As the clock ticked towards 5am on Friday morning last week and the final ward results were announced, a political earthquake hit Wandsworth. A Council that not even Tony Blair could win in 1998 flipped to Labour, ending the flagship Conservative’s 44-year run dominating the Authority.
But with councillors of a different political hue running the Council and occupying the Leader’s office what does the election campaign tell us about how the new administration might operate?
Back to basics
Our Associate Director Michael Stanworth puts it down to a range of national, local and hyper local factors coming together in a perfect storm.
National party politics (including ‘partygate’) arguably made Boris Johnson Labour’s greatest electoral asset – giving extra motivation to Labour supporters to vote, and depressing the turnout among the Borough’s Conservative voters. ‘Bins not Boris’ was never going to be a winning (unofficial) strapline on the doorstep.
But look further and the echo of Brexit is still being heard. With a significant population of EU citizens in Wandsworth, it was one of the most Remain places in London and indeed Britain and this, coupled with a noticeable demographic change over the years made the average local resident younger, more socially aware – and socially liberal – made Wandsworth more winnable than in, say, 1998.
But also compare and contrast the election campaigns. The Conservatives’ won the Council in 2010, 2014 and 2018 with a laser-like focus on Council Tax. Yet but as the ‘conveyor belt’ of young professionals who typically move to Wandsworth, couple up and then move out to the Home Counties stopped after the 2008 financial crisis (and is only now starting up again), more people stayed for longer, brought up their families locally, interacted with the Council and were disappointed in their experiences.
Labour had learnt from previous defeats that it too had to have a laser-like focus on target seats, with wins complementing a growing number of safe seats and, as we saw last week, the odd victory in wards Labour didn’t even campaign in. Council tax was a big issue on the doorstep, but Labour’s much wider narrative on how they wanted people trust and votes to make a difference in local communities won out over an extremely narrow conservative narrative.
With Labour now running the Council, they now own the Council Tax narrative, forcing the Conservatives to enter at least 4 years of opposition and into a discussion about what their new vision for the Borough might be.
How it started, how it’s going
Looking to the future, there’s a compelling case to say Labour could run Wandsworth for a generation. The electoral map shows there are no longer any ‘no go’ areas for Labour, and a handful of extra votes in certain wards would have seen Labour head towards 40 seats.
Looking at the electoral cycle, the next local elections are in May 2026, so the other side of a General Election which unless there is another earthquake larger than last week and 1997 put together, is likely to see a Conservative government returned.
Winning the Council is also deeply personal.
Leader Simon Hogg worked at housing charity Shelter for five years and its not unreasonable to expect he’ll aim to make Wandsworth a flagship council for building new social housing and retrofitting the existing stock. With over 3,000 children in Wandsworth going to sleep every night temporary accommodation that’s a challenge he’ll want to tackle from day one.
Labour’s challenge in delivery will be land values. Will the new administration manage to deliver social housing at scale given lots of public land has already been disposed of in the Borough and many developments already securing planning permission and being built out.
The scale of the Conservatives and the shock of losing a seat in Balham and East Putney – some of their safest wards in the Borough – will severely damage local party morale, budgets and their organisational ability. In just a few short years they’ve gone from 2 local MPs, 40 councillors to fewer activists, less budget and a national Tory party that just doesn’t see the voters of Wandsworth as part of its coalition of voters necessary for power.
Also, the Labour Group is full of experience and talent. It is an intellectual, high performing and ideological group of individuals determined to make positive changes to the communities they represent.
And don’t discount the Sadiq effect. The Mayor of London was active in the target ward of Trinity on polling days, was at the count and was on Sky championing Simon Hogg. It’s also where he calls home. It’s not unlikely Sadiq could give Wandsworth a disproportionate focus in the coming weeks, months and years.
A closed shop?
We understand that there may be fears among some who have already invested in Wandsworth that it will become a closed shop. I don’t agree.
I believe Labour in Wandsworth understand the benefits that regeneration – when done in the right way – can deliver much needed new homes and commercial space that delivers the additional council tax and business rate receipts that in large part help keep most councils going.
So, whilst not a closed shop, Wandsworth will certainly trade under different terms.
Budding applicants must re-assess their plans and create and communicate a truly compelling narrative about what local benefits regeneration plans will have for local communities. They have to be compelling, accessible, affordable. There will be no more swimming pools in the sky.
Labour locally has been waiting for this moment for 44 years or in electoral terms, 10 separate sets of elections. But they’re in a hurry. Expect more detail soon on Labour’s plan to turn the Council’s house building programme which promised a range of new homes in a range of tenures into 100% social rent homes – to supply secure rooves over the heads of the kids in temporary accommodation.
The real short-term risk is for those whose applications are either in the system or about to be lodged with the Council and who engaged with a political leadership who are no longer able to influence decisions. They’ll need to play catch up, work closely with officers and engage often new councillors (especially given the new ward boundaries). The attendance at the first few planning committees is likely to be far greater than it has been in the past, as people gauge the new administration’s views towards planning and development.
As Wandsworth enters a new and from a personal perspective a potentially extremely exciting new chapter in its history, there will be some for who this change is deeply concerning. There will be a way of navigating new faces, new ways of decision making and new priorities. If you want to find out more, get in touch for a briefing.