Conservative success in Wandsworth has been underpinned by financial control. Even if people aren’t natural Conservatives, the wisdom goes, they’ll vote Conservative in local elections because the borough is efficiently run and keeps its hands out of tax-payers’ pockets.

There is something to that; historically the Conservatives have polled better in local elections than in national elections; defeats for the Conservatives at general elections in 1997, 2001 and 2005 were all followed within a year by easy victories in the local election. The discipline that held all the way through that period cemented their reputation as a low-tax borough. I’m not sure the pain that discipline caused just to be a few pence a year cheaper than Westminster Council1 was worth it, but it was unquestionably there and a source of some envy from other councils.

That’s not to say the council was always mercenary. I remember when the group voted to close York Road library (which served the Winstanley and York Road estates) the then Leader, Edward Lister vetoed the decision because, I like to think, he knew it was just wrong: closing a library in one of our most deprived neighbourhoods to save a few pence was going too far. It may have been hard-edged when it came to cash, but it wasn’t ruthless.

Recently it’s become clear the council’s efficiency is not what it was, you only need to see the state of the roads and pavements (which they won’t let us know). But it kept a grip on the finances.

Now it just makes it up.

The last council meeting of the 2014-2018 council took place last Wednesday. It was an acrimonious affair. The main part of the meeting was the setting of the council tax: an annual event that used to be something of a set-piece at which Conservatives would take turns to praise the council then vote through the council tax before retiring to the pub for a self-congratulatory pint.

But on Wednesday the Tories abandoned years of responsible financial management. Panicking about the election they threw out a last-minute election bribe.

We all knew there was a Conservative amendment to the council tax recommendation but few people, including most of the Conservative group, had no idea what it was. The council was being asked to set a council tax on information it wasn’t allowed to know until the time came for the Leader to read it out while a council employee moved through the council chamber distributing the copies of the amendment. The amendment was printed hours earlier but kept under wraps because the leader needs every advantage he can get in the council chamber. It announced £10 million extra (perhaps) for nice things just in time for the election.

There were complaints about this, of course. It is illegal to set a budget that does not balance (there was no sign of where this money was from) and council standing orders prevent the introduction of an amendment that increases spending at the meeting. There was a degree of confusion while officers checked, trying to find a way to allow it, and the Leader was eventually saved by a backbencher who pointed out that the amendment wasn’t even a spending commitment but merely a commitment to look for £10 million.

In other words it was meaningless: calling it a bribe is probably an insult to bribery – it’s an IOU with no indication of how it will be paid.

The Leader was a little more blunt about it later: the money was to come from reserves. There are several possible interpretations to this. One is that they have built up reserves purely to use as an electoral bribe. Another is that if the level of council reserves isn’t artificially high, they were also implicitly announcing that there will be a £10 million tax hike, or £10 million of cuts after the election.

Whichever it is, there is no doubt that the £10 million is a sign of desperation. A last throw of the dice from a worried council leader hoping to buy votes in an election that looks dangerously close.

Of course, it’s lovely he feels the need to stump up £10 million from reserves to bribe the electorate with nice things. But some might argue the money would be better spent on repairing the crumbling roads and broken pavements. Maybe even paying for the Fire Risk Assessments not carried out in council blocks despite the tragedy of Grenfell Tower. Or, just perhaps, they could invest in the children’s services department which is still failing two years after Ofsted’s original damning judgement.

Of course, bribing the electorate might have been a good tactical decision. We won’t know until 4 May. If nothing else it gave a Conservative group that are questioning his leadership something to cheer about as they head into a council election.

But when sound financial management is not just your unique selling point, but your only selling point, is a last-minute bribe for the electorate—highlighting that you play fast and loose with the council coffers for electoral gain—really a good strategic move?

I suspect not.

  1. A bizarre competition, the structure of local government finance meant Westminster could have easily set a lower tax, but it was politically expedient for them not to be the lowest: they were the ones setting a reasonable budget, not the ones cutting services just to set a low council tax like Wandsworth.

I am proud to be standing for Renew in the Wandsworth council elections in May. I had spent a long time quite happy as an independent with no intention of standing as a candidate, of any type, for some time. So what changed?

