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'What Susan Hall's pitch to the suburbs says on Tory tactics this general election' – LabourList

With the general election now underway, it’s hard to believe it’s only been a month since the last set of elections, and the brief panic that ensued as CCHQ started briefing that Susan Hall had won the London Mayoral race (back in the real world, she lost by 276,000 votes).

Politics has moved on rapidly, but before memories of the Susan Hall campaign fade completely into history, I think its tactics can still tell us something about the state of the Tory party in the capital, and the challenges and opportunities this presents for Labour as we look to regain seats across London in July.

A common reaction I sensed amongst voters and commentators to Hall’s campaign was just bafflement; the sense she had come from nowhere and represented little more than the fag-end of the Tory government, with a combination of fringe beliefs, strange media appearances and lack of self-awareness rendering her a kind of Liz Truss of London politics. But her campaign owed much to the borough she calls home, Harrow, and where she (like me) is a local councillor.

How the politics of modern Metroland shape Tory strategy

Harrow is the only local authority the Conservatives won back from Labour in 2022, and saw a swing towards the Tories this May too, and viewing Hall’s campaign through this lens works to shine a light on a London that doesn’t much exist in the public discourse, but which has become the core Tory vote in the capital.

London is stereotyped as a city of left-wing liberals, affluent professionals and a multicultural working-class, and there is truth to this, with the city having the highest proportion of graduates and Remain voters in England. But that still means 1.5 million Londoners who voted Leave, and more than half without degrees.

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To paint a very general picture, many of these voters live in the suburbs, want politicians to be tougher on crime, don’t like restrictions on motorists, and aren’t particularly fired up by concepts like liberalism or diversity.

They might be swing voters, but they’ve probably voted Conservative at some point. And while they live in a city of crazy property prices, this doesn’t necessarily mean they feel wealthy – it was possible for a young couple in the 1980s, even 1990s, on ordinary incomes to buy a family home in suburban London, and such voters will still only be in their fifties or sixties now.

They might work locally, or even commute out to other towns in the South East, and despite living in a city seen as its antithesis, I’d argue their values and priorities aren’t a million miles from the Red Wall.

Voters of Outer London

Hall’s focus on cars and crime was aimed at these voters, and drew on the lessons of the Uxbridge by-election, when the Tories held the seat by campaigning against the expansion of the ULEZ to Outer London. Conservative Parliamentary candidates are continuing with this same tune during the general election, with leaflets promising they will continue to ‘campaign’ against the ULEZ, despite the decision being in the hands of City Hall.

But I’d argue this campaign was only really effective pre-implementation, when more drivers could be scared into thinking they’d be subject to charges, when in reality 95% of cars in Outer London are already compliant. Now, having tried to turn turned the Mayoral contest into a referendum on the ULEZ , and lost, they’ve arguably managed to increase the mandate for it, and it’s hard to see the issue having much salience this July, let alone by the next Mayoral race.

Suburbs like Harrow are affluent in parts, but they aren’t really gentrified. The writer Dolly Alderton described her hometown of Pinner as a place of… “golf clubs and branches of Prezzo and private schools and driveways and roundabouts and retail parks and glass-roofed shopping centres”. 

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Whilst technically a Londoner, for her the city was a place that glittered in the distance, and many suburbanites would be more likely to describe themselves as residents of Bromley, Pinner, or wherever, than as Londoners. 

People move here for the good schools and green spaces, although sky-rocketing property prices have pushed younger people further out into the counties, with our streets of mock-Tudor semis now more often occupied by retired couples than growing families. These older and home-owning voters are often receptive to the egregious NIMBYism being offered by Conservative candidates, with the Tories in Edgware currently campaigning to block 4,000 homes being built where they are desperately needed, in a town centre and next to a Tube station, despite our city’s catastrophic shortage of affordable housing.

Modern-day Metroland

Despite all this, if you can afford the rent or mortgage, the old Metroland promise of ‘country living in commuting distance of the city’ still holds a little, with our fragments of heaths and ancient woods keeping alive what Betjeman described as “the outskirt’s edges/ Where a few surviving hedges/ Keep alive our lost Elysium – rural Middlesex again…” 

Our most recent Labour group meeting was dominated by the issue whether dogs should be allowed off their leads at a local nature reserve.

