Iain Duncan Smith is a former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, founded the Centre for Social Justice, and is MP for Chingford and Woodford Green.
At the end of last week, as the results of the local elections were declared, I was asked to spend a couple of hours sitting in a BBC studio discussing the collapsing Labour vote with the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell. This was a slightly strange feeling, as I am a London MP and we didn’t have any local elections. For us in London, the last couple of weeks have been all about the national campaign. Unfettered by the need to talk about separate local council candidates, the canvassing has centred on core election messages.
So, while it was pleasant to watch as Andy Street won a brilliant victory in the West Midlands, I couldn’t help my feeling of unease as some commentators started casting forwards to the 8th June and asking what they referred to as the ‘scale of the Conservative victory’. I am uneasy because most of us in London feel there is a great deal to do if we are to gain seats in the capital. It is worth remembering that, at the last general election, Labour were ahead of the Conservatives in London by approximately ten per cent, which is why at the same time we were gaining seats across the UK in 2015, overall we lost against Labour in London. That’s why, for us, Theresa May’s comment that we shouldn’t take anything for granted really means something. After all, London is Corbyn’s power base, particularly in East London, where Momentum draws so much of its angry brigade from.
Interestingly, the evidence we are getting in the marginals is that some Labour voters are beginning to hesitate about casting their vote for what they often refer to as ‘that man’. The returns are beginning to show that where they were pretty rock solid in their support for Ed Milliband in 2015, they are now either talking of not voting at all or even thinking of voting Conservative (the latter still a much smaller number).
In too many seats, Labours lead in 2015 was exacerbated by a significant showing by UKIP who took many votes from Conservatives. In the case of my two neighbours, Lee Scott and Nick de Bois, as with others, that was enough for them to lose their seats. Getting those back is a base minimum requirement.
Yet it’s difficult to generalise about London, particularly when it comes to the Liberal Democrats. For example, whilst their collapse in 2015 was good for Conservatives in South West London, with most transferring their vote to the Conservatives, it was bad for seats in North East London, where they returned to the Labour Party.
So far in the seats during the campaign, I haven’t yet seen evidence of the Lib Dem surge that so many commentators forecast at the start of the campaign. This may be to do with their USP. The Lib Dems have decided that in London, which voted predominantly remain in the referendum, their determination to have another referendum on Brexit should be a vote winner. However, I am seeing little evidence that it is.
In fact, I am wondering if it yet may turn out to be a vote loser. For, although there are some very committed Remainers who desperately want to reverse the decision, I’ve found that most don’t seem to want that second referendum. As one voter said to me, “I voted to remain and others in my family voted to leave, we all fell out badly over the vote and we are only now beginning to get over it. The last thing I want is to reopen those wounds so soon; we just need to get on with it.” I’ve had that kind of response from a number of people. I find that the best answer is to say that no-one is interested any more in what people voted in the referendum, the issue now is how to get a good deal for the UK, and for that we need a strong leader with a good mandate.
It is worth reflecting that, when we entered this election, the Labour Party were still ahead in the polls in London, unlike much of the country. Although the gap is smaller than in 2015, it is still going to pose some challenges to all Conservatives over the next four and a half weeks, as we look to gain not just the seats we lost in 2015 but also enough to become the majority party in London once again.
As the recent mayoral campaign showed, London is a complex city of very different races and creeds. We also know Labour will stop at nothing to hold on. I hope everyone remembers the vile anti-semitic campaign that Lee Scott had to deal with, as well as the death threats and police protection which meant he was unable to get about as he would have done. Top marks to Lee for standing again, but I am sure this kind of nasty campaigning will erupt once more. That is why, if we are to win here, we will require care as never before as we get out our message. Perhaps the best way to ensure we succeed is to temper our simple messages down to ward level so that voters understand what’s at stake and why it is necessary to return Theresa May to Number Ten on the 8th of June. Oh yes, and it will need bodies, plenty of bodies – so if you were wondering what to do to help, get to one of the marginals and take some friends to help out.