Complacency undoes Labour in Wandsworth

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.

Parliamentary boundary changes: good idea, could be better

People grow attached to the status quo.  There used to be a large packing crate in our garden when I was a boy.  When my elder brother problem objected that it was unsightly and we should get rid of it, my mother countered that: "But the cat likes to sit on it!".  This was too much for my brother who took an axe to the crate shortly afterwards.  An unsightly item was removed, and the cat had no difficulty in adapting.

So it is with the British parliamentary boundary reviews.  There's a lot of fuss, with many saying that fundamental democratic principles are being undermined.  But the arguments offered against them are little better than that offered by my mother (who did come to see the humour of it) of our packing crate.

The idea behind the reforms is that all constituencies should have roughly the same number of electors, so that everybody's vote carries the same weight in the political process.  That is a solid democratic principle.  The problem is that equal constituency size implies arbitrary boundaries.  Under the current arrangements quite a lot of weight is put on natural geographical or administrative boundaries.  That can lead to some quite big variations in size.  In my local borough of Wandsworth we get three seats, but two of them are 15% bigger than the third.  Across the country the variations can be much bigger, even excluding the peripheral highlands and islands (Western Isles is very small; Isle of Wight very big).  A further principle is to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600, which is still large by international standards.

The main argument offered against the new boundaries is that they are too arbitrary, and, to listen to the rhetoric, you would think they would tear communities apart, with half a village represented by one MP and half by another, say.  I really struggle to understand this.  MPs may be moderately important community figures, but they hardly define communities.  If they did we would already be in deep trouble.  In Wandsworth the local parliamentary seats are all very well for the residents of Battersea, Putney and Tooting - but the communities that lie between these (Wandsworth Town and Balham) are carved up between three different constituencies each.  Life goes on.

A related issue is that the new seats will cross local authority boundaries much more often.  In Wandsworth none of the three current seats crosses a boundary.  Under the new proposals the borough will be split between four seats, all shared with neighbouring boroughs.  No doubt this will make constituency casework a bit harder.  But frankly I'm not sure it is entirely healthy for parliamentarians to get too closely associated with their local governments - they are meant to sit above that layer of government and judge in the common interest.  They may even gain from comparing the way different authorities handle things.

Another issue is that boundaries will change more frequently and by larger amounts, to reflect population changes.  Locally we have a major development that will be smack in the middle of one of the new seats; when all these new people move in this will cause the boundaries to be changed - knocking on into neighbouring seats.  But there's too much job security with MPs as it is - it's good for them to have to sell themselves in new areas every so often.  There are too many safe seats as it is.

A more subtle argument is that new areas represent equal electorates but not equal populations.  Quite a few people aren't on the register, or don't count because they aren't allowed to vote in parliamentary elections (through not being UK citizens).  Surely the interests of these people should be represented too?  But it is hard to overcome the principle of equal rights for all those entitled to vote.  And frankly, those who deliberately avoid being registered (which is in fact illegal) shouldn't be given weight.  The running of a democratic society requires a degree of active engagement by citizens; people have a perfect right to say they aren't interested and not vote - but if they can't even be bothered to register, how hard are we to fight for their democratic entitlement? And why should their neighbours be empowered in their place?  There is an issue for MPs with a lot of non-voting constituents generating a bigger case load - but if that really is a problem, they should simply be paid more.

Mind you, the Boundary Commission's current proposals could be less arbitrary.  They have created some rather silly looking constituencies.  But the consultation and appeal process should help a lot here.  It's not too hard to come up with some better looking alternatives.  One idea I have seen in our area does an even better job than the existing boundaries, though this may knock on badly further afield, managing to reunite the currently split communities of Wandsworth Town, Balham and Clapham, while keeping Putney, Tooting and Battersea together.

Better still would be to have a system of proportional presentation, where party representations would be based directly on votes cast.  You could have less arbitrary constituencies then.  But the British political class has set its face against such radical ideas; they should accept the consequences.

 

Battersea riots: what can we learn?

Wandsworth Council commissioned an independent review of the disorder in the borough in early August, which is mainly about the riots at Clapham Junction on Monday 8th August.  Clapham Junction, of course, is located in Battersea, and not Clapham, which is a couple of miles away and in a another borough.  This report, by Neil Kinghan, was published this week.  What can we learn?

