Daniel Thomas: On the doorsteps of Barnet, I’m hearing more complaints about the Mayor of London than about the PM

28 Apr

Cllr Daniel Thomas is the Leader of Barnet Council.

Journalists like to ask how the Prime Minister is affecting conversations on the doorstep. The truth is, I’m hearing more complaints about Sadiq Khan than Boris Johnson. Khan has racked up City Hall council tax by almost nine per cent. The Mayor has made parts of Barnet feel unsafe due to under-policing. Now he wants to clobber outer-London motorists with ULEZ and pay-per-mile. Whether we like it or not, the Mayor is an integral part of local government in London which means his policies and their consequences are fair game in this election.

Sir Keir Starmer launched Labour’s local election campaign in Barnet, but all he could talk about was ‘partygate’, anything but his own party’s atrocious track record in town halls across London. In Barnet, we are surrounded by Labour-run councils, all of which have higher council tax, fewer bin collections, lower educational attainment, and are hell-bent on penalising motorists. The car is essential for outer-London radial travel, yet Labour boroughs are imposing LTNs and raking in fines from confused drivers. Enfield has already raised £4 million which will no doubt be spent on more unused segregated cycle lanes.

Labour-run Harrow reached the shameful milestone of exceeding £2,000 for Band D council tax. Barnet charges almost £300 less. How can Labour councillors and Mayors say they’re concerned about the cost of living whilst taking more money from local taxpayers? I welcomed Government funding for the £150 council tax rebate (on behalf of 80,000 Barnet households); Labour and Lib Dem councillors did so through gritted teeth.

As for levelling up, decades ago we took the brave decision to knock down our worst council estates and start again. New social housing was paid for from the proceeds of new private housing. We even managed to fund new schools and community centres. I knew it was a success when I heard a Labour councillor complain that a regeneration area “would not be deprived for much longer” when we agreed to build new council offices there. The new developments are no longer concentrations of poverty; they are mixed vibrant communities that residents, private and social, are proud of. The difference between our aspiration and Labour’s desire to keep everyone as a client of the state could not be more stark than it is in Barnet.

The most uncertain aspect of this election is the new ward boundaries. My view is that we still have more routes to retain control than Labour, which explains why they’re targeting Conservative strongholds. There are enough seats within the obvious marginal wards for Labour to win control, but they need to win all of them at the same time, something they’ve never achieved. The fact they’re targeting longshots reveals that they’re not confident of their chances in all the marginal wards. This is understandable given that we won a seat from Labour in a by-election last year and one of their wards turned blue at the London Assembly elections.

Local elections: What to look out for in London

11 Apr

A lot can change between now and May 5th so any predictions at this stage must be rather tentative. One that most pundits might regard as safe is that the Conservatives face a drubbing in London – where all the 32 boroughs have full council elections taking place. I can see why some would envisage a pretty dire outlook. For some years Conservatives have been in decline in the capital relative to the rest of the country. At the General Election in 2019, the only seat Labour gained anywhere in the country was Putney. Those of us who look to economic determinism to explain electoral trends note that home ownership has become ever less affordable in London. What new development there is, often tends to be awful tower blocks – unsuitable for those wishing to settle down and start a family. Two pretty good predicators of someone voting Conservative are if they are owner-occupiers – and married with an ambition to have children. These natural Tory voters are being driven out of London.

Then there is the polling. When these seats were last contested four years ago, Labour won 44 per cent of the vote, the Conservatives, 29 per cent. So a Labour lead of 15 per cent. At that time the Conservatives and Labour were level pegging in the opinion polls nationally. In the “projected national equivalent vote share” – crunched by Rallings & Trasher – the Conservatives are now on 37 per cent to 36 per cent for Labour, when looking at the predicted council election results across the country. Most recent opinion polls show Labour ahead by around five points. A couple of London polls have been undertaken. One had a Labour lead of 17 points. Another, more recent one, gave a Labour lead of 30 points.

Furthermore, all Labour really need to have perceived to have triumphed is to gain Wandsworth. Last time round 26 Labour councillors were elected there, with 33 Conservatives. Labour only need a swing of a couple of points to take over.  For decades Wandsworth has not only been Conservative-run, but much more unusually, has practiced Conservative policies. Residents have noticed how the services have been efficient and the tax burden has been low. Thus the elections results have defied political gravity. There is a superstition that:

“If the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it.”

Many Conservatives feel there is a similar mythical quality about presiding at Wandsworth Town Hall. Amidst the devastation of the 1990 local election results, Ken Baker, the Conservative Party Chairman, took to the airwaves to highlight that Wandsworth have stayed blue. The media agreed that was an important boost for Margaret Thatcher.

Might the old magic still be there? Perhaps. Wandsworth has cut the Council Tax by one per cent. By contrast, Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, has increased his precept by 8.8 per cent. That gives a point of relevance and substance to raise on the doorstep so far as the cost of living is concerned.

