Thomas Turrell is an Association and Area Officer in South London and was an agent at the 2015 general election.
Last Thursday was a tale of two elections, one of a historic success and another of a new low. In Scotland we took second place from Labour, gaining seats and increasing our share of the vote, best seen in Ruth Davidson’s Edinburgh Central result, jumping from fourth place in 2011 to win the seat from the SNP. Meanwhile in London we lost the Mayoralty and slumped to our lowest number of Assembly Members since the authority was created in 2000, sinking below 30% of the London list vote for the first time.
Some London Councils now do not have a single Conservative councillor: we risk becoming irrelevant in parts of London unless we have a serious look at how we can start to rebuild and detoxify the party brand in the capital. We need to be bold and not shy away from the big questions that we need to be asking ourselves. We cannot afford for any part of the UK to see our party as toxic, after all we are a party for all of the UK and it’s time to think outside the box in how we can challenge negative perceptions of our party. We are the most successful political party in Europe because we adapt ourselves to the environment around us; now it’s time we adapted ourselves in London by establishing a separate London brand – the same way we have successfully established the Scottish Conservatives on the other side of the border. Westminster has already devolved a number of powers to London and now it is time CCHQ devolved politics to a new London Conservatives.
While we gained seats from Labour across England at the 2015 General Election, in London we lost seats like Ilford North, Enfield North, and Ealing Central and Acton. In seats like Croydon Central we held on by our fingertips, and in marginal seats like Eltham, Westminster North, Hammersmith and Tooting we saw Labour increase their majorities. A theme is developing in London and it’s not good for our party. If we are to reverse this trend and to become a party that can win in London again, we need to get up, dust ourselves down, understand why we’ve been beaten, look to and learn from Scotland, then move forward all the stronger.
An easy step to make would be letting the members pick the candidates and order of the London-Wide list. Currently the list is put together by an electoral college of senior volunteers such as Area and Regional Officers, and while this may be sensible for narrowing the list of applicants down it denies the membership the chance to select potentially three of our party’s assembly members. On the Tuesday before polling day the London Evening Standard predicted that we’d lose two constituencies on the Assembly but gain a fourth member on the list. If this prediction had come true then half of our assembly group would not have been selected by our membership. Selecting our candidates is a benefit of being a party member; we need the entire assembly group to be select by the membership not just the constituency members. Our Conservative MEP’s in London are selected by a ballot of the membership so why should our London Wide Assembly members be any different?
To win in London again we need to rebuild our support in the inner boroughs and end our over-reliance on the outer boroughs. The doughnut strategy failed when our inner-borough support was hollowed out. We need to address the challenges we face as a party and we need to do that by letting our activists on the ground take the lead. If we are to win in London again we need to adapt ourselves to the changing environment around us and embrace the spirit of devolution. In Scotland we have a party brand empowered by its own autonomy, able to better reflect the area it serves than its London-managed Labour alternative. In the spirit of “locals know best” I strongly believe it’s time to start devolving powers to a London regional party to establish a new party brand, loyal to, yet independent from the central party, something very similar to the party model in Scotland.
To build an independent brand in London some of the ideas we may wish to consider include:
- Creating a London Approved Candidates list: a list of approved candidates only able to apply for London seats in Parliament and the Assembly. London is different to the rest of the UK, what works in one doesn’t work in the other. To start winning back London seats we need candidates who understand the capital, can grasp the issues it faces and understands how different London is to the rest of the UK.
- Establishing a London CCHQ independent from CCHQ: Recent elections have shown that London bucks the trend and instead of swinging towards the Conservatives is going in Labour’s direction. London has to be one of the only regions of the UK to have wanted to put Ed Miliband in Downing Street despite being set to be one of the biggest losers from his policies. We need a London Campaign Centre tasked with rebuilding our support in the inner-boroughs, retaining and building our support in the outer boroughs and running campaigns with core messages that resonate with the capital’s voters.
- An elected Leader of the London Conservatives: just as with Scotland, if we had Leader and Deputy Leader for the London Conservatives we’d have a person the party can rally behind across the Capital. A Leader elected from the parties AM’s, MP’s or MEP’s in the capital by the party’s membership would allow the party to rebuild our reputation across the capital.
London’s demographics and geographics are equally diverse, London is unique and while what has worked for the party in Scotland may not work for the Capital it is worth being bold, looking to see what can be adopted from Scotland’s success and applied to London. To use a popular phrase – the status quo is not an option.
Contrary to popular belief, London is not a Labour city, a Labour win in London is not a certainty in any election and now, as a party, we need to start being proactive, start getting back on the front foot and regaining ground in the Capital. You don’t have to be Boris Johnson to be an elected Conservative in London, but we have to show the public that.