Toby Williams was the Conservative candidate for Mitcham and Morden at the last General Election. He is standing for the London Assembly next year as a city-wide candidate.
Conventional wisdom dictates that London is something of an electoral anomaly. This is to an extent correct; recent elections have shown Labour support to be much more robust in the capital when compared to the rest of the country.
Take December’s General election as an example. While support for Labour collapsed in most areas outside of the M25, it stayed pretty firm in our city with the party – like ours – going backwards slightly in terms of vote share, but maintaining the same number of parliamentary seats.
But looking solely at the headline figures misses a more subtle and important trend in London which isn’t so at odds with the national picture. We all know that the big story of the 2019 General Election was that Brexit-backing life-long Labour voters from working class communities came over to the Conservatives this time. Contrary to what one may assume, London wasn’t immune from this trend, even if it was on a much smaller scale and didn’t result in many seats changing hands.
Take the borough of Merton. Merton is made up of two very different constituencies; Conservative-held Wimbledon, which is extremely affluent in many parts and voted heavily Remain, and Labour-held Mitcham and Morden, which is far less wealthy, contains a number of working class communities, and is much more eurosceptic than its constituency neighbour.
As the candidate for Mitcham and Morden, I campaigned in both of these seats and was struck by how the feeling on the ground in this part of London mirrored what was happening at a national level. It so often felt like it was working class voters in Mitcham and Morden who were angriest about the direction of Corbyn’s Labour Party – and passionate about putting an end to the Brexit saga. The results in Merton reflected this to some extent; we held Wimbledon with a reduced share of the vote, while improving our showing in Mitcham and Morden, achieving the biggest swing to the Conservatives since 1983. As an aside, I don’t think we would have held Wimbledon without the constituency’s brilliant sitting MP, Stephen Hammond.
Merton is in no way unique. In the neighbouring borough of Croydon, we didn’t gain votes in the strong Conservative seat of Croydon South or Croydon Central – but we did in Croydon North, which is traditionally seen as rock-solid Labour territory. In South West London, our vote share didn’t increase in the affluent constituencies of Richmond Park, Kingston, or Twickenham – but we enjoyed a 3.8 percent boost in Feltham and Heston. From Westminster and Dagenham, to Kensington and Barking, the story is the same: we lost votes in our affluent heartlands and gained support in some of Labour’s strongest areas. Like the rest of the country, it is clear that the kaleidoscope is beginning to shift and the electoral map is starting to change.
What lessons can we learn from London’s election results? Here are three ideas.
1) Developing the right message
London Conservatives often make the argument that to win in the capital our party needs to be compassionate, socially liberal and internationalist. This is, of course, correct; there is no way that a Conservative Party which tacks to the right can win back seats like Putney and Battersea. But this shouldn’t, and needn’t, come at the expense of also establishing a policy programme which appeals to the growing number of Brexit-backing voters in seats like Mitcham and Morden who are finding the Conservative Party increasingly electorally attractive. Developing this broad-based appeal, which I’ve written more about here, is the only way we can win in London.
2) Preparing for the next General Election(s)
Winning many of the Labour seats where we made advances might be unlikely next time, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t maintain and build upon our support in these constituencies. There is no reason why, with a bit of long-term thinking and hard work, we can’t take these seats at elections in the late 2020s or 2030s. Political parties of all colours can be guilty of short termism, but we need to take the long view if we are going to capitalise on the advances we made in December.
3) Preparing for the GLA and Mayoral elections
With its more proportional voting system, the GLA and mayoral elections present a great opportunity for us to speak to the new voters we attracted at the General Election. After all, we need votes from all corners of our city in order to elect a healthy number of London-wide Assembly Members along with a fantastic new Conservative Mayor. Rather than focus disproportionately on areas where we hold or did hold a parliamentary seat, it is essential that we target resources in those Labour areas where we are beginning to pick up support and remain unafraid of speaking about the issues that really matter to people in those parts of our city.
Looking at the General Election headline figures is, of course, important, but examining the more subtle trends on a seat-by-seat basis is enormously valuable for the future. The story of election night in London is more complex than the blue and red results map suggests, and we Conservatives in London need to adapt to these changing political circumstances. Pragmatism, after all, is what we do best.