Becoming independent

Leaving the Conservatives was a long time coming for me. I felt the Conservatives had ceased representing me both locally and nationally, and on Wandsworth they were feeling increasingly tired: interested only in control and lacking any positive vision for the borough.

I have enjoyed being an independent councillor and feel I make a difference (much bigger than I ever could as Conservative). But that was limited.

While I enjoyed the freedom to, say, help Tooting parkrun get started or advise the Save Battersea Park group in getting rid of Formula E it was a pretence to say I was alone. I was able to help because I was an independent, free from the shackles of party control (although I had been surreptitiously helping both, even while in the Conservative group), the fact is that those campaign’s successes only came about because everyone involved was part of something larger.

Joining Renew

And that brought me to Renew. The choice between the mainstream parties is no choice at all. It would be unimaginable to re-join a Conservative Party that seems to want nothing more than a return to the 1950s, or a Labour Party moving further and further to the left, especially while both are propping up each other’s hard Brexit delusions.

The Liberal Democrats might have some attractions, being at least anti-Brexit. But it’s hard to see how they can have any impact: tainted by their involvement in the coalition and led by Vince Cable they are simply not the right choice for challenge we face.

And that left Renew: an anti-Brexit, centrist party, a home for all those people, like me, who have found themselves politically homeless since the referendum.

What Renew offers Wandsworth

Renew is not looking to control Wandsworth council, it is quite purposefully not putting up a full slate of 60 candidates, but instead offers a compelling opportunity to voters to make their voice heard; to send a message from a 75% remain borough that hard-Brexit is not what we want, and that a choice between two extremist parties is no choice at all.

I have seen the difference that a couple of independently minded, evidence-driven councillors has made. Malcolm Grimston and I were the leading councillors forcing the council to take an aggressive stance in defending the rights of EU citizens while Conservatives were still busy crowing about the referendum result. And Malcolm has led the campaign to stand up for leaseholders being forced to pay thousands for unnecessary sprinklers.

Renew councillors can continue that role; holding whoever controls the council to account, and promoting a centrist view to balance the extremes of either a Conservative or Labour administration.

The council elections are the last scheduled election before the two-year article 50 notice period expires. You will have three votes. If you want to send a message about Brexit to the main parties, and if you want councillors that will represent you and not a few from their extreme fringes, then use one of the three votes for your Renew candidate.

My freedom of information flight of fancy was shot down in flames. Having spent months trying to get some data from the town hall as a councillor I thought I’d give the Freedom of Information Act a try.

I should have known better.

The story started (as quite a few of my recent ones do) at the Shaftesbury Let’s Talk meeting. During the meeting a comment was made by one of the officers who:

informed the meeting that a full inspection was carried out on pavements across the Borough; the Council is currently undertaking a 5-year programme of repairs, spending had been increased by £2m and the works were being prioritised to deal with the worst cases first.

I thought this was interesting. For a while I was reporting a lot of road and footway faults, but these often went unrepaired for months. Aside from wanting an overview of the state of the pavements, I also thought it might help me form a better picture of what repairs would be completed, since not much in Shaftesbury Ward ever got prioritised and perhaps I was reporting problems that just weren’t bad enough.

I never got the details of the inspection since—I was told—it had to be cleared by the leader of the council before it could be shared with me.

I tried a few more times before, at the beginning of the year, trying a freedom of information request. Surely, I reasoned, something that announced in a public meeting, detailing defects that are in full view of the public, should be information available to the public, if not a lowly councillor.

I was wrong. The response to my request was that the data is incomplete and releasing such information “may be misleading to the public” (imagine the horrors of people knowing about potholes and uneven pavements they can already see every day on their street) and because “the council needs to be able to consider and fully explore all the options available to them and exchange views within a safe place”.1

Of course, some might think that referring to a document as complete that has not been finished some three months later is misleading. But maybe it’s a case of two wrongs making a right, because it turns out the evidence base that doesn’t exist informs a five-year programme that doesn’t exist either.

It is, of course, symptomatic of a council lost in its own arrogance and right to rule.

