A look forward: 2018 London elections (part 3)

by Jackie_South on January 3, 2018

Today, we conclude our look forward to the May 2018 local elections in London. You can find the first part of the series here (including details of our methodology) and the second here.

Our concluding part covers the ten London Boroughs starting with the letters M through to W.

Merton – likely Labour hold

We are cautiously classifying Merton as a likely Labour hold, but this borough is very much at the safer end of that spectrum.

The history of Merton council since its creation has been in two halves. The first seven elections were very much dominated by the Conservatives: they won majorities in five of the seven elections up to 1986 (the first result in 1964 was a hung council, the third saw Labour win in their highpoint year). In the Eighties, Merton council became almost as much a bye-word for loony right Thatcherite councils as its neighbour Lambeth next door became one for the “loony left”, with large scale cuts and privatisation of public services.

The second half of Merton’s tale has been of Labour control: in the seven elections from 1990, Labour has won outright majorities in five (1990, 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2014) and run the borough as a minority administration in 2010, taking over from a Conservative minority administration elected in 2006.

That Labour minority administration was seen as a competent steward of the borough’s fortunes and rewarded with 36 of the borough’s 60 council seats in 2014, including every council seat in the Mitcham and Morden constituency that comprises the south-eastern half of the borough. The Conservatives were reduced to 20 seats, the Liberal Democrats one (in West Barnes ward in the south west of the Wimbledon constituency) and three resident association councillors were elected to represent Merton Park in the middle of the borough.

Mitcham and Morden is now a safe Labour seat, and its MP Siobhan McDonagh secured a modest swing to her in June. There was a swing of 7.6% to Labour in the Wimbledon constituency. Those results would cement in every current Labour seat, and allow them to win three more seats from the Conservatives in the east Wimbledon ward of Trinity and Wimbledon Park.

The general election results would also reward the Liberal Democrats with the gain of a seat from the Conservatives in West Barnes ward.

Our projection: Lab 39, Con 16, LD 2, Residents Association 3, Others 0

Newham – safe Labour

Labour’s safest borough is Newham: it has controlled it since its creation (albeit thanks to aldermen in 1968, when Labour only had 30 of the 60 elected councillors) and has been elected to over fifty of the council’s sixty seats in every election from 1971 onwards. Since 1986, there has only been one election where other parties have gained more than a single seat (the Christian People’s Party and Respect held three seats apiece in 2006) and Labour has held every seat since the 2010 elections.

For the last 22 years, that Labour stronghold has been led by Sir Robin Wales, initially as the leader of the council and since 2002 as its directly elected mayor. Sir Robin will be standing again for that post in May.

That is not to say that Sir Robin is an uncontroversial figure. The Glaswegian is sometimes compared to Stalin for his forceful approach (as a student he organised an anti-Trotskyite delegation to the National Union of Students dubbed the Ice Pick Express).

We expect that Sir Robin will be comfortably re-elected, and that Labour will continue to hold all the council’s seats – both the borough’s constituencies recorded swings to Labour in June.

Our projection: Lab 60, Con 0, LD 0, Others 0. Labour mayor retained.

Redbridge – likely Labour hold

In 2014, Labour won a majority for the first time ever in Redbridge: 35 of its 63 seats. Even in Labour’s best London elections in 1971 the borough had been safely Conservative, although Labour did lead from a minority position, with Liberal Democrat support, between 1994 and 2002.

Labour’s 2014 triumph came from a combination of demographic shifts, in particular the growth of its Asian population, and hard campaigning: arguably Labour’s hardest working borough party in its electioneering.

Labour is strongest in the south of the borough, in the Ilford South constituency, particularly to the south and east of the town centre. The Conservatives (who hold 25 seats) do best in the northwest of the borough, particularly in Woodford. The two fight it out in the northeast of the borough (the Ilford North constituency), the middle of the borough (around Redbridge tube station) and in Wanstead in the southwest. The Liberal Democrats also have three seats, in two wards that they share with the Conservatives in the south of Woodford.

