With yesterday bringing the latest in a string of polls showing Labour within striking distance of the Conservatives – well within the single figure Tory lead that I suggested would be a signifier of the game being ‘on’ for the next general election, there has been a resurgence in discussion of Gordon Brown calling a 2009 election.
At the risk of very quickly looking silly, however, I still consider 2009 to be an unlikely date for the next general election. The polling evidence to suggest that Labour would be the largest party remains too limited for Brown to call an election with any confidence – and no poll has pointed to a Labour majority. If the polls continue to to show a similar picture into the new year, with Labour sticking around 4-5 percentage points behind the Tories, then Brown may conclude that a Labour-biased hung parliament and some sort of Lib-Lab coalition or agreement is the best available outcome and take the plunge. However, once we hit January the available windows for a 2009 election begin to close with alarming rapidity. There must also be concern as to whether Labour’s poll position would hold up during the campaign for an election that would be seen by many as needless opportunism at a time of crisis.
My expectation, therefore, is that the General Election will be held in 2010, with the last possible date being 3rd June. However, given the understandable trend towards the combination of elections, the 6th May 2010, already the date for local elections must seem most likely.
The interesting thing about this date, from my personal and professional perspective, is that the local elections scheduled for that day include the all-out polls for the 32 London borough councils. If the General Election is held on this date it will be, by my calculations, the first time since the creation of the current London boroughs set up in 1965, that these two elections have coincided. In only two years have they even fallen in the same year – 1964 (held to elect councils that served as shadow authorities before the new boroughs came into being the following year) and 1974. On both occasions the borough and general elections were separated by some months.
So, with the forty-five year wait for this occlusion (or possibly eclipse) possibly nearly over, it is worth wondering what, if any, effect on the outcome of the borough election results holding a simultaneous general election might have. Of course, this depends partially on what you think the outcome of a 2010 General Election will be (my money remains on a hung parliament, but I’m not sure which way it will hang, so to speak) – but local elections held on general election day are not automatically mirrors of the results of the national poll. In 1997, for example, despite being routed in the general election, the Conservatives had the small comfort of doing passably well in local elections held simultaneously. There were a number of factors in this – first, there was obviously a degree of split-ticket voting by Tory supporters who wanted the party out nationally but were happy to continue to support them locally; second, the nature of that year’s local polls (primarily traditionally Conservative county councils) mean that the increased turnout that occurred thanks to the general election benefited the Tories; third, that these councils had previously been contested at an even worse electoral point for the Conservatives than 1997, so any improvement looked good for the party.
So how would these factors play into the 2010 London borough elections if the general is held on the same day? We should remember that Labour will be starting from a very low base in 2010. The last borough elections in 2006 marked a particularly low point for Labour in the capital, probably the worst since 1968. The elections left Labour in outright control of just 7 boroughs, with one other run in coalition with the Liberal Democrats and a further one being effectively run by Labour due to the party holding the directly elected mayoralty. Despite being only one year after a general election, the 2006 polls had very much the feeling of being ‘mid-term’ – the government was unpopular and there was a certain eagerness on the part of the voters to give a certain T. Blair one final kicking before he left. Indeed, there may even have been an element of seeking to hasten that departure.
Can we assume that 2006 was the nadir of Labour’s London fortunes? Not necessarily, but there are straws in the wind that this may be the case – the Mayoral and Assembly results two years later, whilst poor, were not as bad as many had feared. Many more wards voted for a Labour Assembly Member in 2008 than did for Labour councillors in 2006 – as an e.g. see these examples from Camden. As the Assembly results remove some of the ‘Livingstone factor’, these are more directly comparable with local results. Council by-election results in the capital have also moved into moderately favourable territory over the past few months. It could also be suggested that the nadir was already passed before the 2006 results, given three boroughs ‘bucked the trend’ in those elections: Lambeth fell to Labour control and the party made net gains in both Islington and Southwark. None of this is in any way conclusive and Labour could still have further to fall in 2010. However, my hunch is that a broadly ‘level-pegging’ situation ought to be the worst that the party is looking at for 2010. With much of the low-hanging fruit gone in 2006, the potential pickings for the Lib Dems and Tories are relatively slim.
So, taking this situation as our assumed starting point, what effect would a general election have? Well, we can immediately make a pretty safe assumption than turnout would be very high for the local elections – possibly the highest ever achieved in London borough elections (I don’t have the figures). Who does this benefit? I would suspect that there isn’t a single answer for London: rather, that Labour would to some extent be the beneficiaries in inner London and the Conservatives in the outer boroughs. The key question is of course, who will turn out? Labour’s recent rise in the polls has been, at least in part, due to Labour supporters saying that they are more likely to vote, although they remain below the levels of Conservative supporters.