I missed last night’s council meeting—attending a school governor training session and only making the town hall in time to see people leaving—but I’m rather glad. Having read the questions, followed it on Twitter and heard about it from people who were there it seemed to be a meeting with similarly weak foundations as the council’s street maintenance plan: the council may be long on self-love but it’s desperately short on self-awareness.


  1. Having wasted many hours of my life in those safe places, I can imagine the considerations; they were usually a debate about how far they could let the state of roads and pavements decline before the pain of complaints outweighed the saving on council tax. 

The council failed to collect Christmas trees for the second week running in Shaftesbury Ward.

My children are actually quite pleased about this. They were sad to see the tree leave the house, so being able to walk past so many on their way to school each day has been a small compensation for them. However, it does create problems. Many block the pavements, leaving then inaccessible for those with mobility problems or pushchairs, and they tend to attract fly-tipping.

There is, of course, a degree to which people should be considerate in disposing of their trees, but after the council’s heavy publicity of the Christmas tree collection (and warning of fines for people who dumped trees) it was not unreasonable for residents to leave trees out with their usual refuse in the expectation they would be collected.

I took this up with the council last week (but have not yet had a response, as an opposition councillor their target for replying to me is two weeks). I have chased them up again for what it’s worth. It seems to have been a problem across the borough, so I don’t know how rapidly they might be able to respond and suspect Shaftesbury is low down on their political priority list.

I’ve also written to Jonathan Cook, the cabinet member responsible. He is also one of the ward councillors for Shaftesbury. I’m sure he is already aware of it, but thought it worth writing just in case he’s not visited the ward recently.

A planning applications committee hearing a representation.

I’ve no doubt the planning applications committee are bored of me attending their meetings. I know the Conservative side have never reflected a point I made when representing residents (unless it happened to be a point also made by a Conservative) but I do think it’s important residents are represented.

I don’t think I have ever referred to any of those meetings in this blog though, since they are invariably very local issues and, I assumed, perhaps of limited interest. Indeed, this post is perhaps stimulated more by the Let’s Talk meeting (the echoes of Cllr Senior shouting about his role at a meeting he never attended, while criticising me for missing a meeting when, as I apologised to residents, I was on holiday) than by high-minded desires for transparency.

Since I once again find myself missing a meeting, this time unable to rearrange work and travel commitments to attend a meeting, I am hoping to avoid such unfounded accusations and instead am submitting my comments via email and publishing them below.

However, I did find myself, while drafting them, considering the council’s approach to planning policy. Many suspect, perhaps with good reason, that it favours the developer over local residents. It is certainly a view that many local residents have started to share having seen small, but contentious, applications decided in the favour of developers despite vociferous opposition. Policy is always the excuse.

But policy is (and should be) flexible, its implementation open to the exercise of discretion.

There are lots of factors to consider, and they do not always neatly align, so the committee has to choose how to apply them. A classic one in Wandsworth is affordable housing where it seems that, all too frequently, the committee is persuaded of the benefits of lowering that requirement.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the decision is not based on the scheme’s individual merits, or some discernible weighting of the factors, but on the desired outcome: which is usually to support the developer. While a small example I am amused by the Crosland Place application which in the space of three paragraphs is both close and not close to Clapham Junction, depending on which is most convenient to the approval recommendation.

Perhaps this is unsurprising. Leading councillors have very close relationships with developers and lobbyists. The planning department spend a lot of time talking with the same developers about their applications which are refined and honed before they are ever made; no time is spent with residents who might have different opinions.

But the flexibility that leaves people feeling planning favours developers could also be used to reach decisions that favour local residents; that leaves them believing the council is on their side. Unfortunately I fear we’ve a long way to go until we are there.


My email comments to the planning applications committee on Crosland Place (application 2017/3214):

Residents asked me to represent them on this application. Unfortunately I have not been able to rearrange work and travel commitments to enable me to attend the committee, but I hope members will permit me some comments on this application by email.

Residents and others have commented on some of the more practical points, including the overlooking, loss of outlook, overshadowing and parking concerns.

