Matt Smith contested Bethnal Green and Bow in 2015, Cardiff Central in 2011 and was Chairman of Bethnal Green and Bow Conservative Association between 2013 and 2016. He posts at www.mattsmith.org.uk/news.
Political folklore has it that Herbert Morison, Leader of the London County Council, once said Labour would ‘build the Tories out of London’.
Politically, the dead hand of municipal Labour still hangs over inner London. Yet as they cartwheeling over the horizon to the unelectable left, we must think about the long-term growth of inner-city Conservatism.
There are long-term reputational and electoral benefits to be gained from doing so.
Inner cities possess considerable cultural soft power. They are foci of interest for new media professionals and minority community media. What we do in these seats matters elsewhere.
As later generations within minority diasporas spread out geographically from the location of their initial settlement, the manner of how we engage with inner city communities will come to bear on our standing in other more marginal constituencies.
Moreover, professionals working in the City, Canary Wharf and Tech City may register to vote in marginal seats further away, but also may form their views about the kind of party we are, based on our activities and campaigns locally.
Conservative activism in the inner cities is the sine qua non of One Nation politics. Our future success depends on broadening our appeal in among urban, younger, more diverse electorates. On this, we should be optimistic.
At the General Election, Conservatives went from fourth to second in Bethnal Green and Bow; and from third to second in all of the Hackney and Islington constituencies. Positive swings were also achieved against the London-wide trend.
The Liberal Democrat collapse and Green failure contributed to this, as did the fielding of local Parliamentary candidates who were also very active in the 2014 Borough elections.
These swings were also assisted by changes taking place in inner east London wards, presaging long-term political and socio-economic change. This gentrification is happening as London’s centre of gravity shifts eastwards.
A recent Savills report identified 80 London wards where homebuyers under 35 outnumber those over 50 by over 2-1. Twenty-four wards fall in the seats referred to above – seven in Bethnal Green and Bow alone. Whitechapel ward has the highest ratio.
This trend is particularly noticeable in the ‘City Fringe’ and Thames-side ‘riparian’ wards.
Investment in targeting ‘gated’ residences through voter registration, telephone canvassing and targeted letters would pay dividends in two ways.
Firstly, recruiting support from newcomers can in time lead to local electoral breakthrough. Secondly, we cannot win elections to City Hall and the European Parliament without capturing Conservative support in the‘inner ring’ of the ‘doughnut’.
It is in the inner cities that we most frequently engage with the under 35s, minority communities, blue-collar workers and students.
Policy Exchange’s A Portrait of Modern Britain shows that minority communities are often small ‘c’ conservatives, favouring low taxes with strong views on welfare.
The ‘Workers Party’ agenda establishes a strong blue-collar Conservative message. We are now “the true party of Labour”, successfully challenging for the support of traditional Labour voters.
A recent Times article titled ‘Student lefties drift to right on economy’ argued tuition fees, debts and jobs focuses minds on the economy and taxes.
The Economist pointed out recently that social housing is an ‘Estate of flux’, with more younger tenants owning and in work. Our efforts to modernise and engage with these voters will be rewarded.
The term ‘Hood Conservatives’ was coined in the US, to describe efforts by local activists to “empower inner city voters” through conservatism.
When Associations are on the electoral back foot, if well led, they actually become very good at being insurgent and taking the fight to Labour.
This is important because inner city voters need conservatism the most. We promote opportunity by supporting small businesses, high streets and jobs.
We promote social mobility through the pupil premium, raising school standards, promoting apprenticeships, lowering taxes for the working poor and introducing the National Living Wage.
As the One Nation party we know the importance of integration to long-term social cohesion.
A signal example of what we are for is shown by the fact that 51 per cent of small businesses in Bethnal Green and Bow were set up in the three years to Q4 2015.
David Cameron’s recent ‘Life Chances’ speech should be standard issue to candidates and activists in inner city seats. Personal brand, authenticity and emotional connection can enable candidates to move beyond the ‘party-political’.
Supporting community pub preservation campaigns is a great way to do this, as is supporting non-partisan demonstrations against wasteful spending and taxpayer-funded politics, as we did several times on Brick Lane and Whitechapel High Street.
Inner city Conservative activists should also be counterintuitive in the form their activism takes. In our experience, they can innovate in three notable ways.
Associations can be community hubs
Social action can help candidates move beyond the political to become community campaigners. Accordingly we created a dedicated Deputy Chair Social Action.
We supported community flower-planting efforts to improve the local area, and organised three CV and Jobs clinics, using the upstairs room of a pub and a local housing association training suite.
We also organised three door-to-door collections of donated items, raising funds for a national charity working for the deafblind community. The impact of local press coverage of local social action projects was powerful.
We must increase our ethnic minority support if we are to adapt to the changing face of Britain. Our efforts will be rewarded.
We addressed audiences at the Mutual Trust Bank of Bangladesh, the Mercantile Exchange Bank and through the Bengali Christian Association. Community groups welcomed a Conservative voice.
We were delighted that Conservative Friends of Bangladesh rallied their London candidates on Brick Lane.
Establishing a culture
Frequent and affordable speaker events brought activists together and demonstrated our commitment to the local area.
As a ‘City Seat Initiative’ constituency, we were grateful to host Priti Patel MP, Eric Pickles MP, Adam Afriyie MP, Elizabeth Truss MP, Dr Sheila Lawlor, Charles Heslop OBE, Kwasi Kwarteng MP, Syed Kamall MEP, Robert Halfon MP, Nick de Bois MP, Owen Paterson MP, Matthew Elliott, Andrew Boff MLA, Andrew Sharpe and Lord Bourne.
Their visits sent a powerful signal about our party and wider changes in the local political culture.
Along with linking the 2014 and 2015 campaigns through the City Seats Initiative, these innovations and the momentum sustained, enabled us in turn to deliver 88 pairs of boots in mutual aid to Enfield North, our twinned 40-40 target seat.
Margaret Thatcher said we must “win back the inner cities to our cause.” By challenging Labour’s ancien régimes we are leading the revival of our inner cities and securing the long-term future of the Conservative Party.