Is Greater London really London?

Yesterday I saw an article on Medium from Bob Pitt, a socialist writer who used to run Islamophobia Watch, on why Boris Johnson was able to twice win the mayoralty of a city often regarded as left-leaning or at least liberal. It was, he says, because the electoral region of Greater London includes large tracts which are not really London but were included in an expansion of London in the 1960s by a Tory government which wanted to weaken the Labour party’s hold on London local government after it dominated the London County Council from the 1930s until the 60s. In some of the areas included in Greater London, most people are right-wing, provincial, Tory voters who do not see themselves as Londoners:

In order to overcome the fact that London is indeed “a city that leans firmly towards Labour” the Tories included large swathes of suburbia in this new electoral region. Bexley, Bromley, Havering — places like that.

The people living in these areas don’t regard themselves as Londoners. They talk about going into London, or up to London. They don’t think of themselves as living in London. That’s because they don’t. These suburban boroughs don’t even have London postcodes.

I was brought up in one of these boroughs (Croydon) and live in another today (Kingston). I have family living in the borough in between (Sutton). It’s true that parts of them are wealthy, mostly white, Tory-voting and have more in common with the neighbouring parts of their old counties (in our case, Surrey) than anywhere in the former London County but they also have more in common with those places than with the parts of their own borough that are closer to central London. This was particularly evident in Croydon where the northern parts, such as Broad Green, Thornton Heath and Norbury, had substantial minority-ethnic and working-class populations. When I was at sixth-form college, the students arrived on one bus or the other depending on which areas they came from: those from the north on the number 50, as was, and those from the central and eastern parts (like me) usually on the 409, still a green country bus, and the students on the number 50 were much more likely to be Black or Asian. North of the Thames, very much of what we now call inner-city London, such as Haringey (which includes Tottenham), Brent (which includes Wembley and Harlesden) and Ealing (which includes Acton), were in Middlesex county before 1965; East and West Ham (now Newham) and Walthamstow were in Essex; despite the core of London always having been north of the river, most of the LCC was on the south side. These areas also have strong Black and Asian populations as well as other minorities and strong white working-class populations. Ken Livingstone’s constituency in between his GLC and mayoral days, Brent East, was part of former Middlesex. The North Circular was north London’s M25; unlike the South Circular Road which passes very close to central London, no part of it was in London County.

It’s also true that the old postal counties remained in place and Croydon’s was Surrey. But the mayoralty was established in 2000 and postal counties were abolished in 1996. That they have their own postcodes is irrelevant: those postal areas, the RM code (which also includes Thurrock) aside, were mostly confined to those suburban areas and some of the London postal areas extended into the outer counties: the N, NW and W area into Middlesex, the E area into Essex (the E4 postcode still does), and the SW and SE areas into Surrey. But postal areas have always transgressed county and even country boundaries; the Guildford postcodes go well into Hampshire and my university town, Aberystwyth, had a Shrewsbury postcode (SY23). We may have talked of going into or up to London, but when talking to people from outside London altogether, we say we live in London or we’re from London, especially as many of us moved out from inner London or moved to those places because they were at least near London.

A picture of a 1970s poster showing a clock tower with lights shining from two sides, with the words in red underneath, "Croydon lunar research facility", in a covered walkway with shuttered shops on the right-hand side and two BT phone boxes in the background.
St George’s Walk, Croydon, 2017. (Source: Duncan C)

Bob Pitt says it was the presence of these outer-suburban non-Londoners in Greater London that allowed Boris Johnson to take the mayoralty twice. But three of the five mayoral elections so far were won by either Labour or, as in 2000, an independent Left-wing candidate (Ken Livingstone). Livingstone won a very comfortable victory and, when second preferences were counted, won every district in London except Bromley-Bexley and the west central area; this includes all but one of those outer-suburban districts, although it should be noted that it is a one-voter, one-vote election and there are no block votes, so Labour votes from north Croydon, say, still counted. Subsequent elections have divided voters between the inner city and outer suburbs with Zac Goldsmith in 2016 accused of using a “doughnut strategy” under the influence of Lynton Crosby, and he may have won some votes in south-west London as a result of opposition to Heathrow expansion (which Boris Johnson also previously opposed), but he still lost.

The GLC, during its lifetime, had a pattern of being dominated by whichever party was in opposition in central government; by 2000, the demographics had changed somewhat, certainly compared to the 1960s, and the political scene had changed as well. Croydon North, for example, has been a safe Labour seat for many years and Croydon borough council changed to Labour domination in the 1990s despite having been Tory-dominated previously. Ken Livingstone was elected because he had a vision, the Congestion Charge for vehicles driven into central London during the daytime which was to be invested in public transport being a major plank of it. By 2008, after a second term, Livingstone was unpopular in large part because of the western extension of the Congestion Charge which took in a large tract of residential inner suburbia around Ladbroke Grove (the area now associated with Grenfell Tower) and he had antagonised an awful lot of people; the Evening Standard was, as it is now, heavily right-leaning and was critical of his association with people like Hugo Chavez and Yusuf al-Qaradawi (it became known as the “Evening Boris” while Johnson was mayor). Many people who had supported him previously believed he had become arrogant and that he had run out of ideas. After losing in 2008, he stood again in 2012 and lost again.

Yes, being a large urban area rather than a fairly small city-county which covers barely half, if that, of the metropolitan area does mean that Labour is no longer guaranteed control of the mayoralty. But London had grown by the mid-1960s and the LCC’s geography no longer made sense; the GLC was a weaker entity than the LCC was, with the enlarged boroughs taking on many of the functions performed by counties elsewhere, such as road management (public transport was a GLC function for much of its existence). The record of the London mayoralty proves that a strong Labour candidate can win comfortably; Boris Johnson may have used his charm and exploited the support of the popular press, but his main asset in 2008 was the incumbent’s rapidly decreasing popularity and, in 2012, the foolishness of the Labour party in letting him stand for a fourth time. Of course, London voted heavily to remain in the EU in 2016 and even though the mayor has no power over whether we stay or leave, a pro-Brexit mayoral candidate is unlikely to win now. But let’s not pretend it was just the demographics or the geography; a strong Labour candidate could have won at least 2012 if not 2008, and Ken Livingstone no longer fitted the bill.

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