Labour takes key London councils but makes modest gains elsewhere

 (REUTERS)
(REUTERS)

Labour seized three Tory “Crown Jewels” town halls in London on Friday in blows to Boris Johnson as he fights to remain Prime Minister.

The Conservatives lost Wandsworth, Westminster and Barnet as more and more Londoners turned their back on the city’s former mayor.

However, outside the capital, early results showed Labour not making gains which could give Sir Keir Starmer confidence that he has the door to No10 firmly within his sights.

His party also lost Hull to the Liberal Democrats who by early Friday morning were making more gains across the country than Labour.

As more counts were underway across England, political leaders also had their eyes firmly on Northern Ireland where Sinn Fein could gain the most members of the assembly and the First Minister post.

Such a result could spark political turmoil, fresh calls for a border poll, and raise fears over the break-up of the UK in the wake of Brexit.

But the immediate drama of the night came in the capital with Labour’s triple win of Tory flagship councils in elections held amid the growing cost-of-living crisis and the partygate scandal.

Wandsworth, an ultra low council tax authority held by the Conservatives for more than 40 years, Westminster, Tory since its creation in 1964, and Margaret Thatcher’s former town hall of Barnet, Conservative for more than two decades, all fell within hours.

Speaking shortly after 8am in Barnet, which Labour failed to gain in 2018 amid the Jeremy Corbyn anti-Semitism row, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “We have turned a massive corner in the Labour Party here.

“From the depths of 2019 in that general election, back on track....We are winning in London, we are winning north and south of London.”

London and UK Local Elections 2022: Labour takes Barnet, Wandsworth and Westminster

However, Tory party chairman Oliver Dowden told Sky News: “I of course accept that these are challenging times and there have been some difficult results, however, I do not accept that Labour have the momentum to form the next government.

“We are mid-term and it’s quite a mixed picture because you look elsewhere, whether that’s in Hartlepool or Nuneaton and Thurrock, we’ve actually made gain.”

Lib-Dem leader Sir Ed Davey trumpeted what he called “historic gains” after gaining more seats in areas such as Wimbledon, West Oxfordshire and Richmond-upon-Thames where the Tories now only have one councillor.

“This is a real trend now. Last year we took Chesham and Amersham in true blue Buckinghamshire, then we took North Shropshire, a seat the Tories had held for 200 years, this is not just a one-off,” he said, referring to his party’s two parliamentary by-election wins.

By shortly before 9am, with 75 out of 146 councils in England holding elections having counted, Labour had 1,200 seats, up 34, the Conservatives 540, down 122, the Lib-Dems 259, up 59, and the Green 39, up 23.

With around half the town hall results yet to come in, the picture in London and particularly nationally could still change.

But as Labour celebrated its historic gains in the capital, Sir John Curtice, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “London will now be even more clearly very much a one-party Labour fiefdom.

“The other thing that perhaps some Conservative MPs will worry about is the party also seems to have lost ground quite heavily in the south...the results have been rather better the further north..but of course lots of Tory MPs have their seats in the South of England.”

On the performance so far of Sir Keir’s party, he added: “Outside of London, as compared with 2018 when these seats were last contested, it looks as though Labour’s vote is actually down slightly.

“For a party that is trying to make progress...to regain ground in the ‘Red Wall’ seats of the Midlands and the North, this was not quite the degree of progress that they might have anticipated.”

Labour’s overall vote share outside of the capital was down when the first results began to be called as the party lost out to the Lib-Dems and saw far more modest gains than in the capital.

Labour held Sunderland council but itws vote share was down. The Tories and Labour both lost one seat each to the Lib-Dems in the North East port city.

In Hartlepool, Labour made no gains, while the Conservatives increased their seats by two.

The town is seen as a key “Red Wall” constituency that Labour lost to Tories in a by-election last year and Sir Keir will probably need to win back if his party is to do well at the next General Election.

In Oldham, Greater Manchester, Labour retained control but lost five seats to the Tories, Lib-Dems and independent candidates.

Nuneaton & Bedworth saw the Tories keep control of the town hall and increase their seats by one.

But Labour gained Southampton from the Conservatives who lost Worcester to no overall control, as well as West Oxfordshire, which contains David Cameron’s former Witney constituency, also to NOC.

Tony Travers, professor of government at the London School of Economics, told The Standard: “The Conservatives have to balance how many MPs they are willing to lose in London, the South East and the South West, in order to protect the “Red Wall” seats won in 2019.”

Stephen Hammond, Conservative MP for Wimbledon, said partygate had been a factor in the Merton result, which saw Lib-Dem make gains.

“That ought to be a clarion bell ringing in Downing Street to make sure we are concentrating on the cost of living,” he added.

Asked about Mr Johnson’s future, he said: “I think he has to prove his integrity to the country.”

Conservative MP David Simmonds said Mr Johnson has some “difficult questions” to answer after the party’s losses in the local elections.

The MP for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner told the BBC radio: “Overwhelmingly the message that I heard on the doorsteps was people were broadly positive about the Government’s policies but they are not happy about what they have been hearing about partygate.”

In Portsmouth, where the Tories lost four seats, Simon Bosher the leader of the Conservative group said Mr Johnson should “take a good, strong look in the mirror” because “those are people that are actually bearing the brunt on the doorstep of behaviour of what’s been going on in Westminster”.

There was a “Red Wall” Labour resurgence in Cumbria, where it seized control of the first of two new councils winning 66 per cent of the seats. They gained 12 seats in the new Cumberland authority as the Tory vote collapsed. The area covers Carlisle, Workington and Copeland, which are all currently represented by Tory MPs. The Lib Dems and Green party also picked up two seats a piece in the north western town hall.