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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Why doesn’t London build an RER network, like Paris did?

A commuter walking by a map of the RER B line at the Chatelet-Les Halles station in Paris. Image: Getty.

I’ve heard many people make many different complaints about the Parisian transport system. That it does a bad job of linking a rich, white city with its poorer, more diverse suburbs. That, even as subway systems go, it’s a hostile environment for women. That the whole thing smells distractingly of urine.

I’m familiar with all of these complaints – I’ve often smelt the urine. And I’m aware that, in many ways, London’s is the superior transport network.

And yet I can’t help be jealous of Paris – In large part, because of the RER.

Central Paris. The Metro lines are thinner, and in pastel shades; the RER lines are thicker, and in brighter colours. Image: RATP.

Paris, you see, has not one but two underground railway systems. The more famous one is the original Paris Metro, opened in 1900: that’s the one with those fancy green portals with the word “metropolitain” written above them in a vaguely kooky font.

The Metro, though, mostly serves Paris Intra-muros: the official city, inside the Boulevard Périphérique ring road, site of the city’s last set of walls. As a result, it’s of very little use in most of the city’s suburbs. Its stations are very close together, which places a limit on how fast its trains can cross town. It was also, by the mid 20th century, becoming annoyingly overcrowded.

So starting in the 1960s, the city transport authorities began planning a second underground railway network. The Réseau Express Régional – Regional Express Network – would link suburban lines on either side of Paris, through new heavy rail tunnels beneath the city. Its stations would be much further apart than those of the metro – roughly one every 3km, rather than every 600m – so its trains can run faster.

And fifty years and five lines later, it means that 224 stations in the suburbs of Paris are served by trains which, rather than terminating on the edge of the city, now continue directly through tunnels to its centre.

The RER network today. Image: RATP.

London is, belatedly, doing something similar. The Elizabeth Line, due to open in stages from later this year, will offer express-tube style services linking the suburban lines which run west from Paddington to those which run east from Liverpool Street. And Thameslink has offered cross-town services for 30 years now (albeit not at tube-level frequencies). That, too, is going to add more routes to its network over the next few years, meaning direct trains from the southern suburbs to north London and vice versa.

Yet the vast majority of suburban National Rail services in London still terminate at big mainline stations, most of which are on the edge of the centre. For many journeys, especially from the south of the city, you still need to change to the London Underground.

So, could London ape Paris – and make Thameslink and Crossrail the first element of its own RER network?

In a limited way, of course, it’s doing just that. The next big project after Crossrail is likely to be (original name, this) Crossrail 2. If that gets funding, it’ll be a new south-west to north-east route, connecting some of the suburban lines into Waterloo to those in the Lea Valley.

The proposed route of Crossrail 2. Click to expand.

But it’s not immediately obvious where you could go next – what Crossails 3, 4 or 5 should cover.

That’s because there’s an imbalance in the distribution of the remaining mainline rail services in London. Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the geography of the city will know that there are far more tube lines to its north. But the corollary of that is that there are far more mainlines to the south.

To usefully absorb some of those, Crossrail 3 would probably need to run south to south in some way. There is actually an obvious way of doing this: build a new tunnel from roughly Battersea to roughly Bermondsey, and take over the Richmond lines in the west and North Kent lines in the east, as a sort of London equivalent of RER C:

Our suggestion for Crossrail 3. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

But that still leaves a whole load of lines in south and south east London with nowhere to send them beyond their current terminal stations.

In fact, there are reasons for thinking that the whole RER concept doesn’t really fit the British capital. It was designed, remember, for a city in which the Metro only served the centre (roughly equivalent of London’s zones 1 & 2).

But London Underground wasn’t like that. From very early in its history, it served outer London too: it was not just a way of getting people around the centre, but for getting them there from their suburban homes too.

This is turn is at least in part a function of the economic geography of the two cities. Rich Parisians have generally wanted to live in the centre, pushing poorer people out to the banlieues. In London, though, the suburbs were where the good life was to be found.

To that end, the original operators of some lines weren’t just railway companies, but housing developers, too. The Metropolitan Railway effectively built large chunks of north west London (“Metroland”), partly to guarantee the market for its trains, but partly too because, well, housing is profitable.

In other parts of town, existing main line railways were simply added to the new underground lines. The Central line swallowed routes originally built by the Great Western Railway and London & North Eastern Railway. The District line absorbed part of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway.

At any rate: the Tube was playing the same role as the RER as early as the 1930s. London could still benefit from some RER-type services, so hopefully the Elizbaeth Line won’t be the last. But it doesn’t need an entire second metro network in the way 1960s Paris did.

There is another idea we could more profitably steal from Paris. Those suburban railways which aren’t connected to the RER are still run by the national rail operator, SNCF. But it uses the Transilien brand name, to mark them out as a part of the Parisian transport network, and – as with the RER – each route has its own letter and its own colour.

The Transilien & RER networks in Paris. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker/Wikimedia Commons.

This would not have the transformative effect on London that building another half a dozen Crossrails would. But it would make the network much easier to navigate, and would be almost infinitely cheaper. Perhaps we should be starting there.

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

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