There is a noticeable difference in some areas of London between Labour’s performance in general elections and its corresponding performance in local elections. Relatively safe parliamentary seats such as Camberwell & Peckham, Islington North, Greenwich & Woolwich, Croydon North and Barking contain wards held by Labour on only the slimmest of margins or which have been lost completely. With an increased turnout thanks to a general election it is possible that this gap might be closed, securing Labour’s position in many of the boroughs it currently runs and possibly pushing some marginal boroughs over to Labour control. Of course, if increased turnout consists solely of energised opposition supporters, then the reverse could occur, although this could alternatively benefit Labour. If occasional voters assume that to remove the national government they need to vote Conservative and then transfer this across to their London ballot paper, this will effectively prove a wasted vote in the many inner London wards where the Lib Dems or Greens are the only parties able to challenge Labour. The incumbent party thus slips through the middle, unharmed.
Of course, what works for Labour in inner London is likely to work for the Tories in outer London, with the added advantage of many anti-government voters potentially switching across from the Lib Dems to the Tories. This could see the Tories taking a safe lead in wards they hold marginally against the Lib Dems, challenging for control of the Lib Dem controlled boroughs in south-west London and wiping out the remaining Labour and independent groups on many boroughs.
So, to stick my neck on the line, a few predictions for what might happen in the London boroughs in 2010 if the general election is held on May 6th:
Barking & Dagenham (currently Lab majority of 23) – increased turnout will assist Labour to halt and possibly turnback the tide of the BNP advance. Labour to hold with slightly increased majority.
Barnet (currently Conservative majority of 11) – Tory targeting of two marginal Labour-held seats in borough likely to have side-effect of increasing their majority on council, potentially wiping out the small Lib Dem group.
Bexley (currently Conservative majority of 45) – Labour probably at rock bottom in this borough after disastrous 2006 results. Conservatives likely to consolidate majorities but few, if any, seats will change hands. A by-election in three-way marginal East Wickham ward early next year may provide some indicators as to which way this is going.
Brent (currently Lib Dem-Tory majority of 17) – parts of this borough will be targeted by all three political parties for parliamentary purposes. Labour probably has the most to gain from an increased turnout here, with a good chance of their becoming largest party, although the borough will remain hung.
Bromley (currently Conservative majority of 38) – little will change beyond bigger Conservative majorities and possibly the further squeezing of the small Lib Dem and Labour groups.
Camden (currently Lib Dem-Tory majority of 16) – worryingly for Labour, the borough now consists of two marginal parliamentary seats (one very marginal), which means that all parties will fight hard here. In the south of the borough, where most of the seats that Labour needs to gain to obtain largest party status again are situated, the Lib Dems are the rivals at both national and local levels, with a strong possibility of a fight to a stand-still. The Lib Dems will probably lose a small number of seats, whilst their Tory coalition partners may pick some up from the Greens and Lib Dems. The coalition will remain in control with a similar majority.
Croydon (currently Conservative majority of 20) – boundary changes make the Croydon Central seat nominally a Labour held ultra-marginal and the Tories may be vulnerable after the Andrew Pelling saga. Labour will fight hard and this may result in a few council seat pick-ups, but not enough to overturn the Tory majority.
Ealing (Currently Conservative majority of 17) – the Ealing Southall by-election during the first ‘Brown bounce’ suggests that Labour remains strong here on a parliamentary level and so the increased turn-out could be of significant assistance locally. A very large proportion of the Tory majority in the council chamber is made up of Labour councillors who defected during the by-election and Labour can expect to at least reverse these. Conservatives will maintain a slim majority.
Enfield (currently Conservative majority of 5) – Enfield North is very much the ‘seat that got away’ for the Tories in 2005, so their resources are likely to be concentrated heavily here. The Tories are likely to increase their majority on the council, both by gaining Labour seats and wiping out the two ‘Save Chase Farm’ councillors.
Greenwich (currently Labour majority of 21) – an increased turnout will help to prop up dwindling Labour majorities in the Greenwich & Woolwich constituency. The recent Plumstead by-election suggests that the Tories are struggling to make much of a headway in the borough. Labour may lose a few seats in the Eltham area, but potentially compensate by wiping out the 2-strong Lib Dem group.
Hackney (currently Labour majority of 33) – with two safe Labour parliamentary seats making up the borough, the opposition parties probably won’t put too much effort into the area, allowing Labour to secure its marginal wards and easily retain the elected mayoralty. A by-election in Stoke Newington Central ward early next year should help test the water here.
