The future of the left since 1884

The key to success

Labour is set to win London's upcoming mayoral election, but it cannot take the capital's loyalty for granted. Michael Tichelar explains.



Opinion polls show that Sadiq Khan is maintaining over a 20 point lead in terms of voting intentions in the upcoming London mayoral election. His support includes 59 per cent of those aged under 50, 53 per cent of women and 63 per cent of BME voters, as well as 56 per cent of the middle class and 42 per cent of the working class. If replicated at the election, rescheduled for this May, he would win outright in the first round. In the event of a second round, he would beat the Conservatives by a margin of 64 per cent to 36 per cent, up from 57 per cent in 2016.

During the last 20 years, many areas of London have seen increasing cross-class and BAME support for Labour in all types of elections. The party is now by far the most dominant political force in London just as it is in other big cities.

This has not always been the case. Labour was weak in London before 1914 given low levels of working class voter registration, the strength of Liberal/Progressive opinion and the growing influence of popular conservatism in a metropolis dominated by the Empire.

However, the tables turned during the interwar period, when Labour succeeded in attracting the support of the newly enfranchised working class, which formed very large majorities in many inner-London constituencies, as well as important segments of the growing ‘black-coated’ proletariat of white-collar workers. This cross-class support ensured a remarkable above-average swing to Labour in 1945, making London, including its suburbs, a regional stronghold.

By the 1970s, Labour faced what it thought was a terminal crisis in London, as a result of the enormous loss of manufacturing jobs, the impact of gentrification in its traditional inner-city heartlands and Thatcher’s hold on the more affluent suburbs. It recovered with the advent of New Labour, again doing very well in the suburbs, and it has since continued to succeed in a metropolis which has been described by the planner Peter Hall as a ‘city of rampant capitalism’. Why is this the case?

In my recent book on Why London is Labour, I argue that while changes in the London economy, plus the ability of the party to forge cross-class and ethnic alliances, can go a long way to explain the success of the party historically, a range of other demographic and social factors need to be taken into account, especially after the year 2000.

The unique size of London’s growing and relatively well-integrated black and ethnic minority communities, not concentrated into ghettos, is a really important reason for Labour’s current success. It is the historic party of the working class most identified with support for anti-racial discrimination legislation. Its support for high standards in education go down well with BME parents wanting their children to do well in an environment of declining social mobility.

The much higher concentrations of well-educated younger people with socially-liberal values is another important factor. The impact of austerity following the financial crash of 2008, particularly on ‘generation rent’, many of them students, saw an increase in the turnout of these groups in the general election of 2017, especially in support of Labour’s manifesto commitment to end tuition fees. Combined, then, with the very high degree of poverty in London compared to non-metropolitan areas, is another reason for Labour’s better performance. A quarter of households in the capital now live below the poverty line. This belies the image of London as the home of a so-called metropolitan elite.

Finally, London contains high levels of middle-class residents in particular neighborhoods, partly as a result of gentrification. Over recent years middle-class support for the party has been going up while it has been declining amongst the working classes.  Sadiq Khan now attracts over 50 percent of middle-class voters compared to only 42 percent of the working-class. This goes a long way in accounting for Labour’s continuing success in London.

However, there are a number of trends which make the future of the Labour party in London, and in government, uncertain. The rise of nationalism in Scotland, and to a lesser extent in Wales, has undermined Labour as UK-wide party. Yet Britain’s first past the post electoral system requires broadly-based alliances for national rather than regional parties to form governments.

It will be interesting to see how far population changes may affect Labour’s support in the future. While London has been getting younger there are other forces are at play. Between 2016 and 2041, the population of London is projected to increase by 22 per cent, to about 11 million, with the white British population increasing by only 6 per cent while the BME population is set to increase by 32 per cent. Some of this population growth will not necessarily be made up of new or extra people, but people living longer.  Although it remains to be seen whether such changes will be to Labour’s advantage, the left cannot take ethnic minority loyalty for granted, especially as the BME population gets older.

To win a future general election, Labour will need to forge successful electoral alliances across the country, based on geography, gender, race and class, otherwise it may revert to being just a regional or sectional pressure group as it was before 1914, when it represented in the main male trade unionists. Herbert Morrison managed to do so in London after 1918. Labour achieved high levels of cross-class support in 1945 as a result of the short-lived impact of the war. And this was repeated by Tony Blair in 1997, and continues to this day, unlike the period after 1945.

Despite the 2019 election result, the formation of such alliances is not an impossible task for Labour, as demonstrated by its growing support in London. Keir Starmer must follow suit if Labour is to regain power at the next election.

Image credit: Nickolay Romensky/Flickr



Michael Tichelar

Michael Tichelar is visiting research fellow at University of the West of England and author of Why London is Labour.

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