I turn now to the London betting markets. In a sense, I feel I know London almost too well to write about these markets. Sometimes knowing absolutely nothing about an area is better. I shall try to confine myself to facts and make it clear where I am writing from personal knowledge or prejudice.
London is a more diverse region than pretty well any other and it is very dangerous to extrapolate from one seat even in relation to adjacent seats. The demographics can be very different indeed and I strongly urge you to look at these individually before wagering any money. For example, both Islington South & Finsbury and Bethnal Green & Bow are geographically close and showed very sharp swings away from Labour over the Iraq war in 2005, but the swingers are from very different backgrounds. These seats may both swing in tandem again this time, but it would be very dangerous to assume so without further investigation.
The geography of London’s MPs can be crudely described as a blue hole at the centre, a large red swathe of inner London seats forming almost a complete ring, then an outer ring of blue seats, with the Lib Dems occupying the outer south-west London seats. However, underneath the surface, the picture is more complex. The Lib Dems have cut a swathe through the urban professionals of north London and in east London the 2005 election was a story of minor parties. In west London, the Tories are getting stronger. Labour’s control of inner London is under attack from four different parties in four different areas.
Labour will, so far as possible, be looking to hold the line. The Tories will be looking to make the outer ring thicker blue and make the blue hole at the centre thicker on the west side of London: they will also be seeking to take back some of those south-west London seats from the Lib Dems.
Meanwhile, the Lib Dems will be trying to hold those seats and build a yellow hole in north London. Hornsey and Wood Green was a famous win in 2005, and the Lib Dems are notionally second to Labour in the contiguous seats of Islington North, Islington South & Finsbury, Holborn & St Pancras, Brent Central and Hampstead & Kilburn. They will be hoping to take some of these and to cement their position in the rest.
And what of east London? In 2005, Labour lost much of the Muslim vote to Respect, who won Bethnal Green & Bow, came second in West Ham and East Ham and third in Poplar & Limehouse: these four seats are contiguous. Meanwhile, the BNP came third in Barking and polled well in the adjacent seat of Dagenham & Rainham. These parties will be looking to build local strongholds.
I include my now-customary tables showing the seats arranged in order of odds rather than swing, but I have to say that I feel that these are less useful here than in any previous area that I have looked at:
Bunnco wrote an excellent article on pb2 a week ago looking at the size of turnover in a given constituency. In London, that turnover is rapid. Of course, turnover doesn’t matter if the constituents who leave are replaced by constituents who are of broadly similar sympathies, but in London areas change socially with high speed. The Rolling Stones song “Play with fire” from the 1960s refers to a character living in Chelsea, not in Knightsbridge any more, with the now-lost implication that she had gone seriously down in the world. In 1992, I voted in Lewisham East, which until that election was Tory-held. Labour is now 1/10 to hold it. Meanwhile, Tooting will be most associated by older readers with Citizen Smith and has been Labour-held since its formation in 1974. The Tories are, however, 8/13 favourites to take it. (Seat boundaries have changed, but the point is I think still valid).
With these considerations in mind, it is surprising that the bookies rate so few of the London seats as seriously in play. Only 19 of the 73 London seats are quoted at their best price as having any party as being in the range of 1/3 to 3/1. I suggest that this underrates the degree of uncertainty in London caused by demographic change and that accordingly the longer shots are worth some serious consideration (and that shorter priced bet should be treated with unusual care).
As a general comment, the bookies have not yet caught up with Labour's revival in the polls. The value as a default lies on that side of the fence.
In a recent Comres poll (21 February 2010), 57% of Muslims nationally said that they would vote Labour. This suggests that Labour are good value to rebuild their position in east London where the Muslim vote is strong. They are quoted at 11/10 to retain Poplar & Limehouse and I now see this as excellent value: I see this as a 2/5 shot, even with recent demographic changes. The Tories need Respect to eat into the Labour vote if they are to stand a chance of taking this seat and even the unique George Galloway is likely to struggle to do this. You may also like the look of the 3/10 for Labour to retake Bethnal Green & Bow.
Labour are likely to be less successful in keeping hold of those seats where urban professionals are in play. In a city as obsessed by house prices as London is, the Conservatives’ proposed reforms of inheritance tax play well and the Lib Dems’ mansion tax doesn’t. The Conservatives are still seen as the party of the City even by those in the City who are not Conservative. Many City professionals feel like Millwall fans – no one loves us and we don’t care – and there is a hope among many such professionals that if the Conservatives get in, the tax on the higher paid will be lower than it would be under Labour (bear in mind that the City is full of the aspirational who are all hoping to be among the very highest paid, even if they aren’t now). The Conservatives will do well in their targets in west London and as younger urban professionals spread outward, they may post good tallies in some surprising places that are not serious targets for any other party. Those seats where 30-50 year old professionals congregate are likely to be more resistant to Tory charms, since the Major years are still well-remembered by this group.
The outer London seats, particularly in north west, south east and east London, have large numbers of people who are the British equivalent of John Howard’s battlers. Such people are not particularly impressed by David Cameron but they are really unimpressed by Gordon Brown. If they eventually decide to vote Conservative, they may do so in large numbers and there could be some extreme swings. The Conservatives may be worth backing at 6/5 in Ealing North (Stephen Pound’s seat) and 11/8 in Dagenham & Rainham (Jon Cruddas’s seat). If you want a longshot in this type of seat, take a look at the Tories at 4/1 in Erith & Thamesmead. They’d need a 13% swing, but given the Labour party’s selection difficulties in this seat, this one might be worth thinking about. On the same lines, the Tories can be backed at 11/2 in Lewisham West and Penge where they need a 11.3% swing - I actually prefer this bet to the Erith & Thamesmead bet. Conversely, if you think that this group’s disenchantment with David Cameron might lead them to stay with Labour, try 4/1 on Labour in Eltham.
What of the Lib Dem/Tory seats in south-west London? These are not seats on which I want to put much money, because they are so local. If you must bet on these, my own rule is that no one really knows what’s going on with the Lib Dems, so bet against the favourite. So maybe back the Lib Dems in Carshalton & Wallington at 15/8 (or if you’re feeling wild, in the west London seat of Ealing Central & Acton at 6/1) or the Tories in Kingston & Surbiton at 11/4. I’m not rushing to do any of these.
How will the Lib Dems do in their north London targets? I suggest that they will make only limited progress or maybe even go backwards. In Guardian and Independent reading households, Iraq is a much less important topic than five years ago. Polly Toynbee’s nosepegs for Labour will find many takers here among previous Lib Dem defectors. The Lib Dems have struggled to appeal to potential tactical Tory voters and their message seems more geared towards retaining tactical Labour voters in other areas. In the Mayoral elections, the Tories got excellent tallies in inner London (they have, however, completely failed to build on this) and it is entirely possible that the Tories might retake second place from the Lib Dems in the less marginal seats.
With this in mind, I have backed Labour at 6/4 in my home constituency of Islington South & Finsbury (the Lib Dems may well win, but they shouldn’t be as strong favourites as 8/15) and in Holborn & St Pancras. As a long shot, I have backed Labour in Hornsey & Wood Green. If Iraq is now not a vote-shifting issue, Labour should rebound in this seat. Lynne Featherstone is certainly not as safe in her seat as Vince Cable.
Finally, what of Hampstead & Kilburn, a three-way marginal between the main parties? The Lib Dems’ strongly pro-Palestinian message is unlikely to enthuse the Jewish constituents and those for whom the Lib Dems’ Iraq message appealed last time are as already noted more likely to be voting on other issues this time around. Both the Conservatives and, particularly, Labour look like rather better value – back either or both according to taste.