27 April, 2018| Local Elections

Westminster is a harder nut to crack for Labour than first thought

Tory-held Westminster City Council, the focus for many pundits and activists, is a much tougher job for Labour to take than first thought

Photo: Kevin Allen

Since its creation in 1964, Westminster City Council has stayed stoically Conservative. Even during the heydays of Tony Blair the authority held firm for the blues with double figure seat majorities, and so it therefore wouldn’t go amiss to express scepticism that the authority is on the edge of going Labour this May.

A Queen Mary University YouGov poll, surveyed in February, showed a swing to Labour in the inner-London boroughs of 13pts from 2014, which would, on the assumption of a uniform swing, see the London Borough of Westminster turn red.

Since then a second poll by the same pollster and institute showed Labour’s swing in inner London to be significantly less than expected.

Were this poll to be borne out, of the fifteen wards in the borough where the Tories topped the poll last time round, nine would see Labour come top. Labour would take overall control of Westminster City Council, the first time any party other than the Tories has done so. Without question, this would be a significant event in what could become an eventful set of local elections.

However, I am not without scepticism.

The Tories have a history of over-performing in local elections here, notionally ‘winning’ the wards within the Westminster North constituency in the 2014 locals to only see Labour hold the parliamentary seat by 5pts a year later and by 27pts in 2017.

The assumption of the poll projecting the authority falling to Labour this May comes from the assumption of a uniform swing, but in local elections, as attested in previous years, the overbearing presence of the personal votes of incumbent councillors impact and often blunt or exaggerate such anticipated swings. This may explain why the Conservatives did so well here in 2014, when they were behind in the polls nationally, compared to 2015, when they won a parliamentary majority.

The incumbency bonus, however, may not be much of a card available to the Tories this year, for fourteen of their 44 councillors will not be contesting their seats, making the route for a Labour win in this authority not as difficult as once thought.

To take Westminster, Labour needs to see its vote eclipse the Tories in wards not just in the northern parts of the authority - of which they have already demonstrated they are able to do so (Westminster North) - but in the southern and riverside areas too. The authority is split between two constituencies, Westminster North, as mentioned earlier, and the Cities of London and Westminster, represented by a Conservative MP with a majority of 8pts.

To rule out Labour gaining Westminster this May would be foolish, for politics across the capital has changed significantly since 2014, but for Labour to gain Westminster would require them to go over and above their performance in the 2017 general election, else a repeat of such, more likely than not, would result in the Tories staying on as the largest party.