Corbyn’s Capital City Effect
September 14, 2015
It is perhaps with a sense of deserved satisfaction that many of us Conservatives watched the unseemly civil war break out in the Labour Party this summer. After all, we have had plenty of our own moments of public soul-searching in the years that followed Tony Blair’s resounding 1997 victory. The neurotic (and ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to kill off Jeremy Corbyn’s bid for the Labour leadership highlighted the extent of the uphill battle Labour has to win back support in Scotland, tackle the threat from UKIP (which came a surprisingly strong second in many northern parliamentary seats in May), and appeal once again to Middle England at the same time as uniting its parliamentary party and grassroots.
Nonetheless, as a London Conservative MP, I am a little less sanguine about our chances against the new Opposition leader.
Since 1951 it was unknown for a governing party not also to command a majority of seats in the Capital, but that is precisely what resulted from the 2010 and 2015 General Elections. We may have done a fantastic job in breaching the Liberal Democrat fortresses of South West London in May, but elsewhere we saw Angie Bray, Lee Scott, Mary Macleod and Nick de Bois slide to defeat as Labour increased its tally of London MPs to 45 out of 73 on the back of a 3.5% swing to Ed Miliband’s Party. Today in the Capital we stand nine points behind Labour – in 1992, we were eight points ahead. Yet the national Conservative lead in vote share and outcome for these two General Elections, only 23 years apart, was almost identical.
As London Conservatives well know, Labour’s campaigning machine in the Capital is formidable. But we should not forget either that it was in London that Ed Miliband’s retail offering had most resonance, exploiting as it did growing unease about the city’s wealth divide. It is precisely the message that Jeremy Corbyn – a Central London MP himself – used to great effect in his leadership bid and which motivated a broad coalition of Londoners to support him, particularly young urban and suburban dwellers struggling with high rents, student debt and suppressed wages.
The central idea underpinning Corbyn’s policy programme – that once the rich have paid their ‘fair share’ then all our debt and deficit problems will be solved – seems faintly ludicrous beyond London, where there are simply not enough well-off voters to fund Labour’s lavish redistribution plans. Yet in a city that is home to the global superrich, where £25 million mansions accrue the same council tax bill as properties over twenty times less valuable, super cars race down Park Lane and ‘Middle England’ is a dwindling contingent, the proposition appears far less preposterous. It is London where many feel the rich should not only pay their share but deserve to be penalised for the apparently distortive effects of their vast wealth, particularly when it comes to the property market. Anyone working the doorsteps of the Capital during the campaign will have found that these sentiments extended far beyond socialist voters in Labour’s London heartlands to formerly Tory-voting professionals in the leafier suburbs. It is very difficult to get cut-through with our message of aspiration when a family-sized home is quite literally a pipedream to many, and ownership of a mere studio flat an impossibly distant goal.
Meanwhile in spite of the compelling story we have to tell on employment, the incomes of 22 to 30 year-olds remain almost 8% down on 2007, before the financial crash. Today a greater proportion of their salaries and wages is also devoted to living and housing costs. Indeed housing has become such a toxic issue in the Capital that more and more Londoners are beginning to believe that nothing short of a major market intervention is required and open their minds to the kind of radical policy prescriptions that Jeremy Corbyn actively promotes. In addition, for all its enterprise and trade, London still has a significant number of public sector workers in the civil service and local authorities. With 900 000 jobs axed in the public sector over the course of the last parliament, I was not surprised to meet a number of former public servants who felt that a vote for the Conservatives was directly contrary to their own interests.
It would be wrong to overstate the appeal of Labour in London under Jeremy Corbyn. After all, being a populist does not always make you popular and he still presents an enormous risk in isolating centre-ground voters, regardless of his authentic appeal. However his message undeniably taps into a growing sense of scepticism towards the notion that hard work and talent translate into reward in modern day London. A focused Conservative government will hopefully spend the next five years addressing bubbling unease in the Capital with a positive offering that involves infrastructure investment (with rapid decisions on Crossrail II and airport expansion), significantly more high quality homes, the entrenchment of our education reforms and, above all, a dynamic economy that continues to offer exciting opportunities to ever more people.
But we must also wake up to the fact that over the past decade, London’s politics have been diverging ever more from the rest of the UK.