Labour Targets Election Gains in the Playgrounds of London’s Superrich
Posted May 1, 2018 12:18 p.m. EDT
LONDON — From her doorstep in the exclusive Knightsbridge district of London, Christine Cotter dismissed the idea of voting for Britain’s opposition Labour Party in elections on Thursday, describing its left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, as a “dreamer” whose policies would bankrupt the country.
But in the rare spring sunshine, Cotter added that, even in her area of multimillion-dollar properties, not everyone shared her views about Labour.
“There is fear that they could win in Westminster,” said Cotter, referring to her affluent district, which will be among those to hold local council elections Thursday. She noted Corbyn’s following among younger voters: “He’s selling a dream,” said Cotter, 71, a semiretired psychotherapist.
In theory, the voting on Thursday is about local, not national, issues, but with Britain’s electorate in a volatile mood, the results will be watched closely. Were the Conservative Party of Prime Minister Theresa May to lose control of bastions like Westminster or the borough of Wandsworth, it could embolden those opposed to leaving the European Union and renew speculation about a challenge to May, whose leadership has been questioned since she lost her parliamentary majority in June.
Since its creation in 1965, the Westminster municipality has served some of London’s most moneyed neighborhoods, never once falling into the hands of the Labour Party.
But May’s government is mired in tortuous negotiations on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, the process known as Brexit, and it was hit on Sunday by the resignation of Home Secretary Amber Rudd. That fragility has put even the most redoubtable of the party’s strongholds under siege in municipal elections.
“Westminster and Wandsworth have an iconic resonance for Conservative activists which is well beyond their importance,” said John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland. “If both of these were to be lost, there probably would be a bit of a wobble.”
May had steadied matters through what many saw as her sound handling of the reaction to the poisoning of Russian former spy Sergei V. Skripal, but her government is now embroiled in a scandal over the treatment of immigrants from the Caribbean who have lived in Britain for decades. Then there are the Brexit negotiations, which have proved messy and painful, forcing May into a series of awkward concessions, with more likely to come.
Under Britain’s system, local elections take place only in some parts of the country every year — this time only in England and mostly in urban areas.
May’s Conservatives are braced for losses in London, which voted in the 2016 referendum to remain in the European Union, and in other metropolitan centers where voters are generally more at ease with the impact of globalization. European citizens living in Britain can vote in these elections, unlike in the Brexit referendum.
But there are also opportunities for the Conservatives, who hope to make gains in smaller urban centers that largely supported the exit from the European Union that May promises to deliver.
“Brexit has certainly disrupted our politics,” Curtice said, noting that there was “substantial divergence between Remain and Leave voting areas in England.”
By contrast, if there is a risk for Labour in London, it is that expectations are so high that a moderately good result would be seen as a disappointment.
In recent memory, the party has not even bothered to campaign in affluent districts like Knightsbridge, but now in London there are “no no-go areas for Labour,” according to Steven Saxby, 47, the party’s parliamentary candidate for the area at the next general election.
Saxby is a clergyman in east London who signs off his emails with the word “peace” and who says he is a committed supporter of Corbyn. He is also a member of Momentum, an influential group formed to support Corbyn’s leadership. Victory in Westminster “would be historic” and “the polls are telling us we might do it,” said Saxby, who comes across as an energetic and approachable campaigner.
While Westminster is home to the superrich, it also contains areas of deprivation. “We have some of the wealthiest people in the world and we have some people living in quite desperate poverty,” Saxby said, listing housing, cuts to public services and poor air quality as central issues. Without describing it as a Christian duty to vote Labour, he hints that it might be. “There are people who manage to reconcile harsh inequality in this country, hostile treatment to migrants and being members of the Conservative Party with their faith,” noted Saxby, wryly, as he waited at a street corner for fellow activists.
When they arrive, they make up a motley group, including students, trade union activists and a former British ambassador to Brazil, Peter Heap, who is running in the municipal elections.
For Labour, campaigning in Westminster is not easy; a gold-color Bentley was parked outside one mansion block, access to which was prevented by the doorman.
Leaflets were distributed, but few people were home in midafternoon, and a high number of properties were unoccupied (many in this area are owned as investments, often by foreign buyers). But Saxby said that he would be back, adding, “We believe it’s possible, in every place, to find Labour voters.”
Nickie Aiken, the current leader of the Westminster Council and a Conservative, says she is confident of keeping control of a municipality that prides itself on setting a low council tax, the levy paid every year by those who own or rent property. (Westminster has even collected voluntary contributions from some richer residents who feel they can pay more.)
She points out that Labour also has problems in London, including persistent claims of anti-Semitism within its ranks.
“Many of those that vote Labour in national elections tend to vote for us in the local ones, and I am hearing from a lot of traditional Labour voters that they are very concerned about Corbyn, and particularly anti-Semitism,” Aiken said.
Though she accepts that things have gone badly for the Conservatives recently, Aiken says, “there is light at the end of the Brexit tunnel.”
“Obviously it comes up,” she said, citing the withdrawal process, “but most voters appreciate that this is about bins, not Brexit,” she added, referring to the garbage cans that local councils are responsible for handling. Turnout on Thursday is likely to be low and it will probably be a struggle to motivate many of those whose votes last year helped Corbyn’s Labour Party outperform expectations in the general election.
Labour’s policy on Brexit is fuzzy, which may help it pick up working-class votes in some parts of the country from the U.K. Independence Party, which was once a force but is now in a state of near collapse.
But the pro-European centrist party, the Liberal Democrats, who actively oppose Brexit (unlike Labour, which wants to soften its edges), are hoping to pick up votes among Remainers.
In Pimlico, another part of the Westminster area, Clarisa Butler, 59, said she had voted for a previous Labour leader, Tony Blair, but did not favor Corbyn, who, for her, “is not a national leader.”
She says that she has yet to decide how to vote but that she will be influenced mainly by local issues. She would be surprised, she said, to see this most Conservative of strongholds fall to Labour.
“If they were to get this,” she said, “that would mean that practically the whole country would be voting Labour.”