UK Politics: Labour to make capital gains as Londoners punish Tories?

Westminster tube station where Labour hope to be victorious
Westminster (above) is one of the councils Labour hope to win on May 3
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With just over three weeks to go before the local elections, Max Liu discusses some key battles in London boroughs where Labour are hoping to oust the Conservatives...

"Kensington and Chelsea, Wandsworth and Westminster councils are all considered 'in play' on May 3 which is why Betfair have opened markets. All three councils have traditionally been Tory strongholds."

Apologies to readers outside the capital: the following is going to be London-centric. The reason for that, however, is that when local elections take place in 150 councils on 3 May, all 32 London boroughs will be up for grabs for the first time since 2014. Much has happened since then - two general elections, the in-out referendum, the return of radical politics to the Labour Party - so the outcome in some London boroughs next month will be fascinating.

How Labour have dominated London politics since 2014

The last time London councils held elections, Ed Miliband was leader of the Labour Party. Miliband's time as leader is ultimately remembered with regret but he oversaw a dramatic Labour resurgence in London. In 2014, Labour gained control of 20 of the 32 councils, winning 43% of the popular vote, with their best performance for more than 40 years. The Conservatives received their lowest ever percentage of the vote in London council elections.

The following year, even as the Conservatives won a majority in the general election, Labour gained parliamentary seats from the Tories and Liberal Democrats. Twelve months later, Labour candidate Sadiq Khan sealed a crushing victory over the Conservative Zac Goldsmith in the capital's mayoral election.

Since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, London's diverse and educated population has, in general, responded positively to the party's move to the left. At last year's general election, Labour gained 21 seats and the Tories surrendered 22. This was attributed in part to Brexit, as three out of five Londoners voted Remain in 2016, but progressive politics more broadly are also growing in popularity in the capital.

Can Labour take "Thatcher's favourite council" and others across London?

Millions of Londoners are unhappy about Brexit and, just like at last summer's general election, are out to punish the Conservatives at the council elections on May 3. On top of this, cuts to local services are starting to bite, with everything from reduced bin collections to a rise in violent crimes causing concern.

But why would metropolitan Remainers turn to Labour when Corbyn's position on Brexit still appears to be fairly similar to the government's? It appears, based on general election results and recent polling in key boroughs, that Londoners trust Labour's shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer more than his opposite number David Davis. They think their public services will not get any worse under Labour control. They also think Theresa May embodies the kind of parochial Toryism that's associated with the English shires and not with a modern international capital.

As a consequence, Kensington and Chelsea, Wandsworth and Westminster councils are all considered "in play" on May 3 which is why Betfair have opened markets. This is remarkable as all three councils have long been Tory strongholds. In the 1980s, Wandsworth was even dubbed "Thatcher's favourite council," as it reduced taxes and became an early adopter of the policy of outsourcing public services.

Will May 3rd local elections produce historic results?

According to one Conservative MP, who's been campaigning on the doorstep in key boroughs, the Tory leaders of Wandsworth and Westminster councils think they're going to lose. Meanwhile, in Kensington and Chelsea, which has been under Tory control since its inception in the 1960s, there is concern about Brexit and considerable anger at the council's inadequate response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

On the other hand, Sadiq Khan, who cut his political teeth as a member of Wandsworth Council, is playing down Labour's chances of capturing these three central west London councils. Up the Northern line in Barnet, where there is a large Jewish community, Labour's chances of taking the council might have been damaged by the recent allegations of anti-Semitism in the party. And of course, Labour are not the only party hoping to make gains: in Richmond-Upon-Thames, the Liberal Democrats aim to take the council from the Tories.

Over all, though, the sense is that the Tories have been surprised by their declining popularity in London and might not be prepared for the scale of the challenge facing them on the ground between now and polling day. They will be up against an energetic and innovative campaign from Labour for whom May 3rd is a once in a generation chance to consolidate their power in the capital.

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