Observers are asking whether the council—run by the Conservatives since its creation—could fall to Labour in the local elections next weekby Abigail Frymann Rouch / April 27, 2018 / Leave a comment
Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, Oxford Street, the West End—the list sounds like a must-see guide to England’s most prestigious symbols, and shows why running the City of Westminster is regarded as the great prize in local politics.
Since its creation in 1964, Westminster City Council has been run by the Conservatives, but observers are questioning whether it might go red at the local government elections next Thursday.
On some issues the borough is a microcosm of national politics—both Labour and the Conservatives are campaigning on the need for more council and affordable housing, for measures to reduce air pollution, and for the rights of its EU citizens post-Brexit.
A February YouGov poll indicated a 13.4 per cent swing from the Tories to Labour in inner London, which would have meant three “safe” councils—Westminster, along with Wandsworth and Barnet—going red. A second survey, published on Thursday, suggested a swing of just under 7 points. Nonetheless, a shift to the left is widely anticipated. At last year’s general election Labour MP Karen Buck’s majority shot up in Westminster North, and the Tory majority in the so-called safe seat of the Cities of London and Westminster fell. Change is a-foot, but will the sitting Tories be knocked out, or just given a bloody nose?
Professor Philip Cowley, of Queen Mary University, London, who commissioned the YouGov research, identified a “tipping point”: “A seven per cent swing would give Labour two extra seats, but once you get to a swing of 10 per cent, the borough goes Labour.”
Labour’s group leader on the council, Adam Hug, reflects: “We’re always going to be underdogs in a situation like Westminster, but we’re in a with a shot.” Labour’s Momentum has been busy, on Saturday launching its Unseat Westminster campaign. Asked whether Jeremy Corbyn is proving a draw for voters, Hug referenced London’s more centrist mayor, Sadiq Khan: “The team of Jeremy and Sadiq together brings a broad coalition of supporters into Labour.”
Council leader Nickie Aiken outlined Westminster Conservatives’ “bins not Brexit” approach, stressing the city has the lowest council tax, and good services on waste collection, street cleaning and schools. She said Labour represented an unknown in terms of its hard left, adding that voters “are concerned about the anti-Semitic poison that is currently penetrating parts of the Labour Party.”
Labour is pledging to reform the system for which planning applications are approved, reinvest in youth clubs and children’s centres, boost support for the elderly and promote the Living Wage, while keeping taxes low. Hug accuses the council of having prioritised developers over residents with a number of large-scale projects; Aiken says she has begun to overhaul the system. The Conservatives are pledging to build 2,000 homes by 2023; Hug says Labour’s councillors’ influence is behind Conservatives shifting course “though they’ve got… a poor track record to run on.”
Anthony Wells, director of political research at YouGov, told Prospect that while the new data suggested that Westminster “will stay Conservative without too much difficulty,” a lot rested on where in London the swing would occur. Because of the range of parties and differences between councils, local elections “spring surprises,” he added.
Whatever the local councillors might hope, voters will make their decisions based on whichever issues they consider most relevant. Several residents of the council-built Hallfield Estate in Westminster’s Lancaster Gate ward told Prospect they would switch from Conservative to Labour because of national and local issues. Lancaster Gate has been consistently Tory, but some Hallfield residents are disillusioned because of the council’s estate management organisation, CityWest Homes, at whom there is anger thanks to a recent refurbishment. One such resident is Tanya Cumming, a member of BA cabin crew, who is voting Labour because of cuts to her children’s schools and a growing feeling that the Tories are interested in voters earning £100,000 or more.
Among others planning to follow suit next week is retired hairdresser Catherine McGann, who was resolute: “Theresa May has put me off voting Conservative completely,” she said, citing the Prime Minster and former Home Secretary’s role in the Windrush scandal and even her handling of the London riots in 2011. For teacher Moira Ni, the “breaking point” was the Grenfell Tower fire in neighbouring Conservative stronghold Kensington and Chelsea, because it showed that “no one cares that much about us.” She added: “It’s good to have some change.”
Some residents thought the council was doing a good job. Spanish-born retired waiter Elias Fafean said he was “happy” with the council, and Adil Abdellatif, a retired medical supplies officer, said while he supported Corbyn over May, at the local level he didn’t mind whether Labour or the Tories won, adding: “They’re both talking about the same issues.” Single mother and school kitchen assistant Amie Marsh, 25, also said she preferred Corbyn but she would vote Conservative because she voted for “whoever’s representing us in our area.”
Gains by Labour are widely expected on 3rd May, due to factors from Conservative austerity to greater activism and youth engagement under Corbyn’s leadership. Birmingham University’s Karin Bottom added that despite the number of smaller parties represented, “whenever people feel particularly worried about big substantive issues… they have a tendency to retreat to parties with experience of governing.”
Even if Labour fails to gain control of the prestigious council but increases its number of seats, Hug said their councillors would look forward to having “a much better ability to hold the Tories to account.”