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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What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.