London elections part 3

Bexley, Hackney, Hammersmith and Fulham, Harrow, Havering, Hillingdon, Hounslow, Islington, Kingston upon Thames, Lewisham, Redbridge, Southwark, Waltham Forest

Barnet, Bromley, Croydon, Ealing, Kensington and Chelsea, Lambeth, Newham, Richmond upon Thames, Tower Hamlets, Wandsworth

Barking and Dagenhan, BexleyCamdenEnfieldGreenwichHaringeyMertonSuttonWestminster


This patch of outer south-east London was expected to have a reasonable chance for Labour control when the council was established, but the party has only rarely been able to win a majority. The most recent period of Labour control, with an overall majority of one seat between 2002 and 2006, was achieved with the help of favourable boundaries and the ability of the Blair era Labour Party to reach into suburban middle class communities.

Neither of those reasons apply any more. The Labour Party in the Corbyn era is not emulating the appeal of Blair, and instead Bexley is increasingly aligned with the right: it saw one of the highest UK Independence Party votes in 2014 which was enough to win them three seats. This sizeable vote collapsed to 4% in the 2017 general election, and those votes seem to have gone mainly to the Conservatives. The overall swing in Bexley between 2014 local elections and 2017 was 3% to the Conservatives – against a Londonwide trend to Labour.

Bexley has also undergone ward boundary changes. Unlike the three other boroughs which have had boundary reviews, in Bexley an opportunity was taken to make a significant reduction in the overall number of seats which have fallen from 63 to 45. Had these wards been used in 2014 we estimate the result would have been 34 Conservatives, 10 Labour and one from the UK Independence Party. The changes slightly increase the swing Labour needs to win control to 8%, and means each of the marginal wards is now larger and more mixed.

Although local social media can be derisively critical of the Conservative leadership, it is highly favoured to hold on to control of the council.

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The period between 1996 and 2001 when Hackney passed out of Labour control due to scandal and split now seems like a different age, and Labour is now solidly back in control of this borough with the enthusiastic backing of local residents. Not only did Jules Pipe win the Mayoralty on the first ballot in 2014 with over 60% of the vote, when he stepped down to join Sadiq Khan’s team in 2016 his successor Philip Glanville won a Mayoral byelection with 69%.

This result shows that Labour can get its vote out even in a low-turnout election outside the normal cycle. Labour also had a very good general election, achieving a swing of over 10% since the already good 2014 local elections. Hackney’s council administration has managed to deliver on some major council estate regeneration schemes in Stoke Newington (Woodberry Down) with a private partner in a way not totally different to the schemes proposed in Haringey, but with nothing like the same level of controversy.

Unlike other inner London boroughs the other major parties are able to hold seats and form opposition groups on Hackney council. Both the Conservative held ward of Springfield and the adjacent Liberal Democrat ward of Cazenove are influenced by the votes of a large community of orthodox Haredi Jews.

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Hammersmith and Fulham

Until May 2014, the story in Hammersmith and Fulham was of a traditionally Labour borough that was trending to the Conservatives – partly due to gentrification, but also due to a politically savvy and well-connected Conservative group. The borough was sometimes described as ‘David Cameron’s favourite council’. Although it had been Labour controlled up to 2006, the borough was not designated as a target by Labour’s London regional office at the 2014 local elections.

The local Labour Party had other ideas, and launched an energetic campaign to regain control using local anger at the Conservative council’s estate regeneration programme and, in particular, proposals for changing the role of Charing Cross hospital. Unexpectedly Labour succeeded, gaining 11 seats and retaking control.

The Labour administration has since done everything it can to keep up the campaign to retain a marginal borough – continuing to campaign on the hospital issue. It has also done well on council finances: Hammersmith and Fulham is the only London borough where residents are paying less council tax now than they were at the time of the 2014 elections. In 2017 Labour benefited from a swing of 8% at the general election, and also did well in two council byelections in marginal wards.

While the local Conservatives are motivated and skilled campaigners (and have some issues to go on, including the embarrassing failure to update parking meters to take new pound coins), there is nobody in the Conservative Party talking up their chances of regaining control. The borough’s population profile includes many younger people in housing need and EU nationals, both groups which are trending to Labour. An increased Labour majority is likely.

