The Conservatives in Wandsworth know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
That isn’t a quote from this year’s council elections in Wandsworth, where Labour gained 7 seats, but fell 5 short of what they needed to take control of the council. It comes from Labour’s final week literature in their campaign in 1990, when they also expected to take control. To me it sums up Labour’s complacency in both failed campaigns. Elections are won with grit, no waffly ideals.
Labour’s spin machine are desperately back-peddling, to say that they never really expected to win control this time, and that the advance shows that things are slowly moving their way. That is nonsense. They had the Conservatives on the ropes and, to mix metaphors, they threw them a lifeline. The results were very close in a number of wards. A more effective campaign would have secured control for Labour. And what a victory that would have been! The Tories, weakened by Brexit in a strong Remain borough, could have imploded without the business of running the council to hold them together. Resourceful and resilient, they may well punish Labour, who have their own internal issues, when the next meeting with the voters happens.
This year I often thought back to 1990, which was a few years after I moved back into the borough of my birth. Then Labour only needed a net gain of one seat after making gains in the previous elections in 1986. The Conservatives were doing badly in national polls. It should have been easy. But reading that leaflet I immediately understood that Labour wasn’t up to the job. And so it proved: the result was a catastrophic loss of 17 seats, including that of their leader. This was a massive propaganda victory for the Conservatives, who used it to deflect attention from bad results elsewhere in the country. Old Labour hands have not forgotten this; winning back the council this year would have been a powerful signal of Labour’s rise.
And there was every reason to think that it was possible. Labour did very well in the borough in last year’s general election, without even trying very hard. They picked up Battersea, and came close to picking up Putney too, to add to Tooting which they already held. Recent council by-elections, in which Labour did well, confirmed this trend. In 2014, the previous elections, Labour had shocked the Conservatives by making strong advances. The EU referendum then dealt a body-blow to the local Conservatives which give Labour the chance to do something special.
What made the Tories so resilient in 1990 and able to hold off the challenge this time? In 1990 the party was in peak form, with a number of very capable and clever leaders, who had seized control of the borough from Labour in 1978. They adopted strong financial management, when most local Labour politicians didn’t think this mattered, while being remarkably alive to middle class sensitivities on things like recycling. They oozed competence where Labour resorted to waffle. An efficient, but low profile, local propaganda machine got this gritty message out to voters, many of whom had benefited under the then Conservative government’s right-to-buy legislation for council housing. This year things were much more propitious for Labour. The Conservatives have lost their shine; they are often complacent and out of touch; their new leaders are not of the calibre of the old ones. They have lost a lot of members. Meanwhile Labour (thanks to Gordon Brown) have addressed some of their reputation for financial incompetence, and they had more help from members than they knew what to do with.
So what happened? The Tories stuck to the same old gritty message about competence. No matter that this is less true than it has ever been – local Labour are firmly in the Sadiq Khan, centrist, competent wing of the party. And the council’s once-vaunted efficiency is now nothing special. Changes to the law under which council tax operates means that differences between boroughs are completely down to decades-old historical legacy, and tell you nothing about how things are likely to change in the future. But the Tories were able to plant doubts about Labour to which Labour had no convincing answer.
But Labour could surely have won. After their success in 2014, I remember thinking that the party needed to focus hard on what it needed to do to take control in 2018. The five wards they already held looked secure. They needed to win the five seats they didn’t have in the three split wards, and seven more seats from other wards. That meant a minimum of three more wards, four to be on the safe side. That was a big ask, but the reward was surely big enough to warrant a serious effort, starting in 2014. This should have meant identifying which four wards they needed to target straightaway.
But there was nothing. Residents of wards which the party eventually targeted heard practically nothing from the party until this year. Candidates weren’t in place before this. When it came, the campaign was almost completely generic, with nothing more than a few photos geared to the locality in which they fighting. Candidates did not have time to meet enough of the electorate and build trust – and didn’t really try. To them it seemed that controlling the council as a whole was what mattered, not looking after their ward. A personal vote of one or two hundred built up over two years or more would have made all the difference. and it would have been the best possible counter to the doubts that the Conservatives were trying to spread.
A lot of the same criticisms can be levelled at my own party, the Liberal Democrats. The party was too late to put in place its candidates and get out and about meeting the electorate. Too much of the literature was generic, making too much of issues like Brexit which, in the end, did not motivate voters much. We had an excuse. Though the party was in quite good shape in 2010, the coalition trough nearly destroyed it. The party made a dramatic recovery following the 2015 election and especially after the 2016 referendum, but trying to turn this new energy into an effective political force proved too much. The party made a lot of progress in the campaign, but too late have much impact.
All of which points to a disturbing aspect of modern politics. The parties are too interested in talking to themselves about their own political concerns, and not enough in meeting voters and solving their problems. There seems to be an idea that politics is about condemning abstract nouns like “austerity”, and putting “radical” ideas in front of the electorate and being swept to power in a tide of enthusiasm. Labour has succumbed to this. The Lib Dems are not immune.
But the Wandsworth election contained one shining rebuke to this politics of the abstract. The highest number of votes won by any candidate was by the independent Malcolm Grimston. Back in the 1980s I remember Mr Grimston as an obnoxious, fat young Tory (though the fatness should not be held against him, it was very much part of his persona). I have watched as he turned into somebody else entirely. He lost weight and became a gracious, polite politician who listened to people. We worked hard for his local electors, who came to know and respect him. After the 2014 elections he became so fed up with the arrogant Tory regime in Wandsworth that he defected. And he triumphed. Meanwhile another Tory councillor defected at about the same time. But he was much more of an abstract modern politician; he chose to adopt the label of the new Renew Party. But vacuous promises were no substitute for the graft of getting to know and help your local area. He had the ignominy of being beaten by a Lib Dem who did not campaign at all in the ward.
There is a lesson there that I hope local Lib Dems can learn. I suspect the current Labour Party would find it all too difficult. I wouldn’t have minded if Labour had won in Wandsworth, but they did not deserve to.