Published in the Evening Standard on Monday, 05 March 2018.
Though neck and neck with Labour in national polls, the political picture looks pretty grim for Conservatives in London. My latest research, published today, finds just a quarter of London voters, and only six in ten Tories, saying they approve of the Government’s record.
Londoners gave Mrs May an average performance score of 35 out of 100, compared to 47 for Jeremy Corbyn and 53 for Sadiq Khan, who topped our table. Some admired her stoicism, but she tended to arouse sympathy rather than anything more positive (“I’m surprised she hasn’t had a nervous breakdown,” as one of our focus group participants put it). And those were the charitable views.
But how much does this matter in a local election? Whatever else is going on, surely Londoners associate the Tories with good services and value for money?
Well, up to a point. Even in Conservative authorities, I found only a third of voters, and less than half of 2017 Tories, associating the party with lower council tax; fewer than one in five, and one in three Tories, think of them as offering both.
People in Tory council areas were more likely than those in Labour areas to think their council was well-run — but fewer than half thought it made much difference which party ran the council when it came to the quality of its services or the amount it charged in council tax.
We found people in Westminster who were well aware their Band D council tax was the lowest in the country. But they were at least as inclined to put this down to the gold seam of usurious parking charges and traffic fines as they were to credit any Tory genius for financial management. If a council happens to be good at its job of dealing with bins and potholes, what has that really got to do with party politics?
Many in Westminster and Wandsworth, including some previous Tory voters, felt there had been a price to pay for years of low council tax. Since austerity played a big part in driving many away from the Tories nationally, they were often alert to its effects in their neighbourhoods. If a modest rise in council tax under Labour would mean more social housing and better services for people in need, some argued, then maybe it was about time.
Others who had abandoned the Tories last year to vent their displeasure over Brexit were happy with their low bills and clean streets. They would have to balance the possibility of putting these things at risk against the chance of giving the Government another good kicking.
Council tax ranked only fifth when we asked what would matter in their voting decision. Only 23 per cent of Londoners named it, fewer than those who mentioned Brexit. Top of the list was local health services, followed by housing (the biggest single issue for voters aged up to 49) and crime. Police station closures were often mentioned; local Tories may struggle to argue they are not responsible.
The folk memory of “loony Left” Labour councils with high taxes, shambolic services and extremist policies has all but disappeared, too. Londoners who voted in large numbers for Corbyn’s party last summer have few qualms about seeing the party assume power locally.
The other is election territory. Our analysis identified two key types of ward. We called these Liberally Affluent, made up of highly qualified professionals and students, and Village London, comprising settled professionals and families. These voted heavily for Remain, were decisive in the lost Tory seats of Battersea, Kensington, Kingston and Twickenham, and helped give them a nasty scare in Putney. They will be returning to the polls in the blue boroughs of Kensington & Chelsea, Kingston, Richmond, and of course Wandsworth and Westminster.
Nationally, even those who are not inclined to punish the Tories for Brexit see an embattled PM and a government divided by Europe, which seems to lack the energy to deal with other urgent issues. We have seen before what happens when the Tories look like this and people look beyond Labour’s traditional shortcomings.
The Americans like to say all politics is local. In the London elections, the Tories will hope voters see things that way. They have two months to convince them.
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