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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. 

London. Photo: Getty
The Tories need more than economic success to win votes. Photo: Getty

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.