Dave Hill: Protest and populist politics in London must not be ignored

Dave Hill: Protest and populist politics in London must not be ignored

Labour’s massive general election win can be seen as completing the party’s victory over two forms of destructive populism: having already sidelined Corbynism, with its yapping ideologues and student union delusions, it has gone on to vanquish a Conservative party that, in its desperation to survive, sank to low scaremongering and phoney patriotism.

Shed no tears for either. However, as Keir Starmer’s administration embarks on the vast task of rebuilding the country, the discontents UK populists feed off remain. Election results in London showed that the capital is not immune to them. They must not be ignored.

Looking first to the nationalist right, Reform UK, like its ancestor vehicles for the demagoguery of Nigel Farage, did less well in the capital as a whole than elsewhere. However, it made an impact in some of the suburbs.

Comparable populists in other countries have prospered in outer city neighbourhoods, where people can easily feel neglected by city government and threatened by urbanisation in the forms of development and demographic change.

Such complaints and anxieties are not new in outer London: they powered the “doughnut strategy” that carried Boris Johnson into City Hall in 2008. Today, though, there is a more menacing channel through which they can be expressed.

As Jack Brown has pointed out, in some outer London constituencies Reform received more than 20 per cent of the vote – well above its national portion of 14 per cent. In Hornchurch & Upminster, the Reform candidate almost unseated Conservative incumbent Julia Lopez. Elsewhere, the party helped Labour to victory, splitting the right-wing vote so effectively in Bexleyheath & Crayford that Daniel Francis, a Labour stalwart in those parts, triumphed by over 2,000 votes.

Those two results demonstrate why some Tories continue to believe that pitching still further to the right, trying harder to occupy Reform’s space, is the best way to recover from the hammering they received last Thursday – early manoeuvres in the battle to succeed Rishi Sunak as party leader bear this out. Yet the story in inner London was very different. Farageism remained firmly at the fringes and the Tories’ biggest enemy continued to be themselves. Result? Not a single Conservative MP left.

London Tories need to make the case for their party getting reacquainted with moderation and the centre ground. They have a national responsibility to help steer Britain away from extremists with no solutions to Britain’s problem. They have an electoral interest in doing so too.

Appeasing the likes of Reform by getting tugged on to their turf simply narrows the appeal of mainstream parties’ of the right and plays into populists’ hands, as Rishi Sunak’s cruel and ludicrous Rwanda plan showed. The last Tory candidate for Mayor of London, Susan Hall, barely distinguishable from Farage in attitudes and preoccupations, succeeded in squeezing Reform but in so doing sacrificed any realistic chance of winning.

As for Labour, the government needs to show that it can make a better job of running Britain’s asylum system than the Tories did and take big steps towards rebuilding the criminal justice system and the social infrastructure of crime prevention. In those ways, it can starve the bloodsuckers of Reform and their lickspittle media, who leech off fear of crime and immigrants, especially when they find ways to link the two.

In London, Sadiq Khan could help drain the Reform swamp by continuing to improve public transport in outer London and by showing a more conspicuous interest in boroughs such as Bexley, Bromley and Havering, lining himself up closely at citywide level with Starmer’s promise to put country first, party second.

With planning rules to be adjusted to help more homes get built, including on so-called “greybelt”, the Mayor will need to play his part in persuading outer Londoners that good development, like all “good growth”, can improve their lives and those of their children rather than worsen them.

As for Farage’s “culture war” assaults and the garbage he spouts about “the establishment” thwarting the will of True Brits, they should be mocked, along with the human foghorn himself. The next time he or one of his cronies says “I want my country back”, Labour should tell him Britain will never surrender to a worthless fraud like him.

A vote for Reform is often a protest vote, just as a vote for Brexit was. A different kind of protest politics will be of more immediate concern to Labour – a kind very much present in the capital, with its own populist ingredients. More significant than Jeremy Corbyn holding on to his seat and more important than the rise in support for the Greens in some ultra-safe Labour seats – the latter a price the party won’t mind paying for actually gaining seats elsewhere – was the success of Independents standing on platforms explicitly backing Palestine.

Set aside for a moment objections that removing Wes Streeting or Rushanari Ali from the House of Commons would have made not the slightest difference to the government of Israel, any more than successive marches through central London have, the dismay of Muslim Londoners (and others) about the suffering of Gazans is deep and real.

Labour’s initial response while in opposition to Israel’s retaliation for the Hamas atrocities of 7 October might have been coldly explicable in light of its long struggle to expunge antisemitism from the party’s ranks and its wish to provide the Tories with no ammunition with which to attack it during the election campaign (“soft on terrorism” etcetera).

But how could it fail to jar with significant numbers of Muslim voters, many of whom in London were already drawn to local alternatives to Labour in Redbridge Newham and Tower Hamlets? I might question their judgement. Yet there are reasons for it which precede the latest Middle East war, and aren’t all to do with foreign policy. And how could they not include years and years of being stereotyped and picked on?

With the election won and minds perhaps concentrated by the strength of the Palestine protest vote, Labour, now in power and in a position to make some sort of difference, is already advocating a ceasefire. Muslim Londoners deeply concerned about Gaza and – unlike some associated with that cause – wanting to see genuine and lasting two-state peace in the region, need better friends than the usual suspects on the not-very-progressive left, who can always provide plenty of self-righteous rhetoric, but couldn’t deliver a pizza.

Labour needs to find ways to be that friend. In London, the Mayor, a Muslim who has been assiduous and sincere in his solidarity with Jewish Londoners, can continue to play his valuable part.

Protest politics have always served a democratic purpose, raising awareness about issues that might otherwise go under-recognised or ignored. Their shortcoming is that protest can become an end in itself, a feelgood lifestyle for those who would rather protest for ever than get results. Populist politics are parasitical, divisive and very poor at doing anything other than stirring up trouble and pandering to prejudice. Both are present and influential in Greater London. Both are signs of disillusion and discontent. And both need to be seriously addressed.

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Categories: Comment

1 Comment

  1. Philip Virgo says:

    The scale and nature of the populist revolt indicates that unless Labour really does address Londoners lack of access to affordable housing, education (and training for the skills of today, let alone tomorrow) and health and social care (all ages), without spending funds it has not got, it is vulnerable to a alliance of left and right, of nationalism and socialism … as was the Weimar Republic.

    That probably entails a bonfire of regulation and the use large scale volunteering (with benefits in kind outside the tax system) to help those demoralised and demotivated by Covid lock down (and its affects of the mental health of all age groups) on the path from welfare to paid work.

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