Labour’s good showing in the 2014 elections was followed by strong general election results for them: In 2015, Wes Streeting won Ilford North from the Conservatives on a 6.4% swing, and improved his majority in 2017 with a further 8.5% swing. In Ilford South, Mike Gapes achieved similar results, as did John Cryer in Leyton and Wanstead. In the other constituency that takes in part of Redbridge, Iain Duncan Smith’s Chingford and Woodford Green, there has been a 12.4% swing from the Tories to Labour over those two elections.

It therefore seems likely that Labour will make further gains this year. There are ward boundary changes there too which should help them: effectively moving two seats from the Conservative-leaning west of the borough to create a new Ilford Town ward in Labour’s stronghold.

Our projections, based on the very strong Labour showings in all four constituencies in 2017, are staggering: a gain of 25 seats, reducing the Tories to three seats in Woodford. This is unlikely to transpire, but it Labour’s newfound hold on the borough is very likely to improve.

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

Richmond upon Thames – Conservative marginal

Richmond was the first London borough to have a Liberal Democrat majority council (along with Tower Hamlets), but it has been run by the Conservatives since 2010, who won 12 council seats from the Lib Dems in that election that took place on the same day that Zac Goldsmith won the Richmond Park constituency from them. In 2014, the Conservatives strengthened their hold: they now have 39 councillors to the Liberal Democrats’ 15 on the 54-member body.

The 2017 general election suggests that this sizable majority will be reversed, and could well be overturned, in May. June’s election saw Vince Cable return as MP for Twickenham (he represents 60% of the borough’s electors) with a 9% swing. Across the Thames in Richmond Park, the picture is complicated by the 2016 by-election (which Goldsmith lost to Lib Dem Sarah Olney, before narrowly regaining the constituency in June) but the swing between the two general elections was a whopping 19.5% from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats.

The combination of the two strong Tory to Lib Dem swings produces a virtual wipeout of the Conservatives on the council. This is unlikely to happen: there are few signs that the local council is as unpopular as the government there, local factors will play a role and some of the Richmond Park swing needs to be discounted due to the by-election. But it is clear that the Conservatives could be in trouble in May.

At the moment, the Conservatives have almost a monopoly of the council seats to the east of the Thames (there is one Lib Dem councillor in Ham, Petersham and Richmond Riverside ward) and a small majority of the seats to the west of it. Our projection for the Twickenham side of the river shows the Liberal Democrats taking every seat. On the other side of the Thames, the Lib Dems would take all the seats bar one in East Sheen. The reality is that the Liberal Democrats are unlikely to win the three easternmost wards – Barnes, East Sheen and Mortlake & Barnes Common – but have a strong chance in the four wards around Richmond itself and Kew.

Our projection: LD 53, Con 1, Lab 0, Others 0.

Southwark – safe Labour

Southwark was one of the three boroughs that Labour managed to retain a majority on in the nadir of 1968, but it lost control to the Liberal Democrats (who formed a minority administration) in 2002 and the Lib Dems held on to power, in coalition with the Conservatives, in 2006.

In 2010, just as a similar coalition formed to run the country, Labour took back control and then increased its majority substantially in 2014. It currently holds 48 of the council’s 63 seats, with the Liberal Democrats reduced to 13 and the Conservatives to 2.

Labour’s stronghold is in the Camberwell and Peckham constituency in the centre of the borough, although in 2014 it also had very strong results in two Walworth wards (East Walworth and Newington) in the Bermondsey and Old Southwark constituency and College ward (in Dulwich and West Norwood).

The Liberal Democrats are strongest along the Thames in Cathedrals, Riverside and Surrey Docks wards, although that pattern was disrupted by Labour winning Rotherhithe ward in 2014. The Lib Dems also have two councillors in East Dulwich and two in Grange ward in the west of Bermondsey. The two conservative councillors are in Dulwich Village, alongside a Labour councillor there.

