Alex Crowley was Research Director and then Political Director of Boris Johnson’s London Mayoral election campaigns in 2008 and 2012. He is also the author of ‘Victory in London’, a book about how those campaigns were won.
On a bad night for Tories in most places, the election was nothing short of catastrophic in London. Kensington says it all. Good MPs and candidates have been lost and those that remain do so by a thread. The Party in London now faces the very real prospect of becoming an endangered species.
I will leave the campaign post mortem to more skilled pathologists. I want to look to the future and begin a debate about how we start the process of re-building the Party in London for the long term.
It’s a debate that is long overdue. Because we face the prospect of extinction in our nation’s capital if we do not take steps to arrest a decline that has been happening for some years. As a lifelong Londoner, I care about my city and it’s future. I’m not prepared to allow that future to be shaped without a Conservative perspective.
You could argue that what happened in London was simply the revenge of the remainers in a left wing region. That may be true, but stopping there avoids the hard thinking necessary to turn things around. It is the same argument used every time we do badly in London; “but London always votes Labour”.
There is another part of the country that serves as hope for recovery. The pollsters told us that younger, Remain voting parts of Britain were much less likely to vote Conservative. And that was quite true. Everywhere except Scotland. In a region that voted 60 per cent remain, and is exceptionally left leaning, we made gains that have arguably saved the Government.
Accepting that it isn’t a perfect parallel – there isn’t yet a London independence movement – the roots of our revival lie in learning everything we can from Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Conservatives.
Years ago, no-one believed the party could be revived in Scotland and few seriously tried. It was a black hole in the electoral map. I won’t claim expert knowledge of the Davidson project. But viewed from outside, I see a leader who refused to accept the status quo, galvanised the party into believing they could win and set about defining a new modern Scottish Conservatism that reflected the hopes, values and priorities of the voters. A pitch for the day when voters would eventually tire of Labour and the SNP taking their votes for granted.
Although the political landscape is clearly different, the elements and what needs to be done are very similar. London has always seen itself as distinct from the country as a whole. It has a genetic strain of socialism, but is the home of the stock market and our most zealous entrepreneurs. It has a devolved system of government that has matured and strengthened.
Like Scotland, we have a political leader who is obsessed with grievance politics and is failing to actually fix the problems they identify. But in the absence of an effective opposition, Sadiq Khan and Corbyn’s Labour are – and will be for some time – the default choice in London for many.
Since Boris completed his successful tenure as Mayor, the Party has had a leadership vacuum in London. That is no criticism, it is a fact of the mayoral system that doesn’t allow for an official leader of the opposition. But that doesn’t mean we should allow procedural inconveniences to hold us back.
As in Scotland, our revival must start by filling that vacuum and from a position of optimism. We should be selecting our mayoral candidate early and making a serious attempt to attract and mentor real leadership potential. We need to finally reject fatalism and reconnect with the city that powers the nations economy.
But this is about more than one election. We urgently need to begin the process of defining what Conservatism in London is for, what it can deliver for Londoners and how it can address the new challenges created by London’s success.
Yes, many voters rejected us in London because they felt angry about Brexit. But I can tell you that Londoners feel equally angry about being priced out of their own city, where it’s harder and more expensive to get around and where public services are utterly unresponsive to the hours they must keep.
The city authorities are stuck in an intellectual framework created by Ken Livingstone almost 20 years ago. They are completely ill-equipped to address today’s housing crisis, the regulatory challenge of Uber and AirBnB and the challenge of how to improve air quality whilst keeping the city moving.
There needs to be intellectual renewal in London. Are we content to be absent from that debate? Are we saying we have nothing to offer?
I believe we have the combined talents to provide that fresh thinking – though many such talents lost their seats in the election. But we’re not a think tank. We are facing a fight for our political lives in London. If we don’t begin the process of filling that leadership vacuum and giving ourselves a regional identity – as Ruth Davidson did in Scotland – then don’t be surprised if London becomes a permanent electoral black hole.