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.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.