Greenwich Council election preview: Labour eyes wipeout as Tories fight for their political lives

Polling station
Polling stations will be open from 7am-10pm on Thursday 3 May

Candidates have been announced for next month’s Greenwich Council elections – with 199 people standing to become one of 51 councillors after polls close on 3 May.

Both Labour and the Conservatives are standing 51 candidates, with the Liberal Democrats fielding 50 and the Green Party 25.

The new resident-led Plumstead Party is standing nine candidates in three wards, while in Charlton, a candidate is standing for the Women’s Equality Party. Ukip are standing just three candidates this time.

But most attention will be focused on the three Eltham wards currently represented by Conservative councillors – most of whom are vulnerable to even tiny shifts in the vote. It is the second election to take place against a background of deep cuts to local council budgets – will they pay the price for national policies?

The borough is divided into 17 wards, which each elect three councillors. There are currently 42 Labour councillors and nine Conservative councillors – Labour has been in charge of the council since 1971.

Polls are open from 7am to 10pm on Thursday 3 May.

See who’s standing in your ward, find manifestos and hustings

Eltham Police station
Anxieties about crime may resonate in Eltham, where the police station recently closed to the public

Total wipeout?

For the first time since the borough came into being in 1965, Labour has a complete wipeout – winning all 51 seats – within sight, with the Tories fighting for their political lives.

Such dramatic results are now not unusual in London politics – neighbouring Lewisham elected 53 out of 54 Labour councillors in 2014, while across the river all 60 Newham councillors were elected as Labour candidates.

The Conservatives will be under enormous pressure to hold onto their seats – most of which have wafer-thin majorities. They could be cut down to just three or four councillors – but if Labour have a particularly good night, losing the lot is not out of the question.

Similarly, Labour, buoyed by recent membership gains, will be expecting to make gains – although much may depend on the London, national and even global picture.

Jeremy Corbyn’s struggles to deal with anti-Semitism in his party may not resonate as much in south London as anxieties over violent crime and police cuts – particularly in areas close to the border with Bexley, where the Conservative council has stopped monitoring local CCTV systems.

And the Syria crisis has the potential to overshadow the lot.

After Eltham MP Clive Efford picked up the lion’s share of former Ukip votes in the 2017 general election, Labour will be optimistic of making dramatic gains such as having councillors south of Eltham High Street for the first time since 2002. And strong results in Eltham could result in a strengthening of his behind-the-scenes power.

In the north of the borough, worries about pollution, congestion, development and the local environment – and councillors’ attitudes to them – will play into the hands of the Plumstead Party, Greens and Liberal Democrats, although to what extent remains to be seen.

Read the parties’ manifestoes:

Greenwich Labour manifesto 2018

Greenwich Conservatives 2018 manifesto

Glenesk Road, Eltham
Ground zero: Eltham North is currently the centre of Greenwich borough politics

It starts with Eltham…

Eltham North – between the high street and Oxleas Woods – is the ground zero of Greenwich borough politics. Its often-leafy streets are home to a host of leading Labour and Conservative politicians, while Westmount Road is where you’ll find both the Eltham Labour and Greenwich Conservative HQs, with the Long Pond micropub the political salon in between.

In 2014, decades of Conservative dominance were overturned when the party lost two of its Eltham North councillors to Labour, leaving just Spencer Drury in place. Labour’s surge was helped by Ukip splitting the vote – and when one of the seats was contested in a by-election in October 2016, four months after the EU referendum, Tory Charlie Davis snatched the seat back.

Linda Bird remains Labour councillor, and will be joined by Steve Offord (switching from Abbey Wood, where he was deselected) and Caroline Walsh on the ballot paper.

Drury is popular locally – but has already spoken pessimistically about his party’s chances – while Davis has made an energetic start to life as a councillor. If they hold on here, it’ll be a bad night for Labour. If third Tory candidate Brenda Lobo can unseat Bird, it’ll be a terrible night for Labour, and may even signal the crumbling of the current leadership, and the weakening of Efford’s influence over the council.

Eltham High Street
Eltham High Street has recently been revamped with TfL money

Across Eltham High Street is Eltham South – always Tory-held, but only by a whisker in 2014, with Nuala Geary just 68 votes in front of Labour’s Simon Christie. A strong Ukip vote was a factor in this result too.

Now Labour fancy their chances, standing Tom Atley, Susan Clinton and Pat Slattery against incumbent Tory Matt Clare, former Eltham North councillor Nigel Fletcher and newcomer Pat Greenwell. Again, failure to eat into the Tory vote here will represent a bad night for Labour.

Royal Standard, Blackheath
Blackheath Westcombe covers both the Royal Standard (pictured) and the Greenwich portion of Blackheath Village

Since the current system of three-councillor wards was introduced in 2002, Blackheath Westcombe has been the only one in London to return both Labour and Conservative councillors at every election.

Geoff Brighty is the well-liked Tory incumbent, acknowledged even by his opponents as a hard-working councillor. He is joined by Conservative stalwart Malcolm Reid and local campaigner Thomas Turrell on the ballot paper.

Leo Fletcher, Mariam Lolavar and Sabiha Shahzad will be hoping to turn the seat all red – a task perhaps hampered by past cuts to local organisations by a council leadership that has traditionally thought of this as an affluent ward that can pay its own way, even though it contains substantial council estates alongside the likes of the historic Paragon.

The vote could also be split with the Greens standing three candidates in a ward where fears of pollution and the Silvertown Tunnel are high. Former Labour councillor Trevor Allman carried a hefty personal vote as a Green candidate in 2010 and 2014 before falling out with the local party. He returns as an Official Monster Raving Loony Party candidate.