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Labour’s 2014 election in Harrow was a difficult one. The party had won a majority in 2010 but council leader Bill Stephenson only served for two and a half years before making way for a successor. The Labour group first picked Thaya Idaikkadar, who duly became council leader, but only six months later he was voted out by the Labour group. Idaikkadar refused to resign the council leadership and instead left the Labour Party along with several supporters. He charged the Labour group with racism, but an inquiry could not find any support. He was replaced as leader by Susan Hall of the Conservatives shortly before the 2014 election.

Labour therefore found itself fighting to regain control on two fronts – against the Conservatives and against the ‘Independent Labour’ group. Labour did well to regain control, but made no net seat gains. Both Labour’s 2010 and 2014 victories in Harrow were achieved despite the Conservatives winning more votes across the borough. The GLA elections of 2016 also saw a relatively good Conservative performance (partly through increased appeal to the Asian community in north-west London), and in April 2017 the Conservatives won a seat in Kenton East ward from Labour at a council byelection.

Retaining control of Harrow again may accordingly be difficult for Labour. The council leadership did not welcome the distraction of having to select a Parliamentary candidate with the council election imminent. Harrow is not so affected by the London effect boosting Labour in the inner boroughs; Harrow has a relatively older population. However getting a swing to the Conservatives does seem unlikely; at the general election the swing was over 3% to Labour. Conservative group leader Susan Hall now has a prominent position in the London Assembly.

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Local politics in Havering are difficult to analyse using national trends because the various residents’ associations are potent electoral forces, but do not have a clear identity in terms of national politics. At present the residents’ association councillors sit in three separate groups and rarely vote the same way.

When the Conservatives lost their overall majority in the 2014 local elections, they managed to agree a coalition deal with residents’ association councillors elected from Cranham, Upminster and Harold Wood wards – all three being wards where the Conservatives are not strong electoral challengers in local elections. The councillors from wards in Hornchurch sponsored by the Hornchurch Residents’ Association remained in opposition. Residents’ councillors representing the wards of South Hornchurch and Rainham and Wennington, which are mostly working class, have been in a separate ‘Independent Residents’ group for many years.

Havering was tailor-made for the UK Independence Party, and the party won seven seats in 2014 – reduced to six by a byelection loss to Labour in 2016. Despite UKIP’s travails the six have been able to hold together in the party and in the same group, but the UKIP vote fell to 6% in general election. That byelection gain does not signify much chance of Labour regaining its strength; Labour are in contention only in a couple of wards.

With the Conservatives having regained their voters from UKIP and split the residents groups, 2018 may be a chance to make seat gains. Havering has many of the older traditional working class groups who have shifted to the Conservatives. We think a narrow Conservative overall majority most likely.

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Hillingdon is a very large borough on the map and has a very wide range of areas: strongly working-class communities, mixed residential, industrial zones, a university, and prosperous outer suburbia. It even has a separate village (Harefield).

Perhaps surprisingly Hillingdon’s Ray Puddifoot is the longest serving Conservative council leader in London. It is a borough which has been considered marginal but the Conservatives have had control for 20 years. Coming into 2018, Labour need a swing of only 4% to win a majority, and yet many Labour sources are downplaying their chances. It is thought to be the sort of outer London area where Labour is doing less well.

While the general election swing (5% to Labour) was enough if it was uniform, it seems possible that it was concentrated in areas which will not deliver enough seat gains. The younger voters who are moving to Labour tend to live around Brunel University in Uxbridge which helps Labour there but is not in itself enough to take the council. Labour campaigners have been heading for the Uxbridge constituency to try to overturn Boris Johnson’s less than stellar general election majority.

It is not impossible to see Labour take Hillingdon but it is not easy. The key wards are South Ruislip and Hillingdon East; if Labour starts winning seats there, it might nick a small majority. Meanwhile Ladbrokes will give you 6/5 on for either Labour or Conservatives to win a majority.