Some Conservative councils increase the Council Tax by the maximum allowed. Then shrug and say it would be “impossible” to do otherwise. That is not the Wandsworth way.

Barnet would be Labour’s next target. It would also have symbolic importance. They were hoping to win last time but were punished by Jewish voters (and their friends and neighbours) for the way that anti-semitism had flourished in the party under Jeremy Corbyn. Victory for Labour in Barnet would mean they could claim to have been forgiven.

If Labour really did as well as some of the polling implies, they would sweep to power in Westminster and Hillington – which includes the Prime Minister’s constituency. I am sceptical this will be achieved.

Indeed, my expectation is that Labour will not make overall progress in London. Gains in some places will be offset by losses elsewhere. I have spoken, off the record, to a number of seasoned Conservative campaigners across London who have sounded quietly confident. Some pundits may respond with derision. But it is worth noting that in the election for Mayor of London last year the gap narrowed. Shaun Bailey lost by a narrower margin than Zac Goldsmith had five years earlier. In the final round, Khan was ahead by 10.4 per cent. On first preferences, it was 4.7 per cent. Polling for last year’s contest had put Khan ahead to 20 per cent or 30 per cent.

Ditching Corbyn might not be a benefit to Labour in London in local elections. Turnout is key. Most people didn’t vote last time (with the exception of Richmond upon Thames which achieved a 51.4 per cent turnout; well done them.) Corbyn as Leader gave staunch socialists the motivation to vote. Some to even join the Labour Party and campaign. Some of that (ahem) momentum has dissipated.

Khan is probably becoming a liability to his party – with his fetish for ever higher tower blocks and Council Tax precepts, combined with his mismanagement of policing and transport.

Four years ago there was considerable anger in London concerning Brexit. Many voters from central and eastern Europe who had previously been Conservatives considered it as an attack – that Britain had turned inwards. Might the leading role of the UK in supporting Ukraine change that narrative?

So where might a Conservative revival in the capital manifest itself? In several boroughs, in the words of Yazz, “the only way is up.” Last time around no Conservative councillors were elected in Barking and Dagenham, Haringey, Islington, Lewisham, Newham or Southwark. Lambeth only returned one Conservative councillor, Tower Hamlets two, Brent three. But this territory has not been abandoned. In Newham, for example, the Conservatives are campaigning with vigour. It was disappointing that in Barking and Dagenham the Conservatives have only put up 30 candidates for the 51 seats. Yet even there I am assured there is hope: (“Just keep a look out for Eastbrook & Rush Green ward,” comes a whisper.)

Sutton now has two Conservative MPs and there is optimism the Lib Dems could be ousted from the Council. The northern part of the borough is pretty working class – no shortage of white van men. A majority from Sutton voted Leave in the EU referendum.

Harrow is another borough with a decent chance of a Conservative gain. There is a big aspirational Asian vote – Gujaratis with a keen enterprising zeal – that Labour can no longer take for granted.

Enfield is a borough where the Conservatives make well gain some seats – although probably not enough to sweep to victory. Redbridge and Camden are other places where Labour has big majorities but has been carrying out some unpopular local policies.  Low Traffic Neighbourhoods in Redbridge, approval of tower blocks in the case of Camden. Conservatives are campaigning energetically on these and other matters. They may well pick up a few seats.

Finally, there is Croydon where the Labour council has combined profligacy – forcing itself into bankruptcy – while proving an appalling landlord with council tenants left in conditions of the most shocking squalor.

So I suspect rumours of the impending demise of London Conservatives have been exaggerated. We shall find out soon enough…

Amy Selman: How to be a campaigner and a governor – lessons from Johnson’s time as London’s mayor

16 Nov

Amy Selman was policy adviser to Boris Johnson when he was Mayor of London from 2010-2016.

Much was written about the personalities of the key players within Downing Street this week – and the consequent drama and intrigue captures the interest of the Westminster classes.

Less headline-grabbing are the methods of working which may also need a refresh in order to reassure Conservative MPs that the Prime Minister’s team is working for one of their ultimate goals – re-election in their constituencies.

It is too glib to say that campaigners can’t deliver in government. MPs know this because of the impressive record of many of their local council leaders, who tend to stay in office for longer, and run successful re-election campaigns.

In London as Mayor, Boris Johnson snapped up key local leaders, from Stephen Greenhalgh, Mike Freer and Theresa O’Neill (then leaders of Hammersmith & Fulham, Barnet and Bexley councils respectively), to replicate at the city level what they had done for their boroughs.

This team, managed first by Simon Milton as Chief of Staff, and then by Edward Lister, helped the Mayor run a united team of both civil servants and politicians. Some observations:

Gearing everything towards delivery – publish a traffic light system

The first is that the machinery of government can and wants to work for you, and the best way to consolidate that is through your manifesto.

Leaders are elected on a platform, and the civil service’s duty is to help execute it. A focus on delivering policies that voters chose is key to getting the machinery working. At City Hall, this was done by a diligent senior team who produced a monthly traffic light scoresheet for each 2012 manifesto commitment, and brought those in charge of implementing it to an Investment and Performance Board, with minutes that were almost wholly public.