It is difficult to ignore these issues. Car use is declining, but the area surrounding Crosland Place still has high demand for parking spaces and it’s hard to imagine there will never be demand from Crosland Place residents (current policy would allow 10 or 11 parking spaces for a scheme of this size). And while the developer has addressed some of the overlooking concerns it remains the case that there is significant overlooking, particularly of the gardens and rear of no. 13 and other neighbouring properties.

The council’s policy DMS 1a and 1c requires “buildings ensure a high level of physical integration with their surroundings” and avoid harming “the amenity of occupiers/users and nearby properties through unacceptable noise, vibration, traffic congestion, air pollution, overshadowing, overbearing, unsatisfactory outlook, privacy or sunlight/daylight.”


This scheme fails on both counts. It does not easily fit into the style of Victorian buildings in the area, but it’s not just the aesthetic impact that affects the nearby residents. Taking the building to the northern edge of the site will deprive Craven Mews residents with south facing windows of significant levels of direct sunlight. The element of the building adjacent to the garden of 13 Taybridge Road will overlook significant amounts of private space of the residents at 13 and beyond. All those who have windows that face onto the site will see the quality of their outlook reduced, but especially those who live at the lower numbers of Taybridge Road who will have residential properties a short distance from their rear windows (even if the apertures in the walls have been removed from the first floor, the perception of loss of privacy remains and impacts quality of life).

I would also like to address some broader matters.

Cllr Belton commented at the last committee that my points about the history of the site were not relevant. A point on which I must disagree (and to which I will return), although recently it has fallen into disuse the site has a history of employment.

While the report plays this down, stating that it is not in an employment cluster, it is close to the Clapham Junction town centre (the report takes the usual planning approach of judging distance based on desired outcome rather than as an objective measure, stating it’s “not near to a town centre” in paragraph 1.4, while also stating it’s “close to Clapham Junction town centre” in paragraph 1.7), immediately adjacent to the Lavender Hill/Queenstown Road local centre and is a close neighbour of the fully occupied Battersea Business Centre.

Given that a significant proportion of employment currently being created is through self-employment and small business we should not be so easily relinquishing B1 space. Local plan 4.49 and 4.64 are particularly relevant to this, stating it “is important that new housing is not provided at the expense of employment land needed to support the prosperous, local economy in Wandsworth” and seeks “employment floorspace specifically targeted at the needs of the local economy, in particular the provision of flexible business space will be sought … to cater for the full range of Class B1 uses to accommodate a range of business uses.” While paragraph 1.5 of the application report argues that employment space is not enough to merit rejection on its own, this should be given some weight, and I would argue far more than the report suggests, by the committee.

Like some local residents I’m also concerned about the lack of affordable housing. While below the 10 unit threshold at which affordable units should be provided. Policy DMH 8a (iv) states that where developments fall below the 10 unit threshold but exceed the London Plan space standards the affordable housing requirement can be applied.

The scheme gives the impression of being designed to avoid triggering the affordable housing requirement. The total space of the nine proposed units has, by my reckoning, 108 sq. m. of space above the London Plan requirements (although unit 8 is currently slightly under standard). Almost enough for two 1-bed apartments, or for 11 2-bed, 3-people apartments over two floors if the scheme were reconfigured that way.

While spacious, the committee may want to consider whether this part of inner London would benefit more from affordable housing than a few lucky owners (or perhaps more likely private tenants) would from those extra square metres.

To return to Cllr Belton’s point, I accept there is a limited role for local history in a planning decision. However, if planning policy is to have meaning to local residents it should be able to reflect their community, of which their history is part. This is an application that does not complement the local area, and offers very little—if anything—to compensate for that. I hope members can reflect local opinion, and policy, and reject the application.

I don't like International Women's Day. Not really. And not because I'm misogynist, but because I just think we should have moved on by now. As a species you would have thought we'd have developed enough, educated ourselves enough, that such days were unnecessary.

Of course, we haven't. Inequality persists. And that perhaps gives me another reason to dislike it: a day just seems a bit of a feeble response.

The council meeting last night did, of course, mark International Women's Day. The Labour group put down a motion noting the role of women in local politics historically and today (pdf) but which also noted that woman and minorities are hardest hit by austerity.

