Reflecting on the council elections

Today I (technically) start my fourth term as a Wandsworth Councillor after a long and hard election.

It’s been an interesting campaign. There’s no shortage of commentary about the national campaign, so I will add little to it, suffice to say I’m pleased to see Justine re-elected in Putney and Jane elected in Battersea. Obviously it’s disappointing that we didn’t get the clean sweep and Sadiq Khan held on in Tooting. I only wish he and his supporters could have exhibited the grace in victory shown in the Putney and Battersea results declared before his, but I think I always knew that would be too much to ask.

But moving onto the local results, I can’t help but think how good they were for the Conservatives and wonder how disappointed the Labour Party must be think weekend. The combined general and local election poll was a great opportunity for them to increase their representation on the council but now they must bitterly reflect that it was an opportunity missed.

Most of their gains came in Tooting, getting one seat that had been held by the Conservatives in Furzedown and two in Tooting ward. Fuzedown has always been an ‘odd’ ward, regularly returning a split and this is the first time in my memory that all three councillors have been from the same party. Tooting was always seen as a Labour safe seat and it was an upset when we took two seats there, defeating the then Labour leader Stuart King (who must also be disappointed with the night’s results for other reasons). This time our candidates in both wards put up a hard fight, but it wasn’t enough.

However, Labour failed to make any in-roads into any of the other wards, most notably Bedford, where they must have been hopeful of a Labour gain, but found themselves 350 votes short of taking a seat and over 1,300 short of all three.

Labour’s only other gain of the evening was in Roehampton. This was a ward we won in 1998 (totally against the odds, the Conservative candidates were so sure of defeat they’d gone for a curry instead of to the count) and have managed to hold ever since. But despite another fierce Labour campaign they only managed to gain one seat, instead of all three. And they totally failed to make an impression in West Hill, the other Putney ward they had been targeting.

In Battersea no seats changed hands, Labour held onto Latchmere, but failed to take their target seat of Queenstown. I think this must be one of the few constituencies in London were all council seats were successfully defended, no mean feat and a credit to all the candidates and activists involved.

The net result is a gain of four seats for Labour, giving them 13 councillors to our 47. But given that they must have been expecting at least 15-21 seats doing worse can’t be a good feeling for them.

The challenge for them now is making sure they use what they have effectively. I do not think they were a strong team over the past four years, and were heavily reliant on their leader, Tony Belton (for whom I have a great deal of respect). Time will tell if this will change.

8 down, 21 to go…

We'd actually spoken to the resident here in the pre-campaign campaign. I hope that's not what has put them off.

Over a week into the formal campaign. And still three weeks to go. Are people fed up yet?

So far it’s been a pleasant experience. I can’t help comparing to my first stint on the Battersea doorstep in 1997 which was, frankly, a depressing experience. As a Conservative campaigning has got better and better with each passing year.

Has it got worse for Labour? Clearly I’ve no idea, I’ve never knocked on a door as a Labour activist, but I can’t help imagining that it has. Our supporters are easier to find and far more motivated to vote than ever before. And while I’m finding Labour supporters (I’m not going to pretend they aren’t out there) I’m not finding enthusiastic Labour supporters.

Back in 1997 we had plenty of supporters, but as I discovered when I was going back to the same doors again and again and again on election day, while they were Conservative supporters they were not, for that election at least, going to be Conservative voters. It’s a simplistic view, but what gave Blair victory in 1997 weren’t the people switching from blue to red, or people voting tactically, but the Conservative voters who stayed at home, while Labour’s vote increased by 2 million between 1992 and 1997 the Tory vote plummeted by 4½ million.

I don’t think we’re on course for a 1997 landslide, the electoral system is too heavily stacked against us for that, but it will be interesting to see how the numbers pan out on the day. It’s a truism, but elections are won or lost on who can persuade their voters to get out and vote. And that’s why we’re out there (annoying some) every day and every night.

Council nominations

As I mentioned at the end of last week the nominations for the council elections closed last week and the statement of people nominated was published today. The full list can be downloaded from the council.

This is the sort of thing that only really interests anoraks like me, but to give you the highlights.

Every ward has a full slate of Conservative, Labour and (surprisingly) Liberal Democrat candidates. I don’t think the Lib Dems have managed that in my memory. Having said that, I’m not sure how committed they are, I know at least one has publicly stated being a paper candidate, and Layla Moran, their parliamentary candidate is also standing for council in Latchmere.

The Greens have fielded a number of candidates, with at least one per ward. Four years ago they managed to beat Labour in a number of places, so might be interesting to watch.