Eltham cinema
Will council schemes in marginal Eltham resonate in the far south of the borough?

The remaining Tory seat, Coldharbour and New Eltham – effectively everything south of the Sidcup railway line – is by far their strongest seat. This is the more notable when you consider that it centres around the Coldharbour Estate in Mottingham, built on farmland in the 1950s by the staunch socialists of the old Woolwich Borough Council. This was usually a solid Labour ward on its own before the system changed in 2002.

But it also features stretches of classic suburbia around New Eltham and the fringes of Chislehurst and a few pockets of affluence north of Mottingham.

Indeed, once you go south of the A20 the ward faces out onto facilities and streets run by Tory-run Bromley borough, making it feel slightly dislocated from the rest of Greenwich.

Coldharbour and New Eltham is usually where Labour fields is weakest candidates. But it is scenting change is in the air, and Peter Baker, Cathy Dowse and Ivanhoe Norona will be hoping to unseat Tory leader Matt Hartley and fellow incumbent John Hills. Roger Tester completes an all-male Tory line-up.

But it was Ukip, not Labour, that came second here in 2014 – and Peter Whittle, now a London Assembly member, returns to contest the seat for the hard-right party once again.

If Coldharbour and New Eltham falls to Labour, it could presage an even bigger result to the east – Bexley Council turning Labour for the first time in 16 years.

Plumstead High Street
Council activity in Plumstead has stepped up since residents started organising in the area

Has the Plumstead Party won already?

In the north of the borough, challenges count less on broader politics, more on how the council treats a particular area or issue – in some cases, putting sitting councillors in awkward positions, forced to defend policies they disagree with (or are openly revolting on).

The most notable challenge comes from the Plumstead Party, with nine candidates in Glyndon, Plumstead and Shooters Hill wards – a direct consequence of perceived council neglect of the area, stemming from its policies of concentrating on the main town centres of Woolwich, Greenwich and Eltham.

In Glyndon, the Plumstead Party slate includes former Liberal Democrat Stewart Christie and ex-independent candidate Ebru Ogun, who ran against each other in 2016’s by-election.

Inner London has traditionally been tough for local parties and alliances – but the recent upsurge of civic activism in the eastern side of SE18, crystallised in both the Plumstead Party and the non-partisan Postive Plumstead Project, has been followed by Greenwich Council prioritising investment in the area.

In that respect, whatever happens on 3 May, the Plumstead Party may already have won.

One vote-splitting hindrance for them may be Ese Adjekughele, standing in Plumstead for the anti-Brexit Renew group.

Three independents are also running in Abbey Wood, challenging current council leader Denise Hyland. Among them is former Ukip parliamentary candidate Ronie Johnson.

Greenwich Ikea
There’s your legacy: Ikea rises in east Greenwich

Greens capitalising on Greenwich grief?

If anxieties over Greenwich Labour’s local policies could hold physical form, then they are taking shape in east Greenwich as the shell of the new Ikea store rises above the ground. Flat-pack heaven for motorists driving in from those marginal wards in the south of the borough, and employment for those in the more deprived east, but fears of congestion hell for Greenwich and Charlton, which have consistently returned stonking Labour majorities.

The Greens have coveted Peninsula ward for some time (declaration of interest: the author stood here for the Greens eight years ago) and Dan Garrun, Jenny Murphy and Matt Browne face the challenge of converting those anxieties into votes.

For all the Labour/Tory emnity, this may be the most ill-tempered contest of the lot, with Labour incumbents Stephen Brain and Chris Lloyd very sensitive to any suggestion they support their leadership’s policies on Ikea, the Silvertown Tunnel and the cruise liner terminal – issues the council has attemped to partially address with a limited “low emissions neighbourhood” scheme.

Indeed, the cruise liner terminal has now caused such a self-inflicted rupture in the Labour camp that while the battle for the council will centre on Eltham, the battle for Labour itself may be settled on issues that began in Peninsula.

The Greens are fielding 25 candidates – a record number for the Greenwich party – with three candidates in Greenwich West, which is also being targeted by the Liberal Democrats. Wiped out of town hall politics in 2010, they will be hoping Anthony Austin, Rhian O’Connor and Edmond Rose can start the long road back to relevance.

Among the other Lib Dems standing is former Charlton Athletic chairman Martin Simons, on the party slate for Woolwich Common ward. (Steve Adamson, who produces much of the club’s video content, is standing for the Tories in Shooters Hill.)

Women’s Equality Party try for Charlton result

Finally, Charlton ward sees the Women’s Equality Party stand Pamela Ritchie. The WEP is standing 17 candidates across London – in Lewisham, they are also standing in Brockley, Ladywell and Lewisham Central – and has indicated that it is taking the fight seriously by getting party leader Sophie Walker to join in the door-knocking in SE7.

Linda Perks, the former trade union official condemned by a judge for “flagrantly” breaking rules in a Unison election, remains on Labour’s slate.

Meanwhile, Squeeze frontman Glenn Tilbrook makes an unusual entry into Greenwich politics – election papers show he signed the nomination form for Charlton’s Green candidate Clare Loops, a former Greenwich planning officer.

Update 10.30am 12 April: I’m grateful to former Greenwich councillor Alex Grant for pointing out that the Coldharbour estate usually returned Labour councillors before boundaries changed in 2002 – so Labour winning south of Eltham High Street wasn’t such a rare event before then.

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