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How did Labour manage to take control of Cameron’s ‘flagship’ London council?

28 May 2014

12:22 PM

28 May 2014

12:22 PM

After a formidable campaign run by Shadow London Minister Sadiq Khan, Labour took four out of eight Euro seats. Redbridge, Croydon, Merton, Harrow – none typically thought of as Labour boroughs – turned from blue to red. This should be the real story of the 2014 local and European elections.

But the most surprising result in London came when Labour convincingly took control of Hammersmith and Fulham. A council variously described as Cameron’s ‘favourite’ or ‘flagship’, it had enthusiastically piloted some of the most high profile and radical Tory policies.

The victory belongs to Stephen Cowan, the new Labour leader of Hammersmith and Fulham, and his team of candidates and activists, whose campaign outperformed the local Tories. Wards that the Conservatives had ticked off as safe went Labour with swings of up to 15 per cent.

But it was the message as much as the means that ensured a Labour victory. However many times you knock on or push a leaflet through someone’s door, you’re talking to yourself if the issues and policies don’t fit.

Here the issues were the closure of both borough A&Es, the demolition of Charing Cross Hospital to develop most of the site as luxury flats, the closure of a popular local school to provide the site for yet another free school and the demolition and sale of council homes to provide high-value development sites.

These were zealously pursued by local Tories, who saw such policies as a way of changing the social make-up of the borough. Top-tier levels of government supported this approach: Pickles called them ‘the apple of his eye’; Hunt endorsed the hospital closures; Boris featured everywhere on leaflets; Cameron made a personal visit to their HQ and was telephone canvassing on the day.

In wards where the average property costs around £1 million, the Tories seemed to think they could ignore the concerns of those objecting to such policies.

As a result, it was Ed Miliband’s message that carried more weight. Affordable housing, first-class healthcare, support for good schools without the politics and ideology of Michael Gove or Toby Young. These were what people of all income levels and backgrounds responded to.  Hammersmith and Fulham is a great place to live, but not if you are on a zero-hours contract or the council moves you on because you cannot afford to live there. If the Tories thought the wealthier neighbours of the people they were ousting wouldn’t care about this social engineering, they were wrong.

Locally, the Tories seem unrepentant. Fulham MP Greg Hands tried to spin their losses as down to Lib Dem defectors to Labour. The unpalatable truth for him is that most of the switches were from the Conservatives. Hands may well be trying to protect his own reputation as he seeks to advance his position in the Tory Whips’ Office. Dropping the ball and investing so much of the high command’s time in embarrassing failure won’t have won him any friends – but a little humility for the real interests of residents would win the Tories more respect locally.

The Conservatives did not lose this election; it was Labour that won it. It was Labour who listened in this election, and who addressed the real concerns of residents.  This is exactly what Ed Miliband is doing nationally and in the seats we need to win next May.

Andy Slaughter is the Labour MP for Hammersmith and Shadow Justice Minister

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