Then there are a few ‘others’:

  • A Christian Peoples Alliance candidate in Latchmere
  • An independent candidate in Southfields
  • A Communist in Tooting
  • And most disappointing of all, a BNP candidate in West Hill

I believe Wandsworth is a remarkably cohesive borough, so it’s a real pity that they feel there’s enough division here to field a candidate (even worse, they are supposedly fielding a candidate in the Putney parliamentary election). What’s particularly interesting, however, is the ward and constituency they have chosen: the BNP takes votes from Labour – so chosing a Conservative held ward and a Conservative held constituency does not seem terribly logical. Given that they won’t win and their aim is, one assumes, a good showing, they’d have been better somewhere with a stronger Labour vote.

Labour’s vision for Tooting: Bingo

I recognise that reports of meetings I attended are dull. Frankly, they are dull for me. Last night’s full council was a classic example of why.

I have a lot of time for the Labour Party in Wandsworth, I think they have provided some good opposition to the council, but actually, that’s mainly come from their leader, Tony Belton. Without him, I don’t think there’s any doubt they would not be much of a force. Last night’s debates largely proved this.

At the previous council meeting (which was only to set the council tax) their arguments were “Yeah, Lord Ashcroft”. Nothing to do with the council, and nothing to do with council tax setting. Last night, they developed a new line of attack: “Yeah, Mark Clarke.”

Rather than debating council policy they spent more time trying to attack a Conservative Parliamentary candidate than anything else. A sign, perhaps, that they are worried about the Tooting seat?

We did try and debate Tooting. Sadly Rex Osborn, a Tooting councillor, could offer nothing better than saying everything good in Tooting was because of the residents and businesses, and everything bad because of the council. Our problem, it seems, was that we are too heavy handed with enforcement, except when we aren’t because then we should be heavier. And we don’t have any vision, because if we did, we’d be encouraging more people to go to the bingo hall. And we’re not clairvoyant, because he had photos of problems which we subsequently had to clear up.

And that was the corker. Like a Liberal Democrat on Glum Councillors he had a series of photos where rubbish had been dumped or the pavement blocked, which the council had to clear up. The complaint was not that the council didn’t clear the problems, but that the problems existed in the first place – and here he conveniently forgot the residents and businesses good, council bad line. Perhaps hoping we’d all think the council has been dumping mattresses or re-arranging shop displays.

I’ve repeatedly said that the real strength of Tooting Together is the together element. We clearly rely on residents and businesses to keep pavements clear and not to litter or flytip – but when the minority (and it is a small minority) step out of line we will act quickly to rectify the situation. To try and spin the whole thing in the way Labour did shows they are out of ideas at exactly the time they need them.

If that is the best Labour have to offer, it can hardly be a surprise that they are worried about losing to the Conservatives, and maybe even to the pothole pointers of the Liberal Democrats.

Weekly wrap-up, 4 December

LFB Fire Safety Check
Re-using the LFB photo, if only because my wife likes it!

It isn’t unique to being a councillor (although it might be exacerbated by the lack of structure) but I struggle to think of the things I have been up to this week! So when I can look to my diary to remind me of what meetings and appointments I’ve had I find myself thinking “was that really this week?” So, in a slightly different format, this week’s wrap-up.

Stuff I’ve already blogged
A few of the things I have already blogged about, I attended a fund-raising dinner with Ken Clarke on Monday and spent time with the London Fire Brigade on their fire safety visits on Wednesday.

Stuff I missed
Annoyingly I missed two Christmas light switch-ons this week – Tooting last Tuesday and Northcote Road yesterday. I like to attend them where I can, partly to show support for our Town Centres, but also because it appeals to the child in me!

A prior commitment meant I also had to miss one of the regular meetings between the council and Chamber of Commerce. These are useful meetings, if only because it means we get to hear directly from local businesses. And I would have loved to hear how the season is going. We did, of course, get the good news that Wandsworth is going to benefit by £52,000 from the Department for Communities and Local Government. An early Christmas present (although probably too late to use before Christmas) that will help us with our plans, which are already fairly well advanced, to ensure Wandsworth’s high streets are blighted by the recession.

Stuff I did, but didn’t mention
I’ve had a few of the fairly ‘routine’ meetings this week. Next week sees a Full Council meeting, the last before Christmas and New Year, so we had our usual Conservative group meeting to discuss it. It has an element of smoky rooms to it, since while we’re sat talking in one room the Labour Party are having the same sort of discussions just down the corridor. And afterwards the two whips compare notes to agree the agenda of council meeting!

