Barnaby Towns: Why can’t Tories win London?

Barnaby Towns: Why can’t Tories win London?

Why can’t the Conservatives win in London? In the 1980s, Labour had a London problem. In 1987, despite a general election swing to Labour nationally, the Tories gained seats in the capital: Battersea, Lewisham West and Lewisham East. This counter-cyclical trend was repeated in London borough elections of 1990, allowing the Tories to showcase Wandsworth and Westminster wins.

A generation on, the Tories have lost those London flagships and now control only five of the 32 boroughs. They face a possible general election wipe-out in London, with the recent mayoral election result a taste of things to come.

Whatever the answer to the party’s London problem is, it wasn’t the gaffe-prone and politically tone-deaf Susan Hall. After an inept campaign spanning 10 months, Hall achieved a three per cent swing away from the Tories towards Sadiq Khan, who won an unprecedented third term.

Not that 2 May went well for the Tories anywhere in England – they lost nearly 500 council seats. But effective, two-term West Midlands Mayor Andy Street lost in equally deeply Labour territory by only around 1,500 votes out of over 600,000 cast. He also conceded gracefully, something which eluded Hall.

Why did it go so badly wrong, despite the fact that the Tory government under former Mayor of London Boris Johnson had taken the trouble to try to rig the election by changing the voting system and introducing Voter ID?

To be fair, not all of the Tory London car-crash was Hall’s fault. When a party is 20 points behind in national polling, becoming its mayoral candidate in a Labour-leaning city isn’t an enticing career prospect. Big names with records of big-budget accomplishments are difficult to attract. The Tories’ best substitute for that – selecting their candidate early – has never really worked.

Credibility helps. Ken Livingstone, a winning candidate in 2000 and 2004, had already run the old Greater London Council. The Tory runner-up in those years, Steve Norris, had been transport minister in London after the GLC was abolished. Sadiq Khan had been a London MP and a government minister. On top of their credentials, all had fluent knowledge about issues without which a candidate can easily come unstuck on the campaign trail, as Hall, despite having led Harrow Council, discovered.

In the absence of experience, celebrity stardust can compensate. Turning to Johnson for the 2008 election didn’t deliver the Tories a hands-on, hardworking Mayor, but it did twice get them through the door of City Hall, making possible eight years in which Tory local government veterans Simon Milton and Eddie Lister did the heavy lifting.

Ever the opportunist, Johnson wasn’t afraid to distance himself from his party to accommodate London’s interests and left-leaning ideological bent. Norris, too, though unsuccessful against the then very popular Livingstone, differentiated himself from the national party, which was nearly as unpopular back then as it is today. Livingstone’s independence from Tony Blair’s Labour, literally so in his first campaign, also was popular.

Worse than standing in her party’s dark shadow, Hall, like Zac Goldsmith and Shaun Bailey before her, was strikingly out of touch with the capital’s voters – all three were Brexiteers in a city that voted 60 per cent Remain in 2016, and may be even more that way inclined today.

In pursuit of a minority of London voters, Hall chose “wrong side of history” issues over common sense. Tories once opposed the Congestion Charge. It is now accepted by all. Yet Hall strongly opposed the Ultra-Low Emission Zone extension. Yes, the issue helped the Tories win the Uxbridge & South Ruislip by-election, but that is only one parliamentary seat out of London’s 73.

Such positioning made Hall’s campaign negative and narrow, according to her former Harrow deputy leader, Barry Macleod-Cullinane, who endorsed Khan. Unfailingly out of touch with key mayoral issues, when asked on LBC how much people pay to get on a London bus, Hall replied: “I don’t use them.” Her social media missteps, including seeming to endorse Enoch Powell and the term “Londonistan”, popular with alt-Right groups, should have been spotted by party managers, pre-selection, before her opponents could exploit them.

In this, Hall repeated the mistakes of Goldsmith, who tried to associate Khan’s Muslim faith with terrorism, and of Bailey, who had claimed that accommodating Muslim and Hindu festivals “robs Britain of its community” and risked turning it into a “crime-ridden cesspool.” Can the Tories win London back? Not like this.

Barnaby Towns was a senior campaign adviser to Conservative mayoral candidate Steve Norris in 2000 and 2004. Support and its writers for just £5 a month or £50 a year and get things for your money too. Details HERE.

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