by Atul Hatwal
Can you hear it? That creaking, grinding metallic sound, emanating from the capital.
Even faintly in the background?
No? Well, it will get louder in the coming months till it’s deafening.
It is the sound of the clock being turned back twenty years to a time when London was a Tory town.
Labour might have lost the 2010 general election, but London remained a last redoubt in the south. Despite all the troubles, Labour was still the dominant party, winning 36.6% compared to the Tories on 34.5% and the Lib Dems on 22.1%.
In terms of seats, the result was even better with Labour taking 38 seats, the Tories 28 seats and the Lib Dems just 7 seats.
But that was then and a year is an eternity in politics.
2011 could go down as the year in which the Tories turned back a generation of Labour ascendancy in London and pulled decisively ahead.
A new Uncut analysis of YouGov polling shows how a Labour lead of 2% in January had become a deficit of 4% by the start of June.
Polls can be deceptive and there is always a debate to be had about the extent to which they really reflect voting intentions, but two factors make these figures particularly worrying for Labour.
First, these aren’t rogue results or blips. The figures here are monthly averages based on several thousand responses across nearly thirty polls each month. Any random noise or sampling error has been ironed out by the volume of polling that goes into each month’s figures.
Second, these are the London results from polls where the national results have registered a consistent Labour lead of between 2-6 points. There is a long running debate on Uncut about whether this national lead is soft, but even without going into this discussion Labour is already trailing in London.
By any measure, the situation for Labour in London is bad. The consequences for the future could be even worse.
It’s not just about the councils that the Tories will retain in local elections. Or the mayoralty and the sight of Boris lording it at the olympics. Entrenched Tory local and regional government will only be a precursor to the real shift.
If the Tories become the majority party in London, then not only does an overall Parliamentary majority for Labour become even more distant, but something more fundamental also happens to the Tories.
Since 1997 the Tories have been virtually banished from most of Britain’s major cities. They improved in 2010, but didn’t truly break through. If the current polling were replicated at a general election, the Tories could gain upwards of 10 seats in London, taking them to 38 London seats.
10 extra seats might not sound that much, but moving up to almost 40 seats pushes the London Tories towards a tipping point in terms of their power within the Parliamentary Tory party.
These MPs would be beholden to a very different type of electorate compared to many of their colleagues – multicultural, metropolitan, and above all else, potential swing-voters.
They would change the dynamic on the Tory benches at Westminster.
In years after 1997, the Tory rump was safe to indulge its quest for Thatcherite purity through its leadership choices and policies because few of their MPs had to personally face a competitive election. A more mainstream, city Parliamentary bloc would moderate some of their party’s bluer tendencies, providing modernising ballast to anchor the Tories in the centre ground.
And by the same token, a Labour Parliamentary party pushed back to its northern citadels, without these London seats, would be more prone to the same drift and detachment that blighted the Tories for so many years.
It’s this type of change that redefines politics and political parties for a generation.
It’s a grim prospect; and based on Labour’s current approach, the chances of averting the rise of Tory London aren’t promising.
The next major campaign in the capital will be the 2012 mayoral election. If Ken Livingstone acts to type in terms of his electoral strategy, then the results will likely be dire.
Livingstone has one standard electoral play – the rainbow coalition. It’s his big city variant of the core vote strategy.
Step one, construct a coalition of minority interest groups where high turn-out can be assured.
Step two, give each group a clear policy win on a defining issue where most politicians equivocate.
Step three, turn the crank on the interest group get out the vote machine, and hope that when combined with the party’s base vote, Labour gets over the line.
It’s why Ken was happy to glad hand Lutfur Rahman in the Tower Hamlets election, so that he could secure the use of the Rahman electoral machine; and why Ken will pop up endorsing various niche causes and community leaders in the coming year.
What this strategy won’t do is win the argument with Londoners of all faiths and races on the central economic questions which impact us all. To the 60% of Londoners in the latest YouGov poll who think the government’s plans to cut the deficit are necessary, the strategy will be silent.
What the strategy will achieve is to present Labour as party with a menu of fringe causes, lacking mainstream, core beliefs.
For the 43% who believe the cuts are solely the fault of the last Labour government, it will present no compelling counter-argument. And in terms of preparation for the general election, it will do little to turn around Londoners’ current two-to-one preference for David Cameron as PM over Ed Miliband.
These are desperate times in London and for the party nationally. While voters recoil from a Labour party that doesn’t seem to have learnt any lessons from its general election, the leadership seem to be entirely preoccupied.
They are busy working through blue Labour’s agitational dialogue on relational state power and rolling on with their 27 different policy reviews. Leadership strategy briefings to the media are all about patience and developing a longer term narrative, moving beyond past paradigms, developing a new way of doing things.
For the more prosaic amongst us, one question recurs time and time again – “what does any of this mean”?
The gap between Labour’s leaders and its former voters couldn’t be wider.
And in the middle, between disillusioned voters and leaders locked in a sociology seminar, sits the membership of the Labour party.
Its abiding instincts are loyalty, not to rock the boat and trust in those at the top. But in the last few months, despite members’ default impulses, something has started to happen.
Slowly, the reality of Labour’s political situation is dawning.
It began as muttering and worrying, but has now broken out into meetings and general discussions. Across members from all sections of the party, for the past few weeks it’s been a major topic of discussion whenever two or three sit down together.
The conversation always starts the same way – “So what do you think”? It’s punctuated by baffled shrugs, rueful smiles and shaking heads and for most, ends in the same conclusion – it just feels like this is all slipping away from us.
In the coming months this nascent muttering will become a murmur and then more. Unless the leadership can do something sufficiently striking that changes the political weather in the next two months, then a stormy conference season awaits.
And this will be just a prelude.
Underpinning all these conversations is an unspoken assumption – that the party cannot and will not simply spend the next four years treading water like this.
London 2012 will be the crossroads.
A loss in London’s mayoral election next year would light the touch paper. A win would demonstrate how things have improved compared to where we are today.
Either way, within the next twelve months, something has got to give.
Atul Hatwal is associate editor of Labour Uncut.