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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?

David Cameron on a visit to Hammersmith in 2011
David Cameron on a visit to Hammersmith in 2011. Photo: Getty

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.