Cllr Nick Botterill is the former leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council
The results of last May’s local election result in Hammersmith & Fulham (“H&F”) made some shockwaves at the time. Across the political spectrum it had been said that a combination of fourth lowest council tax in the land, sound finances, high and rising resident satisfaction and competent administration would ensure that H&F would resist the Labour tide; much in the same way as Wandsworth had done in the 1980s.
As the Conservative leader of the council, I was aware of just how much of a knife edge the election really was although I have to admit that at the time I thought we would just squeak back in. In the event it was Labour which just managed to squeak in.
The electoral dynamics of the marginal wards in H&F are complex and wide ranging but there are some broad, consistent themes – lots of currents running of varying importance – but the one constant was that almost all of them were running against us. Can we take away any themes or trends, the understanding of which, may be of use in next year’s general election?
In 2010 we had retained control of H&F council on the same day as the general election and this masked some weaknesses. With a reasonable Liberal Democrat vote and sometimes the odd Green council candidate, our winning percentages in many marginal wards were quite low. This time around, Liberal Democrat support evaporated and went straight to Labour – Greens, where they stood, clearly took Labour votes but this effect was nowhere near enough to the fore to outweigh that of the ex-Liberal Democrats.
While some comfort can be taken from the fact that the Labour vote is in a bit of a flux, for Conservatives to benefit we need the Greens to be doing far better. A far harder and unpalatable proposition is we must seek to garner as many of the Lib Dem deserters as possible or rely on the Lib Dems doing better than the current opinion polls suggest they will.
Most of the other adverse currents flowing against us in H&F were in one way or another a reflection of the ‘London factor’. I have lived in London for the past 28 years (18 of which as a councillor) and the pace of population change is now the fastest it has been over the period. Collectively London is now diverging from the rest of the country so fast that in character and sentiment it represents, in many aspects, a far more distinct and different political proposition from other parts of England than say Wales does.
Another aspect of the ‘London factor’, writ large in H&F, is the massive tenure shift over the past decade and it is owner occupation which has been reducing fastest – down to only a third of all H&F homes!
Private rented accommodation in H&F has, by contrast, shot up to about a third of all homes. Add into the mix the dramatic increase in EU residents, who by and large don’t vote, and we have the makings of atrophying middle class Conservative support in some areas which used to be described as ‘gentrified’.
By contrast Labour in H&F demonstrated they can still extract strong support from the council estates particularly if they enthuse them with scare tactics and wholly inaccurate claims on the plans to restructure the local hospitals and the A&E departments.
This population and tenure shift across London is matched by a general leftward drift politically. In the 2010 general election the Labour vote held up better than many other parts of the country and in the latest council elections the swing to Labour was robust.
Notwithstanding good results in Kingston and Richmond, at the Liberal Democrats’ expense, we lost ground to Labour almost everywhere else. This ‘London factor’ matters nationally because as Conservatives we need to retain our 28 London seats and win others or else we won’t ever be in a position to form a majority government again. We can’t afford to have another part of the country drift away from us and we have seen, with tragic consequences, in Scotland what happens when Conservatives fail to retain traction and credibility.
The sheer size of London, the different scale of emphasis on housing and the rapidly changing composition of its population means that as Conservatives we can’t simply hope to muddle through to the general election with a national message and hope that
Londoners will support us. We need a distinct London-edged message. It would be inconceivable to go into the general election without major distinctions in messages in say Scotland and Wales and it is the same with London.
We need to have something to say, backed up by relevant policies, to the legions of private renters who aspire to own their homes. When people who are in respected well paid professions tell me they are leaving the capital because they cannot ever hope to attain a family property, we know we have a problem. Reluctant private renters, even right leaning ones, tend to make less than enthusiastic Conservative voters. We also need to articulate the vision for the NHS in London.
Some colleagues believe this to be dangerous as it highlights an issue on which we can never win. I disagree, the pollsters say health will be a major issue in the general election and given the scale of changes this will be even more the case in London. We need to face this head on and repeat again and again the case behind many of the changes using the vast amounts of sound clinical evidence which exists. Changes to local hospitals played a major part in the H&F council election and there is a view that maybe we lost control of the council as a result.
This is far too simplistic an analysis – certainly Labour used health issues to enthuse their voters, and presumably will continue to do so – but the fact is we came closest overall to retaining a councillor in the very ward in which Charing Cross hospital is situated and he spent a huge amount of time publicly rebutting Labour’s scares and outright lies.
On immigration and Europe, again London is out of kilter with mainstream national opinion and we have to be aware that UKIP has little resonance or traction in almost all of London.
Clearly we can’t go round like some latter day Liberal Democrats promising one thing in one part of the country and another elsewhere but this doesn’t prevent us articulating a more London-themed message. As mayor, Boris has been an excellent advocate of Conservatism mutatis mutandis for London and this is demonstrated by the wide support he garnered in 2008 and retained in the 2012 mayoral election.
As a party of government, I believe we have shown a less sure touch at showing just how our ideals and policies are relevant to Londoners. We have however started to change and certainly the recent support intimated for future transport improvements like Crossrail II has been well received. Labour’s mansion tax, a proposal so patently inimical to Londoners, will also provide a fantastic opportunity for us to develop and project our particular Conservative message for London.
It is surely a supreme irony that the part of the UK which derives greatest wealth from the operation of capitalism is one of the places where Conservatives, as the party most closely identified with capitalism, often fails to be heard. There is nothing inevitable about this state of affairs, quite the reverse, but we do need to be acutely aware of the growing differences with the rest of the country and most importantly learn to talk to Londoners directly using relevant language. We need a strong London-themed element to our campaign for the general election as well as a Londonwide organization. If we do this I am convinced that we can increase representation in London in 2015 and start generating the momentum needed to ensure we win back the London boroughs (including of course H&F!) which we lost in 2014 as well as in 2010.