Labour have taken 53 out of 54 seats on Lewisham Council in the party’s best result in the borough for 50 years (since 1964). Mayor Steve Bullock has been returned for a fourth term with his share of the vote rising from 35% in 2002 to a staggering 51% in this election. The big story has been the decline of opposition political parties locally. It’s easy to look over the strange death of the inner City Tories amidst the media excitement over the rise of UKIP. In 1968, the Conservatives took a staggering 59.6% of the vote in Lewisham. They now fail to break a share of the vote that averages in the low teens. Even in 2002, the Tories took 21% of the Mayoral vote, this time they took just over 1 in 10 votes.
The Liberal Democrats have been decimated too. While on a personal level I feel sympathy for the often conscientious Liberal Democrat councillors who lost their seats last night, they misjudged the mood of the electorate. From 2010, the Liberal Democrats tried to portray themselves as a sensible force behind the tidying up of the public finances. In the Council chamber they portrayed Labour as swivel-eyed leftie loons, who couldn’t be trusted with either the Council’s or the nation’s wallet. Fortunately for Labour, the public don’t buy this and their collusion with the destruction of urban local government deserved punishment.
Labour’s super-majority, bad for Lewisham’s politics?
Without any significant opposition, some have raised concerns that Labour’s super-majority will be bad for local politics. I’m (predictably) less concerned. The Mayoral system is a useful break on arbitrary decision making. It’s a similar relationship, albeit on a very different scale, between the President Obama and Democrat Members of Congress. Knowing they have different elections to win, Members of Congress are more likely to speak out on local issues in their patch. I think we’ll see a similar relationship between backbench councillors and Sir Steve. Local Labour politics could become quite noisy and robust. The spectre of the 2006 local elections where Labour lost many councillors will continue to haunt the local party and keep the fresh new faces of 2014 on their toes.
The biggest challenge for Labour will be the scale of the cuts to come. Setting a balanced budget in my first year as a Councillor in 2010, with tough decisions on local libraries, street cleaning and redundancies, was a fractious process with a riot outside the town hall. New councillors, yearning to protect their communities, will find cuts in their wards hard to stomach. Lewisham is in the process of losing 30% of its budget leading to the closure of services on a scale unseen in post-war history and greater than during the Great Depression. The cuts will continue to be the big local story for the year ahead. With a significant Labour majority there will be the political space to take a long-term view while we prepare for a Labour government from 2015 that takes a less masochistic attitude towards councils (here’s hoping).
Lewisham’s bloggers: the new opposition?
One interesting trend will be the role of local bloggers as a form of “unofficial opposition”. With only a single opposition councillor, outside the process of scrutiny undertaken by Labour councillors (which is an important break on the decisions of managers), a major source of push-back will be from the local blogosphere. Luckily, in Lewisham we’re well served with an increasing number of bloggers writing about the local elections (I’m looking at you @alternativeSE4 @blackheathbugle @bobfrombrockley @brockleycentral @catfordcentral @clogsilk @DeptfordDame @EastLondonLines @Transpontine). They will be increasingly important players, alongside the traditional printed press, in Lewisham politics in the coming years. It will be interesting to see how their role is facilitated by the council – will they join the press table during council meetings?
As of midnight, I will no longer be a Lewisham councillor. It’s been a challenging 4 years, but a role I’ve really enjoyed. One lesson I’ve learnt, people have a negative view of politicians, until they actually meet them. Hardly anyone I spoke to in person was rude, while most people had a lot of time to challenge me and engage in political conversation. We’ve not hit the tipping point yet where people are dissuaded from entering politics because the environment is too hostile – I hope we don’t get there – but keeping politics civil, in an era of cuts, is going to be a big challenge.