Ed McGuinness is Chairman of Islington Conservative Federation and stood for Hornsey & Wood Green at the general election.
Disraeli, the father of modern Conservatism, famously wrote in his novel Sybil, the nineteenth century equivalent of a docudrama, of “two nations… who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings as if they were inhabitants of different planets.” Disraeli was speaking of the rich and the poor, the conditions of whom were vastly more stark than today, at the height of the Industrial Revolution. However, one need only to look at a before and after map of the 2019 General Election to see the emergence of two, separate “nations”, particularly in England and Wales; those in the cities and towns – and those who are not.
Traditional theories point to economic disparity. The perception of cities is that they tend to be the preserve of the wealthy, globalised, educated elite. But those in more rural areas can feel left behind by globalisation concentrating wealth in Capital and regional cities. The idea follows that these two poles become echo chambers, where the Left, who are seen as accepting of multiculturalism and progressive ideas, prevail in cities. Whereas the Right, with its perception of sticking with the same, finds success in more rural areas.
Perceptions are not, however, all as they seem. A YouGov study last year showed that conventional viewpoints of what may be considered Left or Right are changing. Commonly perceived right wing views on stricter discipline in education, for example, are shared by a majority of people who “self-identify” as left wing. The same can be said for attitudes to criminal justice and, most intriguingly, a plurality (47 per cent), of left wing people were in favour of tighter restrictions on immigration. This shows that the Left-Right spectrum is not a sharp line, but a smudge that is far more nuanced than previously thought. The result is that there is an opening to persuade and win over voters who may have, in the past, been overlooked as unreachable.
With the Conservative Party having won a thumping majority in the 2019 General Election, one could be forgiven by saying we have recognised this change and reacted successfully. Key pillars of the Conservative manifesto were somewhat non-customary, relying on public spending increases. Although anyone who considers the Conservative Party a party of pragmatism will understand that affordable public spending in order to benefit society is absolutely central to our method of governance. In addition, having been in place two months, there have been a number of policy decisions which have crossed the “established” Left-Right divide. However, let us not consider this Mission Accomplished, the election was dominated by Brexit, and the Government needs to act to deliver, real, tangible benefits to the voters, particularly in the rural North who leant the Conservatives their vote. In tilting towards the North, the Government must not forget the South and London.
The London Assembly and Mayoral elections will be a litmus test for the Conservatives electoral strategy towards, not just the Capital, but our towns and cities in general.
This is important for three reasons:
Firstly, a matter of perception. Mayors are directly elected officials, often elected with huge numbers (the London Mayor is often over one million depending on methodology) making them singularly powerful and influential in their region.
Secondly, winning and holding our towns and cities shows there is no preserve of a single party and therefore a healthy democracy can ensue.
Thirdly, and most importantly, cities and towns have a huge influence on economies of the suburban and rural communities that surround them. To focus on one and not the other may be a tactical success, but will ultimately lead to strategic failure.
For too long the Labour Party has dominated government in London, and they do this by spinning a narrative of Tories being evil, rich and uncaring. This is the traditional Left-Right divide that Labour councillors and candidates want to send around their echo chambers. Not only that, but they actively pursue policies which keep those on lower incomes at the bottom, often ploughing public funds into their own propaganda, from where it is easier for Labour to blame a lack of central government funding for their problems namely, complete mismanagement of our public finances on a local level. Most worrying of all, however, is the impact of the focus on self-promotion and vote retention, rather than the issues that matter most to Londoners – public safety.
Both the Mayor and his complicit Labour councillors have spent their time preening themselves in the mirrors of their traditional voters, blind to the fact that that same electorate feels unsafe in their own streets.
Shaun Bailey and the London Assembly candidates are effectively countering this narrative and holding the Mayor to account. Shaun has an actionable plan for crime, starting with more police on the streets, community groups to give young people a sense of belonging, and zero tolerance on gang activity, all to make London safe. Not only this, but his housing policy gives a sense of aspiration for young Londoners who feel a lack of participation in our property owning democracy – arguably the central pillar of Conservative values. Along with improved transport, attracting business and environmental commitments, it is clear that only the Conservatives can actually deliver what Londoners want, not what a complacent Labour administration says they need.
Westminster is increasingly focusing on developing the North – rightly as it is the only way to truly level-up the country, an unbalanced economy is both inefficient and unfair. We can and we must win the narrative in our towns and cities, or else we risk forever gifting them to the Left, making us a party, not of the whole country but of one half. Multi-generational development can only occur when it is adopted in an integrated fashion, made possible when all levels of government adopt the same guiding principles of public service, safety, and aspiration.
Put another way, we cannot be One Nation Conservatives, in the truest of senses, without speaking to and delivering for every part of the country.