Dan Watkins was the Conservative Candidate for Tooting in both the 2015 and 2017 General Elections.
Thursday 8th June was a particularly tough night for Conservatives in Southwest London, with all of us suffering large reversals.
But collectively we put in a huge campaigning effort – in the case of Tooting, my team knocked on all 45,000 doors in the seat and delivered quarter of a million leaflets.
As such, I thought I’d share a few insights gained along the way from speaking to so many residents, to hopefully shed some light on our local dynamic for those of you campaigning elsewhere.
We thought it would be close…
Tooting is representative of all of the Southwest London seats in that it is young, strongly Remain, and socially liberal. Tooting itself has a large public sector vote (40 per cent of residents) and is a little more ethnically diverse than other surrounding seats.
At the start of the campaign, we knew that Labour were very worried about losing Tooting. With a few days to go, they were more confident about holding on, but they still expected it to be close.
Throughout the campaign Labour activists from surrounding areas, including Owen Jones and his hard left supporters, were being asked to campaign here to ‘save Tooting’. In the end, the large margin of their victory was just as much a shock to them as it was to us.
The European Conundrum
Unsurprisingly, Europe was by far the biggest topic on the doorstep. In Wandsworth, 75 per cent of residents voted Remain, so we had to work hard to convince them that the Conservatives had the best approach to Brexit.
Given we achieved almost 20,000 votes in Tooting, we did succeed in getting our core vote out. Amongst waiverers it is clear that our position on Brexit was less popular. However I did notice that first generation Asian voters were much less ‘Remainy’ than others, with a desire to see a level playing field on immigration and new trade deals with India and Pakistan tempering their support for EU membership.
A feature of the campaign was all London Labour candidates attacking their Conservative rivals for pursuing a ‘hard Brexit’. Every single leaflet delivered in Tooting over the period – and there were many – stated Labour would oppose a hard Brexit.
Yet their own manifesto suggested that they too would leave the Single Market, and indeed John MacDonnell re-confirmed recently on the Peston show that Labour is committed to leaving the Single Market.
I tackled my Labour competitor directly on this point at all three of our local hustings, but each time she refused to answer the question. Sadly, the electorate in London seems not to have noticed the contradiction of Labour’s position.
It’s not the economy, stupid
Compared with the last election, it was notable how little the economy came up as a topic on the doorstep. When it did, the large majority of voters agreed that we had done a good job on creating jobs and reducing the deficit, but overall it did seem that residents were taking the strong economy for granted.
And while a majority agreed that ‘Corbynomics’ was a recipe for economic disaster, no wavering voters I met thought he would win, so they weren’t unduly concerned about the impact of voting Labour on jobs and incomes.
More common topics that arose in conversations were NHS and school funding, public service pay, police resourcing, security, and of course, Diane Abbott. But all of these topics played second fiddle to discussions of Brexit.
May vs Corbyn
Throughout the campaign, most residents accepted May was a better leader than Corbyn, even if the magnitude of May’s superiority did reduce somewhat in the second half of the campaign.
Of particular note, I would estimate that about a half of the lifelong Labour voters we spoke to had strong reservations about Corbyn’s suitability to be Prime Minister. However, most went on to say that it didn’t matter as Corbyn wouldn’t win and therefore they would vote for Labour anyway.
Of note was the fact that Corbyn did not feature on a single Tooting Labour Party leaflet.
Like most London seats, Tooting has a very large number of voters who are 18-25 years old (indeed, it has the second-youngest demographic of any in the country). Labour’s success in registering these voters and getting them out to vote had a huge impact here, with 5,000 more voters than 2015, and an overall turnout of 75 per cent. It was a similar story in adjacent seats.
Labour succeeded in engaging this group by using social media, and unlike their ‘public’ campaign, Jeremy Corbyn was the figurehead of these online campaigns. So while the Labour candidate was distancing herself from Corbyn in her leaflets, on the doorstep, and in public, below the radar social media she took a very different line and played up her leader to younger voters.
Contrary to other reports I’ve read, I didn’t feel that Labour won these younger voters over because of its Brexit position. Much more they were motivated by the student fees pledge, a desire to ‘tax the rich’, and a general dislike of ‘Tory cuts’. Explaining that Corbyn’s promises are completely undeliverable had little impact, as these voters barely remembered the last Labour Government.
Other than our Brexit plan, very little from the Conservative Manifesto was proactively raised by residents on the doorstep.
Where objections were raised, I actually received more on fox hunting than social care (!), but possibly this reflects our younger demographic.
When I did discuss social care, the main challenge wasn’t that voters disagreed with the policy once explained, but rather that it was too complex to understand in the first instance. Our opponents were able to capitalise on that.
Let’s end on an optimistic note
The general election was a perfect storm for candidates in Southwest London, but looking forward, there are reasons to be hopeful that we can reclaim lost ground in London in the future.
First, it’s clear now that Corbyn could win an election, and this will deter Labour moderates from voting for the party next time around.
Second, as we advance the Brexit negotiations Labour’s position on Brexit will have to become clearer, and this will make it harder to retain strongly pro-Remain voters.
Third, should the horror of a Corbyn Government actually occur support from younger voters will quickly wane, as they see that socialism actually translates into high unemployment and less money for public services.
As a final note, thanks to the thousands of Conservatives campaigners who volunteered in Tooting and across the capital. It was a disappointing result, but hopefully we can capitalise on the new activists who came forward during the campaign, and all of our updated canvassing returns, to ensure a fightback starts in the council elections next year.