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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser