It’s a long time since the manifestos of Britain’s two biggest parties contrasted as sharply as those of Labour and the Conservatives do at this general election. But on one thing they agree: that London is too rich and powerful compared with other parts of the UK. The point itself is reasonable. The issue, though, is how to redress that imbalance without doing the country more harm than good.
A striking thing about the Tory document, published yesterday, is that it makes a number of big pledges on how to “close the gap” – which, rather remarkably, it describes as “the biggest prize in Britain today” – while offering almost nothing to lessen the possibly adverse consequences of doing so or to strengthen London’s ability to do more to help the nation’s economy than it does already.
Under Theresa May’s near-certain new premiership, more of the government’s support for the arts would be directed outside London and “significant numbers” of civil servants and other public officials, including senior posts, would be moved out of the capital, as would Channel 4. There would be a “rebalancing of housing growth across the country”.
Even the repeated claim that net immigration will be brought down to below 100,000 a year, which has been criticised by Sadiq Khan, can be read as a subliminal snipe at the capital, where a liberal attitude to foreign residents goes hand-in-hand with the city’s cultural variety and strong backing for remaining in the EU.
Tory aspersions cast at London’s power concentrations might, of course, be largely tactical, as the party seeks to make gains in Labour’s susceptible seats north of Watford. The policies proposed might not make a lot of difference, and note that defence secretary Michael Fallon has described that elusive net migration target only as an “aim”.
Just the same, the failure to recognise that a prospering London will continue to be crucial to the nation’s wealth and tax base or that the growth of other cities need not depend on penalising the biggest and most productive is a weakness. And it would be nice to think that London’s 40% child poverty rate and high levels of youth unemployment have not gone unnoticed as May parades her good intentions towards “ordinary working people” who are “just about managing”.
Given her wish to step away from the Cameron-Osborne metropolitan club that ran things before she turned up, it’s understandable that May, unlike Labour, does not promise to fund Crossrail 2, but less easy to see why there is no imaginative devolution package, enabling London government to do more to help itself and the nation at large.
Instead, there is a promise to change the voting system for mayoral elections from the current supplementary vote (SV) arrangement to first past the post. No reason for this is given, which makes it tempting to suspect the move has something to do with recent Labour candidates benefiting more than Tory ones from “second preference” votes .
Mayorwatch understands that elections to the London Assembly too might be overhauled, which could result in the exclusion of smaller parties. Both SV and the proportional representation element of Assembly elections encourage a more plural politics in London. That is an apt principle for city of such diversity and should be strongly defended.
What else might a Tory government with a huge majority mean for London and Londoners? Unsurprisingly, there’s no promise to hand further control of suburban rail to Transport for London, as Labour says it would. The explicit statement that leaving the EU means, “We will no longer be members of the single market or customs union” will trouble London politicians across the board (excluding those of Ukip) and London businesses, though more comfort might be taken from the manifesto declaring it will “secure the entitlements of EU nationals in Britain”. Heathrow expansion, which Labour dodged, is confirmed.
On education, London has no need for more grammar schools. The capital’s many top-flight comprehensives have shown that they can do as much for children from ordinary or disadvantaged backgrounds as any system of selection at age 11. It is unclear whether a section about improving technical and vocational education post-16 will help the mayor with his important work on skills. The Tories say they want to help good schoolteachers to remain in the profession, but it’s unclear how they would help reduce the alarming turnover of the capital’s teaching staff.
Housing costs are part of that story, with London urgently requiring an increase in the supply of “genuinely affordable” dwellings for people on low and middle incomes. The Tories say they will help councils to build more social housing, but housing expert Jules Birch has highlighted the clear intention that these would be sold off in 10-15 years. Compulsory purchase powers against foot-dragging developers would be increased – how very socialist – but the defence of existing green belt designations is as stout as Labour’s.
As a wish-list of goodies, the Conservative manifesto is generally less lip-smacking than Labour’s. As a coherent exposition of a political philosophy it is, however, more intellectually sophisticated and in some ways more progressive, for example on the nuances of the “gig economy”, which some Londoners find beneficial. Whatever, it is by far the more likely programme for government to be implemented after 8 June. Read it for yourselves here.