On the backfoot, British PM braces for election test

Defeat in local council polls would pile further pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May, who is struggling to keep her party united on Brexit and whose leadership has been on borrowed time ever since she lost her party's parliamentary majority in a general election last year. By JOE JACKSON

With Prime Minister Theresa May on the ropes over her Brexit strategy and immigration policy, Britain’s main opposition Labour Party hopes to deliver a further blow in local elections on Thursday.

Labour is targeting traditional strongholds for May’s Conservatives such as Wandsworth, south London, just days after the resignation of top ally Amber Rudd as interior minister.

“We need a change,” Beverley Shillingford, a 54-year-old social worker living in a tower block in Wandsworth, told AFP as Labour Party supporters went canvassing door-to-door one evening in April.

Shillingford accused the borough’s Conservative leaders of “letting this place fall down” and fellow residents in the 16-storey building complained about everything from a lack of services to a mouse problem.

Defeat in the local council polls would pile further pressure on May, who is struggling to keep her party united on Brexit and whose leadership has been on borrowed time ever since she lost her party’s parliamentary majority in a general election last year.

Rudd’s departure for misleading parliament over migrant deportation targets also deprives May of a key ally at a difficult time.

“The big attention will be on London and the Tories are going to do badly,” said Robert Hayward, a Conservative peer and polling expert.

“Although essentially people are supposed to be voting on local issues, the reality is that turnout is often driven by perceptions of national politics.”

Paul Scully, the Conservatives’ vice chairman for London, told AFP: “It’s going to be really tough.

“We are trying to hold on to what we’ve got,” he said.


– ‘Signal’ to national government –


The elections are set to highlight Britain’s burgeoning divides between urban and rural areas, and eurosceptic and pro-European voters, according to analysts.

John Curtice, politics professor at Strathclyde University and one of Britain’s top polling experts, believes May will make gains outside the big cities, cementing her party’s move away from the more cosmopolitan conservatism of predecessor David Cameron.

When results come out, expect to see Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn celebrating in London and the prime minister in England’s provincial heartlands, agreed Hayward.

Nonetheless, losing Wandsworth would be a stinging and symbolic Conservative defeat.

The borough was former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s favourite local authority for pioneering free-market policies and has low local tax rates and a reputation for sound management.

Conservative voters stayed true even when Labour swept its three parliamentary seats in the 1990s and while similar urban areas have shifted leftwards.

Ravi Govindia, the incumbent leader, said he is “hopeful” of retaining control.

“There is not a single Labour authority in London that has the kind of low tax levels that our Wandsworth has,” he told AFP in his office in the borough’s town hall.

His plea to voters: “Why change a winning formula — why risk it?”

Labour would need to pick up 12 council seats to pull off what their local leader Simon Hogg describes as “a political earthquake”.

“I think it would send a signal to the national government,” he said.

Hogg believes Brexit will prove crucial.

“It has severed the tribal connection between a lot of Conservative voters and the Tory party,” Hogg said.

“I think you’ll find lots of Tory councillors are going to lose jobs because of the extreme and chaotic hard Brexit that they’re pushing through.”


– Expectations for May ‘very low’ –


The parties are courting Europeans allowed to vote in local polls — but not national elections, nor the EU referendum — as well as disaffected Tories.

Wandsworth has 230,000 eligible voters and typical turnout of around only a third, leaving the 26,000 EU citizens on its rolls ready to play a potentially pivotal role.

Despite reassurances of support for EU citizens after Brexit from Wandsworth’s Tories, few appear poised to vote Conservative.

“It would be a mismatch between what they’re doing on the local level and the national level,” said Costanza de Toma, 45, an Italian voting in Wandsworth.

The trend could be replicated across London, where EU nationals comprise around 12 percent of the population.

May meanwhile will hope that success outside London can offset potentially losing local crown jewels like Wandsworth.

“The expectation is very, very low for Theresa May,” said Simon Hix, professor of political science at the London School of Economics.

“This would be seen as a victory for her relative to those expectations.” DM


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