The Conservative Party’s urban crisis: Why the Party needs to do more to win back support in urban areas

By Mateo Quintero

Image: The Guardian

With the Conservative Party currently riding high in the national opinion polls, Theresa May the only Party leader with positive opinion ratings and the Labour Party and all other opposition parties in disarray, it may seem as if the Conservative Party will be sitting pretty at the summit of British politics for the foreseeable future. However, the party is currently facing an invisible threat which the party has done little to address, namely its collapsing support in urban areas.

The Conservative Party has an amazing ability to perform strongly among its “middle England” voter base, having secured 41% of the popular vote in England as a whole in 2015. However, in England’s major urban areas, the Party performed disproportionately badly, as in London where it only secured 34% of the vote and 36% of its 73 constituencies, while the Labour Party (which won only 31% of the popular vote in England as a whole) won 44% of the popular vote in London and 64% of its 73 constituencies. The Conservatives performed similarly badly in the two other major urban areas of England, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, where it received under 30% of the vote in both regions and an alarming 21% of the 55 constituencies in both regions combined.

This poor performance by the party in the urban areas is in contrast to the last election where it won a majority of parliamentary seats, the 1992 election. Many would find this hard to believe today, but the Party actually won a plurality of both the popular vote and parliamentary seats in London, securing 45% of the popular vote and 57% of the seats in a city which many in CCHQ now regard as a no-go zone during general elections. This collapse in the Conservative Party’s urban vote has occurred in less than 20 years and has allowed Labour to build a “red wall” around the major urban areas. This in-turn creates a vicious cycle for the party, the worse it performs in urban areas meaning less time and money is spent campaigning in these areas during future elections leading eventually to even worse performances for Conservative candidates in urban areas.

 

“White, posh and rural”

 

However, the question facing CCHQ is how can they compete in urban areas – such as London – where they were once able to compete and win without putting disproportionate focus on them. The failure of the party is in its belief that, to succeed in metropolitan areas, it needs to adopt every socially liberal policy position without question, while keeping every other feature of the party the same. This was seen during David Cameron’s modernisation project, which mainly took place between 2005-10, and saw the party shift from being a moderately social conservative party to a socially liberal party, with centre left positions on gay marriage, the environment and social decay (remember “Vote Blue Go Green” and “Hug a Hoodie”) among other issues.

This modernisation achieved the worst of both worlds for the party as it did not deliver the electoral dividends for the party in urban Britain (the Conservatives won only 34% of the popular vote in London in 2010 and 38% of its seats, a performance which basically repeated itself 5 years later in 2015) while also serving to repel traditional social conservatives in Southern and Eastern England, mainly to UKIP which from 2011 onwards began to split the Conservative vote in council and parliamentary by-elections.

The failure of David Cameron’s attempt to woo urban Britain may be due to his failure to change the brand of the Conservative Party which for many in urban Britain still did not reflect them. Out of the past 5 Conservative Party leaders, 4 of them (David Cameron, Michael Howard, Ian Duncan Smith and William Hague) have been Oxbridge educated white men from rural England, meaning that while David Cameron may have shifted several policy positions of the party, he did little to change the “white, posh and rural” perception which is held by many of the party in London, Birmingham and Manchester. It is telling that the last Conservative leader to win a plurality of seats and votes in London was from an urban area and was not Oxbridge educated. John Major, who secured the Conservative Party’s last victory in London in 1992 made much of his working class upbringing in the South London area of Brixton during the election campaign along with the fact that he did not even attend university, let alone Oxbridge. This plays into the notion that the vast majority of voters do not look into the intricate policy details of every Party’s manifesto but instead look at the central message and the messenger. Put simply, the messenger for the Tories in 1992, John Major, was a relatable figure for many living in urban areas while Eton-educated David Cameron was not.

Image: Conservative Home

The continued lack of high profile ethnic minority Conservative ministers will also further serve to convince many in urban Britain that the Tories are the party of rural England and not of them. The fact that only two cabinet ministers (Sajid Javid and Priti Pattel) are members of an ethnic minority is damaging for the party in an era when Western governments are becoming increasingly representative of their country’s ethnic and social makeup. Take the cabinet of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government in Canada where 50% of its members are female and 6 members are of an ethnic minority group, including the high profile position of Defence Minister which is served by Harjit Sajjan. Trudeau’s diverse shadow cabinet undoubtedly helped the Liberal Party’s performance in Canada’s major urban areas in 2015 where it won all the constituencies in Toronto, all but two in Vancouver and all but five in Montreal, three cities which have large and vibrant ethnic minority communities.

The Conservative Party’s failure to understand the issue of representation was further highlighted in the 2016 London Mayoral election when it nominated Eton-educated millionaire Zac Goldsmith over the London educated working class MEP Syed Kamall, who would have surely given Sadiq Khan a closer contest. The fact that the Conservative leadership believed that Zac Goldsmith could win London because of his reported environmentalism shows their lack of understanding in urban voters’ wish to have politicians who look and speak like them, not identikit politicians who have vaguely socially liberal policy positions.

Increased representation of ethnic minority groups and those from a working class upbringing in the Conservative Party (among the Conservative cabinet and Conservative election candidates) is a simple way to attract support in urban areas, without losing support in its middle England heartlands. That way Conservative policy positions can be maintained, which will help retain the support of traditional conservatives, while also giving a voice to urban Britain.

The Conservative Party’s continued failure to make inroads in urban areas means that it could potentially be susceptible to a 1997-style landslide once Labour regroups. An electable Labour leader, such as Chuka Umunna, with strong leadership qualities could secure a confidence and supply agreement with the SNP in Scotland without being seen as weak enough to cave into their demands, as was the case with Ed Miliband in 2015. This would help Labour attack the Conservative middle England heartlands, as Tony Blair did successfully in 1997 and with an impenetrable ‘red wall’ around England’s urban areas, Labour could once again win big in a general election.