It may be cold comfort to the party, but Labour bucked the national election trend in London. It gained seven seats, increasing its number of London MPs to 45 out of 73. The Conservatives have 27 seats in London, and are down one MP since the last election.
It is rare that the party that wins the election loses London. In 1992, the Tories were eight points ahead in London. Today, they’re nine points behind, but have a similar national lead as they had back then. It’s a huge swing, and while Labour hasn’t exactly been celebrating its performance London seats, there is reason for Tories to be fearful about their future prospects in the capital.
Mark Field, Tory MP for the Cities of London and Westminster since 2001 (and formerly a councillor in the neighbouring Kensington and Chelsea constituency), is concerned about his party’s position in London. Particularly in light of what he sees as the rest of the country being “increasingly hostile towards London”. Field was the Conservatives’ London spokesperson back in 2005, and has been watching the capital closely throughout his political career.
“This and the 2010 election are the first time since the war that the party winning in London hasn’t also won the election,” he says, when I meet him at his parliamentary office in the week following the election.
He warns his party that its overall message, compared with Ed Miliband’s, was not as attractive to Londoners.
“I had three or four conversations where I helped out in key marginals, and even in my own constituency, with people who worked in the public sector, middle-class professionals, and their view was that some of the messaging coming from the coalition was very aggressive towards the public sector,” he observes. “Clearly there have been 900,000 jobs that have been axed in the public sector. And London shouldn’t forget, for all its enterprise and trade, it still has a significant number of public sector workers, both in the civil service and in local authorities who live here.”
In contrast, he is quite complimentary about Labour’s offer to Londoners: “I think, in fairness, the retail offer from Miliband was quite positive for London, particularly in relation to capping rents.
“I think in London, there’s a sense that it has become so polarised, so unequal, that you can make an argument, and Labour was able to make that argument – and I felt it had some resonance in London, with London voters – which is the rich can pay a bit more. Because there are now so evidently a lot of very wealthy people around who aren’t paying huge amounts of money in council tax, because of the way in which council tax operates, and in various other ways.
“Nationally, it’s a pretty fatuous argument because there are not enough rich people to be able to sub up all of the improvements in public services that Labour were talking about,” he adds.
“But I think in London it had more resonance as an argument because of the huge disparities of wealth within the capital – not just with the relatively poverty-stricken Londoners, but with a lot of middle-class, previously Tory-voting Londoners, who actually gave more credence to that sort of argument.”
He also sees Labour’s ground war as “generally superior” – highlighting “the importance of all that activism on the ground”.
Field admits he had an “innate pessimism about the outcome of the election, right through to the election day”, which derived from “what I was seeing on the doorsteps in other London seats. Clearly the metropolitan appeal for Miliband’s Labour was there . . . one of the biggest criticisms we did face was that we were too much on the side of the rich and the privileged, and so it isn’t a surprise that we [now] want to redouble our efforts to be seen as broader than that, which, in fairness, we are.”
The next biggest challenge in London for the Tories is the mayoral election. As a cluster of high-profile Labourites jostle to be their party’s candidate, the Conservatives have been notably quiet on the subject. There have been whispers of a celebrity candidate – Karren Brady, Jeremy Paxman and Sol Campbell are names that have floated around over recent months. Is this the best path to take to be in with a chance?
“In a way, part of the problem of the mayoralty is that it still has pretty limited powers outside the areas of transportation and policing,” Field replies. “We’ve now had two mayors in Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, who’ve both been regarded slightly as mavericks in their own parties, and therefore we tend to look at a mayor within the prism of someone who’s got to be slightly off-beat, as opposed to someone who’s a fantastic administrator, who can get on and crunch through and do the work. And I don’t think that’s going to change . . .
“Given the relatively limited political powers that the role has, it almost lends itself quite well to a quasi-celebrity. And that may well be the route we will take as a party, to be able to have someone who is able to offer that.”
In terms of a Tory London mayor’s values, Field would first and foremost like to see somebody who will “make the case that we need a much more rational and calm approach to immigration”. As a member of the Conservatives for Managed Migration group, he holds this subject close to his heart:
“We need to get students out of the figures . . . At a fundamental level, it [the party] needs a more nuanced approach towards immigration. And I think, to be fair, both Boris Johnson and David Cameron actually, are not really in their heart-of-hearts obsessed by the figures. They’ve had to talk about having an aspiration to reduce the [net migration figure] to tens of thousands, but they all know it’s much more nuanced than that. And the public I think has a much more nuanced approach on it as well.”