It was always possible, I wrote a month ago, that the London elections would show voters baulking for the first time at the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn in power, especially after the protests in Westminster against anti-Semitism. That hasn’t quite happened: it seems there has been a slight swing to Labour in the capital, unlike the rest of the country. But fears of a Tory bloodbath in London – of Corbynistas and Sadiq Khan supporters painting the town red – were misplaced. The Tories have kept hold of their crown jewel boroughs: Westminster, Wandsworth, Kensington and Chelsea. Remarkably, they have even taken back control of Barnet, in north London, which one senior London Tory thought they would lose ‘undoubtedly’. He was wrong, and so was the Cabinet minister who claimed the party was ‘screwed’ in the capital.
Some are now claiming that this was all an act of ingenious expectations management on the part of the Tories. (Even Jeremy Corbyn is spinning that line.) That’s called being wise after the event. Actually, some in the Conservative party were desperately trying to be positive about their prospects in the capital, and get the Jeremiahs to shut up. As one London MP told me during the campaign: ‘I am fed up to the back teeth of the gloom and doom merchants that are saying oh, the Conservatives are going to get wiped out in London. Unfortunately if you… go around saying that, don’t be at all surprised when it comes true.’
Nonetheless, the gloom and merchants didn’t shut up – and their apocalyptic visions didn’t come true. So what went wrong for Labour? First, it seems that the Tories’ attempts to make this an election about ‘bins not Brexit’ were successful. Sadiq Khan and others urged remain-supporting voters, especially in inner London, to punish the Tories for Britain leaving the EU. They had some success (and gains to show for it), but not enough to win control of councils. Either voters still value low taxes enough – or they have simply cottoned on to the fact that Corbyn’s party doesn’t really oppose Brexit.
There are a couple of other national issues that may have played a part. Corbyn’s response to the Salisbury chemical attack was deeply unpopular in the country, more so than many have realised. According to one poll published in mid April, 44 per cent said he handled the whole affair badly, whereas 46 per cent thought Theresa May handled it well. And then there were the accusations – justified ones – of anti-Semitism in his party, a national story with big local implications in London. Not a single Tory I spoke to expected the Conservatives to win Barnet, an area with a high proportion of Jewish voters. That they did win there supports the idea that the more some voters get to know Corbyn, the less they like him.
That seems to be confirmed by those on the ground. A Labour councillor who lost his seat in Barnet last night told the Today programme: ‘I spent countless hours knocking on countless doors speaking to Jewish voters who are Labour voters or were Labour voters… but they could not vote for a Labour Party that they see as hostile or dangerous to the Jewish community.’
But the Tories would be unwise to pop too many champagne corks today. They have managed to avoid disaster. If there has been a swing to Labour in London, despite a swing to the Tories outside the capital, that does suggest trouble ahead.
London political trends tend to anticipate those of the rest of the country – and although Corbyn’s momentum has slowed, it hasn’t stopped completely. Labour’s victory in Trafford, Manchester, which they won for the first time since 1996, should also worry the Tories. As I wrote last month, if Labour can take control of these urban areas, the Conservative party may see a knock-on effect years later in the suburbs and countryside.