The most valuable part of the report is its clear description of how events unfolded.  It is amazing how quickly garbled stories gain currency, especially since our media aren't particularly fastidious about factual accuracy.  The trouble (at Clapham Junction) started at 8pm, after some earlier incidents in the nearby estates.  After about half and hour the local police team was withdrawn, and they did not return until after 10.30pm.  The police heavy mob, in their armoured cars, did not arrive until after midnight, when the trouble was pretty much over.  The fire at the Party Shop, which was the most spectacular and dangerous part of the episode, happened after an explosion shortly after midnight, and was not part of the main "rioting".

Who were the looters (a better description than rioters, I think)?  The only hard facts come from the 150 or so that have been arrested.  The total number of looters was estimated to have reached a maximum of 450, though more people than this must have been involved as people came and went.  Of those arrested, half lived in Wandsworth (nearly half of those in Battersea), 24% were under 18, 66% were black, 29% white - and 88% were already known to the police (i.e. they'd filed their DNA).  How representative are these?  It's difficult to know.  Most of the arrests were not made at the scene, but through follow up, using things such as CCTV footage and car numberplate reports.  These may well be biased towards the more organised elements.

The looting itself seems to have been motivated by the idea of grabbing something for nothing.  The sequence of events across London may have started with anger over the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, but by Monday any political angle was at most vague.  It seems to have been led by organised gangs, using social media to focus on one area and overwhelm the local forces there.  A lot of opportunists joined in, probably including people who just turned up to see what was going on.  There was little actual violence directed towards people.

There's not much much more I want to say about this aspect.  Our society has a criminal fringe; given the opportunity many others will indulge in looting and theft.  There's nothing new in this.  Serious though the issue may be, the moral panic is overdone.

The most important public policy issue to arise is the performance of the police.  This was a quite straightforward public order issue, and they let us down.  At borough level it is easy to overdo the criticism.  The social media had forewarned them that there might be trouble through the afternoon - to such an extent that the police convened a meeting with the council at 5pm.  Although Clapham Junction figured in this chatter as a likely trouble spot, it was far from the only place, and the meeting decided that the information was not firm enough to do anything with.  The obvious solution, to create a mobile reserve of officers to react quickly to events, was surely not within the Borough's resources.  And the issue applied right across London and within the ken of the higher echelons of the force.  The decision to abandon the scene at about 8.30pm was surely correct, with only 8 properly equipped and trained men on the spot, as the looters were building up in hundreds.

The failure occurred higher up, and outside the remit of Mr Kinghan's report.  Senior officers at the Metropolitan Police knew that trouble was probable.  They could have mobilised enough mobile reserves to respond much more quickly than they did (local police called for help almost as soon as the trouble started).  There has been some bleating that there were not officers properly trained.  This has been rejected by Lib Dem Mayoral candidate Brian Paddick, a former senior officer at the Met - and indeed sufficient numbers did turn up in sufficient numbers - eventually.  And they could have asked for reinforcements earlier in the day from neighbouring forces - as indeed they did on the following day.

The report makes a number of recommendations, mostly worthy enough, but many along the tired old bureaucratic lines of "we should improve our planning and coordination".  But the real issue is leadership.  No amount planning and procedure can compensate for that.  The Met's leaders were busy enough wining and dining journalists and and attending to their PR.  But we employ them to fight crime and they have repeatedly been found wanting.  Not showing decisive leadership themselves, and not allowing their juniors to use their own common sense initiative.

The Met has a new Commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe.  He has his work cut out, but he's made a promising start.  Here's hoping.

Reflections on the Isle of Wight

I'm just back from a few days break in the Isle of Wight.  It so happens that the Economist's Bagehot has just blogged on the subject of the island, which was the lasting point of his print column last week.

The island has a bit of a charming, time-warp feel about it.  But Bagehot points out that its people are ahead of the game in one aspect - realising the implications of the coming parliamentary boundary changes.  Interesting to reflect that it has half the population of the borough of Wandsworth - and yet the latter can't even support a decent local newspaper.