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The shock of the 2019 election has tended to obscure its implications for the future of British cities. This was the first “American” election in the UK’s history, in that it produced an electoral map that appeared to resemble the political geography of Republicans and Democrats. In England and Wales, multicultural cities and inner suburbs voted overwhelmingly Labour, while smaller towns and outer suburbs, other than in south Wales, voted overwhelmingly Conservative. This, like the emergence of age as the biggest predictor of how people vote, is new.
In the 1980s, cities such as Liverpool, Sheffield and London may have been anti-Thatcher holdouts, but Bristol, Cardiff and Nottingham had a substantial Tory vote. Not only has this decisively ended, but areas such as Southwark, in London, or Newcastle, where the Liberal Democrats were once in convention, are now overwhelmingly Labour. In 2019, only one seat in the “core cities” group – the most powerful cities outside the capital – went Tory, and that was Birmingham Northfield. Many metropolitan seats across the country saw a swing to Labour and, notoriously, the only seat the party gained was in the London suburb of Putney.
The Conservatives have been much cleverer than Labour at making political capital from this geographical split; at the start of 2020, it seemed politics would be defined by a concerted Tory attack on cities and on “urban” values. This has happened, but in such a way that it has intersected with the (mis)management of the coronavirus response. Labour-run urban authorities – especially the mayoralties of Greater London and Greater Manchester – have been treated by central government as rivals rather than partners in tackling a public health disaster. The ramifications of the virus will mean enormous, long-term changes in cities, but we can expect these to be perceived – in another echo of US politics – through the filter of an all-pervasive culture war.
In March, an ominous beginning to this battle was completely missed by the national – and even the local – media. London’s mayor and rubber-stamp assembly has, as the former mayor Ken Livingstone once put it, fewer powers than the average medium-sized US city. But by British standards it has significant powers over transport, policing and planning. The latter is exercised through a London Plan, first produced in 2004 by Livingstone’s administration, which every mayor since has added to and tweaked – in Boris Johnson’s case to create planning-free “opportunity areas” in post-industrial zones such as Nine Elms, which he has filled with empty luxury flats. Sadiq Khan’s latest iteration of the plan kept the previous focus on growth, both of the local economy and the population, but included a programme of new council housing and compulsory ballots of council tenants if the demolition of their estates was proposed. Khan insisted that he would fight the 2020 mayoral election on a demand for rent control (which the Greater London Authority (GLA) cannot implement without parliamentary approval). Before its postponement, he was expected to win by a landslide.
In response to the plan’s draft publication, the secretary of state for communities, housing and local government, Robert Jenrick (seat: the former coal-mining district of Newark, Nottinghamshire), wrote a formal letter of refusal to the mayor. As Inside Housing reported, Jenrick demanded Khan drop both the new council housing programme and the estate ballots. Though it was not actually in the plan, Jenrick rubbished Khan’s “empty threats of rent controls”.
The flouting of the London assembly would have caused a scandal if it had happened to Holyrood or the Senedd; it passed almost unnoticed when it was inflicted on City Hall. This was compounded by the specific conditions attached to the bailout of Transport for London, which not only insisted a representative of central government be added to its board – the clownish Johnson ally and former journalist Andrew Gilligan – but also insisted that London’s transport only carry the health advice of the government, not of the GLA. This was a response to Khan’s early advocacy of masks on public transport, initially opposed by the government.
Conservative outliers have advocated abolishing the mayoralty altogether, a position that lines up with the far-right fringe belief that Khan is a fanatic running a Sharia state pervaded by knife crime and chaos, rather than a centrist politician whose policies mostly continue those of his predecessor, Johnson. The last time a Conservative government had a mandate like it now has, it abolished an entire tier of local government – the metropolitan councils: most famously, the Greater London Council – and it crippled what wasn’t abolished outright through rate-capping and restrictions on borrowing, which destroyed almost entirely a tradition of municipal socialism that went back to the 19th century.
Some on the Labour left, depressed at how little there was to show at the end of Jeremy Corbyn’s five-year leadership, might have been eager for a confrontation with the government, but the opposite has happened. The government picked a fight with a compromiser with whom it might have been expected to work, as if to smash London’s municipal resistance before it even had the chance to begin.
The most powerful metropolitan authority outside London is the Greater Manchester mayoralty – with fewer powers than London and lacking a directly elected assembly, this is nonetheless the best known of the largely toothless “metro mayors” introduced by George Osborne. Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, has not been obsessively targeted by the government in the same way Khan has, at least in part because he has even less actual legislative clout (that he isn’t a Muslim could also be a factor).
But here too, there has been conflict between a government bent on complete centralisation, and those who believe in the importance of not just local democracy, but local knowledge. Burnham heavily criticised the recent series of “local lockdowns” imposed upon Greater Manchester districts such as inner-city Trafford and the town of Bolton, precisely because they appear to have been based on incomplete knowledge of the areas in question. He has pointed out that local government was actually proving to be better at testing and tracing than Westminster and Serco’s outsourced and centralised operation: “Greater Manchester’s team had a 98% success rate while the national call centres managed barely half.”
It might seem obvious that a government in a crisis would work closely with local authorities which, even after the reforms of the 80s and the cuts of austerity, tend to have superior local knowledge and expertise to Westminster. But so far, the long-term electoral goal of cementing a US-style, post-industrial small-town “anti-anti-racist” base against socialistic and multicultural cities appears to have taken priority. Labour, which needs to prevent this from happening if it is ever to win a general election, has refused to defend its own, also newly acquired, urban base.
Revolutionary changes are afoot in both cities and towns, however, whether it is convenient for a quietist opposition to engage with them or not. Housing, workplaces, transport, shops, even pavements: few of these are the same as they were before the pandemic began, and it is likely they will never be the same again. Our landscape of institutionalised property speculation, chain retail and central business districts is under threat like never before. It is incumbent on us to make sure that it is replaced with something better, not something even worse.
• Owen Hatherley is an author and culture editor at Tribune. This is the first in a series about the effects the Covid-19 pandemic is having on Britain’s cities – in housing, workplaces, high streets and local government – and how it opens up opportunities for positive change
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Coronavirus has thrown the political battle over British cities into sharp relief | Owen Hatherley | Opinion