The local government elections on 3 May 2018 will be the first big test of voters’ opinion since they deprived the Conservatives of their majority in parliament last June. Among the most closely watched results from the authorities across Britain will be those from the 32 London boroughs.
Ten of these are currently under Conservative control, including the party’s two local government flagships: Westminster, run by the Tories since its creation in 1965, and Wandsworth, in Tory hands since 1978, even though, during the Blair years, all three of the borough’s MPs were Labour.
My latest research – including a 3,000-sample poll and focus groups in eight boroughs over the last month – has explored in detail how London voters see things, both locally and nationally, as the May elections approach.
The backdrop to the London elections is not propitious for the Conservatives. In 2017 they lost six of their 27 London seats, four to Labour and two to the Liberal Democrats. Though the party’s national vote share rose by 5.5 points to 42.4%, in London it actually fell, while Labour’s grew by 10.8%, rising in 71 of the capital’s 73 constituencies.
The national picture
We found the national political picture looking pretty grim to Londoners, including many of those who voted Conservative in last year’s general election. Just a quarter – including only six in ten of those who voted Tory last June, and only just over half of Conservatives who voted to remain in the EU – said they approved of the government’s record to date.
Conservative voters gave Theresa May a mean performance score of 60 out of 100, while Londoners as a whole gave her 35 – compared to 47 for Jeremy Corbyn and 53 for London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who topped the table.
How good is your council?
On a local level, things look slightly more promising for the Tories. People living in Conservative-controlled local authority areas were more likely to say they thought their council was well run, and less likely to think it was badly run, than those in Labour areas.
People in Tory areas were also more likely to say they thought their council was better run than most councils in London. More than four in ten of those who voted Conservative in 2017 in these areas said they thought their council was better than most.
Who’s in charge – and does it matter?
However, only around six in ten voters in Conservative and Labour areas could correctly identify the party that ran their local council – though 78% of both Tory voters in Tory authorities and Labour voters in Labour authorities knew who ran things locally.
More to the point, only half of London voters said they thought it made much difference which party ran their local council when it came to the quality of local services, and only four in ten when it came to the level of their local Council Tax. Indeed, only just over half of Conservative voters in Conservative authorities said they thought which party was in charge made a great deal or a fair amount of difference to local services or Council Tax levels.
In fact, even in Conservative local authorities, only a third of all voters and just over half of 2017 Tory voters said they associated the party with better local services; a similar proportion of voters overall and fewer than half of Conservatives associate the party with lower Council Tax. Fewer than one in five of all Tory authority residents, and only one in three 2017 Conservative voters, think of the party as offering both. In our Westminster focus groups, people were well aware of their low Council Tax but often put this down to their council’s abundant revenue from parking charges and traffic fines rather than sensible Tory financial management.
What matters in the local elections?
Asked where they put themselves on a scale between thinking the local elections are “entirely about local issues and choosing people who will do a good job on the local council”, or that they are “a chance to show what we think about the parties and leaders and the overall direction of the country”, most types of voters were very close to the middle.
Conservatives leaned only very fractionally closer to the local side of the scale than most. As we found in our focus groups, this often reflected a dilemma for previous Tory voters between wanting to express their displeasure, especially over Brexit, and the wish to keep their council in what they regarded as safe hands.
When it came to the issues that would play the biggest part in their local election voting decisions, Londoners as a whole were most likely to name local health services, housing (the biggest single issue for voters aged up to 49), crime, and Britain leaving the EU. Council Tax was the fifth most chosen issue, named by just 23% of voters and 32% of 2017 Conservatives.
For Londoners as a whole, and those who voted Labour in 2017, the best reason to vote Labour in May was that the party “stands for things I agree with” and that Labour “understand and represent people like me”. The best reason for voting Conservative was “I trust them to set the Council Tax at a sensible level,” though this was chosen by only 14% of Londoners (20% of those living in Tory authority areas). In Conservative authorities, four in ten chose this this as a good reason to vote for the party, putting it second behind “they stand for things I agree with.”
Half of all London voters, including more than four in ten of those who voted Labour last year, said they had never heard of Momentum. Of those who had heard of the group, nearly half of 2017 Labour voters said they thought the group was a force for good – often, in focus groups, saying they sounded as though they were taking the party back to its roots and providing some balance to an increasingly right-wing Conservative Party – while only a third thought it sounded like a force for ill.
Our analysis found that the 630 wards in the 32 London boroughs can be divided into six types or segments when we take into account demographic factors like age, health, housing tenure and working status, as well as modelled voting behaviour at recent elections.
Three of these are solidly Labour: ‘Stuck in the Capital’, dispersed across London, characterised by high levels of deprivation; ‘Mobile Minorities’, typically found in East and North West London; and the ‘Barista Belt’, comprising young, single professionals and people in social housing in the East and South East of the city. One segment, ‘Sound of the Suburbs’, mostly found on the outer ring in places like Bromley, Chingford and Uxbridge, has proved reliably Tory.
The last two, though, will be crucial: ‘Liberally Affluent’, largely made up of highly qualified professionals and students in West and West-Central districts, and ‘Village London’, clustered in the South West, comprising more settled professionals and families, and with the lowest levels of deprivation among the six types. Both these segments voted heavily to remain in the EU, were decisive in the lost Tory seats of Battersea, Kensington, Kingston and Twickenham, and helped give them a nasty scare in Putney. These are the people who will be going to the polls again in May in the Conservative boroughs of Kensington & Chelsea, Kingston, Richmond, and of course Wandsworth and Westminster.
My commentary on the research was published in the London Evening Standard