Next May, London voters choose their borough councillors for a further four years. This is the 14th time the boroughs in their present shape, created in 1965, have gone to the polls. Yet in all the frequent ups and downs of party fortunes, it is surprising actually how little change has ended up taking place in the leadership of London’s boroughs.
In 1964, the first elections for the current boroughs, the Conservatives had 676 councillors elected, Labour 1112. In 2014, the latest elections, Conservatives had 612 and Labour 1060. The Liberals/Liberal Democrats went from 17 to 116, and others 55 to 63. The number of boroughs run by Conservatives and Labour has stayed the same: 9 Conservative and 20 Labour. Not much seems to have happened.
The vote shares have shifted more, but mainly to reflect the rise in 2014 of UKIP and the consequent fall in the Conservative and Labour shares.
So can we assume the 2018 election will deliver little change? It is too early to be definitive, but we can highlight the key pointers to watch. The first is whether Labour’s general election success in London carries through to the borough polls. Labour’s national poll standing is holding up well, with the Conservatives weakening.
The catch, however, is turnout: the relatively high turnout in London in 2017 included younger voters and others who were enticed to vote Labour in the general election, but may well not have the same incentive to go to the polls in a local election. However, Labour also did very well in the borough elections of 2014 -- so there is no reason to expect any shift against them, with possibly a further modest improvement from a high base.
Second, the Conservatives’ weak overall standing in post-general election opinion polling is likely to carry through to next May. This means they are under heavy challenge in formally rock solid boroughs. Current indications are that Labour could do particularly well in traditional Conservative strongholds Wandsworth and Kensington & Chelsea, whilst marginal boroughs like Barnet could turn red.
Third, there is evidence of long term demographic change in a number of outer London boroughs starting to have an impact on voting behaviour. This has been visible to some extent in mayoral and general elections, but has yet to show up in the overall outcome of borough elections. If it does so in 2018, it will strengthen Labour’s long term position in the outer boroughs.
Fourth, will the UKIP vote collapse, compared to 2014, as it did between the 2015 and 2017 general elections? And could the Liberal Democrats experience a modest London rise? Probably and possibly.
Fifth, are there any special individual borough features which means their results could buck or exaggerate an overall trend? Undoubtedly, this is feasible: Tower Hamlets, where the independent elected mayor has switched to Labour since 2015; Kensington & Chelsea, in the aftermath of the Labour success in the general election in the north of the Borough and the Grenfell Tower disaster; and Richmond upon Thames, where there could well be a substantial Liberal Democrat revival in the aftermath of their general election results in the local constituencies.
The 2018 Borough council elections will come in the middle of a continuing period of substantial political uncertainly, including continuing Brexit negotiations – whose economic impact is so important for London – and a weakened Government after the 2017 general election. These factors and the longer term political and population trends will combine to deliver far greater uncertainty than usual in the run up to polling day.
Tony Halmos is a visiting professor in the Policy Institute at King’s College London and director of the King’s Commission on London. He is also an associate at Newington Communications, contributing to the firm’s elections website.