The success of the Tories in last Thursday’s Putney council by-election suggests the assumption that there will inevitably be a Tory collapse in May 2018 could be wide of the mark, says Peter Bingle.
Last Thursday in Putney a council by-election took place. It had been assumed by everybody in Wandsworth politics that the result would be very close. All three parties campaigned very hard. The result was a decisive win for Wandsworth Tories. A majority of more than 800. Bearing in mind the national political context, a pretty sensational result. Smart money is now predicting the Tories holding Wandsworth in May 2018.
There are always risks in extrapolating next May’s London local elections from the result of a single by-election in Thamesfield Ward but it does suggest that the assumption that there will inevitably be a Tory collapse could be wide of the mark.
Wandsworth Council was once called the ‘jewel in her crown’ by Margaret Thatcher and for nearly forty years has been a torchbearer for inner city Conservatism. It would seem after last Thursday that local residents in the borough still value (and more importantly are prepared to vote for) a well-run and radical Tory council.
So, the challenge for London Tories is very clear. They need to run a series of localised campaigns focussing on the achievements of individual Tory councils and the threat posed by an increasingly hard left London Labour Party.
Tory local government in Greater London is very diverse in style and personality. Ravi Govindia could not be more different to Nickie Aiken. The same applies to Kevin Davis and Theresa O’Neill. There is a new young leader in Richmond Paul Hodgins. It therefore makes sense to run a London campaign which highlights the specific achievements of individual Tory councils.
Kingston is a good example of a former sleepy Lib Dem council which has been transformed since the Tories won control in 2014. It is now one of the best run councils in London.
The assumption that RBKC and Westminster Council will inevitably be won by the Labour Party ignores political facts of life. The tragedy of Grenfell Tower exposed structural weaknesses in RBKC but it simply does not follow that the residents of Chelsea will vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Labour will certainly make gains in Westminster Council and there is a nervousness in the Tory Group but the chances are that the Tories will hang on.
Inevitably Sadiq Khan is starting to have to take difficult political decisions at City Hall as his mayoralty starts to take shape. This provides London Tories with a political opponent against whom they can campaign. There are signs this is starting to happen. To be really effective, however, will involve very skilled coordination between Tory council leaders and Gareth Bacon and his team.
Minister for London Greg Hands and Stephen Hammond MP who have been tasked with running the London campaign have a fight on their hands next May but there are grounds for optimism. There are some very good Tory councils in London and voters are no fools. At a local level people will support a council which delivers high quality services, cares about the level of council tax, values local parks and amenities and responds to the changing needs and aspirations of local residents. They will only do so, however, if local Tories run effective and professional campaigns.
In simple terms CCHQ needs to fund a political and media campaigns professional in each target borough. Their task is very simple – to ensure local residents and businesses are made aware of their local Tory council’s achievements. Part of the communications strategy must include using social media with the same skill as the Labour Party! Perhaps there needs to a website which lists all the achievements of Tory councils in London.
May 2018 will be a challenging night for London Tories but Tory council leaders who take the fight to their political opponents, communicate effectively and run on a radical ticket have grounds for optimism. Gavin Barwell’s political instincts and campaigning skills will be critical if the campaign is to be successful.