As the dust settles after the general election, Matt Hartley has landed his prize for boosting the Tory vote in Greenwich & Woolwich – he’s been named the new Conservative leader on Greenwich Council.
The 29-year-old succeeds Spencer Drury, whose dry barbs at the council’s Labour leadership have become a feature of life at Woolwich Town Hall. Drury remains a councillor and will no doubt be looking to shore up the Tories’ position in his home ward of Eltham North, where the party’s vote was shredded by a Ukip surge last year, handing two seats to Labour.
Being Tory leader in a London Labour borough when Iain Duncan Smith has just been reappointed social security secretary isn’t the easiest of jobs, but it’s a fair old progression from just missing out in a council election in Warwick in 2007.
Hartley’s comments suggest he’ll continue with Drury’s task of holding the council to account rather than simply making party political jabs.
“With the threat of a Lewisham-style one party state always hanging over us, being Leader of the Opposition in Greenwich means more than leading the Conservative council group – but rather giving all residents with a differing view the voice and the say that they are so often denied by this Labour council. That’s exactly what I plan to do.”
It’s worth noting one skill that Hartley can use to help the Tories punch above their weight – his day job is in communications for a personal finance charity, giving him an ability to spot stories that perhaps the local party has missed in the past.
Labour’s big Ukip question
Labour’s satisfaction at seeing Matt Pennycook elected alongside Clive Efford and Teresa Pearce will have been tempered by the party’s failures nationally. It’ll be interesting to see where the battle over Greenwich Time goes now Greg Clark has replaced Eric Pickles as communities secretary. This week’s Greenwich Time might as well carry the headline “Up yours, Pickles”.
Humility in victory has never been the local party’s strong point – Clive Efford’s response to success was to criticise Conservative Spencer Drury for campaigning on the state of the borough’s war memorials. But there’s pause for thought if you look into the polling figures.
The strong votes for Ukip (8% in Greenwich & Woolwich, 15% in Eltham) should ring alarm bells – with the Tory votes up in both seats, it looks as if the hard right party has started to eat into the potential Labour vote.
Just as in the rest of England, how Labour communicates with white voters who feel left behind will be a question that needs addressing sooner rather than later. Engaging with campaigns such as the one for a memorial to Lee Rigby rather than simply ignoring them is key, I suspect.
(A few miles down the A2, it’s startling to discover from Alex Grant that Dartford, which tends to swing with the incoming government, was abandoned by the national party, which threw resources at ousting Lib Dems – potential coalition partners – instead. Madness.)
The Greenwich West ward by-election provides the strongest indication to the local party’s future – former Kirklees council leader Mehboob Khan topped the poll, and is strongly tipped as a future leader in Greenwich, too. Smart enough to steal the Greens’ clothes on the Divest Greenwich campaign, he was also generous enough to publicly commiserate with losing candidates – like I said, humilty’s rare in these parts. One to watch.
Green gaffes, but did anyone notice?
The Greens can feel pleased with themselves after getting well over double their 2010 vote in Greenwich & Woolwich. Could their candidates have done better? It’s hard to say, but they certainly were weak links in a strong local party operation. I dealt with Greenwich & Woolwich’s Abbey Akinoshun’s no-shows at hustings, but his worst moment was tweeting a photo of himself carrying a “vote Green” slogan next to an appeal for the victims of the Nepal earthquake. It was quickly deleted. While some Labour councillors’ messages about Nepal certainly had the whiff of opportunism, this was just crassly stupid.
Worse was to come on polling day itself, when Eltham candidate James Parker, a magician from Folkestone, told the Guardian voters should pick Labour instead – a warning sign that perhaps could have been picked up after a tweet a couple of days beforehand saying he was suffering from a “crisis of conscience”. (The party says he was misquoted.)
Warning bells rang for others much earlier – I met Parker in the bar of Mycenae House, Blackheath after he was selected in January – the No to Silvertown Tunnel AGM coincided with a Green meeting upstairs.
I mentioned how pleased we were at our turnout, but he became very dismissive and suggested we should be addressing a meeting of thousands and the campaign should be linked to corporate greed, etc, etc. He later seemed to understand, but things got more awkward later when he was involved in an angry confrontation with former Green party member Trevor Allman.
But these incidents were only seen by a handful of obsessives who know the party too well, like me. Most people would have entered the polling booth blissfully unaware. Hopefully the recent surge in local Green membership will mean the Greenwich party will be able to grow and nurture its own candidates for future polls. Getting more actively involved in local grassroots campaigns will serve the party well as it looks to next year’s mayoral poll and beyond.
Is the worst over for the Lib Dems?
As for the Lib Dems, the national party didn’t even bother supplying the Greenwich & Woolwich candidate with a freepost leaflet to send out. That said, though, if you compare their result in the constituency (5.6%) with last year’s average council election score (6%), it’s arguable that they’ve bottomed out already, although whether they’ve the capability, capacity or desire to bounce back is another question. A period of national soul-searching will surely come first.
So, that’s the 2015 election done with. We’re next at the polls on 5 May 2016 to decide on Boris Johnson’s successor as mayor and London’s assembly members. I suspect it’ll be a tough year ahead…