Cllr Tim Briggs is a councillor in Lambeth and a List Candidate for the London Assembly 2020.
When people from outside London find out I am the only Conservative councillor left in Lambeth, they often ask me why London has become a ‘Labour city’. Here are some thoughts, based on my experience of why people in London vote Labour.
First, Labour has spent decades pushing a narrative in London that Tories are evil rich people who do not care about anyone but themselves and their rich friends, whereas Labour activists are normal people. This is of course nonsense – the majority of Labour councillors in Lambeth are well-off metropolitan types that never miss an opportunity to signal how much they care about everyone, whilst many of the Conservative members in my constituency seem to work hard and live modestly, quietly doing community and charity work.
The ‘Evil Tories v Virtuous Lefties’ narrative draws from a tradition with deep political roots in Artistotle, then Thomas Aquinas, Rousseau, and Marx – that people in power should be the people who are the ‘most moral’. So however appalling the consequences are of Labour decisions in Lambeth – libraries closed, homes in disrepair – at least the councillors in charge are like us and not those evil Tories, right? Or so the argument goes.
Yet poorly-run local authorities like Lambeth actually discriminate against people on lower incomes by taxing them more. Put simply, as higher tax removes disposable income from people’s pockets, so it removes the opportunities and choices they have to make their lives better. For example, the annual £614 difference in Band D council tax between Labour-Lambeth and low-tax Conservative-Wandsworth next door is roughly equivalent to two laptops for two children, to help them to get to university. Which is why in the State of the Nation Social Mobility Commission Report of 2018, Conservative-run Wandsworth was the 4th best borough in the country for children from lower-income families to do well in life, and Lambeth was not.
Another reason is that, like the Mayor Sadiq Khan, Labour authorities shamelessly use public money on propaganda and PR to promote themselves. Labour councillors spent £1.4 million of public money last year telling residents what a great job they were doing. When the Labour cabinet decided to shut Children’s Centres, they claimed their hand was forced because an extra £1.4 million from central government was needed. Successes belong to them and are given publicity; failures, if discussed, are the fault of the Tory government, and proof that their ‘fight’ must continue. The message is that crude, but it seems to work, and there are no local newspapers any more to highlight how daft it all is.
Like all effective political lies, it has a basis in truth. Labour councils in London make great play of the fact that central government grants to local authorities have been reduced since 2010, and this fuels their excuse that all the bad outcomes from their decisions are somehow the fault of the Government. Funding to local government certainly has been reduced to help balance the budget nationally after the last Labour Government had hollowed out the public finances by 2010. But in Lambeth any mitigation of a difficult financial situation came appallingly late in the day. In 2016, Labour councillors finally reduced Lambeth’s bloated staff bill by £25 million, but had they done so in 2008 when the economy first crashed, they would have saved a cumulative £250 million, which is only slightly less that the amount they claim to have lost in government funding.
Lambeth is also very diverse, and when you talk to residents in the most diverse parts of the borough, immigrant communities will say that the Blair Labour government looked after them when they first arrived in the UK. But memories of Labour’s largesse with public money are fading. I was recently invited to a dinner with a charity from the Bengali-speaking community where many British Bengali-speakers admitted they were now far more likely under the Conservatives to achieve their aspirations, for their businesses to do well, and for their children to go to university, than under Jeremy Corbyn.
My borough is also full of young people, who if they vote at all, tend to vote Labour. People who aspire to own their own homes move out of London to where property is cheaper. Vauxhall in the north of Lambeth and Streatham in the south are full of Lib Dem or Labour voters – doctors and health workers – who do not accept that the extra NHS funding under the Conservatives will ever be enough, compared to a fantasy of infinite funding proposed by parties on the Left. They live comfortably, and care less about tax rises than a moral imperative that their profession be considered more important in the national consciousness, and that their part in the national consciousness be elevated accordingly.
A broader reason that people vote for left-wing parties is this – that how economic growth works is harder to understand than the idea of giving money away to help people. Understanding how reducing taxes on businesses generates more business income and therefore more tax income, which can then be spent on schools and hospitals, takes a genuine economic world-view, which people on the left appear not to have, or to minimise, or refuse to accept. Labour councillors in Lambeth tend to be well-intentioned but confused ideologues who work in public services or PR, and for them, not prioritising the nitty-gritty of how wealth is created is a matter of pride.
Londoners also like the Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan – London is possibly the most diverse city in the world, voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, and Khan appears to represent that diversity, playing up to that audience whenever he can by talking about Trump and Brexit. Yet no Londoners can name anything the Mayor has achieved, on housing, transport, or crime, and it has not gone unnoticed that a disproportionate number of children are being relentlessly stabbed and killed under his watch. Sadiq Khan’s standard response to everything is that the ‘evil Tories’ don’t give him enough money, yet he wastes his own budget on public relations to aggrandise himself in the media. Shaun Bailey is an excellent Conservative candidate for Mayor and would be more widely-known but for Brexit. London activists should keep putting a simple question to the voters on the doorsteps in London: ‘Can you name one achievement of Sadiq Khan as Mayor?’
Most worryingly, Labour activists in Lambeth have worked out how to get votes without even trying. Labour councillors in Lambeth now pay two of their cabinet members £10,000 extra a year to remind community groups and organisations that any money those groups currently receive would be jeopardised if Labour lost control of the council. In this way it is possible for every resident connected with the council to actively dislike the Labour councillors, to openly express their dislike of Labour councillors in public meetings, but to still vote Labour. It is also no coincidence that leaders of community organisations in Lambeth are often now Labour party members. Considering how few people actually vote in local elections, Labour brings together word-of-mouth support from local organisations and its own massive party membership to win elections. This strategy of making local community, church, charity, sport and other groups feel dependent on keeping Labour councillors in power has been more instrumental that anything else in ensuring that many London boroughs now have no Conservative councillors at all.
So a final reason why people in London vote for left-wing parties: they can afford to. In the 35 years since trade liberalisation and ‘Big Bang’ in the City, wealth from the rest of the world has poured in to London. People can ‘afford’ to be liberal, to fetishize the passionate outbursts of outspoken teenagers on climate change, to be daring in the eyes of their friends and contemporaries by supporting millennial cults like Extinction Rebellion with its absolutist, circular logic, and the hard-Left, anti-capitalist Green Party. Imagine having so much money you can glue yourself to a bridge rather than go to work. Yet telling climate change activists that the UK has reduced its harmful emissions by 22 per cent since 2010, despite the UK economy growing 36 per cent, or that the UK only produces one per cent of the world’s CO2 emissions, is not enough. For these people living in a bubble of half-formed ideas about what is moral and how to make their lives mean something more, the UK has become the centre of an immoral world, the heart of capitalism where capitalism must be fought and defeated, and London is the centre of the centre of the world.
For all of our sakes, progressive Conservative ideas must prevail, and our capital remains crucial to winning the battle of ideas elsewhere in the UK. The much-vaunted CCHQ ‘London Unit’ has failed to make any impact in unifying our campaign to win back London. Conservatives on the ground have to keep quietly fighting our separate guerrilla wars against the Labour monolith, and to keep making the arguments that make sense. But we have one great advantage over Labour, which we should never lose sight of: we have a set of ideas and values that actually work, and that benefit all Londoners whatever their background.