The decline in the proportion of owner-occupiers means a decline in the number of Conservative voters
“Sometimes you can’t beat the weather.” That was a consoling message I was sent, via Twitter, after being defeated in the local elections last month. I had been a Conservative councillor for the Ravenscourt Park Ward in the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham for 12 years. The message was kindly meant. It also had some validity. In my borough the Conservatives had been running the show during my first eight years as a councillor. Then in 2014 we lost, narrowly and unexpectedly: 26 Labour councillors to 20 Conservatives. In May we lost another nine seats.
The “weather” elsewhere varied. Yet the gap in political fortunes between London and the rest of the country got even wider. In the capital, Labour tended to make advances, albeit more modest than expected, while in the rest of the country it was the Conservatives who were celebrating.
So the worry for Tories in London is the cumulative result — yet more slippage. When I was elected in 2006 the Conservatives not only gained Hammersmith and Fulham but also did well in neighbouring boroughs. They took control of Ealing with 37 councillors, now down to eight. Hounslow saw 23 Conservative councillors, who ran the council in coalition with some independents; there are now only nine Conservatives on the council. In Brent 15 Conservative councillors were returned: the number is now down to three.
The fundamental problem in London is the decline in the proportion of owner-occupiers, which means a decline in the number of Conservative voters. But I am infuriated by the notion that defeat should be passively accepted as inevitable. Politicians — even humble, part-time, amateur local ones — should seek to “make the weather” — to offer reasons for people to vote for them.
In 2006 the Labour council in Hammersmith and Fulham was much worse than it is now. The council tax was high, dustbins weren’t emptied, and the streets were filthy. I remember pushing my youngest daughter in a pram along Goldhawk Road (she’s now busy taking her GCSEs). There was graffiti everywhere. Often there would be a police poster appealing for witnesses at the site of a recent crime with a photograph of a black teenager who had been murdered by some rival gang member. The poster would give his name and add his “street” name — something incongruous like “Honeysuckle”. The swings in the playground would be broken, and would have been for months.
Despite that, even in 2006 the Conservatives didn’t just rely on Labour failure. We set out an alternative. The main part of that was cutting council tax. That was a policy which the Conservatives promised and delivered on in Hammersmith and Fulham, year after year, yet the council tax is still much higher than in Conservative-run Wandsworth. Greater choice in education to drive up standards was also important. My proudest day as a local councillor was to attend the opening of the West London Free School.
But wider home ownership is now the crucial challenge. The aspiration is there but many have lost faith that the Conservatives can deliver. We need to offer a free equity stake for council tenants in return for them taking responsibility for repairs. And we need to sell state land and increase the supply of new homes, which would be popular if they were of traditional design.
It’s all very well pushing leaflets through letterboxes, but the Conservatives need to offer hope to people. In their hearts the socialists don’t really believe in home ownership, at least not for the “masses”. So with boldness and radicalism this is an issue with which Conservatives in Hammersmith and Fulham — and elsewhere — can win once again.