How can the Conservatives progress again in London?

by Dave Hill

How can the Conservatives recover in the capital? The thrashing of Zac Goldsmith in the 2016 mayoral election marked a new low in terms of both outcome and approach. But June’s general election results were arguably just as wounding for the Tories, with Labour turning marginal seats into safe ones and winning others that had seemed far out of reach. Confident Labourites are already imagining turfing Boris Johnson out of Uxbridge and Iain Duncan Smith out of Chingford next time round. Imagine that. Meanwhile, there are next May’s borough elections to fret about, with Tories having reasons to be fearful in erstwhile strongholds Barnet and Wandsworth, and just maybe even Westminster and Hillingdon.

A concerted effort is now underway among London Tories to avert further electoral ignominy and reverse the Labour tide. In July, a conference was held by Conservative Progress, an organisation that seeks to strengthen Tory grassroots activism, in conjunction with the party’s London region. The objective was to share feedback about what had gone so very wrong in the capital a few weeks earlier and look ahead to next year’s council contests. Certain conclusions seem to have been reached. Last month, the Evening Standard reported plans to set up a “new election fighting unit” in the capital, described as part of an attempt to emulate the success of the Scottish Tories under the leadership of Ruth Davidson. There is now plenty of chat about the creation of a distinctive “London Conservatives” entity and brand, better tailored to address issues that matter most to Londoners and to be more attuned to London’s increasingly specific social character.

Nabil Najjar is a director and co-founder of Conservative Progress, which was set up in mid-2016. He was previously a member of the party’s London region management executive. “The Conservative Party has to be bold in challenging Labour in the capital, with a positive and forward-looking stance on issues that matter most to Londoners, such as housing and neighbourhood policing,” he says. Najjar believes that one way to do this would be have “a specific London manifesto in place for the forthcoming borough elections and the next mayoral election, which we need to fight on a very local basis”. There’s also the more nebulous matter of the Tory identity in a city whose population profile is so different from that of the rest of the country with, for example, more than 60% of its working-age population having a degree and close to 40% of all residents having been born overseas. “The party needs to provide clarity about what it means to be a Conservative in London,” Najjar says.

Andrew Boff, London Assembly member and former Hackney councillor, is candid about some of the challenges he sees. “We did very badly here,” he says of the general election. “Our party is very centralised and there is now big pressure for us to be able to speak with a distinctive London voice.” Boff recognises that settling on how that voice ought to sound and the principles and messages it should articulate is bound to create tensions within the party. But, in his view, there’s no escaping that.

“Nationally, just like other parties to a degree, we’ve been chasing after UKIP votes, but UKIP haven’t made much impact in London except at some of the outer edges. London Conservatives should be stressing the need to maintain a healthy supply of immigrants, because our economy depends on them so much. A lot of us just haven’t thought hard enough about what Brexit is going to mean. Unless we agree something close to Norway’s relationship with the EU and can protect our financial sector’s passporting rights, we’re going to be in schtuck.” Boff also mentions air quality and the dangers of over development as important themes for London Tories to strike the right note on.

The next few months will be a test of how well Conservatives can revive their appeal to Londoners. Local elections can be tricky to predict, but from this vantage point just limiting the damage next May might count as some sort of success. After that, there’s a view that a strong mayoral candidate needs to be put in place early to embody and to spread a revised Tory message that speaks to the mass of Londoners.

This website is eager to report the Conservatives’ progress with its task and to reflect the debate about it. Ideas for articles on that theme are welcome. Email: davehillonlondon@gmail.com

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