All three constituencies saw healthy swings to Labour in the 2017 general election, of between 6.8% (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) and 9.3% (Dulwich and West Norwood). Those results would lead to a Tory wipe out and the Lib Dems reduced to a small rump.

The picture is likely to be less extreme than that, in part due to ward boundary changes that shift council seats from the south of the borough to its northwest, thanks to rapid demographic growth in the latter. Although the northwest is relatively good for the Liberal Democrats, they do not help them too much but probably give them a net seat or two at Labour’s expense. As with the Conservatives in Croydon though, the downside for them is that it leaves them more exposed to losses in the current environment.

We would expect the Lib Dems to do a little better than the projection based on the general election shows below. Key battlegrounds will be in Bermondsey, East Dulwich and the current Cathedrals ward in the northwest corner of the borough, which is split into a three- and two-member ward for May’s elections.

Despite our projection below, the Conservatives might just hold on to some representation: Dulwich Village ward reduces from its current three members to two but loses its most Labour-friendly polling district.

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

Sutton – likely Lib Dem hold

Sutton is the last of the outer South West London boroughs to retain a Liberal Democrat council. With some gusto too: the Lib Dems hold 45 of the borough’s 54 seats in this part of suburbia. The Conservatives have the other nine councillors, all in wards on the southern edge of the borough.

The Liberal Democrats seem hard-baked in here: they first took control of the council in 1986 (winning half the council seats) and have had majorities from 1990 onwards. Only four Labour boroughs and three Conservative ones have a similar record of 32 years outright control.

However, the Liberal Democrats seem unlikely to see the same sort of Brexit bounce here as in nearby Kingston and Richmond. Sutton was the only southwest London borough to vote to Leave the EU, by a margin of 8%. That appears to have played through into last year’s general election, where the Conservatives gained ground in both constituencies: an 8.3% swing in Tory Paul Scully’s Sutton and Cheam and a modest 0.3% in Lib Dem Tom Brake’s Carshalton and Wallington.

Those results suggest that the Conservatives should be able to make up ground in the west of the borough, around (Tony Hancock’s) Cheam, Worcester Park and the south and west sides of Sutton town. However, it seems unlikely that those gains will be enough to see them contending for control of the borough.

Labour were the opposition on the council up until 1982, but lost its last council seats in 2006. It seems unlikely that this will change this time.

Our projection: LD 33, Con 21, Lab 0, Others 0.

Tower Hamlets – likely Labour gain

Tower Hamlets was one of the three London councils that Labour retained control of in its darkest hour of 1968, but its control of the borough has been disrupted twice since, both times by highly controversial administrations and both times as a result of the borough’s ethnic politics, in a borough where the Bangladeshi population exceeds the white British population and that has more Muslims than Christians.

Between 1986 and 1994, the borough was run by the Liberal Democrats, who won in part due to local resentment about the demographic shifts in the borough and the increasing voice of the Bangladeshi community. It was an administration that was frequently accused of dog-whistle racism that culminated in the notorious 1993 Millwall ward council by-election (won by the British National Party), with Lib Dem leaflets featuring a picture of a black man to represent muggers.

Labour successfully wrested back control in 1994, and held on until 2010’s local elections. But in those elections, voters decided to introduce a directly-elected Mayor in the autumn, as the borough’s neighbours to the north (Hackney), east (Newham) and south (Lewisham) had. Naturally, the leader of the council, Lutfur Rahman, put himself forward for the post.

The party hierarchy though had developed concerns about Rahman, and so blocked him. Rahman stood as an independent instead, and won thanks to strong backing among the Bangladeshi community. In 2014, he won again, this time with his own party – Tower Hamlets First – also contesting the council seats.

Labour won most seats, but not quite a majority: they took 22 of the 45 council seats which were redrawn that year. Tower Hamlets First took 18, mainly in a central strip from Whitechapel to Poplar where the Bangladeshi population is strongest. The other five seats were won by the Conservatives, one each in the wards along the Thames that have seen most gentrification.

