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.

Various polling station signs

Of course, more than half of you won’t bother (or are readers of this more sophisticated than the general population? I rather hope so) but today is election day and polling stations are open from 7am until 10am.

If you are a Shaftesbury resident I would be delighted if you’d vote for me (and my colleagues, of course) but I recognise plenty of people might prefer some of the alternatives on the ballot paper and that for democracy to have meaning there has to be diversity of opinion.

Indeed, some people have taken the time to email me to tell me they are voting against me, which is nice. Thankfully some other people have taken the time to email me to wish me luck and say they are voting for me, which is nicer.

However, rather than being bipolar about it all, I find the election process rather relaxing. It is one of those times you can relax and accept you are not master of your own destiny:

  • Whether it’s during the campaign, when someone else analyses the numbers and decides where you will be knocking on doors to delivering leaflets.
  • Or on election day, when electors will go to the polls and make their decisions based on whatever criteria they see as important.
    • Or even at the count, when election staff will carefully count the ballots and award victory or defeat accordingly.

Never is the candidate really in charge.

And that’s the really important point of democracy. For once the politicians aren’t the bosses.

Though I still think it would be very very nice if you voted for me.

Dear friend... (click the picture to download the full PDF)

A fantastic bit of campaigning from the Labour Party.*

This sort of thing that the Liberal Democrats pioneered. A ‘hand-written’ letter to try and persuade you of the merits of their candidate. It’s meant to be more personal than a traditional leaflet and, therefore, have more impact. I got this delivered by Royal Mail this afternoon.

Except this doesn’t even mention Ken. Instead, it attacks Boris, purporting to be from a former Conservative activist.

The only way you’d know it was from Ken is by reading the small imprint where it reveals it’s from the Labour Party.

Promoted by London Labour

A desperate, desperate measure. Don’t mention Ken, just attack Boris in the hope it depresses his vote a little.

No wonder the bookies are already paying out on a Boris victory.

* By which I mean an awful bit of campaigning from the Labour Party

Having made the throwaway comment in my post about GP ‘approval’ ratings that my equivalent would be much lower I thought I ought to check.

I was right.

Obviously these aren’t direct ‘approval’ or ‘satisfied’ questions, but using the results of elections to do sums that aren’t relevant to anything. It’s complicated because in Wandsworth council elections people have three votes and it’s not possible to work out exactly how they are cast. Some people will only vote once or twice, some will split their votes between parties. My recollection is that about a third of the votes cast this year were not for the straight party slates.

However, taking an average of the votes cast for the party candidates (the greens only fielded two), then working out a percentage and then subtracting the proportion against from the proportion cast for us brings me to an ‘approval’ rating of 6.2%.

Like I said, nowhere near as good as even the worse GP. What’s worse, it’s dropped. The same calculation was 10.1% in 2006. Given that I was the council’s exec member for regeneration and community safety in that period I suppose it’s possible that some people blamed me for the recession and rising crime.

Totally meaningless. Unless to serve as a reminder (not that I need one) that pretty much whatever I do, there’ll always be about half the people of Shaftesbury who think someone else can do it better.

Another edict extending direct democracy has come forth from Eric Pickles. This time that a local referendum will be forced whenever a local council increases council tax by more than a pre-set amount.

As a government fan boy you would expect me to support it, but while I’m definitely in the fan boy category (why else did I sacrifice so much of my life knocking on doors through each and every general election false start from 2007 onwards?) I can’t quite make my mind up on this one.

On the face of it, it is perfectly sensible. The notion that Whitehall should be deciding what is, and isn’t, an appropriate level of council tax is just crazy. The key word in the phrase local democracy is local. The current system – which will remain in place until the law is changed – has nothing local about it at all, since it can see a minister from a totally different part of the council (and a different party) making decisions about areas of which he or she knows nothing. So the principle of moving power from Whitehall to local people is not one with which I can disagree.

However, I do wonder whether a local referendum is the right way. While many of my youthful beliefs in the constitution have disappeared I’m still a fan of representative democracy – we elect people to act as representatives, not as a delegates, and tend not to use direct democracy.