Perhaps predictably the Tories responded with an amendment celebrating Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May. I often think that's something of a fig-leaf used by the Conservatives. Highlighting only the number of female leaders totally neglects the underlying issues: that there are still disproportionately few women in politics1. I'd argue Labour, as a party, has done far more to address that by all-women shortlists and funded development than the Conservatives who are only slowly catching up on this.

However, that's not to belittle the huge achievement of women who have led parties. So Malcolm Grimston and I proposed and seconded a further amendment that recognised both Thatcher and May, but also all those other woman who have led political parties, including Margaret Beckett and Harriett Harman (who acted as Labour leaders), Nicola Sturgeon (SNP), Ruth Davison (Scottish Conservatives), Kezia Dugdale (Scottish Labour), Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru), Arlene Foster (DUP) and Caroline Lucas (Green Party). I'm sure I've missed some.

While Labour immediately supported this and a few on the Conservative side did likewise (Kathy Tracey was notably early to support) I was shocked, and a little ashamed, at the opposition the motion provoked.

There were suggestions that procedurally the motion was improper. The council leader, Ravi Govindia, was one who felt this way and suggested—in an almost threatening way—that the Mayor "might want to reflect on that", even though it clearly was procedurally fine. There were several members grumpily muttering they would not support the motion and several minutes of confusion passed before a vote was actually taken, with the Conservative group initially keeping their hands down, before realising voting against was indefensible.

Even then, several were visibly repulsed at having to recognise the contribution of non-Conservative women. They'd happily vote to recognise Thatcher and (perhaps a little less happily) May, but it was a vote for their politics and not their gender.

It's debates like that which prove exactly why we do still need International Woman's Day. When a majority of a council (and both men and women among them) are so openly hostile to a simple motion, is it any wonder there isn't a gender balance in our political institutions?

I keep returning to a mantra of how a council should be setting a tone, it should be showing moral leadership. But when I watched it in action last night, needing it's arm twisted to vote for something as straightforward as gender equality, I think we can probably do without moral leadership from that particular crew.

  1. I think it's still Rwanda that has the record for the highest proportion of female legislators, around 60%, although for somewhat tragic reasons and there are some questions about how meaningful that is in a highly patriarchal society.

Wandsworth Council failed to show leadership on the Trump travel ban at the full council. The Labour Party were proposing the council leader and opposition leader should jointly formally state their opposition. This, however, was too much.

Even when the opportunity to show leadership was thrust upon him, the leader was unable to grasp it. Wandsworth does not have a foreign policy we were told. Wandsworth can do nothing about it we were told, petitions about road speeds were more our level. It was an awful, pernicious, measure we were told, but it really isn't our place to do anything about it because every issue under the sun will affect some of our residents and we can't take a stance on everything.

These are arguments against doing anything, to be sure. And they have been used repeatedly throughout the years all over the world. I know the council leader is not in the most secure position and there may be good short-term politics in avoiding a stance some of his members will not support. But this is one of those issues on which the right thing might not be easy—it might not be business as usual—but it should still be done.

Wandsworth doesn't have a foreign policy

It doesn't. The council takes a perverse pride in this. We are happily parochial. Except when we're not. The lack-of-foreign-policy policy is only deployed when convenient for the majority group.

You could equally argue that we don't operate an airline, or that we don't own an airport (a few councils do the latter) but we somehow manage to spend great time and effort on our aviation policy.

We don't manage Clapham Common, but we have plenty to say about how Lambeth manage it.

That is not to say that these are bad things to do, but to highlight that when it chooses the council is perfectly happy to take a strong stance on those things that happen outside its borders.

We can't do anything

This is a stronger argument. What's the point of doing anything when we have no control? The council leader was clear that there are all sorts of things we could take a view on, and say affects our residents, and perhaps hinted that because there were so many it was easiest to do none.

But how seriously do we think our chances in getting the government to back down on Heathrow? Exactly what powers did we think we were going to bring to bear when expressing our support for Wandsworth's EU citizens at the last council meeting?

The fact is that by raising awareness, by hoping to influence decision makers, we do and should take those stances on issues we don't control.