This meant some difficult conversations both with heads of such agencies as Transport for London, and with the Deputy Mayors appointed to oversee them, but the process both integrated the teams and served as red flags when commitments were under threat.

The traffic light system was not always the favourite part of people’s work – more exciting, glamorous comms opportunities would capture daily headlines  – but the Chief of Staff and Permanent Secretary ensured that this core business had to be met first.

Adapt delivery for campaigning materials – so providing a record

The Board papers allowed the political team to extrapolate for London’s Conservative MPs achievements they could use in campaigning materials, such as those that CCHQ provided borough versions of newsletters.

Conservative MPs need regular red meat – material they can use to campaign on a record. Progress on manifesto commitments are the way to provide that, regardless of daily stories that blow hot and cold. Donors, too, want to see a scorecard that can reassuree them that core policies are being worked on.

Brand your successes.

Johnson’s team also instigated the appropriate branding for schemes – such as, at the insistence of Richard Blakeway, one of the Deputy Mayors, that all new part-funded Homes for London were attributed to the Mayor’s office as well as the private housebuilder.

There is a current debate about this practice in relation to UK Government schemes in Scotland.  It should be settled immediately: if taxpayer money is being spent in any part of the UK, the brand of Her Majesty’s Government must be displayed.

Adapt set pieces with bitesize briefings for MPs to use

Set pieces such as the Budget are another amalgamation of campaigning and governing. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne was a master of this fusion, and would pass on long shopping lists from London to civil servant teams, which would then whittle it down to list concrete commitments.

One example is the Long-Term Economic Plan for London of 2015, which adapted the work of the independent London Finance Commission – triangulating between Whitehall, local enterprise partnerships and other regional demands that the then Government was facing to ensure a fair share of investment.

Bitesize briefings based on the LTEP ensured that the huge sums pledged by the Treasury could be translated into local schemes and MP campaigning wins – such as nine new housing zones and two new tube stations. Mayors and regional MP leaders have a huge role to play in similar processes, and should feel that they are working with others as one team all along.

Create a network of insiders at all Party ranks

As Mayor, one of Johnson’s most frequent requests was: ‘what’s happening?’

These were not idle queries” rather, he created a network of allies to help respond to whatever target audiences were talking about: advisers and senior civil servants on forensic London issues; Tory MPs on constituent postbag audits (along with the gossip from dining clubs and the terrace), local council activists on doorstep concerns.

Remember who put you there – so get out and about.

Machiavelli wrote that “he who becomes a prince through the favour of the people should always keep on good terms with them”.  Jonathan Powell’s twentieth century addition was “and if his popularity goes down, his party becomes restless”.

For a mayor known only by his first name, the key to keeping on good terms was to get out and about. In a non-Covid-19 world, I’m sure that we would have seen a Prime Minister Johnson out and about in high streets across the country.

The rotating local London People’s Question Times, as with David Cameron’s Cameron Directs, created a discipline of looking at how wider policies were improving specific areas.

Instead of talking about body-worn cameras or free school places in the abstract, we would have to produce the figures for a borough and explain the exact nature of their benefits.

This helped local campaigners, along with such activities as the boost of a star-power walk, opening of one of London’s 100 new Pocket Parks or regeneration flagships such as Battersea Power station. There was never any tension at the dual nature of these events, with political visits coupled to official events -and Ministers are itching to get back to this even in a virtual world.

Respect the Grid, but don’t expect it to deliver key messages to target audiences

City Hall straddles – without fully controlling – policy areas, agencies and delivery bodies. Whitehall of course has this writ far larger. So the temptation to try and centralise announcements is natural: but in London, it rarely worked seamlessly, and with the audiences the Mayor wanted.

The grid is really a tool for journalists and Westminster, not for voters. It is important, especially if a key audience is the Tory backbenches, who need a Minister for The Today Programme, Newsnight and social media. To get to the voters, a string of random announcements on a topic such as transport should be consolidated into key messages repeated – which meansresisting the need to feed the news cycle beast.

Use the authentic voice – no-one writes to connect like Johnson

The style and reach of Johnson’s Monday Daily Telegraph column did more to focus on priorities than set speeches in warehouses or hard-hatted engineering visits.

Not that it was always disciplined: we would often reassure Numbers 10 and 11 on a Sunday that he would publicly support a new NHS or tax initiative…only for Monday morning’s paper to be a musing on ski holidays or working habits

But the Mayor’s authentic voice though cut through to core voters. And it became clear that when other Ministers wrote diary columns – in the Spectator for the Tory faithful, or in Grazia for new audiences – these would get far more discussion than press release columns.

After a difficult period that no post-war Prime Minister has had to grapple with, a refocus on what the Conservative Party promised voters in 2019, and how each constituency will feel the benefits, would help the Government to regroup. Time to return both governing and the campaign to Tory ground.