Hammersmith & Fulham (currently Conservative majority of 20) – the rather controversial ultra-Thatcherite council here seems to be cementing its position based on tax and service cuts. This sort of strategy can work when you are seeking re-election in low turnout local elections, but could cause harm when a larger turnout occurs. However, with two marginal Labour seats in the borough, the resources that the Tories will throw at this area seem likely to help them maintain a healthy council majority.
Haringey (currently Labour majority of 7) – following the Baby P saga, Labour is likely to be badly on the bad foot in this borough. With this being compounded by the Lib Dems throwing everything they have got at ensuring Lynne Featherstone holds on in Hornsey & Wood Green, this borough seems very likely to switch to Lib Dem control in 2010.
Harrow (currently Conservative majority of 11) – An increased turnout is likely to benefit the Tories here, ensuring that they maintain or increase their majority on the council. The two-strong Lib Dem group, both in wards held 2-1 by the Tories, would seem highly likely to disappear in a general election scenario.
Havering (currently Conservative majority of 12) – with the borough consisting of 3 Tory held parliamentary seats, an increased turnout will probably serve to wipe out the Labour group of 2, the Lib Dem ‘group’ of 1 and much of the myriad collection of independents and Residents councillors who make up the rest of the council. Havering seems a likely candidate for the Tories to have a near totality of seats in a general election scenario.
Hillingdon (currently Conservative majority of 20) – with a likely high turnout of Conservative voters in the two safe Tory parliamentary seats in the north of the borough, they would be likely to increase their majorities and potentially wipe out the 2 Lib Dem councillors here. The Heathrow issue might affect Labour votes in the wards in the south, although with local MP John McDonnell being strongly against a third runway, but a lot of local jobs dependent on the airport, this could cut both ways. It will be interesting to see how the ultra-marginal Lab-Tory Heathrow Villages ward votes: after all, the ward could have all but ceased to exist by 2014!
Hounslow (currently Conservative-Independent majority of 4) – Labour will struggle to maintain its position as largest party with a strong possibility that many of the independent and Lib Dem councillors could fall to an increased Tory turnout – and in parliamentary terms much of the borough is shifting in the Conservative’s direction. Labour could, however hope to take out the sole Hounslow Independent Alliance councillor in an increased turnout of its supporters. Whilst the Conservatives will almost certainly fail to take overall control of the borough, they are likely to become the largest party and will have to enter a coalition with a smaller selection of rag-tag and bobtail indpendents than currently.
Islington (currently Lib Dem minority administration 1 seat short of a majority) – Labour made huge advances in Islington in 2006, wiping out the Lib Dem’s majority and would surely hope to take overall control in 2010. With the Lib Dems in turmoil locally following the resignation of their Finance Executive the omens ought to be good. However, Labour will be concerned that an increased turnout of Lib Dem voters in the ultra-marginal Islington South & Finsbury parliamentary seat might lead to some of their 2006 gains being reversed. However, I would still predict Labour gaining the council, probably narrowly, through defeating the sole Green councillor and taking some or all of the seats in Clerkenwell ward, where a high Independent Working Class Alliance vote swung the ward to the Lib Dems in 2006. This is likely to be much less significant in a general election.
Kensington & Chelsea (currently Conservative majority of 36) – There are unlikely to be any significant changes here, with Labour pretty much down to its core of wards and likely to remain there.
Kingston upon Thames (currently Lib Dem majority of 2) – withthe prospect of a real bun-fight between Susan Kramer and ultra-wet Tory Zak Goldsmith in the marginal Richmond Park constituency that makes up part of this borough, the control of the council may well rest on who wins the seat. The Lib Dems could well look to strengthen their position by wiping out the sole Labour and independent councillors, who both sit for Norbiton ward. Lib Dems likely to retain control by a slightly larger margin thanks in part to high turnout of their supporters in Kingston & Surbiton seat.
Lambeth (currently Labour majority of 13) – Labour took control of Lambeth in 2006 and a consecutive general election in 2010 would be very likely to help them consolidate that control, with strong turnouts in the safe Vauxhall and Dulwich & West Norwood seats and Labour campaigning energetically in the semi-marginal Streatham. Labour would be hoping to take out the Green councillor in Herne Hill and the indpendent in Thornton. Without a general election, Labour might struggle to maintain its majority, with one it may well increase it.
Lewisham (currently Labour minority administration 2 short of a majority, but with Labour directly elected mayor) – Labour will be certain to maintain the elected mayoralty regardless of general election timing, but without a general election will struggle to regain majority control of the council chamber. However, with three relatively safe Labour parliamentary seats in the borough an increased turnout will almost certainly be to the party’s benefit, possibly leading it to threaten the Socialist Alternative councillors in Telegraph Hill and possibly some of the Greens in Ladywell and Brockley. A return to Labour control in the council chamber would seem likely, although would make little difference to the day-to-day running of the council.
