In many ways, the London Borough of Wandsworth is a paradigm of the modern city. For one thing, it’s a place where a teenager recently passed out from starvation while waiting in line for a food bank. And on the other, it houses the “sky pool”, a spectacular transparent swimming pool suspended 10 stories above ground in Nine Elms, and reserved exclusively for the richest residents of the development.
The borough is also known for its relatively low council tax – which its Conservative-led council says is the lowest average council tax in the country. Wandsworth also claims to be the only local authority in London to cut its share of council tax bills.
“You look at the housing here and you think, ‘How much is it for normal people?’ It’s more like investment accommodation than anything else,” said Yahan Lewis, 53, sitting on a park bench opposite Southside Shopping Center after a visit to the jobcentre. “I still think it’s the money district. It’s all about the money. They keep rates low and people vote for them.
Perhaps that’s why, after more than four decades at the helm of Wandsworth Borough Council, the Tories have proven unwavering. Despite its three parliamentary constituencies being held by Labor – the Conservatives lost Battersea to Labor in 2017 and Putney two years later – and residents voting for Labor mayor Sadiq Khan, the council has remained firmly in the hands of the conservatives.
But amid anger over Partygate and as the cost of living crisis rages, this leading Tory council – one of the few in London still under Tory control – is on a knife edge. And on May 5 it could turn red for the first time since 1978 – which could spell disaster for the Tories and make it a key target for Labour.
Robert Hayward, the Tory peer and pollster, said Wandsworth was home to many types of traditional Tory voters who were now turning against Boris Johnson – namely pro-Remainer women aged between 40 and 55.
He also said the Tories were trying to campaign in the capital over their historic pledge to cut council taxes – and blame Khan for the increases. He says the race remains tight and unpredictable.
“It’s Partygate against a low council tax,” he said. “That’s basically what the battle is about. There were so many neighborhoods that were divided or incredibly close last time. Labor actually won more votes than the Conservatives [but gained them in the wrong places]. If the Tories just lose Wandsworth and do well in other parts of the country, that will be a disappointment, but nothing more. »
However, he continued, “If it’s the top of a bigger picture, it becomes emotionally very different.”
The latest poll from London suggests Labor is doing slightly better than in 2018, the last time the same election was held, but not by a long shot. The party did well that year, following Theresa May’s disastrous election campaign in 2017. An Opinium poll for Sky News gave Labor a 20-point lead. In 2018, Labor secured a 15-point lead.
A senior Tory figure, a veteran of London politics, said Wandsworth’s changing demographics would make it harder for the Tories. There was also growing Partygate fatigue, he said, adding that more fines for the Prime Minister could make the difference as Election Day approached.
This may be why Tories in seven London boroughs – including Wandsworth – will be listed as ‘local Tories’ on the ballot rather than ‘Tory Party candidate’, apparently in a bid to distance themselves from any toxicity of the national brand.
But the Tories may struggle to attract people they previously relied on. On the new pedestrianized Old York Road in the center of the borough, where cyclists pass people dining outside delicatessens, cafes and restaurants amid strategically placed plantings, Liam Garrett, 30 , said he did not know that the local elections were approaching.
The marketing firm owner said he was tired of all the talk about Partygate being “over the top”. He added: “It just needs to be over as quickly as possible. There are far more pressing issues.
Although he thinks Wandsworth Council is doing a good job, particularly on municipal taxes, he does not usually vote in local elections.
Daisy Talbot, a 20-year-old student at Durham University at home for the Easter holidays, has voted Conservative before but this time around says she wouldn’t feel right voting for them. “There is definitely a change,” she said, adding that, like her, many of her friends in the area would no longer vote Conservative. “Now, given the lockdown in particular and us being students, it feels like our age group hasn’t gotten a lot of attention.”
During the time Johnson was attending locked-out parties, some of his friends were kicked out of college for mixing. “I would feel guilty if I complained all the time and voted for them.” On the other hand, she thought Keir Starmer was doing a good job: “He is becoming a figure that I am much more aware of.”
Life is tough for many Wandsworth residents: As people with mortgages start joining food bank queues, there’s a lot more on people’s minds than the holidays.
Charlotte White, 48, director of the Earlsfield food bank, said housing was a huge problem in the area and people were struggling with increasingly complex issues due to the crisis in the cost of life.
“It’s not just our numbers that are increasing, but the complexity of the issues. People come in with complicated issues and the support just isn’t there,” she said. “I think people who want better solutions to these problems could have an effect on their vote.”