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It seems odd now to recall that at the beginning of 2010, the Conservatives were the leading party on Hounslow having outpolled Labour at the previous election and running a coalition with a localist group who were good centre-right allies. Some expected the Conservatives to win a majority at the 2010 election, but things turned out the other way: a Labour majority of ten seats, expanded to 38 in 2014.

Partly this was because the Labour administration treated the borough as a marginal, including years in which they cut the council tax level. But Labour has also solidified its support in traditional Labour areas of Feltham, where populist Conservatives were previously able to win council elections.

The 2017 general election was counted by ward in Hounslow, and showed (to general astonishment) that Labour had managed a clean sweep and outpolled the Conservatives everywhere – even in three traditionally Conservative wards in Chiswick (Chiswick Homefields, Chiswick Riverside, and Turnham Green).

Local opinion considers this outcome unlikely in the council election, although some seat gains here may be likely. It was achieved despite a small overall swing across the borough of under 3% since the 2014 local elections.

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After spending ten years under Liberal Democrat control, Islington is a borough once again personally identified with the Leader of the Labour Party. But by contrast with the 1990s when Tony Blair lived there and the council was run by Blairites, the current council leadership is not entirely made up of ideological soulmates of Jeremy Corbyn. Council leader Richard Watts accompanied Corbyn to the count at the 2017 general election but local Labour councillors are drawn from across the party.

The perception that Islington is ‘Corbyn central’ did help Labour achieve strong support in the 2017 general election, and is likely to help Labour in the council elections as well. The Liberal Democrats tended to prosper in winning council seats when they were able to pitch to the left of Labour. Islington has a minimal Conservative vote; the Conservatives have only won three seats in the past half century, the most recent in 1994.

For the past four years the only opposition has come from a single Green Party councillor in Highbury East ward. Labour are now targeting that seat to get a clean sweep in the borough (which last happened in the early 1970s). Such an outcome is distinctly possible.

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Kingston upon Thames

The Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames is a small outer-London borough, but local politics can get very heated. The council has been a back-and-forth battle between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats/Liberal Alliance since the early 1980s, and each side fights fiercely. In the midst of this, the council has set the highest Band D council tax in London. Neither party seems able to reduce it.

In 2014 the Conservatives capitalised on the Liberal Democrats’ unpopularity in national politics to succeed in retaking majority control of the council. In opposition the Liberal Democrats targeted council leader Kevin Davis for personal criticism, alleging conflicts of interest with his role at the political engagement consultancy Cratus Communications which he had set up.

Gossip about Davis’s links to property developers has been constant; when Davis’s son was employed by a local developer, a 17-year-old community activist criticised Davis on Twitter. Davis hit back at his “appalling little child” interrogator. This overreaction has prompted petitions calling on him to resign the leadership.

At the general election the Liberal Democrats did well, winning back the Kingston and Surbiton seat that covers most of the borough and leading the Conservatives by 6% across the whole borough. Such a shift is easily enough for them to win back control. The Liberal Democrats are also targeting the Labour seats in Norbiton ward. Given the Liberal Democrat ability to target their activity, and that resentments tend to build up against council leaderships, they are likely to be able to retake the borough.

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Sir Steve Bullock, Mayor of Lewisham since the Mayoral system was set up, announced his retirement in early 2017, just after the council found itself involved in a storm over a possible housing development of land around Millwall FC’s stadium the ‘New Den’. The council intended to use compulsory purchase powers to unify land ownership, then sell them to developers Renewal. The Club launched a fierce opposition, claiming its future was threatened and making accusations of corruption. Political support for the deal collapsed; an inquiry was ordered, and Steve Bullock called time on his period as Mayor.

Would that be an opportunity for a Momentum supported left-winger to win the ballot of Labour Party members and become the new Mayor? Momentum are very strong in the borough, but after a fascinating selection contest, the winner was Damien Egan – a moderate Labour Party member and close to Sir Steve Bullock. Since then Bullock has been easing Egan into the leadership so the transition is easy. The inquiry into the land deal failed to stand up any of the claims, and London journalist Dave Hill has observed that “pretty much the whole thing has been a big bag of hot air”.

