As Frankie Valli once sang, oh what a night!
I doubt he had London’s local election results in mind when singing those lyrics but he might as well have done. In the results declared overnight, Labour have done better than even the most optimistic supporter could have dreamed of. To win one of Barnet, Westminster or Wandsworth would have been a good night for the party, but to win all three is a pretty extraordinary achievement.
These wins have won the headlines but danger lurks around the corner for the Labour boroughs counting on Friday, which may take the gloss off the overnight news, as we will discuss later.
The Lib Dems also had a good night, making major gains from the Conservatives in Wimbledon, now surely a top target for them at the next General Election. They also all but wiped out the Conservatives in Richmond, a borough that the Tories controlled just four years ago.
Labour have had Barnet in their sights since it was their top target in 2014, falling just short on that occasion. Four years later, with the Tories defending a majority of just 1, Labour fell back, losing five seats and increasing the Tory majority to 13.
This was mainly blamed on the scourge of anti-semitism that Labour’s leadership had allowed to fester within the Party. In a borough with the largest Jewish population in the UK, this was never going to result in electoral gains.
Fast forward four years, and under new leadership that has made eradicating anti-Semitism from the Labour Party it’s top objective, the Conservatives were always going to find this a tougher task. And so it is that Labour have won overall control of Barnet for the first time. Labour’s seemingly unstoppable rise in the capital continues, not just in inner London but in the suburbs as well.
Margaret Thatcher’s favourite council, a bastion of low tax and high efficiency has finally fallen to the Labour Party. The last time this happened was way back in 1974 and the Tories have had a healthy majority ever since.
The Conservatives were fighting a brave fight against all the mathematical odds. The boundary review benefitted Labour, the 2021 London Mayoral election pointed to a Labour victory and in 2019, Labour won all three parliamentary seats in the borough.
The Tory campaign was simple. Remind voters yet again that their council tax is lower than those of neighbouring Labour boroughs – much lower. To add to that, they decided to cut council tax this year when almost every other authority was raising theirs. Their logic was sound, for decades in Wandsworth, national Labour voters have supported the Conservatives locally to keep their bills down. Unfortunately for them, the distaste that voters in Wandsworth have for this Conservative Government, and their opposition to Brexit, was too much and not enough voters followed the usual pattern.
As BECG predicted in our preview report a year ago, the changing demographics and the realities of the current political scene would prove too much, and the tide finally turned in Wandsworth.
The real surprise in these results is Westminster. Despite recent elections showing a significant move away from the Conservatives, the sheer size of the swing required was considered by most to be a step too far. Westminster Labour proved its critics wrong. So, how did they do it?
For starters, since the Brexit referendum, politics has changed. The importance of the old left/right economic axis has been replaced by one of values. Westminster is full of liberal Conservatives who will have been appalled at this government’s actions over Brexit, partygate and the economy. Added to that is the local own goal of the Marble Arch Mound and there were opportunities for Labour to capitalise. And capitalise they did. Labour now have councillors in Hyde Park, Lancaster Gate, Vincent Square and the West End. These areas are full of wealthy traditionally Conservative voters, but they have clearly had enough of this Government and in Keir Starmer they see someone reliable enough to trust with their vote.
The danger for Labour is that there aren’t too many places like Westminster. They will need to ensure they are focused on former red wall communities to win a General Election, even if in doing so they lose voters here in the heart of the capital.
Despite these excellent results, Labour will be looking nervously at what is to come on Friday. Harrow, Croydon and Tower Hamlets are all counting on Friday and are all boroughs that Labour could lose today and for very different reasons.
For a clue as to what may happen in Harrow, look at the results from Enfield. A former marginal borough that has been held by Labour for a couple of cycles, Labour lost seats this time round. Much of that is to do with the focus of the leadership on left behind communities in Edmonton, potentially at the expense of those further north. There are proposals to build on the greenbelt and that might explain how the Conservatives have made gains in the North and the West of the borough.
Harrow is a very similar borough, with a small Labour majority. If Enfield’s result points to a larger problem for Labour in outer London then the Tories could well take control. The Labour administration isn’t particularly well run and the Conservatives campaigned hard on development issues, particularly on limiting heights of construction. A loss here could really boost Tory morale.
In Croydon, we will see whether bankrupting the Council will damage Labour’s Val Shawcross’ chance of taking the newly found Mayoralty. It’s likely to be closer than you might otherwise expect on a good night for Labour. With so much opportunity to attack Labour for their financial mismanagement, this may be the Conservatives’ final chance to win Croydon for some time.
The final count to watch is in Tower Hamlets. Disgraced former Mayor Lutfur Rahman has served his 5-year ban and is back, challenging Labour’s John Biggs for the Mayoralty once more. This election all depends on whether the sizable Bengali community, which Rahman almost exclusively depends on, is still backing him or whether a sizable minority support Labour.
Thursday night’s results in London were extraordinary for Labour, it remains to be seen whether the Party is facing a hangover on Friday.