I live in Wandsworth. It’s nice. That’s not a political comment, just an observation on the borough. OK, it’s not edgy or cool or even wildly imaginative, but neither am I. It is also the sort of place the Tories should win at a canter. There’s a reason it’s called a flagship council, after all. It’s still Conservative today and Tories are celebrating that: Theresa May has been in the borough lauding “success” and noting that Labour threw a lot of resources at Wandsworth and appeared to believe that it really might turn the borough red.
Of course, a win’s a win and nothing else really matters, but I can’t help thinking May might have found a better place to celebrate the absence of Tory disaster in the local election stalemate. Because the Wandsworth results really aren’t much for the Tories to celebrate. The party lost eight councillors and now has 33 of 60 seats; Labour has 26. Labour also came fairly close to having quite a few more seats. In wards such as Earlsfield and Nightingale, the Tories used to weigh their votes and councillors used to regularly wrack up four-figure majorities: these are wealthy wards where terraced houses sell for £1m and more, the sort of places where the pubs show rugby not football on the TV, private schools outnumber state schools and men wear gilets without apology or irony.
But those places came within a few dozen votes of returning councillors from the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn. Only a fairly intensive get-out-the-vote operation seems to have scrambled enough Tory voters to the polls last night to deny Labour a genuine triumph. Really, CCHQ should be thanking Owen Jones today, because it is only the hubristic expectations inflation of his Momentum campaign trips that allows Tories to present very real Labour gains in Wandsworth as a blow to Corbyn.
So when Owen and his chums say that the Labour result in Wandsworth was a good one for their party, they’ve got a point, though perhaps not as good a point as they think. This is entirely anecdotal (what local election reporting isn’t?) but talking to a couple of Labour-leaning Wandsworth residents today, I was struck by their cheery response to the result.
And to be clear, they weren’t happy their party had run Tories so close, they were happy their party hadn’t quite won. One confessed it was “a bit of a relief” that the council would remain under Conservative management, management which really does deliver quite reasonable services (especially when compared to neighbouring councils) for very low council tax: Wandsworth still has weekly bin collections, for goodness’ sake. Another said she actually hadn’t voted for Labour at all, because of “Jeremy Corbyn, the anti-semitism thing, Russia, all of that – I just couldn’t.”
And meanwhile in cyberspace, some of my local friends fighting the online war for free speech in the Mumsnet trenches (Wandsworth is well-stocked with Mumsnet feminists) say they can never vote for Labour while its leadership appears to side with transgender activists accusing women of hate crimes for pointing out the biological differences between men and women. (Owen Jones, a trans-rights advocate who is, shall we say, not greatly loved by “gender critical” feminists, might reflect on how his noisy visits to places like Wandsworth helped swing some Mumsnet votes away from Labour. One otherwise mild-mannered neighbour of mine swore a colourful vow not to cast her usual vote for Labour here when she learned “OJ” had been visiting.)
In short, it seems reasonable to wonder if the more toxic aspects of the Corbyn brand actually denied his party a victory that Labour’s considerable grassroots organisation and critique of the May government’s failures had put within reach.
Would Corbynism without Corbyn and his nasty cultural baggage have delivered Wandsworth for Labour? It cannot be ruled out. Sensible Conservatives will learn lessons from the Wandsworth result, not celebrate it.