Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Britain Elects: Trees, Grenfell, Anti-Semitism, Windrush, and Voter IDs — All About the Locals

Below is a copy of my piece published with Britain Elects ahead of the 2018 Local Elections, on 30th April this year.

3rd May will see the first England-wide test of voter support for the country’s political parties since the General Election last June. Voters will head to the polls to elect councillors up and down the country, and in six of those areas there will also be mayoral elections. Though the general stories of Labour doing well in cities (particularly London) and with young voters and the Conservatives strengthening their grip on many pro-Brexit heartlands in the North and Midlands will most likely continue, there are many individual contests and battlegrounds with their own unique stories and nuances which may well buck — or exacerbate — the overall trends.


The General Story
Both the Conservatives and Labour look set to be up in terms of vote share on 2014. But while Labour are expected to make a fair amount of seat gains, the Conservatives look set to fall back. Recent polling over the last few days however suggests that the Labour gains may not be so large was anticipated perhaps a couple of weeks ago. Furthermore, though gains do seem likely, Labour might struggle to make a huge impact in terms of taking control (or removing opposition majority control) of local authorities this time around. As Professor Rob Ford pointed out on Saturday, many of the areas up for grabs on Thursday are already dominated by Labour councillors. They are also re-contesting a strong set of results produced by Ed Miliband’s Labour Party in 2014.

That said, there are a few places in which, if Labour are indeed having a good night, they can expect to move into the driving seat and would have cause to celebrate. They will be keeping a close eye on London where, after a strong General Election performance last year, they have some highly ambitious targets — including taking the Conservative controlled boroughs of Wandsworth and Westminster. There may well be further success for the party in other Councils such as Amber Valley, Plymouth, and perhaps North East Lincolnshire and Newcastle-Under-Lyme.

The Conservatives seem set for a quietly disappointing showing, but given the current political climate (and the usual painful nature of local election nights for governing parties) they may be fairly happy with a result of anything around 100 seat losses. They might, if they are able to continue their strong pickup of ex-UKIP voters, even have something to cheer about in places such as Thurrock, Basildon, and Great Yarmouth (seeking overall control in each).

According to forecasts, the Liberal Democrats are expected to, once again, have a frustrating night and make only a handful of limited advances. The may be looking to Maidstone (seeking overall control) and Stockport (seeking to displace Labour) for some good news. London may provide some further encouragement, with the prospect of regaining substantial ground in Richmond (where they were pipped to the post in 2017 by the born-again-Conservative Zac Goldsmith) and Kingston upon Thames on the cards.

UKIP look set for another terrible night. They will, after a rapid two-year decline, fall behind the Greens in terms of council seats in England on Thursday; all but a dreadfully poor night for the Greens, which is not expected, should see them cement 4th place on the English local representation leader board.

Away from the general patterns, there are four stories worth picking out where local factors and controversies could provide some very interesting results and trends.

Trees in Sheffield

Sheffield City Council: Labour control, 30 seat majority, 28 seats up.

Firstly, a significant test of the extent to which voters ‘think local’ in council elections when a scandal is unfolding and ongoing around them. The Labour Administration in Sheffield is currently under huge amounts of scrutiny over their ongoing controversial tree felling programme. Such has been the strength of opposition and controversy that the events have hit national and international headlines. In 2012 the Council contracted a private company, Amey, to cut down over half of the city’s 36,000 trees over a 25-year period as part of a ‘highways improvement’ programme worth £2.2 billion. Needless to say, this has not gone down well with many of the local residents from a city which prides itself on its green credentials. Rallies and marches against the destruction of health street trees have attracted thousands of residents, young and old, and the support of some very high-profile supporters — including Michael Gove, Chris Packham, and Jarvis Cocker.

Opposition parties — namely the Liberal Democrats and Greens — will be seeking to capitalise on local anger and frustration. Intriguingly, in six wards their campaigns will be assisted by a non-partisan campaigning group which was founded this year with the specific aim of putting boots on the ground to unseat Labour incumbents in marginal wards — the “It’s Our City” campaign. Equally, the non-partisan “Sheffield Trees Action Groups” (or STAG) campaign, over 10,000 members strong, are also actively supporting the removal of the current Administration. Labour are mounting a total of 19 defences in Sheffield, meaning that they could theoretically lose control of the council in the face of this widespread opposition. This is however very unlikely, with Labour defending some very friendly (as well as some not so friendly) seats.

