London’s spectacular New Year fireworks, lights and drones display was seen by millions around the world, providing a global reminder that the United Kingdom’s capital is among the foremost international cities in the world. Yet as 2024 begins, London continues to be regarded by many across the nation with enmity and distaste, and by national government (and some other) politicians as a place to make a show of disdaining, rebuking or resenting rather than a precious asset to be nurtured.
Anti-London attitudes are far from new, but their manifestations in recent years have been particularly virulent, self-serving and foolish: at a point in its history when the UK most needs London’s openness, reach and economic power to help it recover from Brexit and the pandemic, too many have chosen to blame it for national or regional ills or to pretend it isn’t crucial to solving them.
Dare we hope for better in the 12 months ahead? There are some grounds for optimism. The chief one, of course, is that there is likely to be a change of national government. The Conservative administration is discredited, divided and more interested in avoiding electoral annihilation than in running the country wisely and effectively. Only the most tribal and ideological observers try to defend its record since 2019 or, indeed, since 2010, when the Tory-led coalition brought Labour’s long ascendancy to a close.
Since turning Labour’s “red wall” blue, Tories at national level have, as On London has documented, treated Londoners and London government with deliberate and destructive contempt. If Sir Keir Starmer becomes Britain’s next Prime Minister this spring or autumn, the old New Labour victory tune, Things Can Only Get Better, will merit a re-release. How much better, though?
We Londoners shouldn’t get our hopes up. Labour needs desperately to rebuild the red wall and also to recover in Scotland – priorities that are absolutely not in conflict with making plans to help London but, sadly, are perceived by some as being so. Labour will also, as no one sensible denies, inherit a mass of national problems and have limited public funds with which to help address them. London cannot expect to be at the front of every queue.
That said, a Labour government with a big majority will have every incentive to get seriously to grips with the long-term task of fixing a country in which so much of great value has been neglected. Unless a near-future Prime Minister Starmer and his ministers are very deluded indeed, they will know that the money needed to do so will be the scarcer unless London’s economy, so vital to that of the UK and its public services, is functioning as well as possible.
In public, a Labour government might find it expedient to continue the Great Pretending about London – that somehow the UK is not, love or hate it, hugely dependent on it for markets, for taxes and for growth. But to continue undermining it through parsimony, exclusion and top-down micromanagement would be counterproductive in the extreme.
It is technically possible that the general election won’t take place until January 2025. By contrast, we know exactly when the next election for Mayor of London will be – 2 May this year.
It is to be hoped that Sadiq Khan will win the third term he seeks. There are legitimate arguments to be had about how he has done in his first eight years at City Hall. There will be legitimate debates – which On London will provide a serious platform for – about what he could or should do if he wins again. On London will also rise above the campaign fray to examine all the big challenges London and Londoners face in the coming years, and study good and innovative ideas from any candidate and any honest quarter.
That said, as I have written before, the Conservative contender Susan Hall is simply not an acceptable candidate. Her unrepentant track record of endorsing extremist views on social media, of cheerleading for hard right nationalist (and very anti-London) media, and of disgraceful slurs against Khan should have seen her dropped by her party months ago. The fact that she remains in place, publicly backed by the Tories’ national chair and transport secretary, shows the type of party the Conservatives are in danger of becoming – if they haven’t become it already.
In 2024 (and beyond) London will need national government support to help address the various and deepening problems with housing far too many Londoners face. Its transport networks, though Tube and bus use have been recovering, need constant maintenance and improvement, and road traffic congestion is a continuing major problem for the environment and the economy alike. The still-new commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Mark Rowley, is making a good and courageous start but still has some fundamentals about staffing and standards to sort out.
The capital’s development sector is getting to grips with the demands of the post-pandemic, net-zero carbon era, but these are large and sometimes difficult. The West End and the cultural sectors are adapting, but recovery is not complete. Our higher education institutions have become undervalued. Skills shortages persist. Too many Londoners have too little money to live on. An overarching issue is that devolution to the capital, a big success this century, has stalled.
Last night, I watched London’s New Year fireworks display on TV. This morning, I made a trip by bus, foot and Tube from my home in Hackney to Trafalgar Square and back (see photo). These were heartening reminders of how lucky Britain is to have a dazzling international city for a capital, one that is admired around the world. London has many problems but also many glories and much potential. May its glories be shining brighter, may more of its potential be realised, and may its problems be reducing by this time next year.