In the midst of a glorious election night for the Conservatives on 7 May, London stubbornly resisted the swing across the rest of the country and went a darker shade of red. Why is that and why does it matter when overall we have a majority Conservative government for the first time in 18 years?
The loss of four London seats (including mine) to Labour may have been offset by the high profile gain of Vince Cable Twickenham, and by us retaining Labour’s number one target of Hendon after a spectacular result from Matthew Offord. But to ignore what is going on elsewhere would simply put future working Conservative majorities at risk. Take a look at seats like Croydon Central, Chipping Barnet and Enfield Southgate, where majorities were cut by between 2,000 and 3,000 votes, intensifying their vulnerability in 2020.
So what’s happening in London that is not really happening elsewhere?
I have written before about the consequences of not achieving an electoral breakthrough with the black and minority ethnic groups across London. With over half London’s population now made up from these communities, it is small consolation that we are making some headway only with Asian voters, but very little elsewhere. To fail to do so consigns us to more losses, whereas a modest improvement of even as little as 4 -5% share of the BME vote in London would secure up to 5 seats for the Conservatives that we did not hold or gain this time round.
When the Runnymede Trust publishes the ethnic and demographic breakdown of voters, it should be mandatory reading for the new party deputy chairman Robert Halfon. I am sure it will be. Frankly, it should be mandatory for any London Conservative.
But reaching out to all ethnic groups is not alone the core problem facing the Conservatives in London.
A city that is younger than many rural parts of the country; that has a high proportion of aspirational people attracted by the growing number of jobs and start-up opportunities -here is a city that should be ripe for Conservative voters. But, particularly in the outer London suburbs, there are too many youngsters living at home in their 20s and 30s. Or if not living at home, renting in over-priced flats without much chance of owning their own property. Indeed, even the very aspiration to own their own property is being sucked out of them, which in turn makes it harder for these voters to identify with Conservatism.
Is it not time for Conservative politicians to reflect on that fact that our supposedly non-interventionist instincts are not succeeding for London housing? Indeed, wasn’t Tim Montgomerie right to suggest that in fact despite what we Conservative politicians may think, we do intervene in the market already with the massive £23 billion in housing benefit, much of it going to subsidise private sector renting? We intervene. Just not in a way that helps enough young, aspirational people.
Most Government home ownership intervention has been to increase housing demand – so while we’ve some that get on the ladder, for far more people the prospect of home ownership in their 20s (and even 30s) has been pushed even further away. We therefore need intervention to increase supply to match the Government policies that have increased demand.
If we are intervening, we should intervene on a scale not seen since fifties under Macmillan, and feed supply through building programmes, both social and private. As a party, we are committed to re-balancing the economy between North and South, so why should we not seek to re-balance the housing market between the South East and the rest of the country?
Appealing to all communities, and addressing the legitimate expectations of young aspirational Londoners are not the only challenges we face in the Capital. The challenge that has gone most under our radar in London is the antipathy of many in the public sector towards the Conservatives. Policemen and women, health workers, and teachers living predominantly in the suburbs do find themselves coping with unique London costs, accentuated by a policy of tough pay restraint. That alone however is not for many public sector workers the reason why they find it hard to vote Conservative.
If my experience on the doorstep was anything to go by, it was the deep-seated sense that they were not respected by a Conservative Government, particularly in policing and teaching. That sense of disrespect was attributed to the common mistake politicians make of generalising groups of people. How many public sector workers are militant unionists hell bent on toppling the Government? A few of their highly-paid, council-housed leaders, perhaps?
Many hard-working public servants are more likely union members for the insurance and healthcare packages. Despite the rhetoric at times, how many teachers are bad at their jobs, or ideologically predisposed to let down their children? Most work hard, in tough conditions, and with the best interest of children at heart. Yet sometimes our narrative has suggested otherwise . And yes, good ideas and initiative solutions do come from the public sector. To pretend that they are the exclusive preserve of the private sector is to bury our heads in the sand. What is often at fault is that unlike the private sector, public institutions sometimes fail to allow the talents of individuals working in the sector to flourish and develop.
So a Conservative Government that wants to win London needs to get both its policies and its language right.
As Alex Crowley rightly points out, a Conservative can win the next London Mayoral election, even based on the London General Election results. But they will find it much easier to do so if our new Government responds to these London challenges.
Meanwhile, all the successful candidate has to do is be multi-dimensional; prepared to stand up to their own governing party where necessary; and not frightened of breaking new ground in policy. That’s what London needs, wants and deserves. The Conservatives should deliver it.
Nick de Bois lost his seat as Conservative MP for Enfield North last week.