Paul Wheeler: Labour in London must listen to working-class voters

Paul Wheeler: Labour in London must listen to working-class voters

Throughout its trials and tribulations of the last few years there has always been one consolation for Labour – they could always rely on London. Since the coalition government came to power in 2010, and especially since the 2016 referendum, Labour has become almost hegemonic in terms of parliamentary and council representation in the capital. However, that leading position may come under threat in next May’s looming borough elections, for three specific reasons.

Firstly, although the Conservatives remain unpopular in London, it is no longer clear that Labour will benefit. A recent national You Gov poll indicated that up to 11 per cent of its 2019 General Election vote would now for the Green Party – a figure that may be higher in Inner London Labour strongholds such as Camden and Hackney.

The recent defection of Camden’s deputy mayor from Labour to the Greens might be an indication of more to come. Additionally, after years of irrelevance, the Liberal Democrats are on the march. In several boroughs, such as Southwark and Brent, they are in the forefront of campaigns to secure justice for leaseholders impacted by the cladding crisis – a huge constituency with a grievance against all forms of government.

Secondly, for a number of Labour-controlled boroughs there are what may be termed “local factors” at play. In Croydon, the party has had a spectacular fall from grace, culminating in being forced to issue a Section 114 notice, more colloquially known as bankruptcy. Its citizens responded last month by backing a change to the directly-elected Mayor local government model. The first Croydon mayoral vote will take place in May.  Few commentators expect the Labour candidate, who has yet to be selected, to win.

In Tower Hamlets, incumbent Labour Mayor John Biggs could find it much harder to be re-elected if the government gets round to imposing the first-past-the-post voting system on mayoral elections in time for the borough contests. The outgoing supplementary vote system has helped Biggs in the past, because he has attracted the vast majority of second preference votes from supporters of other parties wishing to keep out a candidate they regard as worse. Former Mayor Lutfur Rahman, who was barred from seeking office for five years, has now served his term and looks likely to make a challenge. A huge swing away from Labour in a recent by-election defeat by a party linked to Rahman could be ominous for Biggs.

Meanwhile, in Merton, an energetic Lib Dem campaign centred on Wimbledon, which the party hopes will soon elect a Lib Dem MP, could result in borough losses for Labour and tip the council into No Overall Control

And thirdly there is class. Contrary to the fertile imaginings of such as Andy Burnham, London remains a largely working-class city and one with increasing concerns about financial and social security. Herbert Morrison, Labour Leader of the London County Council (LCC) in the 1930s, understood this instinctively. He and subsequent generations of Labour leaders made an offer to working-class communities that was to endure for generations – vote Labour and we will provide affordable, good quality housing for you and your families.

Sadly, many of the modern generation of Labour leaders in London seem to have a less instinctive understanding of what might be termed bread and butter issues. The rushed implementation of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) is a classic example. You have to wonder why this particular Tory national government policy was taken up with such enthusiasm by certain elements of London Labour, especially as its main advocate is Boris Johnson’s transport adviser Andrew Gilligan, a man whose primary role appears to be wrecking the budget of Transport for London.


LTN’s have created grievances far beyond the black cab lobby in many parts of the city. As Puru Miah, a now former Labour councillor in Tower Hamlets, has commented, thousands of traditional Labour voters need their cars, vans and motor bikes for their main source of income, and increasingly view Labour as hostile to their economic interests.

London matters to Labour. Can the party avoid a significant set-back in the capital in May? A willingness by Labour leaders to listen to a wider group of voters might help. Perhaps a London-wide campaign to focus on key issues, such as better protection for tenants and leaseholders, would overcome some of the problems. Londoners need positive reasons to vote Labour next year, and time for providing them is running out.

Paul Wheeler writes on local politics. Follow him on Twitter.

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Categories: Comment

1 Comment

  1. Kyle Harrison says:

    It will be interesting to see whether the pandemic has effected Labour’s vote in London. I think Labour’s modern strength in London is partly fed by so many 20 something professionals moving to London out of uni. Financially insecure, paying a load in rent etc… I wonder how many of those sort of people may have left London over the last couple of years?

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