Of course, many of the old arguments against direct democracy are disappearing. People are (generally) more intelligent and informed than at any time in history. The argument that they don’t, or can’t, have the full information to take a decision applies less and less each day. However, the fact remains that we live in a representative democracy and there are problems in trying to blend the two. If you have a council elected on a specific platform one year it’s hard to then vote to remove the budget they need to enact that platform the next. And this starts getting towards where my concerns about this lie.

I have no problem with the principle that power should be devolved as far as possible. And am not someone who believes for a second that the lowest level of devolution is the council; the lowest level is the individual. But I am very keen on local democracy. And it’s the other key word in that phrase that causes my concern with this proposal. To my mind the key to a strong and successful democracy is linking the vote you cast with the consequences of that vote, and that vote alone.

Local democracy isn’t that healthy in this country. One of the key reasons is that so much local government funding comes from central government. When this is combined with the huge amount of regulation laid down over the years it meant that impact of a local vote on your life was significantly less than the impact of a national vote, to the extent that many council elections are seen as little more than verdicts on the government of the day.

The best way to improve local democracy, to my mind, is to strengthen the link between people’s votes in local elections with what happens in their area. This means giving councils freedom, so they aren’t just acting as agents for Whitehall and can innovate (or even make mistakes) to make a difference to their area. And it means ensuring that people recognise and see the consequence of their votes so that when they are casting them the next time it is a referendum on their local council, not on whoever is in No 10.

I’d be interested in seeing how the proposals work and the reaction of others to them (I’m quite prepared to accept I’m wrong on this). But it seems to me that just as we don’t have a referendum on income tax or VAT rises, but instead will allow the country to pass judgement in 2015, we should be reminding people how important it is to pass judgement on their local councils and councillors in local elections.

Canary Wharf from Westfield Stratford
Canary Wharf from top of the Westfield building site

I’m not sure why but it seems like campaigning seems to be taking up more and more time, although looking through the diary we’ve been keeping up a fairly stiff pace through the summer months. It is perhaps the onset of darker and considerably colder nights makes an evening on the doorstep seem a lot less appealing than it did in the summer months. Or it might be that the elections are starting to seem a little more real now that other candidates are falling into place – I’ve heard Martin Linton’s wife, Sara Apps-Linton, is standing as a council candidate in Shaftesbury – whether the story is accurate or not there is no doubt that we are definitely heading into election territory. If you don’t like elections and politics it might be an idea to book a long holiday!

SNT awards
Awards of one form or another have formed a large part of this week. I was one of the judging panel for the first Safer Neighbourhood Team awards this week, responsible for sifting through the hundreds of nominations made by members of the public, businesses, charities, pubs, councillors and children who all thought they had the borough’s best SNT.

At the risk of using cliché it was not an easy decision. I think the result changed several times during the discussions before the winner was finally decided. And while I’m not going to name the winner here, it says a lot that there is such support and recognition in the borough for the work of the SNTs.

CSD awards
I also attended a little session to recognise the awards that the council’s Community Safety Division have received over the past few weeks. I have often said how privileged I have been to work with some excellent council officers from all parts of my portfolio, but it’s always good to see their good work recognised externally. Since October Community Safety officers have been part of the team winning the London Region Tilley Award (a Home Office prize awarded annually) received a commendation from Ron Dobson, the London Fire Commissioner, (I understand this is the first time council staff have received such recognition) and also received commendations from Stewart Low, the Wandsworth police borough commander, for their community safety work.

That they are an award winning department is no surprise to me, and I’m incredibly proud of all that they have done for the borough.

Westfield Stratford City
While not directly related to the borough I took up an invitation to have a look around the Westfield Stratford City site this week. It is a truly massive project and (I am happy to admit) one that I hope I will never visit when finished! But however much I dislike shopping I cannot deny the regeneration benefits it will have for Newham, creating enormous employment opportunities for the area and fitting into the wider regeneration through the Olympics. Of course, a retail-led regeneration of that scale is not directly suitable for Wandsworth, not least because it would undermine the council’s five town centre strategy. But it is a example of what can be achieved between the private and public sector and while the parallels are not direct gives an indication of the sort of benefits might accrue to local residents as development begins in Nine Elms.

As an aside, it also offered an excellent view of the Olympic venues. Several are visible from the upper areas of the Westfield building site, and while the media (I think) tends to portray a negative image but when you see them you realise that they are very close to completion and that the Olympics are not very far away at all.

