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Local elections 2019: trouble for the Tories in Peterborough

The Conservatives are expected to lose their wafer-thin majority – but could they also surrender control of the council after two decades?

By Eleni Courea

Peterborough is used to being big news on election night. In 2017, it shocked election watchers by ousting its Conservative MP of 12 years. It got national attention again in May 2018, when the Tories won a majority in the consistently marginal city council. But the real media deluge began two months later, when the city’s new Labour MP Fiona Onasanya was charged with perverting the court of justice over lying about who was behind the wheel in a speeding car. The ensuing trial, conviction and resulting fallout have put its political fortunes in the spotlight.

This year may be the most exciting yet. Onasanya was kicked out of Labour after she was found guilty, and her fate now rests on 7,000 of her constituents signing a recall petition to force her out. Voting closes at 5pm today. Tomorrow, polls open to elect a third of Peterborough City Council. The Tories are trying to cling on to their majority of one, while opposition parties plot ways to wrestle control in a scenario where the Conservatives are set to remain the biggest group by a good margin.

Everyone involved is hopeful of success. The council’s Tory leader John Holdich says he’s fairly confident his party will keep its majority, losing a councillor or two here and there but gaining seats in other wards. He predicts that turnout will be a lot lower than the traditional 30 per cent. “All parties are trying to focus voters’ minds on local issues,” he says, “but people on the doorstep are saying they’re not going to support anyone this time because of Brexit.” Despite that, anger isn’t reserved for the Tories, he says, and can think of just two instances where councillors said they had faced real hostility. In his office he keeps a framed photo of Theresa May hanging above a bust of Winston Churchill. “He’s looking out for her,” he chuckles.

Opposition parties say that it’s the Tories that have the most to lose from anger about Brexit, in a city which voted by 61 per cent to leave. “Hardly anybody” is backing the Tories this year, according to Liberal Democrat group leader Nick Sandford. “Some of those disillusioned Conservatives might go to the Liberal Democrats; a fair few are staying at home”. The sole Ukip councillor John Whitby is also banking on that ex-Tory cohort to deliver his party a handful of new seats: “People are saying, ‘they ignored our vote.’” Labour’s group leader Shaz Nawaz says there is “huge frustration and disappointment with the Conservatives over Brexit” and that he has never seen people as positive about the Labour campaign.

The Conservatives currently hold 31 of 60 wards, more than double Labour’s 14. The Liberal Democrats have seven, and the rest belong to a smattering of small parties including the Greens, Ukip, and local group Werrington First. The three Werrington First councillors are said to almost invariably vote with the Tories, and are in no real danger of losing seats. So if Peterborough City Council is to change hands, at least five Conservatives must be unseated. It’s no easy feat, but not impossible either. Labour is targeting seven seats and hopes to gain at least four or five; the Greens are on track to win one; while the Lib Dems estimate they’ll take about four.

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No one can predict the impact of the controversies that have dogged the council over the past year. Two Labour councillors quit in November over the party’s handling of antisemitism. There is dispute over a decision to move a chunk of the council’s operations to new development Fletton Quays, and rent out parts of both the old and new premises. Holdich says the rental income makes the move cost neutral; Nawaz says it’s the sort of behaviour Northamptonshire County Council engaged in before going bankrupt. “I think Peterborough is not far away from that particular scenario,” he says. The council needs to cut £20 million in 2020-21 while facing increasing pressures: the number of homeless people identified in the city has grown to 2,336 from 1,000 three years ago. Holdich says the council has had a clean bill of health for its finances from auditors, and accuses Labour of running a negative campaign. “They’re promising the earth, but it’s one thing being in opposition and another having to do the job.”

Meanwhile all politicians are trying to speak to a desire for a stronger sense of identity and pride in Peterborough. On the street, residents bring up a 2019 survey which said the city was the worst place to live in England. But it’s also ranked among the fastest growing ones, and is in negotiations to get its own university. Holdich says his aim is to shift the local economy from low- to high-skilled. Nawaz says Labour will invest £10 million to support digital businesses and bid for Peterborough to be UK city of culture. “If you look at places like Stoke or Hornsey, they’ve got a USP, an asset like a good theatre, a museum, a conference centre, a sports and leisure facility, a university. Other places have them. We don’t.”

Perhaps the strongest sign of how important Peterborough is to Labour was that it was visited by Jeremy Corbyn last weekend. But his appearance may have just as much to do with the locals as the possibility of an impending by-election – if the recall petition is successful, no party wants to end up on the back foot. The party’s parliamentary candidate, Lisa Forbes, who joined Corbyn on the doorstep on Saturday, says residents are “plugged into politics and bringing up a real mix of local and national issues”. She says support for Labour is strong and growing, but that it is difficult to predict how many votes the Conservatives will turn out.

Most indications suggest that there’ll be room for maneuver on the morning of 3 May. Holdich says he is open to the prospect of working with other parties “to do what’s best for Peterborough”. Sanford raises the possibility of a coalition or confidence-and-supply, which his party would be well-placed to negotiate. “There’s a good chance that for the first time in a number of years, the Liberal Democrats will be in a position of influence,” he predicts. Another option being knocked around is that of an all-party administration, whereby Labour reaches a working arrangement with the Liberal Democrats and Greens – something which would have to be signed off by Labour’s NEC. The outcome of the vote will be watched closely by those seeking to take the country’s political temperature. As a marginal Tory-Labour constituency and frequent bellweather, Peterborough serves as a good indicator of the national mood.