In May 1968 the Labour government of Harold Wilson was in a mess. The previous November it had devalued the pound; that March it had implemented a hugely unpopular austerity budget. To make matters worse, in late April, Tory frontbencher Enoch Powell had stirred up tensions with his famous, and famously racist, “rivers of blood” speech.
All of which is by way of explaining how it was that the Tories came to win one of the biggest local election landslides on record. Labour were wiped out in Birmingham, losing every single seat; for the only time in history the Tories won control of Sheffield, too.
Perhaps the best way of visualising how outlandish these results were, though, is by looking at the result in London. That year — only the second election held in these newly created councils — the Tories won 28 of the capital’s 32 boroughs, including such Labour strongholds as Lambeth, Islington and Hackney. Labour won just three.
But 1968 was a very long time ago. This year, in fact, the Tories are likely to see their worst election result in Greater London since its creation in 1965. A YouGov poll this week found them trailing Labour in the capital by 27 percentage points, with Labour on 50 per cent to the Tories’ 23. In Inner London, they’re behind by a quite frankly ridiculous 50 points, with Labour on 63 and the Conservatives just 13. An earlier survey, by Deltapoll, had found that the single biggest issue to London voters by a very long way was the cost-of-living crisis. Issues more favourable to local Tory candidates, such as, well, bins, were nowhere to be found. (More from On London here.)
Anyone expecting a pleasing reversal of that 1968 map, with a tiny patch of blue drowning in a sea of red, is likely to be disappointed, however. Even in the most outlandish predictions Labour won’t get more than 24 boroughs, up from its current tally of 21. Four more would stay Tory, three remain Lib Dem and the last sit awkwardly in no overall control.
In fact, Labour already got one of its best ever results in London in 2018, winning 44 per cent of the vote and more councillors than in any year since 1971; it’s unclear how much higher the tide can go. That year Labour also underperformed its polls by seven points, raising questions about how real its stonking lead actually is now. Throw in a Tory collapse, a lot of boundary changes and a Green surge, and it all makes for a pretty unpredictable set of elections.
There are, as noted, rather a lot of boroughs in London — every four years when I come to write a version of this piece, I find myself feeling strongly that there should be fewer — so I’m not going to go through all of them. But here are some of the contests to watch.
The two boroughs most likely to flip this time around are Barnet, a vast patch of suburbia at the end of the Northern line, and Wandsworth, the Battersea/Putney/Tooting bit of inner south-west London. Barnet has never been Labour before: indeed, it was about the only bit of London where the Tories gained ground in 2018, a result widely credited to fears of Labour antisemitism among the country’s largest Jewish community. It’s seen a lot of housebuilding, however, and recently became London’s largest borough by population. This year, if a new Labour leadership means that voting patterns ping back into line with city-wide trends, that should be enough to put Labour over the top.
Wandsworth, meanwhile, was one of the earliest harbingers of gentrification, as the sort of people who couldn’t quite afford Chelsea moved in. It has been Tory since 1978, and is often described as the party’s flagship council, but it’s the sort of affluent, liberal, Remain-y place where the current iteration of the party is most toxic. (A Guardian report on the borough contains this amazing quote from a Tory MP: “It’s like Downing Street hate Tory councillors and are figuring out how to have as few as possible.”) If, as seems probable, the flagship borough goes Labour this time round, it should spark some mild panic in the Tory party.
If Westminster does the same you can replace “panic” with “hysteria”. Labour has never won that either — the closest it came was in 1986, when the local Tory party responded by frantically flogging off council houses in marginal wards, a wheeze known to history as the “homes for votes” scandal — and seems unlikely to break its duck this time.
That said, the borough has had a series of rows — over the proposed pedestrianisation of Oxford Street, reducing traffic in Soho, the decision to blow £6m of public money on building and dismantling a grassy mound at Marble Arch (no, really) — that could all play well for Labour. In 2018, what’s more, the Tories beat Labour by less than two points, 42.8 per cent to 41.1 per cent, even if this did translate, thanks to the magic of First Past the Post, to 41 seats to Labour’s 19. Labour still has a big mound to climb here, simply because there aren’t that many winnable seats, but this may say more about an iffy electoral system than the relative popularity of the two parties. (More from Dave Hill at On London here.)
If there is one place that might actually buck the trend towards Labour, it’s Croydon, the giant borough of the southern suburbs. Labour has run the council since 2014, since when it has overseen the redevelopment of the Fairfield Halls arts venue, a project that’s run a neat £37m over budget, and the council has effectively gone bankrupt. Whoops. Throw in the fact the council is holding its inaugural mayoral election, too, and all sorts of things could happen.
Talking of mayors, in 2010 the independent Lutfur Rahman became the first directly elected mayor of Tower Hamlets. In 2015 he became the first directly elected mayor to be found guilty of “corrupt and illegal practices” and removed from office. His disqualification from office has now expired, however, and this year he’s running again, with leaflets including endorsements from Ken Livingstone and, er, the American civil rights icon Jesse Jackson. If Labour’s John Biggs loses here — which he might — that may actually count as even more embarrassing than events in Croydon.
Two final thoughts, not related to specific boroughs, before I shut up and let you get on with your weekend. Firstly, there’s been a lot of talk about the Greens potentially capitalising on the left’s disillusionment with Labour and becoming the main opposition in inner London. This would be a great thing — one-party states are generally awful — but I can’t quite see it. That YouGov poll has the Greens on 9 per cent, barely up from the 8.6 per cent they got in 2018, and the New Statesman’s model suggests they’ll pick up between zero and 11 seats, out of around 1,800 in the capital. Progress, but hardly a revolution.
Lastly, will low-traffic neighbourhoods be a big vote-mover? They do seem to make people furious (honestly, I wrote about them for the Guardian last week and my mentions have frequently been unreadable since), a fact visible everywhere from public hustings to the delightfully unhinged local social network Nextdoor.
And yet, a survey conducted by Savanta for the Centre for London, a think tank, found that they were the top concern to just 12 per cent of voters, with council tax (46 per cent), partygate (36 per cent) and social care (30 per cent) all far more likely to move votes. The people who are angry about LTNs are very angry indeed. But, it turns out, there aren’t that many of them.