The alfresco drinking and dining areas on St John’s Wood High Street set up by Tory-controlled Westminster to help hospitality businesses during the pandemic provide a fitting backdrop for party candidate Ralu Oteh-Osoka to talk excitedly about her hopes of winning a seat in Thursday’s local elections.
“I’m a child of Westminster and really want to promote Westminster and what a great job it does,” she says, adding that as a young woman of Nigerian heritage born and raised in the borough she brings a “different perspective” to her politics that she hopes can persuade others of similar background to support her party.
“We have multi-weekly bin collection, we’re doing so much with regeneration and the environment, great recycling points, providing fantastic services for residents, as well as balancing tourism and being a centre for the UK and the world,” she says. “I’m 32 in May and hopefully winning will be the best birthday present ever.”
The prospects of her achieving her aim might appear good on a council which has been Conservative controlled since its creation in the Sixties and currently has 41 Tory councillors and only 19 Labour. The picture is not so simple, however, and the fact that the two parliamentary seats within the council boundaries are split between Labour and Tory, with the latter being a marginal, provides one reality check.
Relatively few votes in key wards could also tip the balance against the Tories. The impact of boundary changes and voter turnout adds further uncertainty.
On top of this is the damage inflicted by the partygate saga, which prompts a groan from council leader Rachael Robathan as she expresses her hope that voters focus on local issues. She believes the Tory administration has run services well and highlights its achievement in having the lowest council tax in the country, at £864 for a Band D home as a further reason to keep her party in power. “Council tax hits people on lower incomes disproportionately and that’s why keeping council tax low, providing really good services for the lowest council tax in the country is really important,” she adds.
Back on the campaign trail in the south Pimlico ward, Labour leader Adam Hug admits that winning control of the council will be a “tough hill to climb” but insists that the time for a change has arrived. He highlights the Marble Arch mound, which went over budget to £6 million and attracted some public ridicule, as an example of the Conservatives being “out of touch and not focused on what people need”.
He adds: “You see that locally and you see that nationally. People are fed up and wanting to see something different. Our focus is building a fairer Westminster, tackling poverty and inequality. Westminster has historically had massive divides between rich and poor..”
His fellow Labour councillor Liza Begum agrees, saying: “The council’s slogan is ‘a city for all’ — but it really doesn’t feel like it is a city for all. There’s huge poverty here and extreme wealth and it’s time to bridge that gap.”
Housing, including better protection for tenants, more refurbishments and provision of affordable homes, is high among the issues in Labour’s campaign. Others include improving air quality and supporting local high streets.
The fallout from national politics and anger over Boris Johnson’s breach of the Covid laws might yet be significant. Churchill Gardens resident Elliott Sikwabi, 50, tells Mr Hug that he has voted Labour before and has struggled to provide for his wife and one-year-old child after losing his job with car hire firm Hertz.
“I’m angry about partygate and how they have been getting away with it when we got into so much trouble when we went out,” he says, adding that two of his friends were fined and that the issue might convince him to go to the polling station on Thursday. “Maybe my vote will make a difference.”