Conservative London’s problems didn’t begin in 2017 – they were clear in 2015 under Cameron
Given a likely divergence in London and the rest of the country in the local elections, it is worth trying to understand when and how such it occurred. In 2015, the London swing from the Conservatives to Labour was 3.5 per cent in Labour’s favour (compared to 0.4 per cent in the rest of the country) and saw Labour take four seats from the Conservatives. Had the rest of the country swung along these lines, Ed Miliband would have been Prime Minister.
So, far from Theresa May being the source of the Conservative’s London problem, the difficulties were clear even as David Cameron managed to gain a national majority. The 2017 general election saw continuing divergence, with a swing of around six per cent – although this time, the national Conservative to Labour swing was around two per cent. In both elections the Conservative to Labour swing was around three to four per cent higher in London than the rest of the country. The issue predates May’s premiership.
Ownership, immigration, and ‘Crony capitalism’ explain London’s Conservative decline and Labour rise
The first issue working against the Conservatives is the collapse of home ownership in London. While this is declining everywhere, in London this trend has gone further and faster than elsewhere – now standing at roughly half of all households, versus often more than seven or eight in ten for most Conservative heartlands.
In addition, there appears to be no hope in sight for many locked out in London. While in 2010 London house prices were too high they had at least dropped a little, but by 2015 London house price to income ratios were now even higher than in 2007. By 2016, GLA data showed home ownership for 25-34 year olds stood at 27 per cent and 46 per cent for those aged 35-44 in London. Moreover, many owners are trapped in homes too small for their family needs. Somehow, Labour, who oppose allowing under-used shops and offices to become homes, green belt development, estate regeneration, industrial land converting to homes, and limited migration, are seen as better housing champions than the Tories. We badly need a simple housing narrative in general, and in London most of all.
The second factor that has crippled the Conservatives is continuing high levels of immigration into London. This is not to say that we should become more pro-migration. Many commentators simply look at our difficulties with BME voters and argue we should ditch migration reductions or, say, the ‘compliant environment’ policy for illegal migrants. While the Windrush cases are a tragedy of box-ticking over common sense that must be rectified, polling, both directly and in voting intention, indicates a continuing support for firm policies, and seems to show Labour losing out from the row more than the Tories, because people fear they don’t believe in removing illegal migrants at all (probably correctly). Sajid Javid’s challenge is to make a system more user-friendly and sensible, without abandoning the attempts to police our borders.
Since current levels of gross migration (subtracting returning UK citizens) are still historically high at 500,000 or so new long-term migrants a year – roughly the same as the New Labour years, About 3.5 million new migrants entered Britain from 2010-17, and it is unclear why increasing this total still further would help. Nationally, a small four per cent decline in the BME Conservative vote in 2017 is likely to largely reflect a shift in the composition of BME voters (more younger, renting BME voters in 2017 than 2015 voted, thus reducing our vote share).
Any immigration rise would also have to move BME voters hugely toward us to make it work in electoral terms. The BME vote in 2017 split 19 per cent and Labour 73 per cent. A ten per cent swing toward us would still leave us with a gap of over 30 per cent, and even a 20 per cent swing would leave us 14 per cent down. We need a 27 per cent swing just to break even. A migrant amnesty would be the shortest route to a Corbyn Government possible.
Over time, most migrants become more like the host population as they integrate and to some extent assimilate – on everything from religious observance to fertility, and voting appears to fit with this (albeit convergence is slower than some other areas). Divides tend to reflect the remaining objective or personal features (e.g. poorer migrants and their descendants will tend to vote Labour and richer ones Conservative, patriotic ones will vote Conservative, those obsessed with identity politics Labour).
However, a robust and fascinating Swiss study finds that second generation migrants vote more left-wing than class predicts when they identify with new struggling migrants from their or similar backgrounds. So higher migration could actually reduce our ability to increase the BME vote (and identity politics is almost certainly totally counterproductive for the right). No survey has found BME voters want to see higher immigration – and most show an outright majority of BME voters want it reduced. Data also shows that BME voters tend to perceive they are more likely to lose out in terms of resource to newly arrived migrants than the public as a whole. Maintaining high migration rates has not been an electoral success in London.
A much better policy would be to bear down overall on migration numbers while allowing higher skilled and English-speaking migrants (particularly, I’d argue strongly, Indian immigrants, but from all over the world) to increase their share of a shrinking total. After all, even in 2017, if we’d won BME votes at the same rate as Indian heritage votes, an increasingly affluent group generally slowly breaking in our favour, we’d almost certainly have a majority. A similar principle stands out for EU migrants, currently excluded from voting in general elections. We should support, and lavish attention on, more affluent high skill English speaking migrants, but reduce other flows.
The final reason for the continuing decline is crony capitalism. Much of London looks more private sector than it really is. I’ve argued before on this site about the growth of the New Professional Class – a group of heavily regulated sectors whose profits link more to Government policy than consumer pressures. Unlike genuinely competitive private sector bodies, a subsidy reliant green company, a planning consultancy thriving off the back of complexity, an arts company which derives crucial support from state backing, and a shoddy university where graduates never pay back their loan would all struggle without state support, despite being recorded as private sector. London is the place where such quasi-private sector bodies flourish. Such groups have many Tory champions, but it is clear that in London their growth has been electorally toxic. There’s also the fact that if we sound like crony capitalists (and to many we do) then we cannot defeat Corbyn, since he promises the same kind of system but run in the interest of the many not the few.
The solution is a London more like England not an England more like London
For some London Conservatives and media commentators, the solution to our London woes is to make England more like London. There is little data or logic behind such an approach. The answer instead is to make London more like the rest of England over time – which, through sensible housing, immigration and wider policies is entirely possible – if the leadership of our party want.