I also had one of my regular policy meetings with the officers in my portfolio area. Checking on how things are going (a much nicer task as the recession seems to be easing and the spate of gun crime has ended) and discussing how various projects and ideas can be taken forward. Or not, if you’re of the Yes, Minister school of government.

Finally, I was at the inaugural meeting of the national Advisory Panel on Tackling Worklessness. I was a little surprised, as a councillor from a borough with fairly low unemployment, to be asked onto a body like that. I often wonder if I’m wheeled out as a token cynic because I do like to focus and concentrate on the deliverables, if you will allow me a little jargon. But an interesting body and one I hope will be productive, not least because, as a national group made up of many fairly frontline people, so many different perspectives can be brought to bear on the problem.

Stuff I’m not going to mention
A fairly self-defeating headline. But I occasionally worry I give the impression that everything is blogged and, therefore, if it’s not on here I didn’t do it. As usual the week has been peppered with reading, emailing, casework and small meetings and discussions; none of which ever get close to a blog post. While I’d love to pretend it’s because they are important and super-secret, it’s mainly because they are quite dull!

Ken Clarke and the Kings of the Jungle

Wandsworth Conservatives hosted Ken Clarke for their annual fundraising dinner last night. Those that follow me on Twitter will know I was a little, shall I say, cynical of the motives behind these dinners last night as I was separated from my cash in a variety of creative ways – all despite being put onto a table pretty far from the ‘action’.

But then I am a councillor, so I’ve volunteered for it and, of course, benefit directly and indirectly from the money raised. I mustn’t grumble, especially as everyone had such a good time.

And it was a good headline act. Ken Clarke is indisputably one of the big beasts, a king of the British political jungle. One of the country’s best chancellors (certainly better than any of his successors) and definitely one of the best leaders the Conservatives never had. I suspect we might be in a very different political landscape had he become leader in 1997 (so Hague could mature as a national politician) or in 2001 (when we would have missed in-fighting that marred Iain Duncan-Smith’s leadership).

And while his speech was as rousing and robust as you might expect it set me thinking about the nature of those political big beasts.

Looking back to 1997, Major’s last cabinet was full of them. Clarke and Heseltine were obviously the biggest. But there were plenty of ‘names’ there. Rifkind and Howard served as Foreign and Home Secretaries while Portillo occupied Defence. Lesser known at the time was William Hague as Welsh Secretary. Lesser known even now was Sir Patrick Mayhew who laid so much of the groundwork for the Northern Ireland peace process. And the rest of the cabinet was scattered with intelligent and able ministers whose careers were cut short by the electoral disaster that befell them in 1997.

And then look at the Brown Cabinet. You would expect me to say it was weaker, because I clearly have a political bias. But even trying to look at it impartially I find it hard to identify the same level of talent. The only real big beast (though I’d argue he’s far too sleek and stealthy to be called a beast) is Lord Mandelson. But the rest of the Cabinet…?

There are some talented people there. I think Ed Miliband has potential that could, politically, be much better used by the Labour Party than his current portfolio. His brother, I fear, is over-rated and over-promoted as Foreign Secretary. Jack Straw is one of the governmnent’s survivors, but I’m not sure if he qualifies as a big beast – a very safe pair of hands, to be sure – though I may be under-estimating him.

But then you start coming to people like Bob Ainsworth and Harriet Harman and I’m certainly I’m not under-estimating them.

I’m not quite sure why it has turned out this way for Brown. It might be his politics or the electoral situation that explain why people like Alan Milburn have sat on the back-benches rather than at the Cabinet table. But you can hardly claim John Major was in a better position; he was leading a fractured party towards certain defeat – whereas it’s far from sewn up for any party this time.

It might be the change from collegiate and consensual Cabinet government under Major to increasingly presidential-style government under Blair and – while not presidential – the centralised command and control under Brown. It’s difficult to be a big beast in a cage. (For a similar reason, opposition doesn’t produce big beasts, and it will be interesting to re-visit this a few years into a Cameron government.)

So while we could allow sit and applaud Ken last night, I wonder what big beast the Labour would have in 2022, talking about the work needed after twelve years of Tory Government. It would seem the only beast they have is Mandelson? But surely even he can’t come back again?

Majorities, polls and the election

For those that like symbolism today is just 164 days until the (or a) likely date of the general election.

While Brown could wait until 3 June next year – and there have been rumours that 25 March might be the date – for a long time the main betting seems to have been on a combined poll with the local elections on 6 May 2010.

So why do I think the 164 days are significant?

