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The May local election was not a happy one for southern Tories. With the notable exceptions of Croydon and Harrow, Conservative Councillors found themselves facing a backlash from voters which saw prized Councils such as Westminster, Wandsworth, and Barnet, fall to Labour for the first time in decades. In Richmond, which had 39 Tory Councillors in 2014, only one remains. Similar stories of woe were to be found across Kent, the South Coast and Wales. 

The traditional London Conservative strongholds in Wandsworth and Westminster collapsed is probably not all that surprising. For weeks worried Conservative pollsters announced that Partygate might spell the end for the Tories in Wandsworth, but Westminster falling only added insult to injury. The eight percent slide in the Tory vote across the parliamentary constituencies of Battersea, Putney, Wimbledon and Richmond Park in 2019, was an ominous warning which 2022’s results have only reconfirmed

So what is to be done? Firstly, Tories should not panic. Despite the bruising defeat that myself and hundreds of others suffered, I firmly believe that reports of the death of the London Tory might be greatly exaggerated. 

Much has been written of London’s changing demographics, primarily that stable middle-class communities of homeowners are being replaced by more diverse transient renters, which erodes the base upon which Conservatism naturally lies. True, homeowners are more naturally inclined to vote Conservative, and yes the Borough of Wandsworth now experiences a 20% annual turnover in registered voters. But wealthy suburbs like Putney and Balham are still filled with homeowners, many of whom are more than comfortable, and can absorb the recent uptick in the cost of living. Additionally local elections rarely see more than 40% turnout, and it is transient voters who are the least likely to vote in such elections. So, while this might partly explain Conservative woes it certainly does not account for why key Councils were lost. 

In my experience as the local candidate for 15 months in East Putney (a Wandsworth Tory stronghold where Labour gained a seat) it was clear that for many voters the Conservatives had lost both their moral authority to govern, and their reputation for sound financial management. Losing one pillar was damaging, but losing both proved fatal, and critically undermined the Local Conservative message of Low Council Tax as the bastion of decades of good governance. 

I come away from this election cycle feeling that the Conservatives were punished because core voters were left behind. Elections tend to focus voters’ minds on one or two key issues that really matter, and time and again it was clear that the Local Conservative message of Low Council Tax simply could not cut through to soft Conservatives and floating voters. 

Even more concerning was the Local Conservative message began to whither among the normally reliable base of Middle-Class white voters, and it was from these disenchanted Conservatives that the anger was most apparent: “You’ve lost us”, “I’m a Conservative but you deserve a good kicking”, “Not while you’ve got that man in charge”, are all memorable doorstep quotes that came my way in the final days. 

The sharp rise in split ballots across Conservative strongholds attests to this sense of anger and disillusionment. Council Elections can always throw up odd results owing to the number of candidates on the ballot, but in this instance the number of split ballots this time was quite unparalleled. Alienated from the Conservative Party by relentless scandals, and impending economic woes, many voters had nowhere to turn. Rather than swing hard to Labour, many simply ticked boxes for anyone that was not a Tory. The bleed of split votes proved to be too much across a number of important Tory Wards, proving Benjamin Franklin’s maxim right that eventually “a small leak will sink a great ship”.  Thus, the message was sent, the voters were unhappy and gave the Conservatives the “good kicking” that I was promised on the eve of the elections. 

With the kick having been administered it is now time to think about how the Conservative Party reconnects with its London voters and across the South more broadly. While some may argue that solid results in the North might mean the Tories simply abandon London to focus on lower income constituencies in the North, the Telegraph rightly notes that this will lead to almost certain defeat at the next general election. Boris might have had the force of personality to drag the party over the line back in 2019, but relying on the Prime Minister in today’s political climate looks an increasingly dangerous strategy.  

Reengaging the South requires a complex re-evaluation of policies past and present. The days of the “Cameroons” and their big society are well and truly behind us, and the financial woes induced by the pandemic mean that a low tax high growth economy so favoured by London’s middle classes is but a pipedream. To compound the problem increasing inflation means that interest rates will surely rise, increasing the cost of borrowing and with it the cost of mortgages that mean an even larger percentage of Southern voters under 40 are unlikely to be receptive to the Tory message. 

Red meat policies like sending asylum seekers to Rwanda or the levelling up agenda do not appeal to Southern voters, and especially not London voters. Rather concrete policies to tackle the cost of living crisis, and stabilise both the housing and rental market would go some way towards bringing back voters who do not wish to be paying half their monthly salary for cramped accommodation. If this can be done while reinjecting a little more integrity back into politics, then Southern voters might, just might forgive us in the years to come.

Michael is an associate fellow for Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Peter Laskowski]