A further layer of interest in Sheffield comes from the sole Green seat being defended this year in the city. The current incumbent there is Councillor Alison Teal — one of four Greens on the council. Cllr Teal has a majority of just eight votes, and has been right at the heart of the tree campaign — as well as one of its most vocal critics, she was arrested and then taken to court by her own Council for protesting against a tree felling in her ward (Nether Edge and Sharrow). She was subsequently cleared of any and all wrongdoing. Nether Edge has been the centre of many of the most intense and controversial episodes of the tree felling saga, and so results in Cllr Teal’s leafy city-centre seat as well as other tree felling flash-points of Broomhill and Sharrow Vale, Ecclesall, Gleadless Valley, and the Crookes and Crosspool and Dore and Totley wards (both at the heart of Jared O’Mara’s Sheffield Hallam constituency) will definitely be worth keeping an eye on for an anti-Labour backlash in a city which turned all red only last year.

Grenfell Tower Fallout in Kensington and Chelsea

Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea: Conservative control, 24 seat majority, all seats up.

The story here is of course the political fallout from the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire. With the Public Inquiry ongoing, former Kensington and Chelsea Council leader Nicholas Paget-Brown has already quit and the huge amount of anger, frustration, and shame felt by many residents toward their local leaders is expected to make it a tough night for many Conservatives defending their seats. Indeed, Jeremy Corbyn has made clear his ambition to take the Council away from the Conservatives. That would require them to overturn a 24-seat majority.

Unlikely as that seems, as with the rest of London all of Kensington and Chelsea Council’s seats (50) are up for election, which does increase the possibility of a change of overall control. Furthermore, Labour did pull of quite the shock and take the Kensington constituency from the Conservatives, by a margin of 20 votes, in 2017.

Taking the council may be much more difficult however; by and large, there were not that many wards where Labour were all that close to the Conservatives in 2016, particularly towards the Thames in the South of the borough. Grenfell Tower sits in the Notting Dale ward, where Labour already hold all three council seats by a healthy margin over the Conservatives. Neighbouring wards may though provide the best opportunity for Labour to work toward reducing the Conservative majority. To the north is St. Helen’s ward, where the two parties were neck and neck in 2016 — taking one seat each. That one Conservative seat just over the road from Grenfell would be an obvious first target. Meanwhile, to the South the Conservatives comfortably won both seats in the Norland ward in 2016 but might find themselves in trouble there too if voter anger spills over. Elsewhere, less than 25% swings — not unthinkable given the circumstances — would be required in Chelsea Riverside, Earl’s Court, Pembridge, and Holland in order for Labour to take a potential 10 further seats. If Labour took every Conservative seat in each of the above six wards, they would indeed take control of the Council. Stranger things have happened.

Jewish Populations Barnet and Bury

Borough of Barnet Council: Conservative control, 2 seat majority, 21 seats up
Borough of Bury Council: Labour control, 8 seat majority, 17 seats up

Labour may well perform substantially under-par on Thursday in Councils such as Barnet and Bury where a number of wards are home to substantial Jewish populations. In fact, the damage and rift caused between Labour and many parts of the Jewish community as the anti-Semitism row continues could cost the party control of Barnet, where a two-seat gain would see them replace the ruling Conservative administration. Taking marginal wards such as Childs Hill and Hale could be crucial to Labour taking overall control, but the seats’ substantial Jewish populations (around 20% according to the 2011 Census) may well stop Labour doing so if the backlash is significant enough.

In Bury, Labour are already in fairly strong control of the council and are defending in some very strong Labour areas. The impact of a reaction to the anti-Semitism row therefore may not be so consequential here. That said, look out for wards such as the ultra-marginal Pilkington Park (Labour less than 1% ahead in 2014, approximately 25% Jewish) and the much more safer seats of Sedgley (approximately one-third Jewish) and St. Mary’s (around 10% Jewish) as potential backlash lightning rods. Relatedly, though Labour are generally already well in control of areas with substantial ethnic minority voter populations, in the wake of the Windrush scandal — which only yesterday claimed the scalp of the Home Secretary — the Conservatives may see below-par performances even by their expected London standards in high-density black voter boroughs such as Lambeth and Lewisham.

Voter ID in Swindon

Swindon Borough Council: Conservative control, 4 seat majority, 19 seats up

Swindon is one of the five areas in which a pilot voter identification scheme will be taking place on Thursday. What makes Swindon stand out is that it is very much a Labour target, and they need only four additional seats to take it (two to become the largest party). It will be interesting to see if turnout is significant affected by the trial, and how many stories come out of registered voters being turned away from polling stations due to a lack of suitable identification. With control of the council in the balance and Labour, then this pilot and its timing could create some controversy if it goes badly. Keep an eye out for results and turnout stories coming in from the Covingham & Dorcan, Haydon Wick, Lydiard & Freshbrook, and Shaw wards, where Labour stand a good chance of making the gains necessary to take control of the Council.


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