I think modern-day Metroland has more character than a teenage Alderton could give it credit for, and it’s changed a lot since Betjeman’s day too, not least in its demographics. The phenomenon of growing support for the Conservative party amongst Hindu voters has been noted elsewhere, and naturally affects a place like Harrow with its large British Indian population. Some of this is a values alignment, with many of these voters fitting a profile of being business owners, with strong religious and family values, who we might expect to feel an affinity with the Conservative party, but some has unfortunately come from a willingness of the Tory party in recent years to engage on a local level with the more divisive aspects of Indian politics.

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During Hall’s campaign, letters circulated to voters with Hindu names from someone apparently called ‘Satya Amin’ (there is no record of this person online), accusing Sadiq Khan and Labour’s AM candidate Krupesh Hirani of “failing to stand with Indian voters following the Leicester riots” and ending with an exhortation to “MAKE BRITAIN GREAT!”

It’s not clear who was responsible for these, and they did not officially endorse any Conservative candidates. But they were described by Nick Lowles of Hope not Hate as “a dangerous, divisive and illegal interference in the London elections” and sadly, we’ve seen these tactics already from the Tories, with Zac Goldsmith’s bizarre insinuations that Sadiq Khan supported “a wealth tax on family jewellery”, again aimed at Hindu voters, and this time around Susan Hall kicked off her campaign saying that Jewish Londoners had reason to be “frightened” of Sadiq Khan.

Whatever criticisms one might have of the Mayor, he’s a liberal with an excellent record on community cohesion, and the Tories’ repeated attempts to link him to Islamist extremism, or to suggest Hindu or Jewish Londoners have something to fear from his Mayoralty, have been depressing and disingenuous. No doubt these tactics won them some votes, but it’s been heartening to see many more Londoners put off by them.

Changing voter loyalties

I happen to represent one of Harrow’s most marginal wards, finding myself in the sometimes surprising position of being the Labour party councillor for Harrow School, with its yearly fees of £50,000. The ward itself contains the original village of Harrow-on-the-Hill, where wrought-iron lampposts shine down on half-a-million pound Victorian cottages, and many residents have connections to the school.

They would probably not be seen as likely Labour voters, and yet they sometimes strike me as a microcosm of exactly who the current Tory party is repelling, both in London and nationally – a mix of educated professionals (I’ve seen more than one EU flag in windows while canvassing) and traditional conservatives put off by the general air of fecklessness, unseriousness and far-right politics epitomised by the party of Johnson and Truss, Susan Hall and Suella Braverman (who hails from Harrow too). A former Conservative councillor for the ward, and Susan Hall’s former Deputy at Harrow council, is now endorsing Labour, citing Boris Johnson’s ‘chaotic leadership’ and Brexit as his reasons.

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Voters like this exist across London – affluent professionals in leafy areas, working for businesses harmed by Brexit and whose already-hefty mortgages shot up thanks to Liz Truss. They probably have friends, if not family members, who hail from across the world, enjoy living in a multicultural city and are likely to see the Rwanda policy as a performatively callous waste of taxpayers’ money.

They are neither bleeding-heart liberals nor necessarily passionate about wealth redistribution, but they are abandoning the Tory party in droves, and are likely to help deliver Labour or Lib Dem victories across the capital on July 4.

London is the wealthiest city in Britain, has had a two-term Conservative Mayor and in 2019 returned 20 Tory MPs.

Due in part to its faith communities, it is also both the most religious and the most socially conservative city in England, with more Londoners expressing unfavourable attitudes towards same-sex marriage, or assisted dying, than elsewhere in the country. The capital isn’t a larger version of other English cities, with their unassailable Labour majorities; its demographics are unique to itself, and often misunderstood.

What’s next in London?

I’m sure the Conservatives could win City Hall, or more London parliamentary constituencies, but not under the current iteration of the Tory party, and not with candidates like Susan Hall. And while I’m not in the business of providing political advice to the Tory party, I would gently suggest that the next time they select a candidate for Mayor, it might be best to steer clear of a Donald Trump supporter with a history of liking tweets praising Enoch Powell.

Despite all this, Hall still received 800,000 votes, and these voters tell us something about the current state of the Tory party, and about London too. Aspects of the Hall campaign worked in her home borough, and I can understand why her team thought they might work more widely too.

As we look to the general election, we’re likely to see many of the same tactics used to shore up the core Tory vote in the capital, although the national record means the Conservatives will probably do as badly here as they will everywhere else.

And as for Harrow? We’re campaigning hard to get our Labour candidate elected in Harrow East, and whatever the result, it will tell us a lot about the limits – or perhaps the remaining strengths – of the Tory strategy in London.

Read more of our 2024 general election coverage here.

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