London is undoubtedly one of the key battlegrounds in next week’s elections. It could also be one of the bloodiest.
Every single seat across the entire municipal area is up for grabs. That’s a total of 1,861 councillors. You don’t get incremental change here, as you do with almost every other council or authority in the UK. Each of London’s 32 councils has its entire membership re-elected. This makes it a contest rich with the potential for sudden changes of power and unexpected outcomes.
It also means that London’s councils are prey to topical, short-term trends in politics, rather than long-term mood swings. If the electorate is feeling particularly ill-disposed to this or that party, or maybe several parties, the whole city could well feel the effects.
To set the scene, I’ve grouped London’s 32 councils into six categories.
1) Safe Labour councils
I doubt the party will lose control of any of these, though it’ll be interesting to see whether their share of seats rises or falls, and if the latter, whether the Tories, Ukip or independents benefit.
Newham, by the way, is a 60-seat council. Yes, that means every single seat is currently held by Labour. Regardless of your party preference, that can’t be good for democracy. Note also that not a single Tory currently sits on Newham, Islington or Haringey council.
2) Safe Tory councils
There aren’t so many of these, but they should all remain in Conservative hands. A year or so ago I’d have predicted that Barnet might swing back to Labour, but now I get the sense this is too big a task in one go. The party will hope to chip away at some of these Tory majorities. The same goes for Ukip.
Here’s where things get more unpredictable. There are four in total:
Labour’s majority of nine should be enough to see them retain control, but what’s more important is whether the party will be able to add to its tally of councillors.
There’s a key parliamentary marginal seat within this borough: Enfield North, currently held by Nick de Bois for the Conservatives.
Labour would need only a 1.9% swing to take the constituency in next year’s general election. A few more bodies on Enfield council in this year’s poll would be a useful portend.
Here Labour’s main rival isn’t the Tories but the Liberal Democrats.
Should London follow the pattern of local elections of recent years, Labour’s majority should increase as the expense of Nick Clegg’s party.
But if the Lib Dems are able to mount any serious resistance to this challenge, or even gain a couple of councillors, then Labour’s majority of seven would start to look rather precarious.
Labour only gained control of Southwark in London’s previous local elections in 2010.
The borough of Camden contains part of Labour’s most marginal parliamentary seat: Hampstead and Kilburn, whose current MP Glenda Jackson is standing down at the next election.
Labour has a majority in the seat of just 42.
If the party doesn’t increase its majority on Camden council, an alarm bell the size of the one that opened the London Olympics will start ringing in Labour’s central office.
It shouldn’t be too difficult, but of particular significance will be whether Labour’s gains come at the expense of the Lib Dems, the Tories, or both.
The recent history of Tower Hamlets borough council has been tempestuous.
The current block of 14 independents contains eight former Labour councillors who resigned from the party en mass, while one of the two Respect councillors won their seat from Labour in a by-election.
The council’s directly elected mayor Lutfur Rahman is also a former Labour councillor turned independent. Rahman is standing for re-election on the same day as the council ballot.
I’ve no sense of quite what the overall result may be, but there has to be a likelihood that the council will pass into no overall control. That would most definitely not be a good outcome for Labour.
4) Marginal Conservative councils
I’ve put two councils in this category.
This is a top Labour target. If the party fails to take power here, things will be going badly for them in London.
The Tory majority of four is mirrored in the similarly-slender majority of the Tory MP Gavin Barwell, who sits for the constituency of Croydon Central.
His majority is 2,879, and a swing of 3% at the general election from Tory to Labour would see him lose his seat. That size of swing, if replicated across the country, would leave Labour the largest party in a hung parliament.
Croydon is simply an area in which Labour has to be seen to doing well. Naturally, the Tories would relish holding on to power here.
We’ve an intriguing battle between the Tories and the Lib Dems here. Though coalition partners at Westminster, these two are fierce rivals in this borough and it will be fascinating to see who comes out on top.
Richmond is one of three councils in London in which Labour has no representation whatsoever. The Lib Dems have spent decades establishing themselves in this borough as the alternative to the Conservatives. Except now, for the first time, the parties are joined at a national level. Will this make any difference locally?
There’s another marginal parliamentary seat in this borough, and as with the council, it’s a Tory-Lib Dem tussle. Zac Goldsmith’s seat of Richmond Park is on the Lib Dems’ target list. A swing from the Tories of 3.5% would give them the seat. A mark of whether that looks likely will be if the party takes control of Richmond council.
5) Councils with no party in majority
Here’s where things get even more precarious – and exciting.
London currently has four councils where no single party has overall control. Two used to have Labour majorities:
Labour last had a majority in Merton in 2006. Just three more seats would give it 31 out of the 60 and put it back in overall control. To do the same, the Tories need to win 10. In Harrow, Labour were in a majority until just last year, when a number of its councillors left the party to become independents. Harrow has a total of 63 councillors; if either Labour or the Tories pick up another seven seats, they’re in overall control. The marginal parliamentary seat of Harrow East is on Labour’s target list; Harrow West is a Tory target.
In two other councils, the Tories currently run minority administrations:
Labour has its eyes on Redbridge and, if it becomes the largest party next week, will have done very well. Havering slipped into no overall control only a few weeks ago, when a handful of Tory councillors defected to Ukip. Will these individuals be punished for their behaviour at the ballot box, or may Ukip end up in a stronger position?
Finally, last but not least:
6) Liberal Democrat councils
The party controls two boroughs. The Lib Dems are perfectly safe in Sutton, but I wonder what will happen in Kingston-upon-Thames, where the Tories need to take only four seats to seize power.
There you have it.
If you’ve read this far, well done. If you’ve skipped to the end, I don’t blame you, but remember the names Tower Hamlets, Croydon, Merton, Harrow, Redbridge and Kingston-upon Thames. For that’ll be where the battle for London next Thursday will be won and lost.