Those elections saw high turnouts in many wards: suspiciously high in many people’s opinion, particularly as multiple stories about electoral offences started to circulate. Along with a BBC Panorama documentary alleging that Rahman misused his office and directed funds towards his cronies, it was enough for the Government to investigate further. A year later, Rahman was banned from office.

Labour’s candidate in the 2015 by-election to replace Rahman was the man who had led them to win back control in 1994: former leader and London Assembly member John Biggs. He won relatively comfortably and so the borough now has a Labour administration.

These elections will be a test to see whether the dust has settled on the Rahman controversies, or whether there is still resentment among sections of the electorate. We expect Biggs to be re-elected mayor and so the key question is whether Labour can make gains and so hold a majority on the council.

The general election results in the borough are difficult to use in divining this, as of course Tower Hamlets First did not stand. We can see that there was a swing from the Conservatives to Labour of around 7% in both the Bethnal Green and Bow constituency and the Poplar and Limehouse constituency, which would be sufficient to remove the Tories from the council.

Our projection: Lab 32, Tower Hamlets First/ Independents 13, Con 0, LD 0, Others 0.

Waltham Forest – safe Labour

Labour usually, but not always, has a majority of the council seats on Waltham Forest’s council. Even when it has not, since the 1990s it has held onto power by doing a deal with the Liberal Democrats in 1994, 2002 and 2006.

The Coalition Government resulted in Labour wining all the previously Lib Dem seats the borough in 2014, leaving a council comprised just of the two big parties: 44 Labour councillors and 16 Conservatives. The Conservative seats are all in Iain Duncan Smith’s Chingford and Woodford Green constituency, where Labour only has two councillors.

The Tories will be on the backfoot in these elections. First, they have more vulnerable seats: they won 7 of those 16 seats on less than 40% of the vote, compared to 3 Labour ones on less than 40%. Secondly, there was a swing of between 5.5% and 7% from the Conservatives to Labour in the borough’s constituencies in the 2017 general election, most crucially the 7% one being in Chingford and Woodford Green.

That swing would be enough to gain Labour 7 seats: 2 each in the wards where they currently have a councillor (Hale End and Highams Park ward and Valley ward) and members in both Hatch Lane and Larkswood wards. Only the northernmost wards of Chingford Green and Endlebury are truly safe for the Conservatives.

Our projection: Lab 51, Con 9, LD 0, Others 0.

Wandsworth – Conservative marginal

The Conservatives currently have more than double the number of Labour councillors in Wandsworth (41 Conservatives, 19 Labour). They have held the council continuously since 1978, and were seen in the 1980s and 1990s as the flagship of Thatcherite Tory councils. As places such as Putney, Battersea, Balham and Wandsworth town gentrified, it has seemed increasingly unlikely that Labour would ever return to run the election, as it had done for most of the time prior to 1978.

Labour have long since felt pushed to Wandsworth’s margins: either its physical ones (in the south of the borough) or its sociological ones (the Winstanley and Alton estates, in Battersea and Roehampton respectively).

But last June’s general election saw swings of 10% or more from the Conservatives to Labour in each of the borough’s three constituencies, enough for Labour to win Battersea from the Tories, cut Justine Greening’s majority in Putney from over 10,000 to 1,554 and turn Tooting from a marginal to safe seat.

Whilst the borough tends to have better Conservative results in local elections than in general elections (they comfortably held on to power on the council in the 1990s and 2002, despite having three Labour MPs represent the borough 1997-2005) there are signs that the Tories could be under threat this time. After all, even if the council results will be to the right of the Parliamentary results, the swing shows a clear direction of travel. This is a borough where Remain voters outnumbered Leave voters three-to-one, one of the highest anti-Brexit votes in the land. Their current leader, Ravi Govindia, is generally seen by his peers as a nice bloke but lacking the dynamism of the borough’s Thatcherite heyday.

