Lee Rotherham is the Conservative candidate for the Vauxhall ward by-election in Lambeth next week
“A Conservative?” The concierge’s eyebrow levitated as he let me into the foyer to deliver the leaflets. “I don’t fancy your chances much around here”.
It’s a line I, like many readers, have heard often enough over the years – in my own case twice as a candidate in a neighbouring London ward, twice again as a general election candidate in Northern seats that are still on the searchlight side of the Red Wall.
This is Lambeth. It’s the old haunt of loony tunes lefties, and now in 2023 once more a one-party state with 57 of the 63 councillors shovelled in from Labour. Sadly in the last local elections, we lost Tim Briggs as the sole Conservative and much-needed voice of reason.
Nevertheless, this by-election is not just in any bit of Lambeth, but Vauxhall; a curious mix of solid tenements and chic tower blocks, also famously home to spooks and (coincidentally) a significant contingent of Chinese students. With so many high rises, we’ll see how the dynamics of a postal vote in a low turnout play out: it may yet shake things up.
The Lib Dems have been making great play of calling themselves the “official opposition”. The accolade is as hollow as the titles their block of three councillors have doled out between themselves. Strikingly, their literature has depended heavily on simply reprinting Michael Gove’s letter to the council last month, lambasting its Chief Executive for catastrophic housing maladministration. More cheekily, their claims of great prospects of victory are entirely based on results in other wards – in reality, they finished bottom in Vauxhall last time round and couldn’t even field a full slate. But such are the familiar forms of yellow bar chart fantasy football.
The great shame is that Lambeth does indeed need a functioning opposition. Take one recent issue. The council put out a consultation about changing their parking fees system. The idea was to parrot Mayor Khan’s ULEZ, hitting the pockets of local people who have less-compliant cars not just when they are on the go, but now when they are static as well.
Entirely predictably and entirely in keeping with the wider pushback across London, the consultation did not go well. Across a hundred pages of responses, the comments were overwhelmingly negative: “a terrible solution”, “a shameless money grab”, an “unbelievably crass proposal”, “greenwashing a tax increase”, and “just a way for this poorly run council to try and make up for all the money it wastes” were just a smattering of replies. I’ll let you dip into them yourselves as many were blunt and acidic.
That was unsurprising. The policy hits the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest; it makes wild assumptions about what people need cars for (overlooking the basic difficulty of getting to places out of town, or ferrying people with limited mobility); it hits small businesses; and it absurdly punishes people for doing the right thing and not using their vehicle. Modern Labour’s world of unintended consequences in a nutshell.
But what followed next was doubly outrageous. Notwithstanding the pushback, Lambeth then decided to go ahead anyway – and “To exercise discretion not to hold a public inquiry in this instance”, ramming through a policy through after a consultation that had failed on an epic scale.
The cynicism is shameless, the arrogance breathtaking. I also suspect it leaves the council open to legal challenge, and in another financial pickle if they then lose.
This contempt for democracy is reason enough to send a message to Lambeth Labour in a by-election – especially when dealing with a council that has a budget of around £350 million and a track record of wasting taxpayers’ money. It is, after all, rated fifth nationally in the ‘Fat Cats’ ratings of councils with staff on over £100,000 pay. But that’s even before we go anywhere near all the other areas of local concern: the prospect of fortnightly bin collections, question marks over funded groups and peppercorn rents, budget gaps around compensation for historic children’s home abuses, bailiffs turning up to the Council building, and not one, but multiple, housing scandals and fiascos.
Reasons enough then to stand. And to repackage Charles Walker’s memorable mini speech of “If not now, when?” – “If not you, who?”
For which we also should offer real credit to the association team in Lambeth – and a hundred constituencies and associations like them across the land – without whose unwatched persistence over many years across sleet and chill and drizzle, leaflets would not be delivered and arguments would never be heard on the doorstep. Glory marches elsewhere alongside great successes, but true honour lies in the thankless fights.