When I started out in the capital’s politics campaigning for Sadiq Khan in 2016, the doughnut theory of London was still considered basically accurate – a rough but reliable sketch from which one could work. This theory holds that the poorer inner city areas will be a dense cluster of red on the electoral map while the leafy outer boroughs will be consistently blue. These days, with Barnet (pictured), Enfield, Ealing, Redbridge and Wandsworth in Labour control, the doughnut is looking distinctly holy. Despite this, Labour has historically been on unsteady footing when it comes to suburbia, not just electorally but culturally. The party struggles to place itself in a world more defined by Neighbourhood Watch than trade unions. We don’t quite get the vibe.
According to rumour, when asked what her ideal job in politics would be, Rupa Huq professed an ambition to be minister for the suburbs. This may be hearsay, but the Labour MP for Ealing Central & Acton seems well placed for this hypothetical dream gig, representing an area proudly styled “the queen of the suburbs” since 1902 and having written – in her previous career as a sociologist- various books on the culture of the suburbs. In Making Sense of Suburbia Through Popular Culture (2013) she argues that the suburbs are something we “have an intrinsic feel for” even if we struggle to specifically define them. Like pornography, we know suburbs when we see them.
As the next general election begins to crest the horizon, we increasingly hear talk of a “Blue Wall” of weak Tory seats in outer London and surrounding commuter towns that share much with them culturally. Many of these are the same places that found themselves in the crosshairs of Giles Radice’s influential post 1992 election post mortem Southern Discomfort, which diagnosed, with typical Labourite self loathing, “a crippling political weakness in the South of England”.
Philip Gould, prophet of Blairism, argued that Labour needed to understand “suburban dreams” – the dreams of people with individual, generally consumer-driven aspirations, normally already possessed of a base level of material affluence. Gould asserted that Blairism – Labour’s electoral high water mark – reaped the benefits of understanding this cross section (defined not so much as intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as intensely relaxed about spending a lot of time thinking about white goods), and as a result won seats in Essex, Kent and outer London that have since reverted to blue.
How useful is the electoral quest to cater to suburbia, this liminal space that even its own experts struggle to define? The greatest prize in Labour’s most recent electoral haul was arguably taking control of Wandsworth, which, though formally an inner London borough, encompasses a healthy sprawl of south London suburbia including Tooting, the home and former parliamentary seat of Mayor Khan.
The new council leader Simon Hogg has indicated that national factors – including the cost of energy and voters’ displeasure over partygate and the slew of scandals in which the Tory party has been lately mired – when asked about Labour’s victory. Another factor, catering to no vibes-based suburban specificity, is that Labour simply does better among people who do not own their own homes: spiralling rents in the central boroughs have pushed waves of renters further out.
Herbert Morrison was famously alleged to have claimed that Labour was going to “build the Tories out of London”. In this case, however, it may be that a shortage rather than surfeit of housing is what is hurting the Conservatives in the outer boroughs. While Gould talked a big game about needing to understand dreams and aspiration, there is little to suggest that New Labour managed this in any specifically suburban manner. A rising tide lifts all ships and in 1997 Labour simply did better across all demographics and in all areas.
The most recent addition to the cannon of left thought about the suburbs comes from Oly Durose who was Labour’s candidate in Brentwood & Ongar in 2019, just beyond the Greater London boundary in Essex. He lost to Conservative Alex Burghart by a little under 25,000 votes and has since written a book about the experience called Suburban Socialism. Durose, a sincere Corbynite, is, despite his defeat, deeply optimistic about the suburbs as a site of political possibility and is fairly unambiguously opposed to the idea that Labour should chase suburban ideas of aspiration. He asserts that the party needs to separate “suburbia” from the suburbs. He thinks the former “a political construct, perhaps even an ideology” and may be thinking of Oliver Dowden’s pronouncements about the “privet hedges of freedom”.
As Huq discusses, suburbia is a cultural space often associated with closely policed and very fixed ideas about class and gender. She asserts, for example, that Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique is a book near-inextricable from concepts of suburbia. Reclaiming the suburbs from suburbia, considering them purely on material terms while casting aside ideas of aspiration and self perception, is an appealingly straightforward view on the suburban question. If even Martin Lewis, voice of middle England fiscal prudence, is becoming increasingly radicalised while discussing the cost of living crisis, it also seems like a strategy whose time might have come. Then again, Durose lost catastrophically and Gould helped mastermind an electoral landslide.
The Liberal politician Charles Masterman summed up suburban life in Britain as “a life of Security, a life of Sedentary occupation; a life of Respectability”, neatly fielding two out of three of Keir Starmer’s much mocked list of adjectives (security, prosperity, respect). This overlay suggests that Labour continues to reach for suburban ideals. Masterman, however, was far from effusive about the political impacts of suburbia. He was concerned that progress might “find its grave in a universal suburb”. Whether in reaching for suburbia Labour will grasp electoral success or a take a political retrograde step remains to be seen.
Morgan Jones is originally from Ireland and has lived in London since 2015. She works in politics. Follow Morgan on Twitter.
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