The strange neglect of the Conservative Party’s London problem

The usual complaint in British politics is that too much attention is given to London. Some of this can be overblown, caricaturing London as rich and overlooking its high poverty rates. But even as someone who has lived in London most of their life, I have to agree that much of the time the complaint is reasonable. Our politics and our media are far too centred on London.

Which makes it all the odder that the Conservative Party’s electoral prospects in London are so neglected.

Greater London elected 73 MPs in 2019, a quarter more than Scotland’s 59 MPs and only four fewer than the combined total of MPs for Scotland, Devon and Cornwall. It’s a big chunk of the electoral map.

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Yet in 2019 the Conservatives won only 21 of those seats. That’s a number that’s falling, as shown by comparison with their two previous general election wins with a decent majority: 27 seats won in 2015 and as many as 58 (yes, 58 – out of 84) in 1987.

Nor is this just about seats, In 2019, despite being led by a former Mayor of London, the Conservatives polled 32%, 13 points lower than their share across Great Britain, and down on 2017 even though their country-wide vote share was up. In 1987, they were on 47%, four points above their national share.

It’s a similar story of decline at council level too. In 2022, the Conservatives won just 22% of the council seats in London, the lowest on record since the modern system of local government was introduced in 1964. But that was not just a mid-term blip., as the previous 2018 elections were the joint-second worst on record. Even in 1998, just after Labour’s landslide, the Conservatives won 28%.

There’s a long term downwards trend for the Conservatives, one which could be extended to a story of the decline of urban Conservatism in the country’s largest cities more generally.

London used to be an important part of putting together a winning Conservative coalition at general elections. Yet there is very little angst amongst Conservatives, or those who comment on them, about the long-term prospects for the party in London (and other big cities).

It’s a curious omission, an over-reaction to the London dominance in other areas that results in the Conservative decline in what used to such an electorally important area for the party going mostly uncommented.

UPDATE: Lewis Baston has an excellent slide deck on this issue.

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3 responses to “The strange neglect of the Conservative Party’s London problem”

  1. and I hope their demise doesn’t take too much longer. The absolute key will be persuading Starmer’s Labour to go for electoral reform. Change to PR will mean the break up of the factions of the Tory party, who theoretically could coalesce after anelection, but in practise will compete with each other before, ensuring that another well organised party can take the seat.
    PR could dismantle the arrogant dominance of the ‘broad church’ single party control, and ensure concensus politics for the future.. That would lead us to a return to the EU, fair tax reform, and the rest, as the minority who control the power now would be shifted to the margins.
    So where is the public ABC campaign that we need..?

  2. The “very little angst amongst Conservatives, or those who comment on them, about the long-term prospects for the party in London” is perhaps due to the depletion o Conservative MPs in the capital and the consequent lack o MP voice within their party. The Conservatives seem to be a hyperlocal barons willing to do battle to hold a seat but only their personal seat.

  3. You could have made the same criticism of the Tories by 1987 and 1992. And people did. But about the north. The Tories by the late 80s were going backwards up north but were stilling winning big because of their domination of the South, including London. I guess parties tend to take the path of least resistance! The Tories did quite alright in 2015, winning even in diverse inner London areas like Battersea by a good margin. But Brexit has obviously dented them and their appeal to the middle class in London. I think we’ll have to have a Labour govt that annoys middle class Londoners before the Tories regain support in London. Khan is doing a decent job of that already, suburbia isn’t loving ULEZ.

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