Labour urged to show radical side after record council elections win
Kilburn councillor "There is a sense that people want the council to be more left-wing"
11 May, 2018 — By Richard Osley
Camden’s Labour group celebrate a record win
IT might not have been a “wipe-out” result, but new Labour leader Georgia Gould surpassed all her predecessors on Thursday as her party delivered a record victory in Camden’s council elections.
She is now being urged to use the party’s success at the ballot box as an endorsement for a more radical, left-wing agenda, including bringing more council services in-house. The move to take back control of the crisis-hit Chalcots estate (see page one), refurbished using a PFI, should be the tip of the iceberg, according to some left-wingers in the party.
After an overnight count, Labour saw 43 councillors safely elected, the highest-ever tally by a winning party in the modern 54-seat council chamber era in Camden. While the local elections were wildly reported as a disaster for Labour, in Camden the party made an eye-catching gain in Swiss Cottage, where it took all three seats from the Tories, and won back a lost seat in West Hampstead.
The only missed targets for Jeremy Corbyn’s party were against sitting councillors or in wards which have not been won by Labour in generations. Cllr Gould, who took over the local party with the unanimous support of the council group last year, said: “We had a fantastic result and got our first Labour councillors in Swiss Cottage for 20 years. This is an endorsement of a positive campaign and a manifesto which promises to stand up for public services.”
Some left-wingers in the group had felt the manifesto was too soft, given the national direction of the Labour Party, with some even suggesting that Camden’s flagship Community Investment Programme (CIP) should be paused and reviewed. It pays for new homes and schools by levering in private finance against Camden’s lucrative portfolio of property and land. None of them have let this frustration spill out into the open at this stage and were sharing in the celebrations this week.
The party will hold cabinet elections on Monday, however, with Cllr Gould – badged as unity leader – urged to encourage the left caucus to have more seats around the table. Some of the activists most enthused by Mr Corbyn were in the thick of the standout victory in Swiss Cottage.
Kilburn councillor Thomas Gardiner said: “We feel we are in touch with the mood of the party. There is a sense that people want the council to be more left-wing than it has been for perhaps the last couple of decades.”
It was also a good night for the Liberal Democrats, who had been warned they might be left with no seats at all. In fact, long-serving Flick Rea not only held onto her seat in Fortune Green but topped the polls in that ward as well. A day before the election, London Mayor Sadiq Khan came to the ward for one last Labour push to remove her, but his intervention proved ineffective in edging Cllr Rea out.
Meanwhile, the party made a breakthrough in Belsize, capturing two new seats and marking a return to the chamber for former councillor Tom Simon and the election of Luisa Porritt, considered a rising star within the party. The Greens also won their battle for survival as Sian Berry, the London Assembly member, held her ground in Highgate. The party did not expand on its solitary seat in the chamber, but retains its stake in local council politics.
The Conservatives were the only party to lose sitting councillors as Don Williams, the long-serving finance spokesman, was ousted in Swiss Cottage, while Leila Roy failed in Belsize, falling just nine votes short after a recount.
Group leader Councillor Gio Spinella said the uptick of support for the Lib Dems, to his mind based purely on Brexit, had proved costly. “This was the problem for us in Belsize, and in Swiss Cottage they will have cost around 100 votes which makes it harder for us,” he said.
“Local elections are about local issues, like ‘Are your bins going to be collected?’, but as we know they are often used as a proxy for national issues. This was the case here, in a borough where there is a heavy Remain vote.”
He added that the party “as a whole” had suffered and not just candidates who were known to have supported Brexit.
The spray of split ballots across Camden – residents were able to cast three votes – led to varying views on what had been the most decisive factor.
In neighbouring Islington, Labour also scored a record result, while the party holds a dominant majority in Haringey, despite a tumultuous run-in to polling day. Labour missed the target of a historic victory in Barnet, however, with the defeat there blamed on the anti-semitism controversies which have dogged the party and the effect they had on the large Jewish community.
The issue also came up in Camden, although it is thought some regular Labour voters made a protest by simply not voting at all rather than siding with another party.
In March, there had been talk of Labour gunning for every single seat but this was before the protest outside the Houses of Parliament and, as the issue heightened, hopes of a long-shot victory in Hampstead and a win in Belsize – where the candidates had been introduced as the next councillors for the ward at an event with Ed Miliband – began to fall out of the frame.
The fact Labour still went on to win a record number of seats, however, has been seen as an endorsement of Cllr Gould’s handling of the issue. The leader, who is Jewish, has backed Mr Corbyn’s vow to rid the party of prejudice, on the proviso that his words translate into swift action.
“We will never be silent of the issue,” said Cllr Gould. After a disappointing general election in which their anti-Brexit message failed to stick against Labour MP Tulip Siddiq, the Lib Dem campaign appeared to hit home this time Cllr Porritt said: “You may have had some soft Conservatives and EU citizens who may have supported us because of Brexit but certainly our policies on crime and rubbish collection, people wanted to speak about those issues as much as Europe. Equally.”
They had regularly urged voters to use the local elections as one of the last chances to protest against the Conservative and Labour Party approach to Britain’s divorce from Europe, with neither willing to offer a second referendum on the final exit deal. Former councillor Linda Chung polled well in Hampstead, while Catherine Hays earned a respectable score in Cantelowes, a ward where the party had reminded voters that Labour’s Ranjit Singh had voted to leave the European Union.
Cllr Singh was nevertheless elected, albeit with a reduced score compared to his running mates. He joins a new crop of councillors on the left of the party, including Georgie Robertson in King’s Cross. She has filled the vacancy left by departing former council leader Sarah Hayward. Other winning candidates are said to have a more centrist view of Labour’s future.
Sole Green Cllr Berry, who has proposed more caution over the CIP, said she hoped there would be new discussions about the way forward.
“There are some good sentiments in the Labour manifesto about transparency and openness and I hope they do mean this,” she said.
“Yes, they still have a large majority but there needs to be more forward planning. Rushing into private deals with blinkers on is not the way to go about this. We are not being unreasonable, we think there should be less sell-offs, tenants’ ballots. These are not dramatic ideas, they are part of an open debate.”