(Photo: The Guardian)
By Conrad Whitcroft – Regular Contributor
Labour has a serious problem with Londoners being over-represented in its positions of power which will cause it to lose as long as this problem persists. The Party was shocked when it lost a huge swathe of seats in the North and Midlands but was able to win leafy Putney – a middle class London constituency. This problem has been a long time coming with Labour gradually racking up votes and seats in the local authorities of the capital whilst it is decimated in the rest of the country, save a few other metropolitan strongholds.
Londoners make up 13.5% of the UK population but are drastically overrepresented in each of the Shadow Cabinets that this article will examine. Equally, Londoners are more likely to vote Labour, have voted Remain, and have more left-wing views on social issues than those who live outside the capital. According to a 2018 YouGov poll, this is also reflected in the view that those outside of the capital have of Londoners as “arrogant and insular.”
Labour has failed to learn its lesson once more by electing yet another Londoner as leader, the third in a row, against two Northerners. Londoners’ increasing dominance over Labour is a key reason for the Party’s failure because the values, experiences and politics of those in the capital do not resonate with people who live outside of it. This has been made excruciatingly clear in the Party’s dialogue around Brexit, protests and crime.
This article will not cast judgement on the ideals of London politics and its difference to that of the country at large. You can ask me about that over a pint when the pubs reopen. Instead, I will lay out evidence of how Londoners dominated the top of the Labour Party under the last three leaders.
Ed Miliband’s leadership began in the shadow of New Labour and can be categorised as his abject failure to build something beyond it. His roots as the son of a leading Marxist writer and his bohemian childhood in Primrose Hill provide an excellent view through which to see his failures. On hot button issues such as immigration and Europe he lost ground to UKIP, which acted as a spoiler to give the Tories a majority in 2015. Miliband was unable to keep up with where the electorate was on all of these issues and the characterisation of him as a “North London geek,” who had been parachuted into a Northern constituency that he had never lived in before all resulted in the 2015 General Election disaster for his leadership.
Patronisingly, in trying to overcome this issue of being repugnant to non-Londoners, Miliband turned to the farcical solution of Blue Labour. This theory was founded by Lord Glasman, another Londoner, and caricatured the working class as the inhabitants of a Dickensian rookery. It argued that Labour should turn to post-1945 social values and feed on a perceived social conservatism that lived in every soul north of Watford.
Such ham-fisted generalisations gave birth to many Miliband classics such as the ‘Controls on Immigration’ mug, the 2012 conference theme of ‘One Nation Labour’ and perhaps even Ed’s hilarious assertion that “hell yes, I’m tough enough.” A key part of Miliband’s 2012 conference speech was when he referred to a constituent who asked him why he should represent Doncaster when he wasn’t from there. It was played for laughs but represents the Londoner arrogance of Labour politics.
Looking at the makeup of Miliband’s (final) Shadow Cabinet, we can see that the atmosphere of a London love-in was all too easy to create. 30% of the members were born in London (as opposed to 13.5% of the population) and 15% had a London constituency. Two-thirds had no personal or political connection to the city which is a worryingly small amount when we consider that over 86% of the population do not live in London. This overrepresentation would have had an impact on the Shadow Cabinet’s worldview and contributed to its failure to keep up with political developments outside of London.
Such a situation is summed up perfectly by Emily Thornberry mocking a house that had an England flag outside it in the 2014 Rochester and Strood by-election, a mistake that cost Labour dear and showed it up as a metropolitans-only club.
Jeremy Corbyn was swept to power on the promise that he would change the Labour Party to better represent its core voters and by this measure it was a disaster. Corbyn’s claims to be bold and principled were proved wrong by constant prevarication or disorganization on almost every issue that mattered to the electorate, from crime, to the economy, to national security and to Brexit.
Although Corbyn himself was not born in London, this is where he has lived for most of his adult life and was a councillor, organiser, and MP for the city’s Labour movement. His (final) Shadow Cabinet had a higher proportion of London-based MPs than his predecessor or successor with 24.4% of the members coming from London constituencies, although only 9.8% were born in London.
A higher percentage had no connection to London than Miliband however with 75% of members not being born in or representing the capital. This was slightly inflated by the size of Corbyn’s Shadow cabinet, which was 41 strong, and by the multitude of jobs held by just one person. For example, Ian Lavery had three shadow cabinet positions.
With the overrepresentation of London MPs in the Shadow Cabinet, Corbyn’s switching of Labour into a quasi-Remain party must have been a relatively easy task. Members such as Starmer and Thornberry had never accepted the result of the 2016 referendum and were able to capitalise on the large proportion of cabinet members with London constituencies to make Labour’s new Brexit position seem popular. It was not.
Keir Starmer’s leadership started with a promise to break from the failed leadership of the past. Ironically, this was the exact same promise that the previous two leaders had made. His leadership has so far been characterised by his battles with the Party’s Left who are outraged at any attempt he makes to get Labour to appeal to people outside the M25. His suspension of Corbyn and commitment to Brexit are clear steps in this direction but the Coronavirus crisis has prevented him from making any further marks on the Party or provide any new ideas to the public debate.
Whilst the moniker ‘Captain Hindsight’ may sound unfair to some, he certainly has not been as bold an opposition leader as many Labour voters would have liked him to be. So far, his strategy has been to predict government announcements and then announce them himself to appear ahead of the curve. This drowns out any of his ‘ideas’ when the government gets around to doing them anyway. His parliamentary strategy of constant abstentions on difficult issues (Spycops, the Tier System, the Curfew) has the unfortunate downside of making him look weak and indecisive.
Starmer’s Shadow Cabinet has a disproportionately high representation of London-born and London-based MPs with five of each out of a pool of 25. Londoners are overrepresented by 6.5% in the Labour Party’s current leadership. As we see new challenges arising in the aftermath of the Coronavirus Pandemic and Brexit, a Londoner Labour Leader will once again be faced with a momentous change in the country at large.