Housing ASB conference
Finally, I spent his morning at a conference on Anti-Social Behaviour organised by the council’s housing department. Wandsworth’s housing department is very strong when it comes to dealing with ASB from its tenants, but it is something that continues to blight many people’s lives. One aspect is understanding, a resident in a working group I took part in commented that, very often, people felt intimidated when there was no ill-will meant and sometimes a group of teenagers is just a group of teenages and not a knife-weilding gang!

It is a point we often lose sight of and I was talking to a Shaftesbury resident this afternoon about much the same subject. While the council and partners need to be (and are) tough on crime and anti-social behaviour we need to ensure that in doing so we do not criminalise and marginalise a generation just for doing what teenagers have always done – meet friends and hang about.

It may well have escaped your notice but the European elections are being held at the beginning of June.  If you are a registered voter in Wandsworth you should be getting your poll card this weekend.

The poll cards will be delivered to each elector between Saturday and Sunday, so keep an eye out for them.  They are large cards containing your details, details of the election and a map of your polling station.  Although you don’t need the cards to vote they often speed up the process.

If you have any problems you can ring Wandsworth’s electoral services from Tuesday on 020 8871 6023.

It is not a terribly fashionable thing for anyone who is British to admit, but I am, and always have been, a great fan of America. And today, I believe, shows all that is great about the country.

The United States Capitol, Washington DC

I’m not particularly speaking about Barack Obama, but instead about the inaugural process.

That is not to say I am not a fan of the British political system, which has a lot to commend it. But when it comes to the transition of one government to another we have always been fairly ruthless. A party loses an election, and within hours its leader will be at the palace handing in their resignation. Meanwhile all his (we’ve never had a female Prime Minister defeated at an election) belongings will be packed up and moved out the back door while the incoming Prime Minister comes in the front. It is unceremonious.

And perhaps this is where we can learn something from the Americans. The process of transition allows a degree of separation, you can recover from the exhaustion of campaigning before you have to get down to the business of government, you can reflect and take stock rather than react immediately. But most of all I think there is something very special about the act of inauguration.

It’s a transparent (you get to see the President-elect become the President), open celebration of democracy – not a celebration of a particular candidate or party but of the peaceful democratic process as one government ends and another begins.

And it can serve as a rallying point – partly because of the distance from the electoral process the partisan politics can be left behind and a country’s President, rather than a party’s candidate, can speak.

A classic example is Kennedy’s first, and only, inauguration. Most will have heard phrases from it like “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”. Few remember that he had won the preceding election only narrowly – winning fewer states than Nixon and with only a 0.1% lead in the popular vote.

Indeed, how many today discuss the hard battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination. If anything it was that process (and the peculiarities of the Democrat’s primary process) that meant today’s ‘history-in-the-making’ will be the first African-American, rather than female, President.

But the sordid details of electoral politics are behind us now. And rather than dwelling on the past there is a poetry to the occasion, which gives it the ability to unite and focus a nation. Something clearly apparent today as millions crowd into DC to see Barack Obama become the 44th President.

It is incredibly self-indulgent of me to offer my thoughts on the occasion. There will be no shortage of opinions on the media or the internet about the significance of today’s event. And while I don’t want to take anything away from Obama’s achievement (and know I couldn’t even if I did) it is worth reflecting on and celebrating the system that made it possible, just as much as the man who did it.

I’m guessing the answer is no.

What about police on the street?

Most people would answer yes to that.

Unfortunately the government feels that another tier of elected officials is the solution, and are suggesting that each area elects a crime and policing representative – around 400 of them nationwide.  In London this job would entail chairing a meeting called the ‘Crime And Disorder Reduction Partnership’, a group made up of all the relevant public bodies in the area; the police, council, probation, youth services, and so on.  Crucially, this representative wouldn’t have any specific power, they would just be the chairman of a committee.  They could not, for example, change the priorities of the police unless the police themselves agreed.

The Local Government Association reckons the bill for electing these 400 powerless politicians would be between £15 and £48 million, enough to pay for 300 or 1,000 extra police!

If you’d prefer more police sign the petition at the 10 Downing Street website.


What will make you feel safer?  400 more politicians or 700 more police?
What will make you feel safer? 400 more politicians or 700 more police?