The Conservatives’ Capital Conundrum

Mike Freer (left) campaigning with Boris Johnson: London’s demographics are changing (photo: Boris Johnson)

The capital bucked the trend. London left Conservatives scratching their heads and provided for Labour a thin silver lining to a vast and gloomy cloud after last month’s general election. Labour outperformed the Conservatives in the city to a greater extent than the Conservatives outperformed Labour across the country. Nationally, the Tories won 37 per cent of the vote to Labour’s 30. In London, however, Labour garnered 44 per cent of the vote, the Conservatives just 35.

It hasn’t always been like this. Until the mid-Eighties both parties did more or less as well in the capital as they did nationally. For the decade until 1997, the Conservatives were actually more popular in London than they were in the rest of the country. But after last month’s election the capital is more politically distinct from the rest of the country than it has been at any point since the Second World War.

The London result is made all the more uncomfortable for the Conservatives by the capital’s centrality to the party’s vision for Britain. David Cameron is fond of talking about getting ahead in the global race. If anywhere in Britain looks like a competitor in that race, it is London. The Conservatives triumphed last month because voters across the country thought them to be the party of aspiration. Yet in London, where so many of middle England’s ambitions are realised, the electorate was nonplussed. It preferred a party that planned to introduce a mansion tax — a policy that would almost exclusively hit Londoners.

Of the ten seats the Conservatives lost at this election, four were in London. Most had expected the party to lose more. One of the most surprising holds of the night was in Hendon, where Matthew Offord defended a majority of 106. Particularly gloomy Conservatives had talked of losing seats like Battersea, where the party had a majority of 5,000. Instead, Jane Ellison won 3,500 more votes. These victories, however, are footnotes to the Conservatives’ capital conundrum.

Clues as to the challenges the Conservatives face in the capital could be found on the doorsteps of Finchley and Golders Green, where I went canvassing with Mike Freer MP two days before the election. In what we now know to have been an entirely unwarranted moment of panic, Conservatives were worried Freer might lose his seat to Sarah Sackman, an impressive local Labour candidate.

“Labour are throwing the kitchen sink at me,” Freer said. “It’s been a much tighter fight than we’d have hoped for.” (In the end, Freer held his seat with a comfortable majority of 5,662.) Freer and his colleagues in the capital are at an organisational disadvantage. Trades union headquarters, universities and numerous safe seats in the capital give the Labour party a ground army that the Conservatives struggle to match. On the day I was there, Freer claimed that Labour volunteers from Tower Hamlets and University College London had made the journey across town to his seat. 

It was outside a large, expensive-looking house with golden tips to the railings on the gate and a Rolls-Royce parked in the driveway that the Conservative party’s real London problem came into focus. The owners were British Indian. Freer pressed the buzzer. A woman’s voice responded:


“Hello, it’s Mike Freer here, the Conservative candidate for . . .”

“We’re Labour, sorry, we always have been.”

Freer walked away from the door. “How can that be?” he asked me, exasperated. “Do they want to pay the mansion tax?”

At the 2010 general election, 68 per cent of Britain’s ethnic minorities voted for Labour. A woeful 16 per cent plumped for the Conservatives. In other words, the Conservative party is less appealing to non-white Britons than Mitt Romney was to non-white Americans in the 2012 US presidential election. In London, a city where white Britons are now in the minority, this is a problem. The Runnymede Trust, a think-tank, has yet to analyse the Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) vote at this year’s election but few expect drastic change.

While first-generation immigrants have tended to settle in central London, many of their children have decamped to the suburbs. This has given Labour a foothold in the outer London seats that were once solidly Conservative. The high cost of housing in the centre has only quickened the process.

Having won a miraculous majority and with full in-trays on their ministerial desks, senior Tories are unlikely to be putting too much thought to their problems in London anytime soon, but more is at stake in the city than 73 seats in the House of Commons.

Look at London and you are looking at the future of the rest of Britain. This is true not just in terms of ethnic diversity, but mindset too. According to the British Social Attitudes survey, today’s young adults — my generation — are more socially liberal, more individualistic, less community-oriented and more globally- minded then their parents and grandparents. In many ways, they are Thatcher’s children. But they will only vote for the right sort of Conservative party.

“Metropolitan” may be the political insult these days, but, whether the Conservatives like it or not, Britain is becoming more metropolitan. Young Britons think like Londoners. If the Conservatives don’t tackle their London problem it will become a Britain problem. 

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