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.

 

David Cameron addresses pupils at an assembly during a visit to Corby Technical School on September 2, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Can Cameron maintain his refugee stance as he comes under attack from all sides?

Tory MPs, the Sun, Labour and a growing section of the public are calling on the PM to end his refusal to take "more and more". 

The disparity between the traumatic images of drowned Syrian children and David Cameron's compassionless response ("I don't think there is an answer that can be achieved simply by taking more and more refugees") has triggered a political backlash. A petition calling for greater action (the UK has to date accepted just 216 refugees) has passed the 100,000 threshold required for the government to consider a debate after tens of thousands signed this morning. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has tweeted: "This is not an immigration issue, it's a humanitarian one, and the human response must be to help. If we don't, what does that make us?" Tory MPs such as Nicola Blackwood, David Burrowes, Jeremy Lefroy and Johnny Mercer have similarly appealed to Cameron to reverse his stance.

Today's Sun declares that the UK has "a proud record of taking in desperate people and we should not flinch from it now if it is beyond doubt that they have fled for their lives." Meanwhile, the Washington Post has published a derisive piece headlined "Britain takes in so few refugees from Syria they would fit on a subway train". Labour has called on Cameron to convene a meeting of Cobra to discuss the crisis and to request an emergency EU summit. Yvette Cooper, who led the way with a speech on Monday outlining how the UK could accept 10,000 refugees, is organising a meeting of councils, charities and faith groups to discuss Britain's response. Public opinion, which can turn remarkably quickly in response to harrowing images, is likely to have grown more sympathetic to the Syrians' plight. Indeed, a survey in March found that those who supported accepting refugees fleeing persecution outnumbered opponents by 47-24 per cent. 

The political question is whether this cumulative pressure will force Cameron to change his stance. He may not agree to match Cooper's demand of 10,000 (though Germany is poised to accept 800,000) but an increasing number at Westminster believe that he cannot remain impassive. Surely Cameron, who will not stand for election again, will not want this stain on his premiership? The UK's obstinacy is further antagonising Angela Merkel on whom his hopes of a successful EU renegotiation rest. If nothing else, Cameron should remember one of the laws of politics: the earlier a climbdown, the less painful it is. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.