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Faith and community
12 February 2013

Conservatism and the city – or why urban policy shouldn't be left to the left

The US political map is famously divided between Republican ‘red states’ and Democrat ‘blue states’. Though this might be an American exception to the political colour scheme that applies elsewhere in the world, it works well geographically – given that most of the blue states are coastal.

So, is there something about the oceans (or the Great Lakes) that inclines people to the left? Only that American cities tend to be coastal and that urban voters turn out for the Democrats:

  • “After the presidential election in November, New York Times exit polls found that Republican candidate Mitt Romney had received only 29 percent of the big-city vote to President Obama’s 69 percent… the GOP has an urban problem. And it’s partly a self-created one. The party, nationally and even locally, has focused on winning suburban and rural votes and has stopped reaching out to city dwellers.”

This is a story we’re not entirely unfamiliar on this side of the pond, which is why Ed Glaeser’s advice to Republicans in an article for City Journal is relevant to British Conservatives too:

“The GOP wasn’t always so dismissive of cities,” he argues:

  • “Almost at the front of its 1968 platform was a section called ‘Crisis of the Cities,’ which declared that ‘for today and tomorrow, there must be—and we pledge—a vigorous effort, nation-wide, to transform the blighted areas of cities.’… After Richard Nixon won the election that year, he sought to deliver on those promises. Aided by his HUD [Housing and Urban Development] secretary, George Romney (Mitt’s father), he moved federal policy away from subsidizing disastrous public-housing projects and toward a system of housing vouchers. Nixon also championed block grants, which gave cities flexibility in distributing federal aid, allowing them to target their greatest needs.”

Of course, we all know how things turned out for Tricky Dicky, but at least the guy won elections – unlike modern-day Republicans:

  • “The 2012 party platform, by contrast, had no city-oriented policies whatsoever and used the word ‘urban’ just twice—once to decry the current administration’s allegedly ‘replacing civil engineering with social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit.’”

Note the sneering contempt for public transport – typical of a party consumed by its knee-jerk hostility to the public sphere.  Such an attitude might be attractive to those that can afford to create their own entirely private bubbles in which to live their lives, but in a city this is a luxury that few can afford. 

In an urban environment, a decent quality of life for most people depends upon investment in the shared spaces and services that make up the public sphere. By having nothing positive to say on these issues, the right surrenders the urban vote to the left. This is doubly shameful, because  as Ed Glaeser shows, conservative and market-orientated ideas on policing, schools reform, road pricing and competition in public services have a huge contribution to make to our cities.

Furthermore, with the right approach, conservative leaders like Rudy Giuliani and Boris Johnson can win over the most cosmopolitan of electorates. However, in order to make the most of this potential, two things need to happen.

Firstly, real boldness on decentralisation: Cities should be seen as organic entities with the local knowledge and spirit to run their own affairs; not as dumping grounds of social need to be managed from afar. Secondly, we need to build urban homes fit for families: If middle class voters feel compelled to grab their children and run for the suburbs as soon as they can, the urban conservative cause will remain a hopeless one.


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