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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High streets and shopping malls face a ‘domino effect’ from major store closures

Another one bites the dust: House of Fraser plans to close the majority of its stores. Image: Getty.

Traditional retail is in the centre of a storm – and British department store chain House of Fraser is the latest to succumb to the tempest. The company plans to close 31 of its 59 shops – including its flagship store in Oxford Street, London – by the beginning of 2019. The closures come as part of a company voluntary arrangement, which is an insolvency deal designed to keep the chain running while it renegotiates terms with landlords. The deal will be voted on by creditors within the month.

Meanwhile in the US, the world’s largest retail market, Sears has just announced that it will be closing more than 70 of its stores in the near future.

This trend of major retailers closing multiple outlets exists in several Western countries – and its magnitude seems to be unrelated to the fundamentals of the economy. The US, for example, has recently experienced a clear decoupling of store closures from overall economic growth. While the US economy grew a healthy 2.3 per cent in 2017, the year ended with a record number of store closings, nearly 9,000 while 50 major chains filed for bankruptcy.

Most analysts and industry experts agree that this is largely due to the growth of e-commerce – and this is not expected to diminish anytime soon. A further 12,000 stores are expected to close in the US before the end of 2018. Similar trends are being seen in markets such as the UK and Canada.

Pushing down profits

Perhaps the most obvious impact of store closures is on the revenues and profitability of established brick-and-mortar retailers, with bankruptcies in the US up by nearly a third in 2017. The cost to investors in the retail sector has been severe – stocks of firms such as Sears have lost upwards of 90 per cent of their market value in the last ten years. By contrast, Amazon’s stock price is up over 2,000 per cent in the same period – more than 49,000 per cent when considering the last 20 years. This is a trend that the market does not expect to change, as the ratio of price to earnings for Amazon stands at ten times that of the best brick-and-mortar retailers.

Although unemployment levels reached a 17-year low in 2017, the retail sector in the US shed a net 66,500 jobs. Landlords are losing longstanding tenants. The expectation is that roughly 25 per cent of shopping malls in the US are at high risk of closing one of their anchor tenants such as a Macy’s, which could set off a series of store closures and challenge the very viability of the mall. One out of every five malls is expected to close by 2022 – a prospect which has put downward pressure on retail real estate prices and on the finances of the firms that own and manage these venues.

In the UK, high streets are struggling through similar issues. And given that high streets have historically been the heart of any UK town or city, there appears to be a fundamental need for businesses and local councils to adapt to the radical changes affecting the retail sector to preserve their high streets’ vitality and financial viability.


The costs to society

While attention is focused on the direct impacts on company finances, employment and landlord rents, store closures can set off a “domino effect” on local governments and businesses, which come at a significant cost to society. For instance, closures can have a knock-on effect for nearby businesses – when large stores close, the foot traffic to neighbouring establishments is also reduced, which endangers the viability of other local businesses. For instance, Starbucks has recently announced plans to close all its 379 Teavana stores. Primarily located inside shopping malls, they have harshly suffered from declining mall traffic in recent years.

Store closures can also spell trouble for local authorities. When retailers and neighbouring businesses close, they reduce the taxable revenue base that many municipalities depend on in order to fund local services. Add to this the reduction in property taxes stemming from bankrupt landlords and the effect on municipal funding can be substantial. Unfortunately, until e-commerce tax laws are adapted, municipalities will continue to face financial challenges as more and more stores close.

It’s not just local councils, but local development which suffers when stores close. For decades, many cities in the US and the UK, for exmaple Detroit and Liverpool, have heavily invested in efforts to rejuvenate their urban cores after years of decay in the 1970s and 1980s. Bringing shops, bars and other businesses back to once derelict areas has been key to this redevelopment. But today, with businesses closing, cities could once again face the prospect of seeing their efforts unravel as their key urban areas become less attractive and populations move elsewhere.

Commercial ecosystems featuring everything from large chain stores to small independent businesses are fragile and sensitive to change. When a store closes it doesn’t just affect employees or shareholders – it can have widespread and lasting impacts on the local community, and beyond. Controlling this “domino effect” is going to be a major challenge for local governments and businesses for years to come.

Omar Toulan, Professor in Strategy and International Management, IMD Business School and Niccolò Pisani, Assistant Professor of International Management, University of Amsterdam.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.