Even in the day-to-day life of the council we constantly adopt positions that seek to influence other partners. We hope to persuade TfL on issues around their roads. We seek to influence the police on their tasking. We try to entice businesses to invest. It is not just uncommon for the council to seek to influence: it's a crucial part of how it works.

We can't take a stance on everything

I wholeheartedly agree. We could debate every single issue endlessly. But sometimes there are issues that are important enough to make an exception. I would contend this is most definitely one.

In some ways I think it's an irrelevance whether or not one, 100 or 10,000 Wandsworth residents are affected. Trump's policy is nasty and dangerous. By discriminating against millions of people purely on the accident of where they were born or because of their choice of faith doesn't make them second class citizens, it potentially makes anyone and everyone a second class citizen: it impoverishes us all and acquiescence is not an option.

Doing something

We can all sit around and say we don't have a foreign policy, or we can't do anything, or it doesn't affect us. But I think we should be better than that. As a council and councillors we have to strike a balance between service and leadership. A big part of leadership, something the current council either can't, or won't, do is creating the narrative for their community. A vision for the future.

While this is absent in Wandsworth, the contrast between Obama and Trump's narratives for their nation and the world could not be clearer. And faced with that it is clear now is not a time for parochialism.

The council may not have power, but it has influence. It can set the tone for residents, highlighting the type of borough and world we value. And it can seek to influence decision makers; directly in the case of local MPs and through them indirectly influence national leaders and diplomats.

Over one and a quarter million people could have said they don't have a foreign policy. They didn't: they signed a petition.

Thousands and thousands of people in towns and cities could have said they can't do anything. They didn't: they attended demonstrations.

But contrast that with a group of Conservative councillors1, in the comfort of their chamber, who were given the chance to do something and show leadership…

They didn't: they sat on their hands.

And that was literally it. Rather than supporting an adjournment that asked the leader to express his opposition to the ban on behalf of the council, they waited 30 seconds and stuck their hands up to vote against instead. You could hardly have asked for less, but still they couldn't give it.

It was a failure of leadership.

  1. With one exception, Jane Dodd voted for the Labour motion and should be commended for that.

Welcome to the Heart of Battersea, Clapham Junction

The click-bait headline of a Metro article caught my eye over Christmas: 7 reasons why Wandsworth is the best place to live in London. I was lured in, knowing, even as I clicked, it would end badly.

It turns out that a big part of the attraction is that it's close to Clapham, that bit of London that sits firmly in Lambeth.

My first instinct was that a newspaper of record like Metro would never publish an article containing such factual inaccuracies as confusing Clapham and Battersea.

Indeed, Wandsworth's location within London is part of it's attraction. Having children of a certain age I love being within easy reach of the museums at South Kensington. Others might prefer the short jaunt to the King's Road or West End. In other parts of the borough you might value being close to Richmond Park or whatever attractions Merton might offer.

But when four of the seven reasons include Clapham as a positive, but nothing else outside of the borough the obvious explanation that the article is wrong is also, I daresay, the correct explanation.

People leaving Clapham Junction station, Battersea
As anyone heading through Clapham Junction knows, it’s in Battersea.
It's quite clear they've fallen into the trap of thinking Clapham stretches from Clapham Junction station, in Battersea, all the way to Stockwell and Balham. It's disappointing, but it's not the first time and it won't be the last. But what was really disappointing are the people who leapt on it.

It includes several Wandsworth Councillors (admittedly none of whom represent the Battersea area, so I suppose they can be excused) who "couldn't agree more" the Wandsworth Conservative party who also agree and add "Wandsworth is an amazing place", sadly unable to similarly praise Lambeth because of Twitter's character limit.

Most saddening of all was the council itself. Despite having formally supported the Love Battersea campaign they rewrote the Metro tweet (no lazy re-tweets) to share in the glory.

I suppose I shouldn't be disappointed. This is a post-truth age. Once politicians, parties and councils may have been authoritative voices, opinionated voices perhaps, which were concerned with factual accuracy. Now the priority is the positive spin.

And that is fine. But it's sad that those who should be allies in the campaign against Claphamisation abandon it so quickly for the 20 or so minutes of life of a flattering tweet. Even if they don't, I think Battersea is worth more than that.

