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The Political Pulse

Latest opinion research and analysis

What flavour is the doughnut?

One of the great stereotypes of the London election has been the image of the ‘doughnut’ election map from 2008, with deprived inner-London boroughs going solidly for Ken Livingstone, while Boris hoovers up votes in ‘leafy’ affluent outer boroughs. The fact that the latter vote in far greater numbers to the former handed City Hall over to the Conservatives.

Like many stereotypes, it is based on a fundamental truth, however the picture is of course much more complex. Firstly, deprivation is not confined to inner London and while much of the inner city has seen rampant regeneration over recent decades, the same cannot be said for much of London’s outer rim.

Indeed, the GLA seat which saw the highest relative increases in poverty between 2004 and 2010 was Brent and Harrow, the one constituency that in the 2008 assembly elections flipped from the Conservatives to Labour, just as Boris swept into City Hall.

Moreover, many outer boroughs are growing more cosmopolitan - more like the rest of the city. The areas that saw the largest increase in their ethnic minority populations from the 1991 to 2001 census were these suburban West London boroughs of Harrow, Brent, Ealing and Hounslow, along with North Croydon, Newham and parts of Redbridge.

These newer communities have a greater likelihood of transience, with eight of the lowest turnout wards in the 2008 election being in the London Borough of Hounslow. Cranford near Heathrow brought up the rear with just 26% of registered voters going to the polls. Similarly, the Feltham & Heston by-election last December saw a turnout of just 29%, the lowest in a parliamentary seat for 11 years.

Other outer London Boroughs, however, with much lower levels of ethnic minority voters, continue to behave politically like the counties of which they traditionally formed a part. Havering owes as much to Essex, Bromley and Bexley to Kent, and Kingston, Richmond and Sutton to Surrey as they do to London - while equally peripheral boroughs like Harrow and Hounslow very clearly belong to the metropolis. As such, poorer wards in these boroughs, such as Bromley’s Cray Valley East, parts of which have child poverty levels of over 50%, vote overwhelmingly for Boris.

These less cosmopolitan outer boroughs also behave less like the rest of the city in that they’re older and therefore not only more likely to turn out to vote, but less likely to have moved into new rented accommodation in recent years and neglected to register to vote.  As the Electoral Commission pointed out in its most recent analysis of voter registration, Inner London boroughs have the lowest level of Electoral Register completeness and accuracy in the country because of this high rate of internal migration.

But again, the picture is far from simply, with the three highest turnout neighbourhoods in 2008 were not only leafy Cheam (Surrey), but also inner suburban highly ‘leafy’ Fulham and Hornsey, who contain the largest numbers of what some market research firms call ‘urban intelligent’ voters, the most likely to engage in the political process.

It is for just these reasons that the hiring of former Obama organiser Arnie Graf by the Labour Party to hunt suburban votes seems such a shrewd move. In 1997, Tony Blair managed to connect with outer London in such a profound way that such unlikely seats as Romford, Upminster and Bexleyheath & Crayford were taken in that landslide year - but like other Labour seats in Essex and Kent, saw an above average propensity to swing away from the party since then. They will have great difficulty in reconnecting with these areas, which are now the bedrock of the Boris coalition. A more important part of Graf’s task, however, will be increasing participation rates amongst Labour-leaning voters in those outer boroughs that are trending towards the party - especially in boroughs like Hounslow.

Given Boris’ advantages across a range of areas, from incumbency, organisation and simple personal popularity, it may be that demographic and political changes within ‘the doughnut’ are what’s keeping this race so competitive.