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Capital punishment: Tories facing Brexit revenge in London elections

Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney after winning the Richmond Park by-election in 2016. Picture: Yui Mok/PA Archive/PA Images - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

The Conservatives have burned away some of their traditional supporters in their pursuit of Brexit, and are heading towards a reckoning in the capital of Remain.

In less than over a month’s time, voters across England will be heading back to the ballot box again, for the local elections. And Brexiteers could be heading into trouble.

Unlike 2016’s referendum and 2017’s general election, more than two million European Union citizens of the nearly three million residing in the United Kingdom are eligible to vote in local and European elections – reciprocal rights enjoyed by UK citizens residing in other EU nations.

The eyes of the political cognoscenti are watching for Brexit’s impact on London – capital city of the Remain vote in England – where all council seats in the city’s 32 boroughs plus the City of London are up for grabs.

Some 1.1 million EU citizens are eligible to vote in London, many in battleground boroughs – including more than 50,000 in Barnet and nearly 40,000 in Wandsworth.

Current polls point to the biggest rout for any party in London’s borough elections in 50 years. Pundits have to go all the way back to 1968, one year after the devaluation of sterling by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government, when the Tories won 60% of the vote to Labour’s 28% – and consequently 28 out of London’s 32 boroughs, a record for one party that stands today – for a result more lopsided than that currently predicted by polling.

A YouGov poll, commissioned by Queen Mary University’s Mile End Institute, found support for Labour at 54%, up 11 points from the last time these elections were held four years ago; the Conservatives are at 28%, down two; and Liberal Democrats are at 11%, up one.

These topline numbers confirm the findings of a prior study by Tory peer and psephologist Lord Hayward, leading him to conclude his party faced ‘the fight of their lives’.

YouGov’s data reveal a Tory-Labour swing of 13% in inner London – a mixture of some of the capital’s wealthiest and most under-served communities – compared to 4% in outer London.

This suburban-core divide may reflect greater intensity and enthusiasm for Remain, which broke 72% to 28% to stay in 2016, compared to outer London’s narrower 54:46 split for Remain.

Additional analysis by another Tory peer and pollster, Lord Ashcroft – entitled Capital Punishment? The Conservative Party and the 2018 London lections– asked respondents to identify the four top issues influencing their vote. One quarter of London voters named ‘Britain leaving the EU’ – after local health services, housing, and crime, but ahead of council tax.

Ashcroft’s poll also discovered that two-thirds of Tory Leavers approved of the national government’s record to date, compared to just over half of Tory Remainers. And while 45% of all London Leave voters approved of the government’s record to date, only 25% of the significantly larger number of Remain voters did so.

As Ashcroft notes, the post-Brexit snap general election saw the Conservatives’ share of the national vote rise by 5.5%, but it fell in London by 1.7%. Meanwhile, Labour’s percentage in London increased by 11 points, the Lib Dems’ by one – both parties performing better than nationally.

London’s Remain sympathies pose challenges for the Tories, and although only three in 10 Conservative voters in 2017 backed Remain nationally, compared to two-thirds of Labour supporters and eight in 10 Lib Dems, they may constitute a larger portion of the Tories’ London vote. In any event, Remain Tories are not insignificant in number.

British Election Study data shows that while constituting a minority of the Tory vote, Tory Remainers numbered an estimated 3.2 million of their 13.6 million national vote in 2017 – a larger number than Labour’s 2.6 million Leave voters.

While London’s pro-Remain mayor, Sadiq Khan, and its most pro-Remain main party, the Liberal Democrats, urge an anti-Brexit protest vote, even tailoring election messages in 21 European languages, London Tories would rather fight on local issues, for in the city that voted 60:40 to Remain, post-Brexit electoral returns have been discouraging.

First, there was the 22-point Tory-Lib Dem swing in the post-referendum Richmond Park (Remain vote was 71%, according to ward analysis) parliamentary by-election, where the Tories lost a 23,000-plus majority. Then came general election losses to Labour in Battersea (80% Remain); Enfield Southgate (62%); Kensington (69%); and Croydon Central (50%: in this regard, an outlier); and to the Lib Dems in Twickenham (67%) and Kingston & Surbiton (59%).

The Tories retook Richmond Park with a majority of only 45 and received what Ashcroft calls a ‘scare’ in Putney (72% Remain), where a 10% swing to Labour cut a 10,000-plus majority to just over 1,500.

Into this electoral landscape, the parties enter 2018’s borough elections with Conservatives controlling seven boroughs to Labour’s 20. At risk for the Conservatives are Barnet (Remain: 62%), which the Tories are the largest party, and flagship Tory councils Wandsworth (Remain: 75%) and Westminster (Remain: 69%), famed for their low council tax. The Tories have held Wandsworth for 40 years; Westminster has always been Tory.

Of the Queen Mary study, Professor Cowley concludes: ‘On paper, these swings mean Kensington & Chelsea (Remain: 69%) should remain safe for the Conservatives but the post-Grenfell situation here means that I would advise caution.’

Liberal Democrats hope to retake Richmond-upon-Thames (70% Remain) and Kingston-upon-Thames (61% Remain) but must defend Sutton, one of only five London boroughs where Leave won, 54:46. These South West London battlegrounds are all in outer London, where the Tories are polling better than in the city centre, providing hopes of holding Bromley (51% Remain); Hillingdon (56% Leave); Bexley (63% Leave) and Havering, which Tories control with independents (70% Leave).

To some extent, the capital’s demography is its destiny. From the city’s cosmopolitanism – one in three Londoners are foreign-born – to its relative youth – London has a higher share of under-45s and a lower share of under-45s than the nation – London is fertile Remain territory. Nationally, under-45s supported Remain and over-45s Leave, according to the British Election Study and others. Educational attainment, another key referendum metric, also is higher: nearly two-thirds of inner-London employees are university-educated – London has the highest share of these of any English region.

Native and European Londoners are yet to vote, but Brexit may be the big loser on May 3rd.

• Barnaby Towns is a former government special adviser to William Hague and was a campaign adviser to London mayoral candidate Steve Norris. He is CEO of Pioneer Strategy, a communications firm, and a Tory Party member.

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