The entrance to Queenstown Road station

I cried after the Queenstown election result.

Not last week's by-election, but the 2014 council election. I had, as I always did, become absorbed by the election, throwing myself into a hard fight believing that what I was doing on the doorstep affected the final result.

But after several weeks of missing my kids' bedtimes six nights a week it wasn't enough: we got two of the three seats. Whatever people said, that there was nothing more I could have done, that two of three ain't bad, I couldn't help feeling I'd let that third candidate down. I'd put my heart into the campaign, losing that one seat was one too many.

Now I'm happily detached from party I enjoy elections purely on their own merit: it may lack the highs but it's blissfully free from lows. The most intense emotion I experienced during the Queenstown by-election was the gratitude I was no longer at risk of being sucked into spending every free night and weekend knocking on doors in bitterly cold weather.

Why would the Conservatives have expected to win?

I won't deny that I felt the Tories should do badly. I have written several times about Formula E and why I felt it was wrong for Battersea Park and, yes, I thought there should be some electoral consequences for it. My expectation, though, was still a Conservative gain.

First, national polls have moved in the Conservative's favour since the seat was last fought in 2014. At the local elections in May 2014 the two parties were about level, with Labour, if anyone, tending to be the one that would take a small lead. Currently there is a clear lead for the Conservatives of around 8%. Even taking the least favourable numbers for the Conservatives it still equates to an 8% swing to them.

Second, the demographics should have moved in the Conservatives' favour. While the developments at Nine Elms are far from fully occupied, some people have moved in and I would expect those living there to be more likely Conservative than Labour voters.

Third, the local Conservatives have been better campaigners than Labour. When turnout is low (and who really gets excited about local elections?) a good local campaign that mobilises its vote can make the difference between winning and losing.

Guessing a turnout around 20% (it was actually a bit higher), I'd have bet a Conservative gain with a majority of 150-200. But they lost by over five hundred.

Why did the Conservatives lose?

So, what went wrong? There were a number of factors, some of which I should have included in my initial thinking.

National swing isn't always relevant in a local by-election. London has exists in a bit of a political bubble and, at the moment, there's still something of a Sadiq Khan honeymoon for Labour that you might speculate was boosted by Tuesday's US Presidential election.

While the demographics might have shifted, I know from experience that people who live behind entry-phones are incredibly difficult to get out to vote. Living behind secure entry and concierges creates a different mindset: you pay a service charge to put a barrier between you and the rest of the world. Civic duty and democracy might be important, but it's hard to persuade people to leave their enclave to vote. And to offset any gain there, Formula E remained a bigger issue than I would have expected. Formula E might not be coming back, but a lot of people are still sore about it.

Perhaps most of all I failed to appreciate that while the Conservatives are great campaigners at the big elections (the Parliamentary fights or the whole council elections) they don't always scale down that well. Faced with the prospect of a cold, wet November by-election it's very easy for councillors—the backbone of the campaign machine—to find themselves having to attend to important business in a warm, dry Town Hall.

But why the Conservatives won't worry

The result will be a disappointment, especially to a council that doesn't like failure. But they know they don't need Queenstown and it's much better to learn the campaigning lessons with a single seat, than when all sixty are up for grabs.

And when all sixty are up for grabs it is a different contest. The Conservatives are better at those campaigns, they know their numbers, decide their strategy and move their troops. Plus they have the much easier job of defending a few key seats to retain control than having to win lots of them to take control.

Time is on their side too. Looking to the future, by the 2018 election Formula E will be a distant memory with voters thinking more about who runs (and sets the bills for) council services than exercising a protest vote. Looking to the past Conservative control is the default. It's over 40 years since Labour won control of the council, and over twenty since the Conservatives won anything less than two-thirds of the seats.

Finding examples of councils where control has changed after four decades is very difficult1. The electoral maths and demographics are such that if one party exercises such dominance for such a long time it's more than earned the right to be deemed 'safe'.

