The Conservatives have a city problem. Only one of the safest 50 Conservative seats is in one of Britain’s four largest cities. The vast majority of Conservative voters—67 per cent—live in villages (24 per cent) or on the edge of towns (43 per cent). In contrast, Labour voters are strongly concentrated in major cities, with 37 of their 50 safest seats in the biggest four.
Over the last few decades this divide has become more pronounced. Nowhere is this clearer than in London. As recently as 1987, the Conservatives held 69 per cent of London seats and 46 per cent of the votes. In 2019 they won 56 per cent of all UK seats but just 29 per cent of London seats. The Conservatives have never held a smaller share of London seats, while being in government, than they do today.
So why does this matter? In many ways, this electoral skew isn’t hugely surprising. The new Conservative coalition is disproportionately made up of older people who own their homes and don’t have graduate degrees. These people are rarely found in cities full of younger, degree-educated renters. And the trend of highly educated city-dwellers moving to the left has been observed around the world.
But there is a risk that following the voters leads the Conservatives to neglect the needs of cities. Or, worse, a political strategy that plays up to dividing lines between town and city dwellers. This sort of tactic has been deployed in the US, where Texas’s Republican governor Greg Abbot has stymied Democrat-led cities like Austin and Houston by underinvesting in housing projects.
A war on the city would be a disaster. Stagnant growth in the UK is driven by the underperformance of our core cities compared to international counterparts. The Centre for Cities has demonstrated that if the eight largest cities outside of London reached their productivity potential it could contribute almost £50bn to the UK economy. An exhaustive evidence review on levelling up by the Institute for Government landed on investment in cities as essential to making progress.
The economic logic behind the potential of cities is becoming increasingly undeniable. As economies develop, smaller and more specialised firms need to locate near each other to share new ideas and attract high-skilled workers. From Pittsburgh to Tel Aviv, small innovation districts generate the knowledge and wealth that support broader economies.
That doesn’t mean towns and suburbs aren’t important. Supply chains for successful cities spread far and wide, particularly for manufacturing businesses that require a larger physical footprint. Effective labour markets in cities require ever larger pools of workers, who want to live in towns and villages with thriving high streets and strong public services.
What it does mean is that sometimes cities need investment: in office space around central business districts, in stronger transport links, in R&D partnerships between universities and firms, and in apartments for younger workers.
The levelling up agenda has rightly prioritised investment in areas that have long been overlooked. But balance is key, and restoring some focus on our cities will be politically tricky for a new PM given the electoral arithmetic.
This is the Conservatives’ city problem. To put the risk crudely: going for growth means backing cities, winning an election means bashing cities.
There are some ways around this problem. The government could take steps to take the brakes off our major cities by channelling more private investment into them, allowing local leaders to borrow against future earnings through mechanisms like Tax Increment Financing which limit the burden on the public purse.
There are also political counter arguments to neglecting cities to win seats in suburbs or towns. Many of the young families forced to move to suburban constituencies by rising house prices bring their frustration at the Conservative government with them.
A brave Conservative leader would confront this challenge. To develop a more effective growth model we need a narrative that brings together the city, the town, the coast and the countryside. A resident in Oldham might not like the skyscrapers in Manchester city centre, but they need to believe that Manchester’s growth is Oldham’s gain. An employer in Birmingham city centre needs to see their reliance on firms, colleges, and public services in Dudley. That means policies to match the narrative—ensuring that the proceeds of economic activity in cities are used to boost opportunity in towns and villages so that they can both benefit from and contribute to growth.
The 21st century will be the century of the city. The Conservatives need to get themselves on the right side of the argument.
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