Urban Flight – The real threat to many safe Conservative seats

There were many safe seats in British politics. Barring personal misdemeanours or the odd unkind boundary review, two thirds of British MPs had the proverbial political ‘job for life’.

This has been proven wrong in the last decade.

In 2015, 40 of 41 Scottish Labour MPs lost their jobs due to the sudden dominance of Scottish independence. This prospect would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.

Between 2017 and 2019, Brexit led to a shift in demographics in the north of England, and the midlands. The Conservatives gained 51 ‘Red Wall’ seats. Many of these, like Bolsover, Leigh and Bishop Auckland were held by Labour since over a century.


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As we get closer to a likely 2024 general elections, the third installment of this series is now available.

This time, however, the cohort is different. Those in the political ‘firing line’ are a whole selection of Conservative MPs representing often affluent seats within 40 miles of major English cities.

These MPs should be most concerned about not only the price of energy but also the antics of Boris Johnson.

Instead they need to worry about a whole new political concept: ‘urban flight’.

What is urban flying?

Urban flight is the term used for the movement of people from metropolitan areas to sleepy villages and towns beyond.

This form of internal migration has been increasing at an unprecedented rate since the covid pandemic. After months of being forcibly ‘cooped up’, many city dwellers have come to put greater premium on space, both inside or outside of their abode. Urban flight has become easier thanks to the hybrid home-working model that spans a variety of professions.

Hamptons, an estate agency, claims that 112,780 Londoners purchased property outside of the capital in 2021. Since 2016, around 350,000 Londoners have bought homes outside of London. This is more than triple the 104,000 people who did it in the five years between 2008-2013.

Urban flight is not just a niche market. Middle class couples in their thirties, forties, and forties are the most common. Hamptons suggest that the average sale price received by those selling up from London was £506,930 in 2021.

As Aneisha Beveridge, head of research at Hamptons has commented, city leavers “have changed the geography of not only the commuter belt, but smaller towns and cities across Southern England”.

Why is urban flight a problem?

In the past, voters moving out of England’s large cities would have re-enforced Conservative hegemony in their new found leafy pastures.

Expect the opposite at the next election.

Three factors make urban flight for certain Conservative MPs a particularly dangerous pill.

The newcomers are largely anticonservative voters
With just 25% of London’s voters describing themselves as Conservative, and with many of Labour’s safest seats found in England’s northern cities, those fleeing metropolitan areas rarely now pack Conservative politics into the removal van.

Urban flight is a popular choice for middle-class people due to the practicalities of working from home and the cost of traveling.

That is a worrying demographic for Conservatives.

In May 2022, the polling firm ‘YouGov’ showed the Conservatives to be polling just 25% amongst middle class voters (social groups A/B/C1). This is far below the 36% level that the party is polling among the working class voters (those belonging to the C2/D/E social group).

In the same way that Brexit loosened the party political allegiance of many voters in the north of England, the opposite dynamic has been in play when defining the politics of many ‘Remain’ voters in England’s big cities. This further boosts the political impact of urban flight.

The four London boroughs from which people are most likely to migrate (Hammersmith and Fulham, Lambeth, Wandsworth, and Islington) are some of the strongest ‘Remain’ hotbeds in the UK. These are areas where seventh tenths of folks opposed the UK’s departure from the EU.

These voters are often very politically engaged. Many will conduct the necessary Google research to find out which candidate is most likely to defeat the Conservative as they unpack their boxes in their new constituency.

Urban flight focuses on certain hotspots
Urban flight also appears to be highly concentrated on particular belts and towns around England’s major cities. Hamptons estimates that the average distance people travel from London to London is 35 miles.

As a political phenomenon, urban flight is not something to worry ‘Blue Wall’ MPs in South Norfolk or North Dorset. At the same time, the tendency for it to focus disproportionately on favoured ‘hotspots’, only heightens the political impact for the constituencies that are the most affected.

These hotspots are already changing the politics
The national swing to the Conservatives was the headline story of the 2019 general election. Less well reported, was the opposite movement that occurred in a number of middle class, ‘Remain’ leaning towns, on the outskirts of England’s main cities.

If the list of these cities is matched to the hotspots proving most popular with migrating city dwellers, it is a statistical marriage.

This is a potent political cocktail.

Metropolitan voters are flocking to the exact places where the Conservative incumbent is being resisted by local politics.

This deluge of urban flight voters post-covid without the support of a larger national opinion poll lead has the potential for a devastating blow.

The blue bricks most susceptible to urban flight ….

The following 9 Conservative MPs have seats that support the above theory. Each of these MPs was a Conservative stronghold until recently. All of them have been in the party’s hands for 75 years or longer.

1. Surrey South West (Jeremy Hunt) – Majority 8,817
Since 1910, Surrey South West has been won every time the Conservative candidate ran. However, the party suffered a 3% swing in 2019. Between 2015-2019, the number of Conservative councillors at Waverly decreased from 53 to 22, While Jeremy Hunt, the local MP, is engaged in leadership maneuvers, his real battle lies closer to home.

