We were written off four years ago,” recalled Ravi Govindia, Tory leader of Wandsworth Council – London’s flagship Conservative borough. “Sadiq Khan came to the earl for a big celebration and he ran off.”
Despite winning the 2018 referendum and gaining seven councillors, Labour’s hopes of taking control of a council that has been Tory-led since 1978 have fallen short. This time, Labor are hoping the Boris Johnson maelstrom, Downing Street parties and the cost of living crisis will tip the scales in their favour.
“There are people who are angry and people who are in distress,” admits Mr. Govindia below, who has been on the council for 40 years and has chaired it since 2011.
“It’s inconvenient for people.” But ultimately he hopes the borough’s low council tax – it’s the second lowest in the country after Westminster – and record of deliveries spanning 44 years will overcome Partygate.
“People see this as a transaction agreement,” he adds. “You pay and you get.”
Despite Labor officials desperate to downplay their chances and insisting 2018 was a high point for the party, they appear to have the momentum.
They’ve steadily added seats here in every election since 2010, doubling their number of council members from 13 to 26 out of 60.
But redrawing the districts for these elections makes the outcome unpredictable. While the total number of seats fell by two to 58, it’s not clear how the distribution of wards and council members might affect the outcome.
How people vote in the newly created Wandle station could be crucial to the outcome. Labour, which stretches from Earlsfield to the more affluent residential streets near Wandsworth Common, believes it must win the two seats in Wandle to take control.
For some Labor voters like John Jones, a 30-year-old fitness trainer, Partygate is the big factor.
“It’s about integrity and trust,” he says while speaking to Labor activists on St Ann’s Hill. “Even hardened Tories say it can’t go on like this.”
A short drive away in central Wandsworth, Kate Bodel says it’s about bigger local issues like youth services, bins and crime.
“They pay the lowest council tax, but there are no more trash cans anywhere,” says the 50-year-old teacher and writer outside the Southside mall.
“It used to feel safe here, but there’s a lot of social unrest brewing.” She says large groups of teenagers gathering at the mall can be intimidating. “We get messages from our high school saying not to go to Southside,” she says.
Despite Labor pledges to improve neighborhoods, tackle air pollution and push for more affordable housing, some voters doubt the party can provide all the answers.
Balasundaram Lavan, 44, says he is a lifelong Labor voter but is concerned the party is unrealistic. “When Labor went to Corbyn, their manifesto was like kids in a candy store,” says the finance worker. In the end, he thinks people are still being swayed by a low council tax.
That is why the Conservative campaign highlights how residents pay an average council tax of £866, compared with £1,660 and £1,781 in Labor boroughs of Lambeth and Merton.
That’s why Wandsworth Labor leader Simon Hogg insists his party is committed to catching up with the Tories by keeping council taxes low.
Mr Hogg also understands how the win here this week could have wider implications for Mr Johnson’s future.
“When we first went out, we thought this would be a election that would cost a living,” he says.
“But we have found that Partygate has prevailed. We didn’t have to address it.”
Asked how it would feel if Labor finally made Wandsworth red, Mr Hogg added: “This is Margaret Thatcher’s favorite advice. It would be a huge blow to Boris Johnson if Wandsworth left Labor.”