Getting over the London blues (24 September 2008)
The mayoral defeat was painful for Labour, but urban voting patterns mean the Tories shouldn’t assume it means more success
At a Progress fringe meeting this week, Labour delegates in Manchester examined the London elections last May with a mixture of pain and pleasure. The pain was of course in the loss of the mayoralty, and the resulting self-criticism of the language, tactics and apparent deafness to the concerns of many white and outer London voters. The pleasure was in the gain of an assembly seat, and in what was generally acclaimed as a professionally organised campaign that had got activists enthusiastic in a way that is unusual in Labour politics (and contrasted with the paralysis of the will that prevails this week in Manchester).
As well as the surface politics of the London elections, there were some intriguing fragments of information in which deeper currents could be glimpsed, provided by Ben Page of the polling organisation Ipsos-Mori. These left me thinking as much about the Conservatives as Labour.
Ipsos-Mori’s research on local government suggest that levels of “unhappiness” – fear of crime, dissatisfaction with local services and the council’s record, and a perception of dirt and squalor – are highest in the outer London boroughs, with Croydon and Harrow leading the way. People in inner London seem by contrast relatively happy with their lot.
As early as 2002, the Conservatives under Iain Duncan Smith did relatively well in some outer London boroughs, regaining Barnet, Redbridge and Enfield. Their campaign in these boroughs tapped into a sense that the areas were in decline, becoming more inner city and chaotic. It would be inaccurate to see this merely as a coded appeal to racism, although no doubt susceptible voters did hear a dog-whistle. The main aim was more about tapping into a sense of a lost dream among London suburban voters of a clean, green place with families living in large houses, good public services and a sense of (perhaps stifling) social order. In voting Conservative in local elections in 2002 and 2006, and in such numbers for Boris Johnson in 2008, suburbanites (including the working class suburbanites of Dagenham, and other outer London council-built areas) are saying that they do not like the current state of their suburbs very much, and haven’t felt that Labour cares very much about it.
While many suburban voters feel that they are losing what they initially found attractive in their communities, inner Londoners have often made a conscious choice to come to a place that fits their aspirations. This applies to the people who have come from all over the world to live and work in London, and for instance to the affluent inhabitants of Camden Town or Islington who prefer urban life to the calm of the suburbs. This in turn displaces people who would like to live in inner London, but cannot afford it (recent immigrants and the young) further out to cheaper suburban areas. Population turnover is so high in the inner city that people, to some extent, are sorted into places that suit them. The same is not true of the suburbs, where older established voters (including those who moved there as recently as the 1990s) have seen their areas change before their eyes. In Bexley and Bromley, which turned in a massive vote for Johnson in 2008, there has been anxiety about ending up like Croydon or Lewisham.
Urban politics in a city on the scale of London messy and complicated. The task of maintaining a complicated rainbow coalition of competing interests without alienating any of them, or indeed arousing too much reaction from the white working and middle classes, is a tricky job to pull off, and the strains were clearly showing in Ken Livingstone’s second term with rows over the London Development Agency’s policies, Lee Jasper and Yusuf al-Qaradawi among others. London is, after all, still majority white and majority suburban, and assembling a winning vote for Labour on this basis is tricky. Livingstone and the Labour Assembly group pioneered some interesting new political approaches – in the first term, with Livingstone governing as an Independent, and in the second term with the City Hall alliance of Labour and Green facilitated by the proportional electoral system. Labour needs some new political skills – an inclusive, coalition-building approach and the ditching of old ambitions of monolithic control – to manage it.
There is no long term future for the Conservatives in a politics of suburban backlash. Little can be done about the broad trends, and by winning local elections a party becomes part of the perceived problem rather than part of the solution. The Conservatives now control most suburban boroughs, and in 2006 there was a swing to Labour in Enfield and a mediocre result in Barnet – four years of Tory control had not slowed the rate of change much. The Conservatives run Croydon, Merton and Harrow after the 2006 elections and it would not be surprising if they underperform in 2010.
But there is an alternative. The Republicans have won every New York mayoral election since 1993 with a formula of fiscal discipline, tough language (and achievement) on reducing crime, efficiency and social tolerance, and to some extent this has been a winning Conservative formula in the inner London boroughs like Westminster, Wandsworth and Kensington & Chelsea which they control. But New York remains a very left-wing city in all other elections from president to borough council, and the fact remains that there is huge tension between what is needed to win in New York and the nature of the wider Republican Party. Michael Bloomberg, after all, was always a pretty nominal Republican and went independent in 2007. Perhaps there is something structural, as well as personal, in the speculation about a rift between Johnson and Cameron, but these are early days and it may take Tory control at both national and London level to reveal the potential for division.