Most reassuring of all to the Conservatives will be that this is a seat they wouldn't even be competitive in anywhere else. (Queenstown is not alone but helps show how Wandsworth has defined and re-defines inner city Conservativism2.) The fact that it only has a single Labour councillor after twenty-four years highlights just how dominant the Conservatives have been and how the 'Wandsworth effect'—where voters who would ordinarily be Labour vote Conservative—has come to define local Wandsworth politics.

Were any tears shed after the by-election result was declared? I have no idea. If they were, though, I suspect not by those with wiser and cooler heads than I ever had. The Conservative leadership has a clear vision and a strong sense of purpose; it will not be too worried about one anomalous result.

  1. Well, perhaps not that difficult. The Conservatives lost lots of councils in the 1993 elections but this was in the unprecedented circumstances following Black Wednesday the previous year and many of those councils had been altered less than twenty years before by the Local Government Act 1972.
  2. For interest I did a quick look to see whether the proportion of social renting and Labour voting correlated in Wandsworth, Lambeth, Merton and Richmond. While it didn't produce a nice straight-line the relationship is there. Interestingly, in those boroughs only nine wards with a higher than average proportion of socially rented housing elected Conservative councillors. Six of those were in Wandsworth. You can download the data I used (which I got from the London Datastore) and the graph.

I've long seen council meetings as pointless.

When I was part of majority group and on the executive I shared the view with most colleagues that council meetings were necessary formalities: set-pieces we had to put on to show democracy being served knowing that the decisions had all been taken in the Leader's office, before being ratified in a private group meeting and then whipped through a public committee meeting.

Now I'm just an independent councillor I think the same way. I just don't like it anywhere as much as before.

Having gone down to four meetings a year makes them even less relevant, too infrequent to be meaningfully effective at anything. But, occasionally, timings help. And so it was at this week's meeting when almost all the evening was given over to a debate surrounding the EU referendum and the Brexit decision.

The role of local government may seem unconnected with our membership of the EU, but like every other part of the country Wandsworth benefits from EU funding. Perhaps more importantly local government has its role in providing community leadership and after the worrying increase in hate crime since the referendum I'm pleased the opportunity was there last night.

The basis of the evening was a motion moved by the Conservative and Labour party leaders. Perhaps inevitably for a bipartisan motion it became something of a mishmash to satisfy everyone, but it contained what I think were key clauses to:

ensure that all voices and points of view are listened to, and in particular that all Wandsworth residents and employees continue to enjoy the respectful, inclusive and cosmopolitan quality of life which makes this such an attractive part of inner London;

and to

condemn racist language and behaviour in all its forms.

I was particularly pleased to see those elements. Following the referendum the failure of the council and its leadership to use its voice to condemn the increase in hate crime (and Wandsworth has not been immune from this) concerned me.

But while a bit late (and taking a bit of prompting from the independent's statement and motion) it became an evening of optimism and unity. While I suspect from many of the majority group speeches that their membership, from top to bottom, is far from representative of the 75% remain vote in Wandsworth, there was a unanimity among councillors to make the most of the situation and most importantly to condemn hate crime and racism.

There were two attempts to amend the motion, both from the Labour side. One sought to strengthen the commitment to fight hate crime by declaring Wandsworth a zero-tolerance zone and working with other agencies, like the police, use their combined resources to identify and tackle hate crime. The Conservative group defeated this.

The other was related to the refugee crisis, and sought to commit the council to signing up the government commitment and house 10 Syrian families. Again, the Conservative group voted against this. However, one Conservative councillor tweeted afterwards that it was because they felt it should be more than ten families. I can only assume that position had been agreed at the Conservative group meeting, so have written to the council leader asking for clarification to see exactly what number they are committing to accept.

There was one more motion, it came at the end of the night, despite being the first submitted and, arguably, the one that started it all. The motion was moved by Malcolm Grimston and me to allow the council to make a statement following the Brexit vote. Bizarrely the Conservatives amended this to something that meant almost exactly the same.

No-one could explain why, the closest we got to an answer was from Cllr Cook, who told Malcolm Grimston the amendment meant the same thing, but was different. In a rare night of a council meeting showing leadership, I suppose it had to have a little bit of what usually passes for leadership in Wandsworth too.