Featured, Features, The 650 | 5th May 2015

Red London is turning redder. The Conservatives should be terrified

Whatever happens in the rest of the UK, it will be a good night for Labour in London.

Photo: Getty

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London rarely suffers from a lack of attention. But the understandable preoccupation with Scotland has rendered the election campaign an exception: London’s 73 seats have attracted far less interest than Scotland’s 59.

To Labourites unable to comprehend events north of Berwick-upon-Tweed, the capital provides some solace. A recent YouGov poll gave Labour a 12-point lead in the capital, up from two points in 2010. The party could gain up to ten seats here – even Finchley & Golders Green, the bulk of which formed Margaret Thatcher’s old constituency.

The seat is 89th on Labour’s list of target seats, which should notionally put it out of the party’s reach. But talk that Labour can win here is more than just bluster: a poll from Lord Ashcroft two weeks ago found Labour leading by two points.

The Tories are clearly worried: David Cameron and Boris Johnson have both made recent visits to the seat, despite the fact that Conservative MP Mike Freer has both a 6,000 majority and the benefits of incumbency.

In Finchley, Labour’s candidate has put protecting Britain’s place in Europe on her campaign leaflet

In many ways Finchley seems like a consummate Tory fit. It is in London but somehow a little removed from it: strolling out of East Finchley tube station, one is greeted by a ‘Welcome to East Finchley Village’ sign. Away from the high street, swathes of smart Victorian terraced housing forms the hub of the constituency.

But the protruding council estates hint at a different side to the constituency. The seat’s stark inequality makes it “a microcosm of London”, Sarah Sackman, Labour’s fizzy candidate, tells me.

The streets of Finchley were once the centrepiece of Thatcher’s vision of a property-owning democracy. No longer. “That Thatcherite promise has been betrayed by her followers in the Conservative Party,” Sackman tells me in a coffee shop next to Labour’s campaign HQ. Across London, a majority of households rent property rather than own it; the capital has the highest percentage of renters of any region in England and Wales, a trend which is beneficial for Labour, because it comfortably out-polls the Tories among renters. It is no coincidence that the second issue on Sackman’s campaign literature – after the NHS – is “Affordable, secure homes to buy or rent.”

She has no shortage of volunteers spreading her message. What remains of Labour’s election optimism is fuelled by belief in the party’s ground game: energetic volunteers, like a woman from Islington who has taken four weeks off work to campaign, who can drum up support and ensure supporters get to the polling booth on election day. “We’ve got quite a data heavy approach,” Alison Moore, the leader of the Labour group in the council, tells me; the Ashcroft poll found that 60% of constituents had recently heard from Labour’s campaign, but only 34% from the Conservatives.

Across Labour’s 12 target seats in London, eight are female

Party officials say the lessons of Arnie Graf, the American community organiser, have been absorbed. Graf visited all 106 target seats, with a message that local parties should be seen to be doing things to improve their areas even in opposition. But he left Labour last year, with many mocking the notion that his techniques could be successfully imported from Chicago.

The local Labour Party was not among them. Sackman shows me a large leaflet containing a map of the constituency, with arrows highlighting campaigns she has been involved in – protecting libraries, organising a petition to stop the closure of a GP Health Centre, and campaigning to overturn funding cuts for disabled children’s playschemes. “We’ve shown how the Labour Party is not just knocking on the door at election time but is working and serving the community all year round and that has given us a way in with voters,” she says. It is a task made much easier by the early selection in the constituency: Sackman was selected in September 2013, giving her almost two years to hone her campaign.

Sackman is typical of the candidates Labour has selected in London. She is a local – her parents still live here, and have been campaigning for her – chosen with the specifics of the seat in mind. She hopes to be the constituency’s first Jewish MP in a seat where the Jewish population is 21%, the highest in the country.

And Labour’s candidate in Finchley & Golders Green fits in with the trend to choose younger, and often female, candidates, painting an unflattering contrast with the ‘male, pale and stale’ Conservatives. Across Labour’s 12 target seats in London, eight are female (including two from ethnic minorities): one reason why Labour has an extraordinary 19 point lead among female voters in the capital, compared with a six-point lead among men.

