If the Conservatives learnt anything last year, it was that pitching yourselves as the party of Brexit and deriding “citizens of nowhere” comes at a price: namely, that you cannot win over the Somewheres without alienating a lot of Anywheres.
Nowhere was that more obvious than in London, where the party’s vote share fell by 1.8 percentage points even as its national support rose by 5.5 points.
But it isn’t just about Brexit. The Conservatives had a London problem before the referendum – four of the ten seats the party lost in 2015 were in the capital. And all the evidence suggests that it is only getting worse.
Last month, a YouGov poll put Conservative support in the capital at just 28 per cent and forecast the loss of control of three flagship boroughs in the upcoming council elections: Barnet, Wandsworth and Westminster. Wandsworth has been in Conservative hands since 1978; Westminster has been Conservative-controlled since it was created in 1965. If the results are in line with this poll, Labour’s performance would be the strongest of any party in London since 1968.
New research published this week by Lord Ashcroft contains even more gruesome detail. His polling finds that just a quarter of Londoners, and only six in ten of those who voted Tory last June, support the government’s record to date.
The party will be hoping that the vote doesn’t become a referendum on national politics. But according to Ashcroft, their tried-and-tested plan for success at a local level – good services and low council tax – doesn’t seem to deliver the electoral dividend it once did: “Even in Conservative authorities, only a third of all voters and just over half of 2017 Tory voters associate the party with better public services; a similar proportion of voters overall and fewer than half of Conservatives associate the party with lower council tax. Fewer than one in five of all residents and only one in three 2017 Tories think of the party as offering both.”
As Ashcroft points out, this challenge is compounded by the fact that “the folk memory of ‘loony Left’ Labour councils with high taxes, shambolic series and extremist policies has all but disappeared”.
The most interesting part of Ashcroft’s research isn’t the headline numbers, but his categorisation of the capital’s electoral battlegrounds. He sorts London’s 630 wards into demographically similar areas that offer a revealing picture of the city’s political tribes. There are emphatically Labour areas such as wards he describes as “stuck in the capital”, with high levels of deprivation and semi-skilled, unskilled and unemployed residents. Or the “Barista belt”, where the population is mostly young, single people in professional occupations, and people in social housing.
It is no shock that such areas – which contain 39 per cent of London’s electors – are solidly Labour. What is surprising is the lack of a Conservative equivalent. Yes, there is the outer ring of suburban voters who are older, whiter and more likely to have voted Leave than the average Londoner. But the capital is one of the most prosperous places on the planet. Labour’s national leadership team oppose more or less every known ingredient of the city’s success. And yet, even among the city’s winners – the “liberally affluent” and residents of ‘village London’, to use Ashcroft’s language – the party of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell has real appeal.
Some of their complaints are understandable: for example over student debt and housing. But the fact that more of the most prosperous people, in the most prosperous part of the country, aren’t Tory voters reads like an indictment both of Tory policies and how it has tried to sell them.
London also matters because it is a window on the future of the rest of the country. Britain is only becoming more diverse, more metropolitan. A failure to rectify its London problem is a failure to think about who the party will need to appeal to in 2022 and beyond.
More generally, if the only party with a credible claim to be trusted to promote and preserve prosperity cannot win support in the capital, then it is not winning that all-important economic argument. And that is a sure sign that something is wrong with the party’s pitch to voters not just in London, but across the country.
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