According to national opinion polls Surrey South West would be lost to Liberal Democrats. And this is before you consider the recent impact of urban migration. This part of Surrey has become one of the most sought after destinations for Londoner’s fleeing the capital. According to the Office of National Statistics, South West Surrey has an annual inbound migration rate of 7%. Many of these new immigrants will not be supportive of the current situation, with 25% of the electorate expected to have moved in before the next election.

2. Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) – Majority 6,895
This was once a conservative area in Hertfordshire. The Conservative Party saw a negative swing of 6% here. The seat is now a marginal Lib Dem. Hamptons, an estate agent, has shown that this area is the most sought-after destination for first-time buyers moving out of London. It is the ideal place to feel the urban flight effect.

3. Worthing East and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) – Majority 7,441
This area of Britain has voted ‘blue’ ever since the First World War. However, the Conservative majority has declined from 14,949 to 7,441 since 2015 to 7,441 by 2019. Labour gained further ground in the 2022 municipal elections. Highlighting how urban flight is not simply confined to London, this constituency has experienced a steady and significant migration from the nearby ‘left leaning’ city of Brighton.

4. Wycombe (Steve Baker) – Majority 4,214
Since 1950, Wycombe has been held in the Conservative Party. Yet the party’s majority has dropped from 14,856 in 2015 to 4,214 in 2019. The area has been much more ethnically diverse in recent years than many seats in Buckinghamshire. Wycombe is just forty miles from London and only twenty five minutes by train away. It is the ideal destination for those seeking refuge from the capital. The local MP, Steve Baker, recently told Boris Johnson that ‘the gig’s up’.  He may soon find the same.

5. Altrincham and Sale (Sir Graham Brady) – Majority 6,139
This is a safe Conservative territory that lies to the south-east of Greater Manchester. It has been there since 1924. The Conservative party saw a negative swing in 2019 of 3%, despite the fact that nearly two-thirds of local voters voted against Brexit. This seat could be a destination for left-leaning middle-class voters fleeing Manchester. In the two years prior to 2020, it has seen a 10% increase in its population.

6. Wokingham (John Redwood) – Majority 7,383
Since 1950, Wokingham, a Berkshire village, has been represented by a Conservative. The party suffered a negative swing in 2019 of 8%. The Conservative majority has fallen from 24,197 to 7,383 between 2015 and 2019. That change could be fueled by urban flight. According to Hamptons Wokingham is second most popular destination for those moving out of the capital.

7. Cambridge South (Anthony Browne) – Majority 2,904
This constituency is located around Cambridge and has been loyal to the Conservatives over the past three quarters century. The politics of the area are being affected by left-leaning professional voters, not only from London but also from Cambridge. This constituency voted 5.5% in favor of the Conservatives in 2019. As opposition forces coalesce in support of the Lib Dems in 2019, the Conservative majority has already dropped from 20,594 in 2015. To 2,904 this year.

8. Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards) – Majority 7,643
This has been a blue area in suburban Nottinghamshire for nearly half a century. Kenneth Clarke has represented it in parliament since 1950. However, Rushcliffe is now a popular destination for those looking to escape the Labour-leaning city Nottingham. In 2019, Rushcliffe saw a 4% swing towards the Conservatives. Even if Labour was not able to win the constituency, it would be easily won by Labour. According to the ONS a high of 15% of the population moved to this area in 2019-2020.

9. Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) – Majority: 14,645
Royal Tunbridge Wells is a Conservative Party property that has been in existence for more than 100 years. However, past experiences can prove misleading. The Conservatives experienced a negative swing in 2019 due to a higher-than-average level of private renters. In the May 2022 local elections, the party lost 10 of 12 council seats. The Conservative majority in Tunbridge Wells may be larger than others, but the local spa waters are especially vulnerable to urban flight. The town is ranked eighth in the country. list There are many destinations that Londoners want to move to.

This list of seats is not exhaustive. There are as many 30 others, including many with a more ‘marginal’ electoral history, where the impact of urban flight could also be significant.

What is more, the plight of MPs in this particular section of the ‘blue wall’ is not going to be helped by the Conservative party’s wider electoral priorities.

Sabre rattling around a trade war with the EU, or a battle with the European Court of Human Rights over Rwandan immigration proposals, may provide red meat to conservative voters in the party’s new found northern heartlands. It only makes matters worse for Conservative MPs who are dealing with an influx liberal metropolitan voters. This highlights the vulnerability of the party’s electoral coalition.

If there is one thing that the last three British general election campaigns have taught us, it is that elections results are not linear.

It is important to not underestimate the demographic impact of internal migration in the future.

In a number of choice seats around England’s major cities, urban flight is pushing the relevant blue brick, towards a state of ‘no repair’.