London still Brexiteers’ hard sell
The New European
The recent local election results show that the capital's Remain vote poses a challenge for both the Conservatives and Labour, writes BARNABY TOWNS
Post-election spin about the meaning of May's local elections is almost as fierce as the contest itself. London's 2018 all-out local elections — the 14th since the 32 London boroughs were created — are no exception. But in an election depicted by many as a stalemate between the two main parties amid modest gains by the Liberal Democrats and the collapse of Ukip, do results in the 'capital' of Remain provide any respite for pro-Europeans of all parties and none?
Despite falling short of February and May London polls predicting Labour shares of 54% and 51% respectively, the party's actual 47% is nonetheless its largest vote share since 1971 (53%) and the fourth largest for any party in these elections, below that of the Tories in opposition nationally in 1968 (60%) and 1978 (50%). Conversely, the Tory share, at 31%, was lower than every set of these elections except 2014, when it was one point lower. And the Lib Dems, at 13%, were three points up on their all-time-low during the coalition years but still below their 1980s, 1990s and noughties shares.
Absent the large chunk of former Ukip voters which buoyed Theresa May's Conservative Party outside London — four years earlier, Ukip scored 17% nationally but only 5% in the capital — the party secured fewer London councillors than in any of the 14 contests since the boroughs' creation in 1965. Losing 101 councillors net, the Tory councillor tally was 511 — fewer even than the previous 1994 record-low, when John Major's government was at the height of its post-ERM ejection unpopularity.
In terms of London's council seats, Labour's 1,120 was, like its vote share, the second highest for the party since 1971 — and also the third highest for any party, including the first set of these results for Labour under leaders John Smith at 1,044, Tony Blair at 1,050 and Ed Miliband at 1,060. Overall, Labour added 60 council seats across London, on top of the 185 net gains under Miliband four years earlier — fuelling Labour moderates' arguments that the party underperformed.
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What the Liberal Democrats lacked in significant upswing on overall vote share or seats, they made up for with two prized political trophies by seizing control of Kingston-upon-Thames and Richmond-upon-Thames in south-west London. Here the Tory to Lib Dem swing was an impressive 14.5% and 11% respectively. Overall, the party took 19 seats from the Conservatives in Kingston and two — the only two — from Labour there, and won 20 Tory seats in Richmond, with the pro-European Union Greens, in an electoral pact with the Lib Dems, taking a further four Tory seats.
These contests may be indicative of a Brexit effect, considering the strong Remain vote in both boroughs — 70% in Richmond and 60% in Kingston — and the starkly contrasting Brexit positions of the two parties in contention. Conversely, the Tories gained slightly in Hillingdon (56% Leave) and Havering (70%).
Reminiscent of 1990, when a poor citywide result saw Conservatives tout retaining totemic low council tax authorities Wandsworth and Westminster, the Tories made the most of holding these councils with reduced majorities. But while Labour's advance in seats was insufficient to tip the balance, the vote share in these boroughs tells a different story. In Wandsworth, Labour won the popular vote — 39% to the Tories 38% - a feat that eluded the party at the pinnacle of its popularity under Tony Blair. In Westminster, the Tories' 43% share was just two points higher than Labour's 41%.
The swing to Labour in strongly Remain Wandsworth and Westminster was 4% and 5% respectively — higher than the London-wide Tory-Labour swing of 2.5% on 2014, the last time these elections were held. Barnet swung the other way, 1.5% from Labour to the Tories — by more in wards with a high percentage of Jewish voters — preventing Labour from wining the council most susceptible to a London-wide Labour swing, following the party's prolonged antisemitism woes.
Other results, such as Haringey's, may indicate a reaction against what is widely-viewed as the first Momentum-led council. Here, Liberal Democrats took six seats from Labour, including a ward in which the faction had deselected the sitting Labour councillors. In Lambeth, a council that Momentum targeted before moving on to more fertile territory, Labour similarly lost four seats to the Greens, who replace the Tories as the official opposition. In heavily Remain Lambeth and Haringey, Labour increased its vote share, while losing seats to the Liberal Democrats, raising questions about whether Momentum's activism is more an electoral liability than an asset — and which does not perhaps translate well on doorsteps.
Labour also wastefully added strength in its heartlands. Three Labour councils — Lewisham, Newham and Barking & Dagenham — are now 'one-party states' with no opposition councillors.
Overall, the results suggest that London's Remain vote is a challenge for the Conservatives, especially where the Liberal Democrats are their principal opponents. But also perhaps that Labour has not comprehensively taken advantage of Tory discontent on this issue and continues to struggle with problems of its own and disagreement on European policy between its leadership on the one hand and its members and voters on the other.
The patchiness of Labour's advance might give weight to arguments that a more Brexit-sceptical stance could have yielded a stronger Labour result. Certainly, the 8% swing to the unambiguously pro-European Labour-run council in Hammersmith & Fulham from the Conservatives, formerly a Conservative flagship council which Labour only narrowly won in 2014, contrasts with areas where Labour fell short.
Labour's 19-point lead over the Tories citywide, while lower than the 20-22 points predicted by the last set of polls, will give the Conservatives pause for thought on how to succeed in this Remain city, where they now hold only 29% of the parliamentary seats and won just 31% in these elections, while the party takes such a contrary view on Brexit. Would Labour and the Conservatives do better with London's pro-Remain 60% with less hardline Brexit positions? Will Remainers fuel the Lib Dems' modest recovery if they don't? Time will tell.
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