Labour leader to appear alongside London mayor in campaign to push Tories out of power in key boroughs
Jeremy Corbyn will take his battle for flagship Conservative boroughs to the streets of London on Monday as he launches Labour’s local election campaign in the capital alongside the mayor, Sadiq Khan.
The Labour leader will put soaring violent crime at the heart of his party’s bid to take over at least four fiercely guarded Tory local authorities, branding the Tories’ record on policing and crime as a “reckless failure”.
At an event in Westminster – one of Labour’s target councils – Corbyn will also criticise Theresa May’s housing policy, saying that the Grenfell disaster showed that London “may be united, but we are deeply unequal”.
Khan, meanwhile, will hope to appeal to remain voters by telling them the local elections on 3 May will be their last chance to give their verdict on the “extreme, hard Brexit” the government is pursuing.
Outside London, the elections are as likely to be about bins as Brexit. But it is inevitable that much of the focus will fall on the capital, where all the seats in 32 boroughs – 20 of which are currently held by Labour – are up for grabs.
Map showing the London borough of Barnet.
The red surge in the capital has been evident for some years. Labour now needs little over 150 net gains to match its best ever result in the capital: 1,221 seats in 1971. The Tories, who have no councillors in five London boroughs, are within 100 losses of their worst showing.
Top of Labour’s target list is Barnet in north London, which the Tories held with a majority of one until last month, when the borough fell under no overall control. Its longstanding reputation of outsourcing, which earned it the nickname of “easyCouncil”, has pushed voters to Labour. But the party faces a major hurdle in the form of the antisemitism row: the borough has the largest Jewish population in the UK.
Labour, backed by Momentum activists on the ground, has poured resources into the Tory “crown jewel” councils of Wandsworth, Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea. Losing even one of these flagship boroughs would be a major blow for the Conservatives, however they might try to spin it. K&C and Westminster have been Tory-controlled since their inception in 1964, while Wandsworth has been blue since 1978.
The latter, known as Margaret Thatcher’s favourite borough, is particularly at risk. For years, Wandsworth has had one of the lowest council tax rates in the country, which helped boost the Tory vote but left it open to accusations that services had suffered. Two-thirds of the borough were remainers, which Labour hopes will keep some Tories at home on polling day. Neither party seems keen on promoting their national leaders: “We want to keep CCHQ out of it,” said one senior Tory. Labour favoured snaps of local boy Khan over Corbyn on its leaflets.
A similarly tough contest is being played out in Westminster. The bullish Tory leader Nickie Aiken has been on a campaign footing since taking over the central London borough last year, trying to head off Labour on issues such as affordable housing and Brexit. Labour insiders are upbeat, given the unpredictability of politics, but describe themselves as the underdogs. “We’re not upstairs measuring the curtains, but we’re hopeful we can give them a bloody nose,” said one councillor.
Kensington and Chelsea is more complicated. On paper it looks like an almost insurmountable challenge for Labour, but many believe that the Grenfell disaster could change things. One senior council official said they “wouldn’t put money on it either way”. Labour could return huge majorities in wards it already holds in the north of the borough, while the Tories hold on to power because of the true-blue south.
There is also an outside chance of Hillingdon slipping from the Tories’ grasp. This would raise the tantalising prospect of Boris Johnson, one of the three local MPs, facing a Labour insurgency orchestrated in part by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, a Hillingdon neighbour.
While much of the attention in London is focused on the two main parties, the Lib Dems are fighting to defend seats in Sutton – their last remaining council in the capital – as well as attempting to harness the remain vote to take Kingston-upon-Thames, and possibly Richmond, from the Tories. “We’re on our way back,” Vince Cable said when he launched his party’s campaign. How far, remains to be seen.
But it is across the rest of England that the Conservatives face their biggest test. Most of the 4,350 seats up for grabs across 150 local authorities on 3 May are outside the capital. While they have downplayed their chances in London, expectations elsewhere are high.
Labour’s share of the vote since 2014 has risen just 5.8 points outside the capital, compared with 11.8 points in London, and is overshadowed by a 7.6-point rise for the Tories, buoyed by a fading Ukip, effectively out of a job now that Brexit seems increasingly likely to go ahead.
Ukip’s decline – it could be wiped out in the 125 seats it is defending from 2014 – could hand control of councils like Plymouth and North East Lincolnshire to Labour and seats to the Tories in places such as Basildon, Great Yarmouth and Rochford. A notable aside: Brian Parker, the BNP’s last councillor in England, will not contest his seat in Pendle, completing the far-right party’s demise.
Labour is likely to do well in its traditional strongholds such as Newcastle, Leeds, Manchester and Rotherham. The Tories are hanging on in Trafford by a single seat, but are determined to retain their speck of blue in a sea of red. They look unshiftable in their other metropolitan authority in Solihull and in the shires and districts.
The Conservatives will likely claim a win, of sorts, if they remain the largest party in local government, a position they have held for more than a decade. And if Labour falls below expectations, it would be worse for Corbyn than a poor Tory showing would be for Theresa May – especially at this tender stage in the political cycle.
There are also mayoral contests to fight, with Labour’s Dan Jarvis expected to win in Sheffield and the party expected to hold on in Newham and Lewisham, while hoping to capitalise on a split opposition to become the biggest party in Tower Hamlets. The question in Watford is whether the Lib Dems can hang on after their popular local mayor Dorothy Thornhill stepped down.
Both Labour and the Tories have been engaged in fierce expectation management. May’s party is still bruised after the 2017 general election. One minister said the Tories were trying to lower expectations “to the floor”, while an MP said: “We need people to know how close it’s going to be so they get out and vote.”
But much will come down to turnout, which was artificially boosted the last two times these seats were up for grabs, by the 2010 general election and 2014 European elections. The results are likely to tell more than one story: are voters still divided along big city and small town lines? And was the general election a one-off, or the beginning of a political shift that is set to continue?