Projecting the general election swings onto the last council results shows Labour almost reversing their current position against the Conservatives: a two-to-one balance in the other direction. Whilst a win this big seems unlikely, they have a strong chance of winning the five seats in wards currently split between them and the Conservatives (Bedford and Earlsfield wards in the Tooting constituency, and Queenstown ward in Battersea).

They also have a good chance to make gains elsewhere in the Battersea constituency, in Balham ward, Fairfield ward (which covers Wandsworth town centre), St Mary’s Park ward (on the Thames west of Battersea Park) and Shaftesbury ward (east of Clapham junction). They could also contend in Nightingale ward in Tooting. The areas around Wandsworth Common are likely to be resolutely Conservative though.

Putney still seems harder for Labour to crack, particularly in Putney proper. However, they could win seats in the south of that constituency, in Southfields and West Hill wards. But all of this gives the Conservatives only five truly safe wards across the borough, and Labour only need to pick up 12 of the 26 Conservative seats spread across the rest of the borough.

Our projection: Lab 39, Con 21, LD 0, Others 0.

Westminster – likely Conservative hold

Like Hillingdon, this is a borough where our projection (a narrow Labour majority) ought to be taken with a pinch of salt. We think that the Conservatives are likely to hold on to Westminster (as they have done since the creation of the London boroughs) despite the general election swings, although Labour could come close to its best result ever in the City of Westminster (27 of the 60 seats, a tight squeeze for the then leader Dame Shirley Porter that spurred her notorious ‘Homes for Votes’ scandal).

The City of Westminster’s two constituencies saw spectacular swings from the Conservatives to Labour – over 9% in the Cities of London and Westminster constituency and almost 11% in Westminster North. That election saw the former constituency turn from being a safe Tory seat into a marginal, and the latter turn from being a marginal Labour seat to a safe one.

The council currently comprises 44 Conservatives and 16 Labour councillors. Labour’s traditional bedrock are three wards in the northwest of the borough – Harrow Road, Queen’s Park and Westbourne wards – and the extremely deprived Church Street ward (northeast of Edgware Road station, around Lisson Grove). In 2014, Labour also won Churchill ward in the southwest of Pimlico and a seat in Maida Vale.

Labour’s best opportunities for further advance lie in the Westminster North constituency: converting the two remaining Conservative seats in Maida Vale ward and winning in Little Venice and Regents Park wards. The general election swing would also put them in contention in both Bayswater ward.

Labour has opportunities too in the Cities’ constituency. Our projection has them taking a seat or two in Hyde Park, St James’s, Vincent Square and West End wards.

It is probably unlikely that Labour can do all of these things, not least because it would spread its efforts too thinly to be able to run competent targeted campaigns to win. The Tories have also chosen a new leader who so far seems capable, Nickie Aiken. So we think the Conservatives will win through, with a reduced majority, despite our projection.

Our projection: Lab 31, Con 29, LD 0, Others 0.

Conclusion

Whilst our projections, based on the general elections swings, are undoubtedly over-bullish, May’s local elections are likely to be a disappointing night from the Conservatives. They are set to lose councils from what is already a low base, and possibly one of the three central London flagship councils that they managed to keep control of even in the John Major years. The best chance of a Conservative gain is Havering, a borough they already lead as a minority administration.

Labour’s 2014 gains make further advances hard, but they could meet or exceed their record number of London councils that they have held: 21 in 1971. Their most likely gains are Barnet and Wandsworth, as well as gaining a majority in Tower Hamlets which they already hold. Hillingdon and Westminster are outside chances, but seem more likely to remain in Conservative hands.

The Liberal Democrats look likely to win back the two south west London boroughs that they controlled in the 1990s and 2000s, Kingston and Richmond, on the back of a Brexit backlash.

Our predictions

Our predictions (NOT projections) therefore look like this:

Labour councils 23 (+3)
Conservative councils 5 (-4)
Liberal Democrat councils 3 (+2)
No overall control 1 (-1)

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