How to keep the Labour flag flying in the suburbs

View from footbridgeThere was no new dawn for me after the May 6th election – daybreak happened above our heads and could not be seen through the opaque fabric of the David Beckham Academy (the huge, and unheated, venue for the count in Greenwich) and went unnoticed by almost everyone. The parliamentary results in Greenwich were not announced until about 8.30 am on Friday, and the council results just after. By then we were well into a chilly but bright May morning, without any blazing sunshine.

I then went home on the bus to catch a few hours’ sleep before having to head to the Town Hall at 3pm on the Friday afternoon for the seemingly obligatory Blackheath Westcombe ward recount (as David has already commented, in the fight for the third seat in Blackheath Westcombe, the recount reduced the gap between Conservatives and Labour from 27 votes to 22 by the Friday evening).

Not for the first time in my time as a councillor, I had to go straight from a recount to hold a surgery in Mycenae House at 7pm one Friday, without being absolutely certain I had even been elected at all. In fact, even though it turned out that I had somehow topped the poll, technically I was not a councillor at all before being sworn in – yes, after hardly any sleep at all for 48 hours, we all had to be in the Town Hall at 10am on a Saturday morning to be “sworn in” and have a portrait photograph taken. I hope even the most hard-hearted cynic can have some sympathy for the truly masochistic rituals politicians have to undergo sometimes.

Since then, I have been waiting some time before posting a blog entry about the election results: waiting to see what happened to the new Coalition government, and also reflecting on what lessons to learn from the results, both nationally and locally. And, as I will explain, the result in Blackheath Westcombe can almost be seen as a national barometer, with different trends taking place in the same ward at the same time.

Was it all worth it? Absolutely. Blackheath and Westcombe Park need Labour representation and almost 40% of those voting voted for at least one Labour candidate. I was pleased by my own result, but disappointed that Labour did not gain the other two seats in Blackheath Westcombe ward. We did a lot of door-knocking, spoke to thousands of residents, and listened as hard as we could to the concerns that residents raised. Pat Boadu-Darko and David Gardner both worked extremely hard, as did our organiser Jon Wilson, area co-ordinators Sue Allen and Jean Bloch, and many, many others who are too numerous to mention by name. We did a lot of door-knocking, spoke to thousands of residents, and listened as hard as we could to the concerns that residents raised.

We tried new things that had never been tried before – building links to the churches in the ward (thanks to Pat), using the blogosphere, lots of direct mail letters, the innovative idea of holding informal gatherings at sympathisers’ homes at which their neighbours could meet candidates, and regular street stalls on Old Dover Road. We spoke to even more voters than in any previous election campaign in this most marginal of wards, prevented the Tories from getting a third council seat, and came within 22 votes of taking a second Labour seat here.

Much as in the previous elections in 2002 and 2006, it was a photo finish in Blackheath Westcombe ward between Labour and the Conservatives both scoring in the low thirties, with the Liberal Democrats remaining a distant third at about 22% of votes cast (these figures come from averaging the number of votes for the three candidates standing for each party).

Like so many areas in the London suburbs, Blackheath Westcombe has great contrasts, with millionaires living alongside pockets of abject poverty. What is unusual for south-east London is that a whopping 50% of working age people (aged 16-74) in Blackheath Westcombe have degrees, far higher than the Greenwich average, so the ward is both affluent and very well-educated. With an electorate like this, 40% of whom would always vote in a council election anyway, having the general election on the same day appears to have had a neutral effect, boosting the numbers voting for all parties but having no dramatic affect on vote share: in 2006 the three councillors elected all won between 1400 and 1500 votes; this election, with its higher turnout, moved that bar upwards to the 2300-2500 range.

But many people had expected there to be a landslide Tory victory in Blackheath Westcombe ward, and dozens of marginal wards and constituencies like it across London – and for that matter, the nation as a whole. In Greenwich these predictions were proved wrong – Labour held the Eltham parliamentary seat by 1,500 votes, gained two council seats from the Tories in Kidbrooke Hornfair, and two from the Lib Dems in Middle Park and Sutcliffe ward. And even Blackheath Westcombe ward, which under different boundaries elected only Conservative councillors for decades until the late 1980s, still elected one Labour councillor this time. Why?

Let’s start by looking at that census data a little more closely. 50% of the population in Blackheath Westcombe may have degrees – but another 16% have no qualifications at all. While about 50% of those in work may be in professional or managerial jobs (broadly the same 50% who have degrees, I expect), there are another 15% who are long-term unemployed, have never worked, or are in routine occupations – often poorly-paid or insecure. And did I mention that 60% of households live in flats or bedsits, not houses, and that 22% rent from the council, with a further 6% renting from housing associations?

