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Government / Local politics

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

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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