Could central London, headquarters of God and mammon, really be turning red? | Polly Toynbee

A red glow spreading across the land may be so bright you could see it from space, if polling predictions are right. In that Labour flare, let’s pinpoint one astonishing constituency the party looks likely to win for the first time in history. Conservative for ever, the City itself, part of the Cities of London and Westminster constituency, would be turning red. Look at the symbolism.

The king in Buckingham Palace would have a Labour MP for the first time. So would the Palace of Westminster, the supreme court, the Old Bailey, Scotland Yard, Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, Catholic Westminster Cathedral and Methodist Central Hall.

The headquarters of God, mammon and Beelzebub are here, with Soho, Leicester Square, Piccadilly, strip clubs and most of theatreland. Three sides of the Monopoly board fall within this constituency, from Pall Mall and Vine Street round to Mayfair and Park Lane.

Here are the grandest old-world clubs: the Savile, White’s, the Garrick and even that Tory domain the Carlton, plus the celebs of Soho House, 5 Hertford Street and Annabel’s. Along with Claridge’s, the Savoy and Fortnum and Mason, there’s Oxford Street, galleries from the National to Tate Britain and the Duke of Wellington’s Apsley House. Imagine a Labour MP representing all this for the first time.

What’s going on here is professionals turning to Labour in upmarket streets presumed Tory for ever, barely canvassed before. Brexit broke the back of their support, just as it broke the Tory party itself as Ukip and its values morphed from outsider “fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists” to infiltrate the core membership. Finance and business still wrestle with its damage.

But something more than mere rejection of these Conservatives may be happening across the country – a profound shift in underlying attitudes towards a more social-democratic state of mind.

I have been finding it quite hard to unearth Tories of the diehard Thatcherite stamp – still-faithful believers in her small state, let alone in her privatisations that are now reviled by most Tory voters. I talk to Mr A, a man in his late 40s living in one of the charming streets here, who worked most of his life in the City but now works in the public sector. He was always a Tory, but no longer. He never voted for Blair. “I and my friendship group in the City on WhatsApp used to be 80% Tory, and they’re 80% Labour now. We’ve turned more left as we get older,” he says. “We were brought up on 90s free market economics at university; we were told it worked. It doesn’t, not in growth or productivity.”

He talks of Britain getting the worst of all worlds: it’s not entrepreneurial like the low-taxed US, “but I’m horrified by the poverty you see there”, but it doesn’t have the better public services you get in higher-taxed Europe. His group, in the £100k income bracket, “thinks we should be taxed more. Ridiculous I only pay £1,800 council tax.”

Sure enough, neither Tory warnings of Labour tax bombshells nor lavish cuts to national insurance have shifted the polls. After Mr A told Labour canvassers he was switching, the candidate Rachel Blake contacted him and he gathered 12 friends to meet her in his house, all now switchers. “We need to pay more tax – 2-3% more is not hard,” he says. “Tax buys public services for all of us. And yes, pays to help others too.” This doesn’t sound like a mere swivelling with the times or loathing of Boris-Truss chaos, though there’s plenty of that.

Mr A and his friends praise Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves for their “stability, determination and leadership” in changing the party: “A bit boring is good.” That’s the kind of affirmation Starmer and Reeves have been working away for on their smoked salmon and scrambled egg breakfast offensive, wooing all the tribes of business and finance. One question: will those two believe the deep change in attitudes happening all around them? Their new voters are often out ahead of them, which suggests Labour can do more than it dares say before the election.

Rachel Blake, their probable new MP, is not naturally a denizen of millionaire zones nor of high finance but has been a housing campaigner for most of her life, has worked on planning with Gordon Brown and has been a Tower Hamlets councillor for the last decade. We meet in the Barbican. Time was when this was Torydom, but no more, despite three-bed flats costing about £2m. Sarah, in a four-bed flat in a Barbican tower with her children and data scientist husband, says they will be voting Labour for the first time. “The Barbican was once a Tory stronghold, but not now. Some older residents still are, but you’ll find all the families and younger people are definitely not Tory.” She talks about different attitudes to public services, poverty and the state of the country.

Housing is a deep cause of discontent across all incomes here, where, Blake tells us, 40% of properties are privately rented – some for astronomical sums, and most seeing the rent double in two decades while pay stagnated. She says more than 10,000 flats in Westminster being let out on Airbnb causes strong indignation when homes are needed locally. Professionals earning high salaries are stung by sky-high rents, leasehold scandals and no-fault evictions. “Everyone is concerned about GP appointments, hospital waiting and social care. The affluent tell me how shocked they are by the rough sleepers,” Blake says. Next we visit a Centrepoint hostel for young homeless people – there’s no shortage of destitution in central London.

If wavering Tories need encouragement, they can get it from Nick Boles. The former Tory minister and founder of the Tory thinktank Policy Exchange, who resigned from the party over its intransigent Brexit negotiations, has come out to back Labour in this, his home constituency. “In recent years Conservatives have done more harm than good,” he declares in a video, standing in the middle of Soho Square, praising Starmer and Reeves’s plans. He calls on local Tories: “If maybe you voted Conservative in the last few elections, I hope you will agree with me that what we need is a Labour government and Rachel Blake as our MP for the Cities of London and Westminster.”

The days of party loyalty are fading. The question is whether this volatility is a deep attitudinal change leftwards or mere detestation of the worst government in living memory. But it’s quite reassuring to see the manic panic among the farther reaches of the Tory right when the Sunday Telegraph editor can write this week: “Armageddon is upon us, and Britain will never be the same again. Right-wing Britain faces meltdown, with the almost total elimination of any power over the UK’s destiny.” Usually wrong about everything, they may be right this time.

The Guardian