Hidden away, as I often see at my surgery, are serious social problems that are the norm anywhere in London – family break-down, a lack of affordable housing, anti-social behaviour from neighbours, mental health problems and adult illiteracy. While the proportion of the population facing such problems may be a little lower in Blackheath Westcombe than elsewhere, the problems are still there. These people need good public services and an active state to improve their life chances, or at least their children’s – not a lot of blather about the “Big Society” and savage spending cuts. To write off an area like Blackheath Westcombe as unlikely to return labour councillors is to ignore the diversity of the population here, the huge disparity between the richest and the poorest, and their needs.

Our campaign in Blackheath Westcombe homed in on the vital public services that nearly every family will rely on at some point – the local schools which are improving fast, the public transport that Labour has fought to improve, the local library which has just been revamped, and council housing which has been transformed by ten years of investment in new windows, roves and kitchens – and asked people to judge Labour on its record and our plans for the future.

My hunch is that even in the more affluent parts of Blackheath – the Cator estate, say – Labour support held up pretty well. After all, many of those degree-level professionals amongst us work in the Public services, or at last value them highly. And you never know which voters will vote Labour. I have lost count of the number of time I have walked up crunchy gravel drives in the Cator Estate while out canvassing, thinking I was wasting my time, only to be greeted warmly by lifelong Labour voters when I finally reached the freshly-painted front door. To win in places like Blackheath Westcombe – and nationally – Labour has to build a coalition between this sort of voter and the less well-off.

Locally at least, Labour succeeded in doing this and it remained a two-horse race in Blackheath Westcombe ward. The Green vote declined from almost 19% in 2006 to under 15% in 2010. Although the ward’s latent Liberal Democrats support was boosted by a little more campaigning than usual (in 2002 and 2006 they had hardly even published a leaflet – this time they produced several and, mischievously, claimed in their last one to be the only party that could beat Labour, in second place ahead of the Tories), at 22% were still below their national performance (23%). The national picture, with the Lib Dems now in coalition with the Tories, may well depress their support in London in years to come.

Most remarkably of all, Labour support remained at 31% in Blackheath Westcombe, the same as in 2006, whereas the Conservative vote actually fell slightly, from 34% to 32%. The gap between Labour and the Tories was narrowed from 3% to 1%, putting Labour within a hair’s breadth of taking a second council seat here.

Lessons can be learnt from results in places like Blackheath Westcombe ward, and other suburbs where Labour did well. The trouble is that there are not many of them. Labour’s position nationally is very similar to where it was in 1992 – Labour’s support holding up well in the inner cities like London and some suburbs, but collapsing in many other areas, particularly the outer suburbs, new towns, and large regional towns in the South-east and Midlands – Norwich, Brighton, Reading, Swindon, Milton Keynes and Portsmouth are good examples – which now find themselves without a Labour MP for the first time since 1997.

Some seats in the North-west (Wallasey and West Lancashire, for example) which had been solidly Tory for decades until 1992, and could have gone back to Tory control, stayed Labour this time with swings to the Tories of 2% or less. By the same token, some seats in the south and east which had been won by Labour as long ago as 1992 or even 1987 (for example Kingswood, Thurrock and Norwich South), were lost on swings of over 9%, 6% and 4% respectively. A new north-south divide has opened up, with Labour support collapsing across much of the south and Midlands, and Labour support either holding up or even increasing in inner London, the North, Scotland and much of Wales.

But some other suburban constituencies across England defied this trend and were held by Labour – Most notably Eltham, Birmingham Edgbaston (a suburb not dissimilar from Blackheath, I am told), a couple of the Wirral constituencies – all seats in which the swing against Labour was less than 4%.

Voters in Blackheath and Westcombe Park were being pulled in at least three directions on May 6th: the Tories only dipped very slightly, the Lib Dems beat the Greens into fourth place, and Labour support stayed firm. Some parts of the area feel like the inner city, but many more have the leafy characteristics of an outer suburb, a bit like Chislehurst in Zone 2. So it is perhaps inevitable that after a lot of effort Labour and the Tories ended up, like two tug-of-war teams, pretty much in the same positions as in 2006.

But as the underdogs, both locally and nationally, Labour had to push very hard to stay in the battle. And where Labour pushed hardest, we showed we can remain a serious force in the London suburbs, even leafier ones like Blackheath. Thank you to all those who worked on Labour’s campaign here, and to all those who voted for me and the other Labour candidates, for helping to keep a red flag flying over this part of south-east London.


One Response to How to keep the Labour flag flying in the suburbs

  1. Pingback: Rising to the occasion: the architecture of election counts | Alex Grant

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