Strong and Cable? The political battle for the outskirts of South West London

It seems that the bulk of the focus ahead of the upcoming local elections in London at the moment is currently being predicated on three issues;
  • Firstly, the battle that will no doubt ensue between the Conservatives and Labour in marginal boroughs, such as Barnet and Wandsworth, and how well the two parties will fare in this regard.
  • Secondly, in areas where Labour are already dominant or pose a real chance of gaining control, what type of Labour councillors and councils we are going to see over the next four years given the increasing influence of     Momentum within the party.
  • And thirdly, what implications the overall results will have for Theresa May’s future as Prime Minister.

But, are we missing another fascinating component to these local elections?

Namely, the battle between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the boroughs that traditionally form the outskirts of South West London – specifically, Richmond, Kingston and Sutton.

Commentators often forget how interesting and out of step these three boroughs are with the rest of the Capital both socio-economically and politically, and they often have a tendency to be unfairly overlooked because of this.

Since the mid-1990s, and in some respects longer, they have formed a very distinct cluster within the Capital, all having a very similar amalgamation of characteristics which separate them from the rest of the London.

Socio-economically, many argue that they have more in common with boroughs in Surrey than those in London.

From a political perspective their local authorities since creation have each fluctuated between the control of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, with Labour customarily having a very minimal presence – at the local level they are outlier boroughs in London and can be considered unique cases.

Likewise, the modern day parliamentary constituencies that make up these boroughs have for the past 20 years been key battlegrounds between the Liberal Democrat and Conservatives. Indeed, each of the 5 parliamentary constituencies that make up these boroughs, were all represented by Liberal Democrat MPs between 1997 and 2010, comprising a yellow heartland over this time.

Despite this historic uniformity, the boroughs have begun to gradually diverge from one another politically since the onset of the Coalition Government in 2010.

The most obvious area where a political divide is starting to show in the region is with Brexit. At the 2016 EU referendum Richmond and Kingston both voted Remain, but to different extents, with 69.3% of the electorate doing so in the former and 61.6% doing so in the latter. Meanwhile, in Sutton, 53.7% voted to Leave.

Perhaps because of the Brexit dimension, with the Conservatives committing themselves to pushing ahead with Brexit and the Liberal Democrats committing themselves to a 2nd referendum on the issue, the boroughs each formed an extremely fascinating part of the electoral terrain within the capital at the General Election last year, delivering an interesting, confusing, and somewhat contradictory set of results in their parliamentary constituencies:

In Twickenham we witnessed the return of Liberal Democrat heavyweight Sir Vince Cable and the demise of Dr Tania Mathias from the Conservatives. Meanwhile, in a role reversal, we saw the former Conservative candidate for Mayor of London and Brexit advocate, Zac Goldsmith, reclaim Richmond Park, having lost the constituency to the Liberal Democrats’ Sarah Olney at the 2016 by-election following his resignation at the Government’s plans for a 3rd runway at Heathrow Airport (clearly something is going on in these two constituencies).

In Kingston & Surbiton, also Remain territory, we saw the return of Sir Ed Davey, another Liberal Democrat big hitter, who managed to see off James Berry of the Conservatives. Like Richmond, perhaps we are seeing some political re-alignment here too.

Whereas, in Brexit voting Sutton we saw political continuity, with the re-election of the longstanding Liberal Democrat and outspoken Remainer in Carshalton & Wallington, Tom Brake, and the re-election of outspoken Brexiteer and current Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party for London, Paul Scully, in Sutton & Cheam. Scully was re-elected with a substantially increased majority (from 3,921 to 12,698), having put an end to 18 years of Lib Dem rule in the constituency in 2015.

Needless to say these General Election results set up the local elections perfectly for these boroughs in May. It begs the question of what we can expect to see happen, given their current political complexion at the local level:

Richmond is a difficult one to predict; many are expecting the Liberal Democrats to perform well and at the very least make gains at the expense of the Conservatives, who will be led by Councillor Paul Hodgins, having taken over as Leader of the Council following the resignation of Lord True last year. That said, the extent of the current Conservative majority at the Council suggests that even with a strong performance from the Liberal Democrats on the night, the most likely outcome is that things are likely to become more marginal, rather than there being a change of leadership. If the General Election result is replicated at the local level in May, we are likely to see a resurgence of the Liberal Democrats in the wards that make up Twickenham, but enough Conservative support there and in the Richmond Park part of the borough to potentially see off a change in colour when it comes to control of the Council.

At this stage, Kingston appears to be a little bit more straightforward; with a strong Liberal Democrat resurgence at the General Election, the party is reportedly confident in taking control of this local authority and this is the outcome that commentators are expecting. Indeed, specific local factors relating to the former long-standing Liberal Democrat leader which were still fresh in 2014, are no longer a factor in 2018 and the Liberal Democrats should be in a strong position to take control.

Meanwhile, like Richmond, Sutton is another difficult one to predict; the Liberal Democrats currently have an overwhelming majority on the Council, and it would require a strong performance from the Conservatives to overcome this, even if the General Election result in the borough points to them making strong inroads within the wards that make up the Sutton & Cheam constituency. However, the Conservatives are becoming a more organised force in the borough with Paul Scully’s position as Vice Chairman of the Conservatives for London, and the potential influence that this could have should not be discounted. The fact that Theresa May has already been spotted campaigning in the borough demonstrates that the Conservatives see it as a rare pick up opportunity in 2018. All signs in the borough suggest the Liberal Democrats maintaining control of the Council, but with the Conservatives making gains at their expense.

So there we have it. A very interesting, confusing, and somewhat contradictory set of results in these boroughs at the General Election last year, point towards an even more interesting, confusing, and somewhat contradictory set of results this May!

We can’t be sure of the results in the outskirts of South West London this May, but we can be fairly confident in making one prediction; while they remain similar in socio-economic terms, political divergence in these boroughs is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.