Five thoughts on the latest set of polling from London

Ballot boxes in London, 2012. Image: Getty.

Queen Mary’s Mile End Institute has released their latest wave of polling of the capital, and as ever there is a lot of interest in there. Here are five thoughts.

The Conservatives are headed for a world of hurt in London

The headline news is that the Conservatives are expected to lose Barnet, Westminster and Wandsworth. The latter two remained Conservative-controlled even in the Labour wave year of 1994, and Barnet has never been Labour-controlled, though the Conservatives have intermittently lost their majorities there.

In a way that is what we would expect from the election. In Wandsworth, Labour gained Battersea and Rosena Allin-Khan won every ward in Tooting, and the party came very close to unseating Justine Greening in Putney (both seats in Wandsorth). In Westminster, Tory Mark Field nearly lost his Cities of London & Westminster seat, while Labour’s Karen Buck likewise won every ward in Westminster North.

However, Buck has a significant personal vote and Labour have always tended to underperform their national results in Wandsworth council elections, in part because of the Conservative council’s longstanding (and locally very popular) commitment to keeping council tax the lowest in the country. These would be big, big gains for Labour if they come true.

While Labour make big gains as far as councils they control, their seat gains will likely be pretty rubbish

However, I think the Tories will have a pretty good talking point (that is, it will get ministers and loyal backbenchers through interviews on election night on 4 May, not that it will be a sensible or correct take). That is that, looking at these numbers and the councils up for grabs in London, the actual number of seat gains looks likely to be quite low.

Why? Well, because Ed Miliband already did very well when these councils were last fought in 2014 as the Liberal Democrats collapsed to his benefit. In most of the capital, you are looking at perhaps three to eight possible gains as the last remaining Liberal Democrats or Conservatives are wiped out.

In Hackney, there are just three Tory councillors, four Liberal Democrats and 50 Labour party councillors, and that was actually one of Ed Miliband’s least impressive results in inner London. In Waltham Forest they hold 44 seats out of 60. In Haringey, 48 out of 57. And these are the Labour-held areas with the biggest potential for gains.

So even a blockbuster night for Labour in London I wouldn’t expect them to make many gains as far as seat numbers go.

It could get worse for the Tories depending on how the Liberal Democrat vote is distributed

The great unknown is that the Liberal Democrat vote is up – but we aren’t entirely sure where it is up. Their big hope of course is Richmond, where they were entirely wiped out in 2014, but it is possible that Brexit – and the fact that EU citizens can vote in this elections – will turn the table for them. Or they could just give a couple of Labour councillors a fright but gain very little. Who knows?


There is a lot to worry for both major parties here

I don’t think it is worth worrying too much about voting intention as far as Westminster goes: there isn’t an election due until 2022 and it is hard to predict results this far out.

However, were I Labour, it would trouble me that in a city where they have finished first as far as elections to Parliament go in every contest since 1992 and where they have not lost a city-wide contest since 2012, and are likely to get more than half the vote, the most popular choice for “who is the best Prime Minister?” is “Don’t Know”. (A shrug of the shoulders leads Jeremy Corbyn 36 per cent to 31 per cent, wile Theresa May is a poor third with 24 per cent. Facing a tricky two-legged tie to qualify for the Champions League proper in fourth place is Vince Cable with nine per cent.)

But there is very little to cheer here for the Conservatives either. While “leaving the EU” is a top three issue for a quarter of all Remain voters their path to a good parliamentary majority looks very tricky. It should alarm them that the traditional areas of Labour strength, particularly the NHS, are on the rise as far as issues of concern go.

The Conservatives have a big problem with Remainers, but Labour are doing okay with Leavers

The number one way to improve the Tory position in London and indeed across the country would be for them to do as well holding onto the “Cameron 2015, Remain 2016” voters as Labour are with “Miliband 2015, Leave 2016” ones. To give you an idea of the problem: Labour getting 30 per cent of the vote among Leavers, the Conservatives are getting just 17 per cent among Remainers. If the Tories can even do merely as poorly as Labour, their position would be greatly improved.

It’s hard to see at this distance who will even want to challenge Sadiq Khan

Voting intention for the 2020 mayoral election is only marginally more useful than voting intention for 2022, but on the more reliable metric of approval ratings, Khan continues to look like a formidable candidate in 2020, with more than half the city approving of his record so far. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at our parent title, the New Statesman, where this post first appeared. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.