David Cameron on a visit to Hammersmith in 2011. Photo: Getty
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How the Tories lost David Cameron’s favourite council

The Conservatives' shock loss of Hammersmith and Fulham last week rocked the party. Why did the celebrated Tory borough swing to Labour?

When Labour clinched control of Hammersmith and Fulham Council last week, it was the chief success story of the local elections amid largely lacklustre results for the party nationwide.

It was the killer headline Labour needed. After all, Hammersmith and Fulham was not only a “safe” Tory stronghold; it also happened to be David Cameron’s “favourite council”.

Even the local Labour party seemed surprised at their triumph. Lisa Homan, a Labour councillor in the borough since 2006, told me yesterday that while local activists had campaigned hard: “Quite frankly we didn’t know if we would win until the count.”

Contesting a Conservative majority of 16 councillors, Labour wrested 11 seats from their rivals. Popular support for the Tories appeared to have melted away, despite a last-minute visit from the prime minister just a week before the election to bolster the local vote.

Cameron’s affection for the borough mirrored a widespread and vocal celebration of Hammersmith and Fulham among Tories nationwide. It had come to be seen as an austerity success story – Conservative policies working effectively on a local level. The council was taking steps to reduce the deficit and make efficiencies, but also sharing those savings with residents by slashing council tax year-on-year.

The Tory-led council also demonstrated economic ingenuity by collaborating with two other Conservative-controlled councils in London – Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster –  in order to achieve economies of scale.

The “tri-borough” arrangement, established three years ago, subsumed children’s services, adult care and libraries under one shared authority to cut costs. As of last September Hammersmith and Fulham also shared a chief executive with Kensington and Chelsea to preside over further joint efficiencies. The national party swiftly woke to the marketing value of the area as a microcosm of Conservative policies in action.

Government affection for Hammersmith and Fulham only grew after its enthusiastic uptake of education secretary Michael Gove’s flagship policy. Hammersmith was the site of the country’s first free school in 2011, when journalist Toby Young founded the West London Free School. With six new free schools opening in the borough, it has become the champion of Conservative education policy.

So why did Hammersmith and Fulham, the Tories’ treasured borough, swing so conclusively to Labour last week?

Certainly a number of high-profile local issues dominated the election campaigns, into which both parties had poured heavy resources. The election agenda included the shake-up of local hospitals, including Charing Cross Hospital; the redevelopment of Shepherd’s Bush market; and the approval of the controversial Earl’s Court development plans, which will see the iconic events venue torn down to make way for luxury flats.

In many senses these local issues played into the national narrative. The emphasis on executive flats, coupled with a lack of affordable housing is a widespread source of anger against the government throughout the UK. But in Hammersmith and Fulham, the frustration was heightened and the suspicion of a Tory agenda against affordable and social housing was compounded by a 2009 paper co-authored by former Conservative council leader Stephen Greenhalgh calling for a move to “near market rents” and an end to lifelong secure tenancies for social tenants.

The south-east and London-centric problem of executive housing being sold off to foreign investors before being offered on the domestic market was also epitomised by Hammersmith and Fulham, where, according to Labour figures, as much as 80 per cent of new developments were sold overseas.

Homan said that concern about housing ranged from property-owning middle classes to social tenants. She said: “Better-off people began to see their children can’t afford to live in the borough where they were born and grew up.”

She added: “People were fed up with the way they were treated and not listened to. Especially people on housing estates, the elderly, and all those with the least voice.”

Labour's new council leader Stephen Cowan told me that the Conservative-led council’s approval of the demolition of Charing Cross hospital also played into a wider narrative about the public mistrusting the government to look after healthcare and local hospitals.

Pointing out that Labour had achieved a 15 per cent swing in the wealthy ward of Fulham Broadway, Cowan added: “The liberal intelligentsia, of which there are many in Hammersmith and Fulham, have come back to us with a passion because Labour has rejuvenated. We’re offering a credible democratic alternative to Osborne’s austerity and they see that.”

The Labour Party is certainly pleased to have won back the council.  Labour MP for Hammersmith Andy Slaughter’s relief was palpable when he said last week’s triumph was “the most fantastic result we've had in London for years”.  Although he won a 3,500 vote majority in the last general election, Labour’s grip on the constituency was felt to be threatened by Conservative council policies perceived to be aimed at attracting rich professionals and investors, and pushing out poorer tenants.

Labour should now reflect not only on how it managed to carve inroads into Conservative heartland in wealthy West London, but whether such success is replicable elsewhere in next year’s general election.

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.


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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 50p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.