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Even under the leadership of Gordon Brown in 2010, Labour still won 38 seats in London. But the capital has not always been as receptive to Labour’s message. In the 1980s, London’s Labour Party seemed to be offering Bennism on speed; the militant leftism of Labour in local government contributed to the Conservatives winning the capital by 14 points in 1983 and 15 in 1987.

The Conservatives face the ‘Romney problem’ – relying on an ever-greater share of the vote from a declining segment of the population.

The capital has not become a socialist fiefdom. But Labour has established itself as the party seen as best representing the modern capital. Fifty-one years after a Tory candidate in Smethwick in the West Midlands was elected with the slogan “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour”; 25 years after the Tebbit test; and two after the release of the notorious ‘Go Home or Face Arrest’ vans, the party remains toxic to many ethnic minorities: just 16% of ethnic minority voters plumped for the Tories in 2010.

Labour’s success in London, Sackman believes, is being seen as embodying “a certain liberalism, tolerance, and openness” and “embracing diversity, recognising it as a strength and not shying away from it”. She has even put protecting Britain’s place in Europe on her campaign leaflet.

Today, white Britons make up a minority of the capital. “Such demographic change could help Labour whatever happens across the rest of the country on election night,” says Adam Ludlow of ComRes. In Ilford North the ethnic minority population rose 21% from 2001 to 2011, which could be critical in swinging a marginal seat back to Labour.

For its ethnic diversity, youth – the average age is 34 – and highly skilled population, London has been called the future of the UK. It is a pretty terrifying prospect for the Conservatives. Unless the party can transform its image with ethnic minorities, it faces the ‘Romney problem’ – relying on an ever-greater share of the vote from a declining segment of the population.

What is today’s London problem could become an existential crisis for the Conservatives. Had ethnic minorities been as likely as the white British population to vote for the Tories in 2010, David Cameron would have won a narrow majority. And 500,000 ethnic minority voters have been added to the electoral roll since.

“Given how diverse London now is, and the extreme problems the Tories face with BME voters, it’s definitely a very significant obstacle for the Tories,” warns Yougov’s Anthony Wells. Unless the Tories reach out to ethnic minorities then, as immigrants move out of the capital to the suburbs and take their anti-Conservative feelings with them, fiefdoms in the South risk falling. The danger really extends far beyond the BME vote: for white Brits at home in the ethnically diverse and socially liberal capital, voting Tory risks become counter-cultural.

When the next review to electoral boundaries reports in 2018, the rise in London’s population will be reflected by an increase in seats.

Of course it does not have to be this way. Gavin Barwell, an assiduous, socially liberal and notably pro-immigration MP who is on course to retain the marginal seat of Croydon Central, provides a template for how Conservatives can be successful in the capital and beyond; so does Boris Johnson’s two election victories for Mayor, though he benefited from a smaller, older and whiter electorate.

London also provides a reminder that the notion that wealthier voters will never vote for Labour is hogwash. This should give heart to Labour that it could eventually improve its fortunes elsewhere in the South where, excluding London, only ten out of 197 seats south of the Severn-Wash line went their way in 2010.

The lessons of its capital gains will not be easy to replicate. The rest of the south has an older and less diverse electorate. Rural and thinly populated areas also act as a barrier to replicating the intensive campaigning that has been successful for Labour in London: voters are harder to reach, and there are fewer young volunteers to reach them with.

Still, there is the sense that Labour has rather abandoned trying. The only route to an electoral rejuvenation in the South lies in displacing the Lib Dems as the anti-Tory opposition, winning council seats and then – as in Finchley – being seen to make a difference even while not providing the local MP.

In its voting habits as in so much else, London can give the impression of playing by its own rules. But neither main party can afford to ignore the lessons of the capital – or its electoral clout. When the next review to electoral boundaries reports in 2018, the rise in London’s population will be reflected by an increase in seats. Unless London’s electorate became more receptive to the Tory message, it will act as a roadblock to the Conservatives ever winning a majority again.