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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit