In which cities did the Tories’ 2017 electoral strategy actually work?

How did that go, then? Chancellor Philip Hammond and prime minister Theresa May, campaigning last May. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

A few weeks back saw one of the most important date in the UK’s cities policy calendar – by far the most important and exciting of all the calendars. On 12 January, the Centre for Cities published Cities Outlook 2018, the latest instalment of its annual economic health check of the UK’s city economies.

It’s a weighty document, with all sorts of fascinating maps, graphs, stats and insights in it. Such as this rather upsetting encapsulation of Britain’s north/south divide:

It’s so full of such things, in fact, that this is the first in a series of blogs picking out some of the most interesting findings. This week, we’re focusing on politics.

The Tories’ strategy, you’ll recall, was described by Theresa May’s accident-prone chief of staff Nick Timothy as “Erdington Conservatism”: a focus on conservative social values intended to appeal to the working class Birmingham suburb near where he’d grown up. This, Timothy argued, would allow the party to attract working class pro-Brexit Labour voters in the industrial cities of the Midlands and the North. Cutting Labour off at the knees there, so the plan went, would shatter the party’s chances of ever winning a majority.

Sadly for both Timothy and his boss, things didn’t quite work out like that. This map shows the swing to or from the Conservatives at the 2017 election. In England and Wales, the map treats their main opposition as Labour; in Scotland, where politics is very difficult, it’s the SNP. Basically, the darker blobs represent cities where the Tories improved their position; the lighter ones are where they fell back.

Click to expand.

By my count, just 14 of the 62 cities shown on this map swung towards the Conservatives – and four of them are in Scotland, where the popularity of Ruth Davidson seems likely to be a much bigger factor than anything Theresa May did. 

In other words, of the 58 English and Welsh cities shown here, the Tories lost ground in 48. Since the cities on this map represent 54 per cent of the national population, that’s a pretty big problem.

What can we say about the cities that did swing Tory-wards? Excluding the Scottish ones, they are: Sunderland, Wigan, Stoke, Sheffield, Barnsley, Wakefield, Doncaster, Hull, Mansfield and Basildon.

The last of these is clearly the odd one out: it’s in the south, a short-hop from London, in the middle of true blue Essex. It’s also not a very useful place for the Tory party to be piling up votes: both the constituencies that make up the town – Basildon & Billericay, South Basildon & East Thurrock – have been Tory since 2010 (although the defunct seat of Basildon was Labour from 1997 to 2010).

The other nine, though, are all ex-industrial cities in the northern Midlands or the actual north. I haven’t checked every constituency, but most of those names are places I naturally associate with Labour dominance. 


That suggests that the Tories did make some in-roads into previously rock solid Labour seats. Indeed, in the two northern Midlands cities, the party narrowly won two seats: Mansfield and Stoke-on-Trent South.

The problem lies on the flipside. For one thing, there are nearly five times as many cities where the party lost ground – and while we can’t entirely credit this to the Erdington Conservatism strategy, we probably can’t entirely discount it, either.

What’s more, look at the list of cities where the Tories went backwards. The cities where there was the greatest swing against the party – of 5.6 to 9.4 per cent – are: York, Milton Keynes, Cambridge, Luton, Cardiff, Bristol, Reading, Sloud, London, Exeter, Worthing and Brighton.

Those places contain a lot of seats (London alone accounts for 73), including a fair number of marginals. But it also contains a number of the country’s more economically vibrant areas: not just the capital, but the M4 corridor, and the Oxford-Cambridge “brain belt”. This does not strike me as the sort of place an ostensibly pro-business government should be comfortable losing support.

Of course, that the Tories did not have a great election last year is no surprise. (I expect that even Nick Timothy has noticed this by now.) But it strikes me that there’s an odd familiarity about where the greatest shifts happened. depressed ex-industrial cities moving to the right? Rich and productive ones, moving to the left? How very American of us.

Next time: the urban politics of Brexit. I can’t wait.

You can read the whole of Cities Outlook 2018 here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.