For more than 10 years Labour has been the dominant political party in London and for more than 30 the Conservatives have been in decline. In 1987, when the Tories won a general election, the city’s constituency map was overwhelmingly blue. But the other week they lost over 100 council seats, and their share of the London vote, whichever way you measure it, fell comfortably short of 30 per cent.
True, the party lost control of only one council overall against the backdrop of a national government in disarray, but their two gains – Harrow and Croydon – can largely be explained by specific local factors, while their loss of Wandsworth and Barnet confirmed the continuation of long-term anti-Tory trends.
In Westminster, where the distribution of political support meant an earthquake was required for Labour to triumph, one occurred that went off the Richter scale. Elsewhere, a combination of Labour, Liberal Democrats and Independents blew a big hole in the Tory majority in Bromley, while in Richmond, which was Conservative-run as recently as 2018, they were reduced to a single seat out of 54. Conservatism is in deep trouble in the capital. Have London Tories really noticed? Do they have the first idea what to do about it?
Last year, some of the very few who seem to have cottoned on took part in an excellent Mile End Institute event. Responding to a presentation by On London contributor Lewis Baston, Wimbledon MP Stephen Hammond described the Conservative Party in London as “incredibly antiquated”, barely of the 20th century let alone the 21st. He said it needed to build inwards from its suburban doughnut – which itself has had red chunks bitten out of it – but warned that Tory values, increasingly seen since Brexit as authoritarian, nationalistic and anti-intellectual, must not be “misaligned with some of those areas”.
London Assembly member (AM) Andrew Boff complained that national government’s approaches to planning policy and Transport for London had been introduced with next to no regional level consultation, making them much harder to defend. Describing himself as a Tory member “since Disraeli led it” he said, “I still, to this day, do not understand how the party works in London”. Boff praised the Scottish Conservatives under Ruth Davidson for finding “a distinctive voice that we don’t have in London” and added that he was sick of Tories outside the capital “whining” about the city that “subsidises their rural idylls”. He said that in the capital the Tories must campaign from the centre.
Since the borough elections, another London Conservative, Orpington MP and former AM Gareth Bacon, has spoken up about his party’s London crisis. Yet still nothing seems to change. Even transport secretary Grant Shapps, one of the craftier feeders of the anti-London fib machine, enthused about the opening of the Elizabeth Line, albeit in order to take credit for it. But the Assembly Tory group preferred to snipe at it. They cheer on anti-London sneerers on GB News. Their hypocrisy in attacking Sadiq Khan for his promotional visit to the United States when Boris Johnson did exactly the same the thing when he was Mayor is as shameless as it is clueless. Do they even like the city they claim they could run better?
Not long ago, it was standard practice for London Mayor contenders to position themselves as putting London’s interests before loyalty to their party, even if – perhaps especially if – that party was in national government. But in last year’s mayoral campaign the Tories’ beaten candidate Shaun Bailey, when he wasn’t denouncing invented road-pricing schemes or putting fake “City Hall” council tax leaflets through people’s doors, uttered not a word against the sacred “Boris”, or his government’s anti-London attitudes, or the effects of Brexit despite 60 per cent of Londoners voting remain. Bailey’s defeat was less heavy than opinion polls had indicated, but even if dignified as a core vote strategy his approach was aimed at a core that has been shrinking.
True, the introduction of Voter ID and changing the mayoral voting system to First Past The Post might – surprise, surprise – help the Conservatives’ chances in the mayoral election of 2024, but they’re going to need a lot more than that. And while at borough level “peak Labour” might finally have been reached, that doesn’t mean the Tories can’t slide any further, with all three opposition parties eroding their surviving borough redoubts.
There needs to be a big, brave and imaginative re-think if London Conservatism is to arrest its long decline. Justine Greening, the former Conservative MP for Putney, told the Mile End Institute she believed her party should be optimistic. “I genuinely believe if we can take this city’s priorities and make them ours, we can win,” she said. “I think London needs a levelling up plan.” She revealing that when social mobility had been discussed when she was education secretary between 2016 and 2018, “it wan’t just about the North, but a national agenda”. For Greening, promoting equality of opportunity is – or maybe was – a fundamental Conservative belief. Why shouldn’t it be put into effect in London, she inquired, “where some of those gaps are the widest”?
Since then, the latest borough results have seen London’s Tories fall even further behind. It is sometimes suggested that, at national level, the Conservative Party thinks it might as well give up on the “remoaner” capital and concentrate its efforts on retaining the former “red wall” parliamentary seats they captured so dramatically from Labour in 2019. Yet there are 73 constituencies in the capital, more than 10 per cent of the national total. At the very least the Tories need to hold on to what they have. Meanwhile, their so-called “blue wall” in the Home Counties is under siege, as Deputy Prime Minster Dominic Raab, among others, will be acutely aware.
You don’t have to like the Conservatives to recognise that Labour-dominated London needs a proper, pro-London Conservative opposition. But do London’s Conservatives?
Election map from London Councils.
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