No party won the general election and neither the Conservatives nor Labour offered programmes that were convincing for London, on whose economic strength the post-Brexit nation will depend even more heavily than it does now. Both traded on anti-London prejudice, either directly or covertly. Both gave house room to the simplistic idea that investing more in other cities at the capital’s expense would put “rich London” in its place to the benefit of everywhere else. Neither offered clear programmes for the further devolution of powers to cities and how these might help them and the UK to thrive. The election was conducted in a haze of nostalgia, revivalism and false hope. The outcome gives little cause for cheer.
First, the Conservatives. They are, after all, forming a government again, albeit a rickety one, having got the better of Labour for the third time in a row. Theresa May courted anti-immigrant, small town sentiment, believing it would unite the Brexit Right behind her and deliver a crushing majority. It didn’t do her much good, certainly not in London where her party is five seats worse off than before. How her newly-fragile position will effect the Brexit outcome is yet to become clear.
May was a Remainer, raising the possibility that although she has appeared to favour a “hard Brexit”, whatever precisely that means, she has always known that such an outcome could be disastrous for the UK. A big majority would have insulated her against the badgering of Tory Brextremists if and when she took a “softer” line. She is now even more susceptible to their pressure. But that goes for the other side too. A “hard Brexit” could be very bad for London. That is why our Remainer Tory MPs have an important role to play in cautioning against it. Bob Neill, MP for Bromley and Chislehurst, told the Sunday Politics London that he thinks the result means “we will have to work with colleagues in parliament to deliver a sustainable and workable Brexit”. His remark appeared to signal his willingness to work with other parties.
In the meantime, as things stand, London is stuck with a Tory programme for continuing harsh austerity. Our schools must not only face funding reductions as before, but also the class dunce policy of encouraging more grammar schools. There are hopes that the latter will now be watered down. Please let it be sunk completely.
Labour’s manifesto offered more for London. Its list of promises included giving control of all suburban rail services to Transport for London and funding Crossrail 2. Its housing proposals were good in several ways but unclear in places and there was no indication of how different parts of the country would benefit from more council and “affordable” homes being built. The green belt taboo was not broken, underlining the awkward issue of where in London new housing can go if existing ones on public land are not to be knocked down to create the necessary space.
Corbyn did far better than expected in the election, of course, securing a few more seats and a big rise in national vote share. The pressure of mainstream scrutiny helped him refine his arguments and polish his lines. But he still failed to overturn a small Tory majority despite the catastrophic Tory campaign. It is characteristic of the North London Left tradition from which he springs that his defeat is being hailed as a “victory for hope” and the case being made for “one more heave”. His old time religion might be good enough for him and his supporters but hasn’t yet proved good enough to win power, even though Labour candidates across the capital did brilliantly.
The next Labour manifesto needs to be based on something more than populist cries against “the rich” and offering financial inducements to students and their mostly affluent parents in the form of scrapping tuition fees, onerous though they are. By contrast, it promised little alleviation of the benefit cuts that have so hit the poorest for year after year. Labour’s tax and spend promises were judged no more honest than those of the Tories by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and their intention to raise more from corporation tax – which they would probably have failed to do – would have given London businesses another reason on top of Brexit for relocating. How would that have helped the capital and its people?
London needs a Labour Left that is progressive as well as oppositional, modernising rather than preservationist and alive to the potential of a changing work landscape, not just its dangers. London government needs more powers over health care, skills, addressing poverty and all forms of infrastructure investment, but the Labour manifesto’s stance on devolution, though broadly welcome, was also vague. The election outcome has given the Islington North MP a platform from which to build a policy vision that could truly benefit London and the rest of the country and carry it to power nationally. Does he have what it takes?