The local election returns in the Westminster part of my constituency were “no change”; 36 seats on Westminster City Council, 36 Conservatives returned. In virtually every Ward the Conservative candidates increased their majorities.
Nationally the results were bad for the Labour government, although given the series of public relations disasters in the run-up to polling day it might have been even worse. Overall the results were good for the Conservatives and very good here in the Capital. Nevertheless, generally speaking the further north one travels the less progress the Conservative Party is seen to be making and this must have some worrying implications for the Party at the next General Election.
In many ways the London results were a confirmation of the trends at the last General Election in May 2005 when Conservatives gained eight seats in the Capital from Labour. Amidst the understandable euphoria in the Conservative Party over the best local election returns in London for a generation, equally it must be realistic about how this would translate at a General Election.
If, at the next General Election, Londoners voted exactly the same way as they did on 4 May 2006, the Conservative Party would win 38 seats to Labour’s 26. It should be noted though that such a performance would still be less impressive than was achieved by the Party in its four victories between 1979 and 1992.
For a start the Party should expect to take the three ultra-marginal seats narrowly missed last time ? Battersea, Finchley & Golders Green and Enfield North (although the Conservatives lost six Council seats in that constituency this May compared to 2002). Two newly configured constituencies, Ealing Central & Acton and Harrow East also now look even better prospects following the Party’s unexpectedly strong showing in North West London.
In a further four seats, the results from Westminster North, Brentford & Isleworth, Hendon and Eltham confirm the swings in 2005 which transferred those seats from the safe Labour category to reasonable Conservative targets for the next General Election. Meanwhile the next category of seats, Poplar & Limehouse, Tooting, Brent North and Ealing North remain constituencies that probably require a two-election strategy for the Conservative Party to be triumphant.
As to the Liberal held seats, the Conservative Party must now have higher hopes for winning the two Sutton constituencies where significant inroads were made in a Council which has been Liberal Democrat held for two decades. Much was written in the few days after the local elections about the failure to advance by the third party. However, Liberal Democrat progress in London ? as well as the rest of the country ? still risks being a significant roadblock to the Conservatives advancing to an overall parliamentary majority.
While the local election results were a disappointment to the Liberal Democrats they reinforced their position in many of the eighteen London parliamentary constituencies where they had relegated the Conservative Party to the third position in 2005. Whilst Conservatives celebrated Labour losing control of Camden, Lewisham and Brent the Liberal Democrats’ significant advance in each of these three Boroughs means the Conservative Party is now reduced to third Party status which makes winning back the parliamentary seat in any of the Boroughs (all of which had Conservative representation until the 1990s) extremely difficult.
Whilst Conservatives celebrated the important advances in London, these were not replicated in much of the rest of urban England, where a Brown-led Labour Party may prove more popular than Tony Blair’s. All is not lost for the Conservatives, however. In many ways the template for Conservative success outside the Capital comes from the East End of London, which has not been a happy stamping ground for Tories for almost a century.
One of the lesser reported, but perhaps most significant, local gains was in Tower Hamlets where the Conservative Party built on a shock by-election success in September 2004 to win all six seats on the Isle of Dogs as well as a seventh in Wapping.
The lesson for Tory-free zones such as Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle may well be that the Conservative Party needs to build from those city-centre areas which have been transformed by de-industrialisation. The Party must look to focus its energies not only on young urban professionals moving into these areas but also on the remaining indigenous population many of whom live in social housing and have been largely ignored by a complacent Labour Party over the decades. No-one suggests that this process will be easy or that the Conservative Party will be able to deliver results quickly. Nevertheless, in the unsung successes in Tower Hamlets I see a template for future Conservative success in our northern cities.