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The 2019 Election and the left in London

Lise Butler

18.12.2019

At his speech in the early hours of Friday morning Jeremy Corbyn thanked the voters of his London constituency of Islington North for electing him to Parliament for the tenth time. Corbyn was first elected MP for that constituency in 1983, in an election almost as devastating for the Labour Party as this one. Islington often serves as a pejorative shorthand for an out-of-touch London elite: in the 1990s it became synonymous with gentrification, symbolising, as Carole Cadwalladr observed in the Guardian in 2015, ‘overpriced cappuccinos, loaves that cost a fiver, and the kind of over-entitled metropolitan privilege that makes much of the rest of the country come out in an allergic rash’. But Corbyn’s constituency of Islington North was and remains a socio-economically divided and ethnically diverse part of London. In his first speech to the Commons in 1983 Corbyn described his constituents as bitter and angry about high unemployment, especially in the BAME community; thoughtless infrastructure development in which busy and dangerous motorways cut through poor areas where residents could not afford cars; cuts to local authority funding and the NHS; and the racist vilification of the ‘inner city’ by the conservative media. Though ‘only a few miles from the House by tube or bus’, Corbyn lamented, Islington North seemed a ‘million miles away’ from Westminster.

The 2019 election has reinforced a narrative of political and cultural separation between London and the rest of the UK, and between middle-class Labour Party members and voters in Labour’s lost ‘heartlands’. But the association of the Labour Party and critics of Brexit with, as Priti Patel regrettably put it at the 2019 Conservative Party conference, the ‘North London metropolitan elite’, profoundly obscures the extent to which the politics of the Labour Party’s left have been formed by decades of advocacy for socioeconomically and culturally diverse urban communities in London and elsewhere. London MPs like Corbyn and Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) developed their politics and political solidarities against a backdrop of high urban poverty and the assertive municipal socialism of the Greater London Council, which actively funded feminist and immigrant-led community initiatives in the 1980s. The intellectual and political roots of Corbynism, in short, can be located in a political project which sought to represent not a metropolitan elite, but the capital’s multicultural and working-class communities.

Since the 1980s property values have skyrocketed in Islington, and, as outer London has become poorer and more diverse, references to the ‘inner city’ have ceased to operate as meaningful racist dog-whistles. But, though income inequality has fallen in London since the financial crisis, incomes remain more unequal in the capital than in any other region of the UK, and disparities in wealth are staggering. And though many London residents – not least its sizeable Jewish community – have been very hostile to Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party has performed remarkably well in the capital under his leadership, winning 49 out of 73 seats in London in the 2017 election, and the same overall number in 2019. The Party’s relatively high support within London has not, of course, been enough to counteract its losses elsewhere, and widespread Labour support in the capital has almost certainly distracted the Party’s largely metropolitan commentariat from foreseeing the true scale of its collapse nationally. But the Labour Party’s success in London has reflected not a narrow appeal to the elite, but its ability to appeal to both relatively affluent middle-class supporters and the millions of London residents on low or middle incomes.

In the years since the 2016 referendum much has been made of Britain’s disaffected, non-metropolitan ‘left-behind’. This strand of analysis has shown that support for Brexit was stronger in areas of the country with a higher concentration of older, white, and less educated voters (although, as two of the scholars most closely associated with this argument, Matthew Goodwin and Oliver Heath, noted in 2016, the correlation between lower levels of education and support for Brexit was stronger if Scotland and London were excluded from their analysis). As a result there has been an ever greater tendency for Britain’s economic and educational divisions to be correlated with the geographical divisions that emerged during the Brexit vote.

Some recent analyses of the 2019 election suggest that Boris Johnston has ‘transformed the Conservatives into the party of the working class’, and that the Labour Party has become ‘the preserve of the well-off and well-educated’. But there are many working class, young, and BAME Londoners, facing stagnating wages, a crumbling public sector, and an impossible housing market, who have felt they had a champion in Jeremy Corbyn. A framing of the election which implicitly presents the working class as older, white, and removed from the capital disregards their experience.

On Britain’s electoral map London now appears to be a Labour-supporting island in sea of Tory blue, electorally isolated from the political priorities and loyalties represented by Boris Johnston’s Conservative Party in Westminster. If Labour seeks to win back its heartlands by accepting and reinforcing a narrative of cultural divide between ‘metropolitan elites’ and the rest of the country, then the London working class may become the new left behind.

Lise Butler is a lecturer in modern history at City, University of London, and a contributing editor for Renewal.

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