In just under a week’s time, Londoners will go to the polls to elect councillors across the city’s 32 boroughs. Between the council and assembly elections, London’s elections provide political commentators a biennial opportunity to analyse the key issues affecting the capital’s residents, and how voting trends reflect the national political mood.
London generally votes differently to the rest of the country. In 2016’s EU referendum, just under 60% of the vote went to Remain compared with the 52% for Leave nationwide. In last year’s General Election, two-thirds of London’s constituencies were won by Labour MPs compared with 40% at national level, and Labour currently holds a majority of councils in London but lag behind the Conservatives in seats across the UK.
So naturally, one would expect next week’s elections to be stress-free for Labour Party HQ as it retains its council control of mostly North and East London boroughs where its core support reside, and puts pressure on Tory councils such as Barnet and Wandsworth on the back of opposition to local cuts and the party’s national stance on Brexit.
That is certainly how it appears in the latest YouGov/Queen Mary poll released this week, which shows a 5% swing for Labour to give them 51% of the overall vote. It also projects that Barnet council – Conservative since its creation in 1964, will switch to Labour. This is certainly encouraging for the party, although YouGov’s previous poll conducted in February had Labour’s vote share three points higher, and within touching distance of valuable Conservative-held councils like Wandsworth and Westminster.
It is unclear whether the recent anti-Semitism row will negatively impact an otherwise crushing victory in the capital, particularly given Barnet’s strong Jewish community. However, Barnet is an area Labour and Momentum activists have been targeting for several years in local and national elections. Incumbent MP Theresa Villiers saw her majority drop from over 11,000 in 2015 to just 353 in last year’s elections, in-part due to her advocacy for Brexit but also because of increased local opposition to further privatisation of local services and housing schemes.
Labour’s gains in the capital are also likely to be aided by recent opposition to actions of the current Conservative government. The Windrush crisis is still at the forefront of voters’ minds, and many will object to the lack of action and compassion shown towards many London residents wrongly being asked to leave Britain by the Home Office.
Opposition to Brexit is still most prominent in London, and many continue to disagree with the decision to take the UK out of the Single Market on the basis that it will make the capital less attractive as a global business and financial centre, and it will curb the flow of EU migrants who contribute significantly to London’s economy.
Affordable housing is another key issue for Londoners, as Labour-led councils like Camden and Barking continue to progress in the absence of national policy. Younger residents of the capital are subject to higher rent than elsewhere in the UK and want to see their boroughs build homes that work for them, not wealthy property developers. Londoners also took the government’s handling of the Grenfell Tower tragedy very personally, as ministers and Kensington council failed to act quickly to rehouse residents made homeless by the fire.
The London Elections will also be a big test for the Liberal Democrats, now under the leadership of Vince Cable – himself a London MP. The party currently holds Sutton council, but it could certainly lose some of its councillors to the Tories if the General Election is anything to go by. Mr Cable is currently untested at the polls having assumed leadership of the party in July 2017. Though his bullish stance on Brexit is likely to sit well with many Londoners, it remains to be seen whether the party can stem the decline in support felt in local and national politics.
It will take a great deal of effort by CCHQ to positively spin what pollsters and experts are expecting to be Labour’s most successful local elections in 40 years. If recent polling is to be believed, a night where the party holds in safe Conservative councils like Bexley, Westminster and Richmond would be considered a success.