labour gains in every ward not fully held by them, leaving just five Tories.

Our projection: Lab 58, Con 5, LD 0, Others 0

Greenwich – safe Labour
Labour has had a majority in Greenwich in every round of local elections since the London Boroughs were created, save one: Labour’s disaster year of 1968 (when it held control of only four boroughs, and one of those on the mayor’s casting vote). Labour now holds 43 of the borough’s 51 seats.

The borough’s Labour leader, Denise Hyland, has generally been seen as a successful, and more personable, successor to the long-standing Chris Roberts, who handed over the reins in 2014.

It is unlikely that Labour can quite get rid of the remaining 8 Conservatives. Coldharbour and New Eltham ward, the southernmost in the borough, is likely to remain in Conservative hands.

But the general election results show that Labour should be able to chip away at the Tories’ numbers, on course to take the last seat in the north of the borough (in Blackheath Westcombe ward) and make gains in Eltham North and Eltham South wards.

Our projection: Lab 47, Con 4, LD 0, Others 0


In our next post, we’ll cover the twelve boroughs H-L

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