Merton (currently Conservative minority administration 1 short of a majority) – this is a council that could swing either way. The Conservatives are likely to benefit from an increased turnout in the Wimbledon half of the borough, cancelled out by increased Labour strength in the increasingly safe Mitcham & Morden seat. The Conservatives probably hold the advantage, as they are the challengers in the Merton Park ward currently held by three Residents councillors, who could be deseated by an increased Tory turnout. In an election scenario the most likely outcome would be a Conservative majority of around 6.
Newham (currently Labour majority of 48 and Labour directly elected mayor) – obviously there is no way that this borough is going to be anything other than safe Labour. However, with part of the Poplar & Canning Town constituency, due to be contested by George Galloway at the next election, in the borough the possibility must arise that Respect could increase its score beyond the 3 councillors has currently. However, with the massive rifts that have occurred within the party, this has got to remain an outside possibility. Little or no change, regardless of general election timing.
Redbridge (currently Conservative majority of 3) – with the parliamentary seats in this borough being either strongly Conservative or shifting strongly in their direction, the Tories seem best placed to benefit from a general election turnout here. Even before taking seats from the major parties, which seems very possible, the BNP’s single seat in Hainault ought to be an easy win for the Tories. A Tory majority in double figures seems the most likely outcome.
Richmond upon Thames (currently Lib Dem majority of 16) – Richmond has a tendency to alternate between Lib Dem and Tory control on a regular basis. With most of the Richmond Park constituency in the borough, the outcome of this marginal may well tip the balance of power in the borough. With Vince ‘man of the moment’ Cable representing the other seat, my prediction would be for a reasonably strong Lib Dem showing in this area cancelling out any Tory gains around Richmond itself. Lib Dems would seem likely to retain control, but probably with a reduced majority.
Southwark (currently Lib Dem-Tory majority of 3) – Labour will fight hard to regain control of Southwark, but a simultaneous election may cut both ways for them. Whilst a high Labour turnout in Camberwell & Peckham will shore up the smaller majorities in those wards and may lead to a couple of gains at the expense of the Greens and the Lib Dems, the Simon Hughes factor in the north of the borough will energise Lib Dem voters there and limit the potential for gains that Labour needs there. I would expect Labour to retain largest party status and be in a position to run a minority administration.
Sutton (currently Lib Dem majority of 8) – the Tories will be targetting the two parliamentary seats here hard and this could well lead to a spill over effect of their taking control of the council. Both parties have suffered a defection since 2006 and would be looking to regain those, but the nature of the ward results overall benefits the Tories.
Tower Hamlets (currently Labour majority of 5) – Labour will stand a very strong chance of increasing their majority in Tower Hamlets thanks to the splintering of Respect. Defections have already increased Labour’s 2006 majority of 1 to 5. The effect of Galloway standing down in Behtnal Green & Bow is likely to be very damaging for the party in that area – it is far from clear that his standing in the other seat of Poplar & Canning Town will compensate for that. Nor do we yet know what the other left parties will do – stand and risk splitting the vote, or co-operate? I am reasonably confident that with a simultaneous general election, Labour will increase its majority comfortably back into double figures.
Waltham Forest (currently Lab-Lib Dem majority of 30) – This is another outer borough with a strong potential for Labour to be squeezed by an increased Tory turnout, although the two Labour-held parliamentary seats are relatively safe. Labour seems likely to lose its position as largest party, potenitally to either of the other parties (but there is limited incentive for Lib Dems to turn out in general elections round here, so the Tories must be favourites), but will probably still form a majority coalition with the Lib Dems.
Wandsworth (currently Conservative majority of 42) – nothing will change here, with the Tories firmly entrenched and likely to be assisted still further by their party’s push to take the ultra-marginal Battersea parliamentary seat. This will serve to increase majorities, but probably not change the borough’s political makeup in any dramatic way.
Westminster (currently Conservative majority of 38) – again, little will change here, although Labour may benefit in terms of maintaining their 12 seats by the tight fight in the parliamentary seat in the north of the borough. This should help prevent the Tories from whittling down Labour’s meagre share of seats any further.
Of course, all this is pure speculation and in many cases I have no real local knowledge – any insights from those who do would be much appreciated. I intend to look in a bit more detail at some of these boroughs in the new year.
One final thought which came to me whilst writing this – what if May 6th 2010 is actually the date of the general election after next? If a 2009 general election does happen, and results in the increasingly likely hung parliament, then it is possible that a new election might have to be called within six months of so, 1974-style. If that did happen, I’m making no predictions. We will be in uncharted territory.