Labour daren’t say it, but some Tory strongholds could be within reach

No one will win these local elections. It’s statistically improbable, but the only conclusion available if you listen to all the party managers currently energetically tamping down expectations to somewhere below zero. According to them, everyone will lose.

Steve Baker MP warns the Tories will “reap the whirlwind” on 5 Mei. Talk to his comrades and they are just as glum. Die threat that any MP voting to block an investigation of their leader by the Commons privileges committee would be denounced in local election leaflets has panicked them into surrender. They are so morally vacant, they say openly that these election results will determine whether they oust Boris Johnson for dishonesty. How bad must those results be? They noisily predict they might lose 1,000 seats, cracking the “red wall” and mislaying flagship councils such as Wandsworth, Westminster and Barnet. So if they don’t perform quite as badly as that, wel, they can relax back into their complacent turpitude.

Labour refuses to be caught out by this old trick: geen, it says, the chances of toppling those three prime Tory London boroughs are remote. It rightly stresses that all these seats were last up for election in 2018 wanneer Arbeid did exceptionally well after Theresa May’s 2017 general election crash. Any ripe plums have already been plucked, so gains will be negligible. But even if relatively few seats and councils are lost and won in headlines on the day, what matters for general election forecasts is where the overall votes fall. In the days after, pollsters will pick over how many switched to Labour, if Tories stayed home, if northern and Midlands voters reverted to Labour, or if southern good old Tories rebelled against their party’s shame. Does Scotland stand where it did? The poll of polls has Labour 6 percentage points up – but its votes increasingly pile up wasted in Labour wards, while Tory votes are well-spread, Prof Tony Travers of London School of Economics told me this week.

In Worthing, the sun beamed brightly on Labour canvassers out in Gaisford ward, where they might win a seat in this comfortable spot, once blue to the bone: Labour needs just two more to upend the council. Red Worthing still sounds astonishing: until five years ago, Labour hadn’t won a single seat here for more than 40 jare, despite stubbornly high levels of deprivation, with child poverty at 23% in 2017-18. Since then Labour people have been running food banks, school uniform exchanges and a small business forum. The day I joined their canvassers last week, the FT was reporting dire International Monetary Fund forecasts showing the UK is due to fall to the bottom of the G7 for growth. That day too, Adur and Worthing Tory councils took fright ahead of the election to settle a long-running bin strike with rises of between 8% en 20% for long underpaid GMB workers. All the same, Labour stresses, winning these last few is uphill work.

Random door-knocking is always revealing, each doorway a small piece of theatre, though with few clues to results: most voters are out, some won’t say (put them down as Tory), but I found a few switchers to Labour and none the other way. The talk is the usual: the prime minister’s lies, cost of living, gas bills, local drug dealing. One former mayor, eight years a Tory councillor who battled to retain the local further education college, is no longer a member of her old party – but she wasn’t saying how she would vote. Christine, veteran RAF drum major and euphonium player in the South Downs concert band, says she always was and will be Labour. We find newly arrived voters, young families and some LGBT households fleeing London and Brighton’s high prices to replace elderly Tories from previous canvass returns, bringing their Labour votes with them. Enough? Just possibly, but whisper it.

Imagine the symbolism of Labour winning the City of Westminster council. Geen, geen, Labour canvassers hasten to say, as they’ve been set up to fail too often before. They need to win nine more seats to topple this Tory fiefdom that stayed Tory even after the shocking disgrace in the 1980s of Dame Shirley Porter gerrymandering the homeless out and selling off council homes to turn marginal wards Tory. Goodness knows, the lack of social housing is felt here, where Labour MP Karen Buck’s surgery in north Westminster is a world away from parliament. The mother whose three children share a bedroom, including a teenager with Tourette syndrome who hasn’t dared go out in two years, and the family whose severely disabled father shuffles down lift-less flights of stairs on his backside to get to hospital appointments are among many tales of overcrowding, squalor, leaks, vorm, broken boilers and no-hope housing lists in the borough with the most private rented homes and where a third move on every year.

Voters here are indignant at the council’s notoriously pointless £6m Marble Arch mound, but as to who’s to blame for struggling constituents’ own plight, confusion reigns. They know Buck, their well-respected and assiduous longtime MP, but not what, if any, power she has. Nor do many know that their council is Tory, nor what a Labour London mayor can do, nor that a nearby yet distant Westminster Tory government has axed local funds. Voting in these local elections may not come high in their stressful to-do lists.

Look at this political dividing line. Neighbouring Camden and Westminster have near-identical social and economic profiles, according to Tony Travers, ranging from super-rich Hampstead and Belgravia to abject poverty – yet with utterly different politics. Camden is virtually for ever Labour, while for ever Tory Westminster wins with its boast of having council tax at about £1,000 less than Camden for an upmarket property. Westminster has correspondingly fewer non-statutory services for children and young people, fewer day centres and less social housing. If it’s a wonder that Labour still wins Camden despite the higher tax, Travers’ view is that people lucky enough to have a choice naturally congregate in boroughs among their own political kind. Low-tax Tories like the Tory vibe in Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea, while the socially conscious gather in Camden, Islington and Hackney, paying more for pro-social policies. These ideological silos are growing, hy sê.

When Johnson continually mocks “Islington” lefty folk (though he once lived there), Labour could riposte just as aggressively about Westminster and Kensington selfish Tory types. But that’s probably no way to win over Tory boroughs to Labour’s cause – so instead Westminster’s Labour group has felt obliged to pledge itself to a two-year council tax freeze. Softly, softly does it. Maybe this time, enough Westminster Tory voters will find their disgust at the moral filth of their party overrides that £1,000 bribe. But Labour dare not think they have any hope of winning here.

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