Wandsworth Council has been in Tory hands for more than four decades, staying true blue through a few wars, several recessions, seven previous prime ministers and the mayhem of Brexit.
Labour is hoping that Partygate and cost of living fears could finally paint the west London borough red this week. Keir Stamer’s team is quietly confident of delivering a “serious blow” to Boris Johnson by snatching a symbolic victory here.
It was, after all, Margaret Thatcher’s favourite council. Having switched from Labour to Tory hands in 1978, just before Thatcher’s economic revolution, Wandsworth went on to pioneer her Right to Buy policy and the privatisation of local services and at one stage set poll tax at zero.
Simon Hogg, Labour group leader at Wandsworth Council, says internal data shows the contest remains on a knife edge.
“It’s toss-of-a-coin stuff,” he says. “It will come down to a few votes here and there in key wards. We’re working hard to make it happen.”
Voters in the borough are clearly still angry about the scandal of law-breaking parties in Downing Street. At Southfields Shopping Centre near Wandsworth station, it is the first topic residents want to discuss.
Helen, a 75-year-old pensioner from Wandsworth Common, sometimes votes Tory in local elections because services are “well run” – but she will be voting Labour on Thursday.
“I’m furious about the parties,” she says. “Boris Johnson seems to treat everything like a bit of fun. The Tories need to get the message he is not a fit leader. The man is a liar, not a figurehead for the country.”
Bernadette Smith, a 61-year-old public sector worker, is also still angry. “It’s absolutely disgraceful, when we all worked so hard to follow the rules. I don’t treat it as a minor thing. I think ministers breaking rules should stand down, including the prime minister.”
Others are far more worried about their bills and benefit payments. Peter, a 40-year-old with two young children, says he and his partner missed the £20-a-week extra universal credit when it was removed in the autumn.
“I don’t care about parties at all,” says Peter, who has had to turn to food banks over the past year. “We’re struggling. A lot of people are struggling. The politicians are focused on the wrong things – wars abroad and everything else. What about us? They don’t give a toss. I’m not going to vote because I’m fed up with all of them.”
Wandsworth has some intense contrasts when it comes to wealth. New luxury apartment blocks at Nine Elms feature a floating “sky” pool stretched out between two towers. But it’s impossible to ignore the growing queues at food banks in the borough, as more and more families are pulled into poverty by soaring bills.
Charlotte White, manager at Earlsfield Foodbank, says demand for food parcels has shot up from around 60 households a week to more than 100 since last summer.
“We’re seeing people with mortgages in need of help now too,” she says. “We’re worried about the level of demand. And we’re worried about just how much help some people need. There are people who come to us who haven’t eaten for a couple of days.”
Despite Keir Starmer’s campaign focus remaining on the cost of living crisis, councillor Hogg admits that Partygate comes up more than any other subject in Wandsworth and he suggests the issue will cost the Tories the most votes.
“Partygate is still a huge issue for people here,” the Labour hopeful says. “We’ve had people in tears. It’s emotional for them, because they felt they followed the rules at a really traumatic time.”
He adds: “They’ll tell you with pride they’re voting Labour to send a message to Boris Johnson, a message to get rid of him. It’s particularly true of traditional Tory voters. We’ve heard it a lot in Putney, the most Tory part of the borough.”
Ravi Govindia, the Tory leader of Wandsworth council, is keen to talk about the cost of living crisis. He and his team have put the area’s low council tax rates at the heart of the campaign. The area boasts some of the lowest rates in England, with band D residents paying £716.51 a year.
Councillor Govindia, still upbeat about his party’s chances of retaining control, concedes that Partygate still gets some people irate, but says voters are “mature” enough to detach it from other issues.
“I’d be daft to say it doesn’t come up, because it does,” he says. “There are people who are angry. And there are people who are tired of it and want to tell you that. Interestingly, once Partygate is out the way, they do come back to local issues.”
Outside Putney train station, it becomes easier to find Tory voters happy to talk. Judy, 52, says the council has done well to keep the council tax so low. “The parties stuff is in the past now. I never wanted Boris as leader, but we’ve got him now, so we have to get on with it.”
A recent YouGov survey put Labour 27 points ahead of the Tories in London. Yet experts expect gains for Starmer’s party in the capital to be limited, since the party performed so strongly last time at the last local elections in 2018.
Professor John Curtice thinks Wandsworth and Barnet are the most likely of only seven Tory-run councils in London to turn red, with an outside chance that Westminster may do the same.
Polling guru Lord Hayward says the Wandsworth contest is crucial, both literally and symbolically – describing the fight here as “Partygate versus low council tax”.
The influential Conservative peer thinks defeat here in west London would cause many Tories to question whether economic levers, such as cutting taxes, will be enough to win back support in the months ahead.
“There would be damaging implications for Boris in terms of how he would be seen by Tory MPs if the party lost Wandsworth,” says Lord Hayward. “If we see the loss in a totemic Tory council area – despite it having low council tax and regarded as well run – then people will get jumpy.”