By Victoria Borwick
A red tide is lapping at the feet of London Conservatives. Against the background of opinion polls that a few weeks earlier pointed to a Tory landslide, I was one of six Conservatives in London to lose my seat in June – in my case in “true blue” Kensington.
The swing against me was 10.6 per cent to Labour. Right across the capital, similar swings snatched seats from our party, dashing hopes of making gains or entrenching big Labour majorities. In Islington North, the turnout was the highest since 1951 and the Pied Piper of the left scored over 40,000 votes (a staggering 73 per cent of the total).
Jeremy Corbyn espouses the politics of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and in his uber-trendy, Guardian-reading backyard, he is now getting the levels of popular support that his heroes could only secure at the point of a gun. Among nearly nine million electors, Labour took 55 per cent of the vote in the capital and now holds 49 of its 73 seats – the Conservatives are down to 21 seats and a vote share of 33 per cent.
Unless we can turn the tide soon, we face further losses in the borough elections next year and are poorly placed to resist another Labour onslaught if, by some mischance, the Government is forced into an early election.
At this rate, we will soon be doing better in nationalist, socialist Scotland than we are in supposedly free-enterprise London. How long before the hard-left politics of the Corbynistas stifle the country’s most powerful engine of job growth and wealth creation?
So how did we get into this mess, and how are we going to get out of it?
First, some background. London has been turning left for some time now. At the 2010 election, the Conservatives took 35 per cent of the vote and secured 28 seats – compared with 37 per cent seats for Labour and 38 seats. That election ended in a hung Parliament, just like this one. In 2015, despite winning outright across the country, we finished with 27 seats to Labour’s 45.
Recent borough elections confirm the trend away from the Conservatives to Labour and, after Boris Johnson’s heroic victories in 2008 and 2012, the mayoralty is now firmly in Labour hands. In seven years we have lost seven seats net and two points on the vote share. Labour has gained 11 seats and a massive 18 points as the Lib Dems have collapsed.
Previously “safe” Tory seats, held by Cabinet level figures such as Iain Duncan Smith and Boris Johnson, are now at risk. Duncan Smith’s majority in Chingford and Woodford Green fell to 2,438 from 8,386 (a swing to Labour of seven per cent), and Johnson is now defending a majority of 5,034 in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, down from 10,695 after a swing to Labour of 6.5 per cent.
The demographics – a high proportion of young people and a big immigrant population – are working against the Conservative Party in the capital (though, of course, there is no inherent reason why they cannot be won over to the Tory cause). Not many people know this but Kensington and Chelsea ranks third among the league table of boroughs with the highest non-UK born populations. The Royal Borough comes in at 63.2 per cent (i.e. two thirds of the borough), after Newham in East London (63.3 per cent) and Brent (65.1 per cent.)
But we have to confess to some self-inflicted wounds which sharply reducing our chances of success.
Take the Tory manifesto. At the end of the last Parliament, I and my fellow MPs were assured of a brief manifesto covering our values and vision for the country but little troublesome detail. How wrong that proved.
As the campaign began in early May, the Prime Minister was riding high in the polls and we were out to spread the message in the country and in London. That first weekend I was in Hampstead, and I then visited a succession of seats that the Conservatives were hoping to win.
On my home patch, having lived in Kensington all my life, I was very conscious that the result was not a foregone conclusion. I have been a school governor underneath the Westway for over 20 years, and had held my weekly meetings with residents at the Salvation Army (where they also run food banks), in the local churches, and voluntary centres where people can feel safe.
Contrary to popular belief, Kensington contains two of the most deprived wards in the UK, and a high proportion of its children are on free school meals. Behind the white stucco facades of its mansions we have a great many people who are not even “just about managing”.
Then the manifesto hit – and most of us were shocked. Where was the spoonful of sugar to soften the blow? We were left with a large gulp of unpalatable medicine.
Where had these policies been discussed? Where had they been “road tested”? On the doorsteps we were challenged with: “You are taking away my free lunch”, to which we replied: “No we’re not: we are giving you breakfast as well…” Our message was unclear, and we looked as if we were prevaricating.
Policies have to be simple to explain. If Theresa May or Philip Hammond had come out and said only higher rate taxpayers would lose the winter fuel payment and free school meals, the matter would have been addressed in a day and most sensible people would agree that it was fair.
Door knocking across London – in Brentford and Isleworth, in Ealing and Acton, in Twickenham – I could see voters were dismayed. What exactly were the Conservatives offering? Businesses, meanwhile, were troubled by the threat of further regulation when they were keen to shed the red tape imposed by the EU.
Where was the reassurance on social policy, the NHS, and investing in our next generation to fill the potential skills gap?
Over recent years, London has benefited greatly from the existing economic order and has grown substantially to account for an increasing share of UK output and employment, with population growth supported by international migration and skills. The City has boomed and business and consumer confidence has been strong.
However, within London the pattern of growth has been uneven. On the downside, London has experienced increasing congestion, pollution, significant housing shortages, and mounting pressures on public services and infrastructure. From my time as a councillor on the Greater London Authority, I know that London attracts the young – who are often Labour voters – but is also home to the older generation, anxious about health and social care in their declining years.
Post-referendum, the Tory cause was not helped by the anxieties expressed by the families of the 3.48 million non-UK nationals who are working in the UK. Kensington is home to a large French quarter: would they all be allowed to stay after we quit the EU?
I am delighted that Greg Hands, MP for Chelsea and Fulham, has been appointed the new Minister for London. He brings business expertise, as well as his knowledge of what matters to local residents from his earlier experience as a councillor. He understands that we badly need a message of hope and a positive vision of the future if we are to reverse Labour’s advances in the capital.
We need practical policies addressing the everyday concerns of Londoners, not least over housing, air quality, school funding, and the NHS. We also need to recapture the sense of optimism that gripped the city during the 2012 Olympics – what Boris Johnson called that “Ready Brek glow of happiness”.
The next big test comes in May 2018 with elections to the 32 London boroughs. Labour made big gains when they were last contested in 2014 and the Conservatives control just nine of them. How many more might fall next year?
Many people were stunned to see the parliamentary seat of Kensington succumb to the Labour advance. Unless we learn the lessons of this election, even the Royal Borough could be in the firing line.