The Tories need more than economic success to win votes. Photo: Getty
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London is booming – so why are the Tories shedding votes there?

Elections will be determined by micro attitudes to immigration, globalisation and the political class as much as the economy. 

Consumer confidence has risen to its highest point since July 2007, a new YouGov study finds. Given the expectations that the Conservatives will enjoy a growth dividend in May 2015, this should be another cause for Tory cheer.

Economic confidence is greatest in London: it is almost a year ahead of the other regions, and 19 months ahead of the North East. If elections hinge on the economy, the capital should be nascent electoral ground for the Tories. 

It is not. Labour had a middling set of European and local election results – with one big exception. That was London, where Labour doubled its number of MEPs from two to four and regained control of Hammersmith – David Cameron’s "favourite council" – from the Conservatives. The economic good news didn’t translate into Tory gains – or even consolidation – here.

This has important consequences for 2015 and beyond. It hints at the limits of growth in helping the Conservatives.

London is evidently a special example of this. The Tories’ problems in the capital are intertwined with its own failure among ethnic minority voters. The 2011 Census found that 60 per cent of Londoners are white, compared with 86 per cent in Britain as a whole.

Fifty years after Peter Griffiths defied the Conservatives’ general election defeat to win the seat of Smethwick with the aid of the slogan "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour", the Tories retain profound problems engaging ethnic minorities.

In 2010, just 16 per cent of BME voters supported them, compared to 68 per cent who voted for Labour. Avoiding the ‘Romney problem’ will require fundamental overhaul of the Tory brand: tub-thumping on immigration, including the notorious "Go Home or Face Arrest" vans, has not provided it. Reform to stop-and-search has been laborious, with the risk that any changes that take place now look like an opportunistic pitch for votes. A Tory MP also notes that David Cameron has not delivered a big speech on race this Parliament, which they regard as fundamental to helping the PM detoxify the party’s brand.

The Conservative problem with race is, along with the party’s lingering image as representing the interests of the rich, a big reason why 40 per cent of voters say they would never, ever support the party. Economic success can only go far to compensate for wider problems in the Tory brand, and the demographic makeup of the capital means that the problem is particularly acute there.

But ultimately the lack of connection between the capital’s booming economy and the Tory vote share in London shows something deeper. In an engaging column yesterday, Martin Kettle suggests that the main dividing lines in politics are now not just "left-right" but "open-closed" (meaning attitudes to globalisation) and "insider-outsider" (meaning attitudes to the political class) too. 

The implications are profound. The link between headline GDP figures and voting will become less pronounced. The notion of a "uniform swing" will become ever more hopelessly outdated. Elections will be determined by micro attitudes to immigration, globalisation and the political class as much as the economy. Political parties may aspire to tailoring their messages to suit local tastes, but at the risk of seeming even more inauthentic. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.