Nowhere should Conservatives be more disappointed with the recent election results than in London. The capital stubbornly clung to the Labour nurse for fear of something worse.
On a night of mixed results, Labour got the most votes in London and performed far better than they did in the rest of the country. As a result, the Tories were denied marginal seats, and key councils turned red.
How did Labour manage such a good result? It is clear turnout was a crucial factor, particularly in council elections where it almost doubled. Andy Slaughter, Karen Buck and Sadiq Khan can all still call themselves MPs thanks to increases in turnout touching 10%. In all three cases, the Labour vote went up.
As one Labour activist told me, the plan was to cling on by dragging their supporters out by hook or by crook – and it worked. It seems a rising tide lifted mostly red boats. But why, in an election about ‘change’, did this benefit the incumbents?
London is generally impervious to the charms of Conservatives. Ever since 1992 London has, broadly, voted Labour. Even during bouts of deep unpopularity, their vote in London has always remained resilient.
The notable exception to this trend was the election of Boris Johnson as London Mayor. Boris succeeded in London because he was able to coax the Tory leaning suburbs out to the polls.
However, these suburbs are notoriously flaky. After all, many of them have happily returned Tory councils and Labour MPs. They also returned Ken, twice. May 6th put these swing voters – vital for a Mayoral majority – back in the red corner.
And that matters because the next Mayoral election is the first chance for Labour to take a major scalp, and begin the climb back to power. It is also the first chance for voters to give Cameron a bloody nose, and it is a threat to which the Conservatives need to be alive.
Boris’s election was very much the exception to the rule. As Ipsos MORI argued in its post-election analysis, had turnout been closer to General Election levels, Ken may still be in City Hall.
But do the recent results show the beginning of an unstoppable trend, or are they merely a one-off? It is hard to imagine turnout reaching the giddy heights that give the advantage to Labour, even if it is Boris v Ken round two. And Boris possesses three crucial advantages:
- He reaches parts of the electorate other Tory politicians cannot. ‘White van man’, C2s, the white working class – whatever you want to call them, Boris charms them. This Eton and Oxford educated descendant of royalty is the working man’s politician of choice. His mix of straight talk, self-mockery and passion for all things English takes him beyond class differences. This is a potent electoral weapon with a key group of voters.
- As we have already seen, Boris is not afraid to stick the boot into the new government at the slightest whisper of spending cuts. It may not comfort Cameron much, but you can be sure Boris will scream loudest when the axe man cometh.
- Boris has balanced the need for spending cuts and fare increases (necessitated by Ken’s fiscal legacy) with retention of highly symbolic concessions, such as free travel for kids and the Freedom Pass. While he continues with this strategy, his Labour opponents cannot credibly label him as a first-born-sacrificing Tory.
And, at the risk of propagandising for my former boss, more police on buses, council tax freezes, higher quality affordable housing, the cycle revolution, removal of the hated bendy buses and much else besides is a fine record on which to campaign.
Yet the reality remains that Boris has it all to do. City Hall, an institution created and bred to serve Labour-voting inner London, (despite the valiant efforts of Boris’s team) faces a struggle to spread the Conservative Mayoral message beyond Zone 3, with key areas now under Labour local authority control.
With more and more local newspapers being replaced by council-sponsored Pravdas, and general apathy of all things Mayoral, what chance a fair hearing in 2012 in these crucial areas? And how far will the Tory vote sink with a Cameron government forcing painful spending cuts on an electorate firmly wedded to the milk of the state?
And it remains the case that not enough Londoners know about Boris’s achievements, particularly in those crucial suburban areas.
London 2012 may seem an age away, but you can’t fatten the pig on market day. There needs to be a concerted effort at all levels within the party to reverse the London losses, and prepare for a battle that could define Tory political fortunes for some time to come.