Where the ‘firewall’ fight for control of the Town Hall could be won – or lost
Labour has marked Kilburn and Haverstock wards as key areas they must win in order to hold its majority at the Town Hall next year
29 January, 2017 — By Richard Osley
Labour celebrating victory at the 2014 council elections in Camden
LABOUR councillors have been told to monitor how the public react to changes to bin collections in order to ensure that the issue does not provide a “spark” for revolt at next year’s boroughwide council elections.
The New Journal has seen confidential election analysis prepared for the party ahead of the elections – a key test of public opinion for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s new-look leadership – which says risks could come from independent candidates or the Liberal Democrats in some wards.
Members are being advised to troubleshoot local ward issues, particularly where council services are being removed, including the loss of weekly bin collections at some homes.
The party, which has been back in power in Camden since 2010, has also been told that it should be happy even if it only returns 30 councillors next May, and that a working majority at the Town Hall is a greater priority than a landslide election win. It currently holds 39 seats in Camden, one of its largest ever groups.
The analysis was circulated among councillors late last year and was compiled by respected political analyst Lewis Baston, based on previous election results and voting trends.
It suggests that Labour can hold onto power in Camden by:
l holding “safe” seats in St Pancras and Somers Town, Regent’s Park, King’s Cross and Covent Garden;
l defending “reliable wards” in Cantelowes, Gospel Oak, Bloomsbury, Camden Town and Primrose Hill, and Kentish Town;
l winning again in two wards labelled “firewall” areas: Kilburn and Haverstock.
It is the “firewall” seats which Mr Baston says in his report will “determine whether Labour can win a working majority on the council”.
Meanwhile, Fortune Green, West Hampstead and Highgate – territory currently home to six Labour councillors combined – are labelled “true marginals”, where members are urged to keep continuous contact with voters to ensure there is no wavering. Labour could consider targeting Belsize and Swiss Cottage in a bid to extend their majority, which are held by the Tories, the report also said.
While the analysis is upbeat about Labour’s prospects – the election of London Mayor Sadiq Khan last year has partly led the party to believe it can win locally even if Mr Corbyn is struggling nationally – there are warnings and risk alerts peppered through the report.
Speculation behind the scenes hangs over how the candidate selection process will be affected by new members who joined to support Mr Corbyn and the change in direction for the party nationally.
But Mr Baston’s report warned: “As with all wards with incumbent Labour councillors, the most electorally advantageous approach is nearly always re-adoption of incumbents who are willing and able to stand again. They have developed local knowledge and networks that would take new candidates time to build up, and can have benefit from pure personal votes from electors and from knowing where campaigning can have the most impact.
“Loss of safe seats in local and general elections often arises from disputed selections which create opportunities for other parties and independents and are bad for the cohesion for the Labour group as a whole.”
On potential opponents at the elections, Mr Baston wrote: “Volatility in local elections can be very high if attention is focused on a ward-based issue and that is harnessed by a party or an independent candidate or slate. This is practically always against the party which controls the local council, and no ward can be considered entirely safe if a local issue blows up and finds political expression.”
And he referenced how the issue of waste removal can be a key issue.
“The withdrawal of a public service or a controversial planning issue are the usual ones, but on a bad day and if the council or the ruling party are already getting unpopular, changes in parking regulations or bin rotas can be the spark,” the report said.
“An organised force of independents is probably the most dangerous as it does not have much resistance to overcome from voters who normally consider themselves Labour.
“The Liberal Democrats are capable of making breakthroughs on this basis, particularly if a by-election crops up. While they were badly damaged by the national coalition, local by-elections suggest that they are still a threat in supportive circumstances. In traditionally marginal wards discontent is often channelled through the established opposition party and the results are generally less extreme.”
While the analysis points to the threat from the Lib Dems, Greens and independents in some wards, there is less written about how the Tories may try to attack; their attempts to make gains in southern wards recently had been largely resisted.
Conservative group councillor Claire Louise-Leyland said last night (Wednesday) that Labour would be wrong to underestimate her election team.
“It’s absolutely clear that bin rounds can be a spark. We are seeing it already. We are seeing that people are only realising now what is happening, and they have not had the chance or been asked how they feel about it,” she said. “I’m getting emails and messages all the time about it, and if you look at wards like West Hampstead and Fortune Green they are greatly affected. People are concerned that this has been introduced without them being told about it. We are the ones who are having to tell them.”
West Hampstead may emerge as a tug-of-war at the elections – sitting Labour councillors are likely to be targeted by both the Tories and Lib Dems – and Mr Baston’s report gauged “there may be a weaker attachment to Camden and weaker engagement in Camden-wide political questions in these wards because of their relative remoteness from the principal axis of the borough between Holborn and Hampstead Town/Highgate.”
Labour council leader Councillor Sarah Hayward said the warnings over keeping incumbents was not an attempt to discourage new members to put their names forward, but that accepted trends showed sitting councillors fared well and that Mr Baston had regularly cited this in election analysis.
She said: “I think Lewis was referring to localised ward-based issues in his report, like how the issue of the Kentish Town baths was leapt on in 2006. Bin collections are obviously important to residents, as it is one of the services that everybody uses. Not everybody uses a Sure Start Centre. There will almost certainly be some teething problems when the changes are made, you’d have to expect that with managing any major change but I have not had a single email on the issue so far.
“It may not be exactly how we would’ve changed things if we still had the same funding, as good as the move to increase recycling is. But the truth is, we have been hit by cuts from central government which means we’ve been forced to change things.”