In the latest on our series of blogs on the London elections, Client Manager, Mark Gitsham, looks at the prospects for the Liberal Democrats at the forthcoming local elections.
Being a Lib Dem activist is quite the rollercoaster. Sometimes the party rides high, other times it’s hard to get your voice heard. Even for hardened activists, predicting Lib Dem results is always a shaky business as the party doesn’t really have ‘safe seats’ in the traditional sense (although Sutton is the closest candidate, after being in Lib Dem hands for the last 20 years).
In 2018, Liberal Democrats took control of both Kingston and Richmond Councils, bringing their tally up to three of the 32 London boroughs. This fits in with the idea that South-West London is the Lib Dem heartland in the capital. They have been making inroads into Merton as well, particularly around Wimbledon where they just missed out to the Conservatives on the parliamentary seat in 2019 by 628 votes.
Sutton, Kingston and Richmond
Sutton is an interesting council. The parliamentary seats have been won from the Lib Dems by the Conservatives over the last few elections, and it was one of the few London boroughs to vote to leave the EU. Yet it was the one council the staunchly remain Lib Dems held on to in 2018. This comes down to local issues, particularly the campaign to save St Helier’s Hospital. The Lib Dems, under the decade long leadership of Ruth Dombey, have (a bin fiasco aside) been seen to do a good job locally. They lost a few councillors in 2018 but still hold a big majority. While a win here would be a big boost for the Conservatives, it’s not likely this time.
Kingston is quite a different ball-game. Internal issues have led to three council leaders in four years. There was some disagreement over the rebuilding of the leisure centre, though it is going ahead and seems to have public support. There is going to be a sizable turnover of candidates there for the party in May with a lot of existing councillors stepping down. At present, the biggest change is the decision by Councillor Malcolm Self, Chair of the Planning Committee, to stand down.
However, shenanigans in Downing Street such as #Partygate have given the local Lib Dems a boost. They have a decent majority, so not likely to change hands at this election.
Richmond was another gain in 2018, led by the charismatic Gareth Roberts. Here the council has worked to improve environmental measures and campaigned loudly for the Hammersmith Bridge to be repaired. Again, a good majority and no change in leadership to be expected.
With likely holds in these three councils, attention turns to where else the Lib Dems could do well. As it stands, there are not any other London councils where the Lib Dems are likely to take control at this election. However, the party is very grassroots based, and often wins will pop up in unlikely places. The Lib Dems don’t have the manpower of Labour to flood areas with canvassers unless it’s a by-election. The party wins by individual campaigners getting out into their local neighbourhood and working hard for years before an election. Strong local campaigns are taking place from Tower Hamlets to Ealing and Haringey to Wandsworth, it will be interesting to see which ones break through.
The big changes in personnel are happening in Camden and Southwark, where key party leaders are standing down. In Camden Luisa Porritt, group leader, former MEP and candidate for Mayor of London will leave in May. Anood Al-Samerai who has been group leader in Southwark and a key driver in the local party is also moving on.
This May isn’t going to be a huge leap forward for the Liberal Democrats, but they’ll hold their own and may throw up a few (minor) surprises.