So poor has been the performance of the Conservative Party in London in recent elections that it is tempting to reach for the cliché that, given the level to which they’ve sunk, the only way is up. Sadly for them, and unlike most clichés, it would not, in this case, be rooted in truth.
With next May’s borough elections on the horizon, the talk ought to be that Labour has reached its high watermark and a Tory comeback on the cards. Instead, there are predictions that Barnet and even Wandsworth, two of the capital’s True Blue flagships, will turn red, making Labour’s dominance of London’s Town Halls still more marked, building on gains they made in 2010 and 2014, topped up by the Tower Hamlets mayoral by-election the following year.
It’s been the same story for the Conservatives in other types of election in London in recent years. Having failed to make the gains they had hoped for in the 2010 general election, they fell further behind Labour in 2015, even while winning a majority in the country overall. Earlier this year, their hopes of seizing a bunch of Labour marginals were dashed, as pessimistic incumbents found themselves returned to the Commons with fat majorities and seemingly safe Tory seats were lost.
Boris Johnson’s two mayoral victories, in 2008 and 2012, have been the only lights in Tory darkness in the capital for ten years, and they owed more to the novel phenomenon known as “Boris” than any general warming among Londoners to the Conservative cause. Then came Zac Goldsmith’s disastrous and divisive 2016 mayoral campaign, dragging the Conservative brand back to its “nasty party” days – and in this multicultural metropolis, of all places.
The Tories now have a fight on their hands just to avoid further marginalisation. But it might be that their national leader’s conference speech, for all its discomforts, has handed them a weapon or two.
It was Theresa May who warned her party, way back in 2002, that it appeared “nasty” in too many voters’ eyes. Fifteen years on, she has tried to revive the messages that got lost back in June, when her election plan went so awry – the stuff about intervening in failing markets, being socially inclusive and helping “ordinary working people”. Most striking were her promises on housing – a huge issue among Londoners, of course.
To what extent these were just warm words which, given May’s fragile position, will soon be rendered obsolete, remains to be seen. But while Shelter has given only one cheer for the PM’s £2bn pledge on social housing, the National Landlords Association and National Housing Federation have managed close to three. And SHOUT, which campaigns specifically for more social housing, has called it “a dramatic and positive change in direction“.
Everyone is waiting for more detail. SHOUT aren’t alone in contrasting a welcome with May’s earlier announcement that £10bn more will be sunk into Help to Buy, which, as the Institute for Public Policy Research has shown, doesn’t help London at all. And how much of the social housing cash will the capital get? But perhaps the most resonant response has come from big business organisation London First. “To really move the needle, this has to be the start of a trend,” said its chief executive Jasmine Whitbread. “We have to recapture the spirit of Macmillan on housebuilding”.
This reference to an age when Labour and Conservative national governments vied to be the most prolific provider of council housing should be taken as a cue by London Tories looking for a theme that can lift them out of their slough. Sadiq Khan was pleased with the £3.15bn for a range of affordable homes secured for London by May’s chief of staff Gavin Barwell when he was Conservative housing minister and minster for London. Now, London Tories can win a lot of friends by urging their leader to do more that is right by their city.
They certainly need some popular, positive, unifying themes to get them back in tune with the London mainstream mood. They aren’t wholly divorced from it: transport infrastructure and devolution and local government funding issues are examples of Tories subscribing to cross-party agreement. But divided over Brexit in a 60% Remain city, damaged by association with Grenfell, short of members, and too often sounding peevish in their critiques of Mayor Khan, they are in urgent need of a distinctively pro-London voice for an increasingly distinctive city, just as Scottish Tories have found their own upbeat identity under the leadership of Ruth Davidson.
London is young, dynamic, liberal, highly-educated, cosmopolitan and packed with possibilities. It also has the worst child poverty rate in the country, some of its worst youth unemployment and chronic homelessness. The Conservative Prime Minister has pledged to build “a country that works for everyone” and to put right some of the UK’s social ills. London is both a proud model for the optimistic part of that and a stubborn home of the bad part. The capital’s Conservatives should embrace their leader’s message, tailor it for London and spread it all over town – if, that is, they want to starting winning in London again.