Well, here in Battersea Labour’s Martin Linton has a majority of just 163 votes. In the incredibly unlikely event that the electorate in Battersea remained the same between 2005 and 2010 the Conservatives would need to find just one vote per day between now and the election to gain the seat from Labour. An easy task? I don’t know. It’s certainly not one that is taken for granted, and the weekend’s poll showing Labour “slashing” the Conservative lead shows exactly why the election isn’t a foregone conclusion.

The poll has certainly created jubilation among Labour supporters who now feel there is still a chance they can win next year. And in response a degree of denial from Conservatives. Personally, I’m sitting on the fence. I remember being one of the underdogs in 1997, 2001 and 2005. And I remember how tempting it is to jump on any poll that gives you hope.

I also remember how depressing it is when the next lot of polls all show that it was just a rogue.

But what the poll does show, however, is exactly how hard the battle will be for the Conservatives. If you pop over to the Electoral Calculus website you can play with percentages and see how they would play out. In this case the 6% lead to the Conservatives makes them the bigger party (with no overall majority) by just 18 seats with 296 MPs to Labour’s 278.

If we look at previous elections you can see that the electoral system is skewed in Labour’s favour. In the 2005 election Labour won just a 3% bigger share of the vote than the Conservatives, but this netted them 158 more MPs. In 2001 a 9% lead gained them 227 more MPs. And both elections produced substantial Labour majorities.

However if you go back to the last election the Conservatives won, in 1992, their 7.5% lead represented the most votes ever cast for a single party in the UK but garnered them just 65 more MPs than Labour and an overall majority of just 21 that had eroded to nothing by the time of the 1997 election.

I should be clear this isn’t a complaint about the electoral system, which I like and greatly prefer to any system of ‘proportional’ voting – but an observation current distribution of constituency boundaries means, overall, the electoral system heavily favours the Labour Party. And that means the Conservatives have an almighty task ahead of them. They need to lead by around 8% before they have an overall majority.

But while the overall figures may suggest a there’s a huge mountain to climb, that’s not the case in individual seats. In Battersea it might ‘only’ be 164 votes needed, but they will only be won with hard work on the ground. Exactly the same as all the other majorities that will be over-turned next year when each seat will makes its contribution to an historic election.

My imminent de-selection

I live life on the edge. I’m the type of guy you see in a L’Oreal advert, perhaps running along the Thames, then doing something manly, like chopping down a tree or at least doing something wearing a tool-belt.

And I use Facebook (you can even be my friend), which includes applications like ‘How Sexy Am I?’.

Actually, I generally avoid applications on Facebook, largely because I’m averse to clicking OK when asked to approve access to virtually all my information. But I did try with this particular application out of solidarity with Cllr Geoff Courtenay from Uxbridge. The Uxbridge Gazette reports that Cllr Courtenay, a fellow Conservative, has been de-selected by Hillingdon Conservatives after putting the app on his Facebook page. Apparently he displayed “a lack of judgement over inappropriate material being placed [on the] social networking site Facebook.” If there is any good news for Cllr Courtenay it’s that the paper later reveals that, in true Facebook style, there is a group demanding he be un-de-selected.

Despite my general cynicism about the role sites like Facebook and Twitter play in politics and local government stories like this depress me. I know the articles in the might not tell the whole story. And I know there may well be an unwritten subtext to the de-selection. But it looks bad for two reasons.

First, if you take it at face value we are saying that we, as a party, don’t really understand sites like Facebook, where applications like this are not that unusual and not meant to be taken seriously. If you have a Facebook account you understand that, and to see the ‘inappropriate material’ you not only need to have an account but be Cllr Courtenay’s friend. Taking it further, we are saying that we don’t expect our candidates to be human. We expect them to operate in a humourless void, in which defects like personality or character should be stamped out.

Second, if you view it as a smoke screen, then it gives the appearance that we are unprofessional. We’re using an excuse (and I think a fairly flimsy one) as cover for a decision we want to take for other reasons. Candidate selections and de-selections are a fact of life for anyone involved in politics – in just the same was as we win or lose elections, we need to convince our party that we’re fit for the job. There is nothing wrong with de-selections, just as there’s nothing wrong in people losing jobs or failing at job interviews. But if we are to be a professional party (and generally, we are) we need to act in a professional manner – and that includes honesty in the feedback rather than using convenient smokescreens.

And if you were wondering how sexy I am, I’m afraid you will be disappointed. I tried installing the application but just get a message that “there are still a few bugs on Facebook and the makers of How Sexy Am I? are trying to sort them out.” But every cloud has a silver lining, because while my sexiness will – tragically – remain a mystery, at least I don’t have to fear a de-selection.