Otherwise Lewisham, which includes some very mixed suburbia, is becoming increasingly strong for Labour. There was a very large general election swing. In local elections, Labour has mainly been challenged from the left – the Liberal Democrats for a time, the Green Party, and the far left in the form of ‘Lewisham People Before Profit’. But in 2018 the question will be whether Labour can make it a clean sweep by winning the last Green Party seat which the party won by 53 votes last time.

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At the 2014 elections, Redbridge was Labour’s London highlight when the party succeeded in winning a majority in a borough which they had never previously won outright. The decision to target Redbridge was highly publicised and well prepared, and it helped that the Conservative group on the council had suffered several members falling out with each other. Having succeeded on the council, Labour went on to score an impressive win in the Ilford North constituency in the 2015 general election.

Coming into 2018, Redbridge has continued to swing to Labour. Ilford North now looks like a safe Labour seat with a near 10,000 majority and the demographic trends which have been helping Labour in Redbridge have continued. There have also been a round of boundary changes; we estimate that if the new boundaries had been used in 2014, Labour would have won 38 seats, the Conservatives 23, and the Liberal Democrats two.

The new boundaries seem likely to create many marginal wards and give all parties many targets. However the wind is blowing towards Labour, and they may look to wards such as Barkingside, Bridge, Clayhall, Fairlop and Fullwell as possibly giving gains. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will fight it out in Churchfields and South Woodford wards where the Boundary Commission has made major changes.

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Southwark borough council is one of the largest landlords in London, with the centre and north of the borough being dominated by council estates. Most of them were built rather cheaply in the 1950s and 1960s and the desire of the council to refurbish and redevelop them has become the main controversy in local politics: lacking any access to finance, Southwark has entered into deals with private developers including Lendlease which fund redevelopment at the cost of building market property.

It was in Southwark that grassroots campaigns against council deals with developers first developed, with the campaigners calling themselves the “35% Campaign” after the proportion of affordable housing set in Southwark planning policy. They have branched out into wider campaigning, but their main focus remains opposition to the council.

Surprisingly this activism has not led to reselection difficulties for anyone associated with Peter John’s moderate Labour leadership. Labour had more problems in 2014 when a disillusioned party member who had not been selected for the Bermondsey constituency set up the ‘All People’s Party’, but failed to win a significant vote. It is likely, with the emphatic defeat of Liberal Democrat Sir Simon Hughes in the 2017 election, that the Liberal Democrats will lose further seats in the north of the borough – though a complete wipeout is unlikely.

There are new ward boundaries in Southwark in 2018, which help the Conservatives retain a toehold as Dulwich Village ward is made safer for them. The Conservatives also hope to take seats from the Liberal Democrats in the Surrey Docks area. Had the new boundaries been used in 2014, Labour would have had 49 seats, the Liberal Democrats 12, and the Conservatives two.

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Waltham Forest

Although geography makes Waltham Forest an outer London borough, its residential demography and good transport connections between the centre and most of the area make it behave electorally far more like inner London. Labour were under strong Liberal Democrat challenge in Walthamstow and Leyton in the 2000s with the Liberal Democrats pitching to the left; there are also groups on the far left who are well organised.

As with most inner London boroughs, there are a large number of Momentum activists in the local Labour Party but they have not been successful in getting their candidates selected to stand for the council (and possibly as a result, they are complaining about the selection process). Waltham Forest’s Labour leadership is not as Blairite as most London boroughs but its regeneration programme in Walthamstow Central – including some very tall buildings and low proportions of affordable housing – has been a focus for discontent.

That may mean a relatively weak campaign for Labour in its safe areas, but the electoral action in Waltham Forest is now in the north of the borough where the Conservatives are on the defence in Chingford. This area is showing some of the same changes which have affected next door Redbridge, and Labour activists from outside have been organised to campaign there. There was a large swing at the general election in all parts of the borough.

Labour will go in to the election with Clare Coghill as a new leader still in her honeymoon phase with the voters, and also with a nice helping hand from the Mayor of London: Sadiq Khan named Waltham Forest as the ‘London Borough of Culture’ for 2019.

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