Where next for the suburbs?

Tory politician Brian Coleman mourns what he sees as the deterioration of London's suburbs

So what future is there for the suburbs? Those vast areas of outer London that prior to 1965 used to be in Surrey, Essex, Hertfordshire and most of all Middlesex, which until 1997 was staunchly Conservative.

The suburbs were what the working classes aspired to by. They were the place the middle classes lived and died. Of course there are suburbs in all our major Cities although the middle classes have fled vast areas of formerly suburban Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester for the safety of the neighbouring counties leaving London as the hub of suburban living.

Certainly many London suburbs have the stench of decay emanating from them. The pre-1965 Borough of Hornsey, once a centre of suburban middle class respectability which was subsumed into ghastly Haringey is an area where decent folk lock their car doors as they drive through and has returned no Conservative Councillors whatsoever since 1998.

The combination of allowing huge Edwardian family houses to be converted into bed sits and the 'white flight' in the face of rising crime has meant that areas such as Streatham, Wembley and Willesden have changed beyond all recognition. Conversely some former working class areas in inner London such as Battersea and Fulham have become gentrified but do not have the social structure to allow them to be classed suburban.

When Sir John Betjeman made his famous documentary on 'Metro-land' no self-respecting Suburb was without a flourishing Rotary Club, Townswomen’s Guild, Cricket, Bowls and sundry other Sports Club.

They boasted a selection of Churches, a Tory MP and an active Local Amenity Society. Now with most women working, intense career pressures on the whole workforce, vast mortgages to pay and the changes in family life, most of the voluntary sector in Suburban London is in meltdown with endless organisations unable to get anyone to serve on their Committees.

Many schools struggle to find individuals to serve as governors and all three political parties have to scrape the bottom of the barrel in order to field a complete slate in London Borough Council elections. The hidden wiring that kept suburban community life alive has rusted beyond repair. The past 15 years explosion in house prices has resulted in speculators buying to let and living off the fat of the land. But the result has been a transitory population with few links and little interest in the local community.

Those suburbs that have survived have lacked for decades for any major investment in infrastructure. The disgrace that is the South Circular Road and the unfinished sections of the North Circular are evidence of the transport meltdown that affects much of outer London.

The failure to expand the tube into many South London Boroughs and to allow the overground Network to become rundown, overcrowded and unusable after dark has meant many suburbanites have retreated to their cars with the effect town centres are more congested than inner London.

The desperation many parents face in finding a decent secondary school even in well performing local education authorities and the fact that many post-WW2 Nissan huts still serve as primary classrooms typify the lack of investment in education.

Ken Livingstone has earned the nickname of 'Zone One Mayor' and has notoriously rarely visited some outer London boroughs. The politician who can reverse Suburban decline will reap the electoral rewards.

Brian Coleman was first elected to the London Assembly in June 2000. Widely outspoken he is best known for his groundbreaking policy of removing traffic calming measures
Getty Images.
Show Hide image

As long as Jeremy Corbyn's Labour opponents are divided, he will rule

The leader's foes have yet to agree on when and how a challenge should take place.

Labour MPs began plotting to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader before he even held the position. They have not stopped since. From the outset, most regarded him as electorally and morally defective. Nothing has caused them to relinquish this view.

A week before the first major elections of this parliament, Labour found itself conducting a debate normally confined to far-right internet forums: was Hitler a Zionist? For some MPs, the distress lay in how unsurprised they were by all this. Since Corbyn’s election last September, the party has become a mainstream venue for hitherto fringe discussions.

Many MPs believe that Labour will be incapable of rebuilding its standing among the Jewish community as long as Corbyn remains leader. In the 1930s, Jewish support for the party was as high as 80 per cent. “They handed you your . . . membership just after your circumcision,” quipped the father in the 1976 television play Bar Mitzvah Boy. By the time of the last general election, a poll found that support had fallen to a mere 22 per cent. It now stands at just 8.5 per cent.

Corbyn’s critics cite his typical rejection of anti-Semitism and "all forms of racism" (as if unable to condemn the former in isolation), his defence of a tweet sent by his brother, Piers (“Zionists can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for Palestine”), and his description of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”. The Lab­our leader dismissed the latter remark as a diplomatic nicety but such courtesy was not displayed when he addressed Labour Friends of Israel and failed to mention the country’s name. When challenged on his record of combating anti-Semitism, Corbyn frequently invokes his parents’ presence at the Battle of Cable Street, a reference that does not provide the reassurance intended. The Jewish community does not doubt that Labour has stood with it in the past. It questions whether it is prepared to stand with it in the present.

MPs say that Labour’s inept response to anti-Semitism has strengthened the moral case for challenging Corbyn. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of how the fear of “enormous reputational damage” had pushed him to the brink of resignation. As the New Statesman went to press, Corbyn’s first electoral test was looming. Every forecast showed the party on course to become the first opposition to lose council seats in a non-general-election year since 1985. Yet Corbyn appeared to insist on 3 May that this would not happen, gifting his opponents a benchmark by which to judge him.

Sadiq Khan was projected to become the party’s first successful London mayoral candidate since 2004. But having distanced himself from Corbyn throughout the race, he intends to deny him any credit if he wins. Regardless of the results on 5 May, there will be no challenge to the Labour leader before the EU referendum on 23 June. Many of the party’s most Corbyn-phobic MPs are also among its most Europhile. No cause, they stress, should distract from the defence of the UK’s 43-year EU membership.

Whether Corbyn should be challenged in the four weeks between the referendum and the summer recess is a matter of dispute among even his most committed opponents. Some contend that MPs have nothing to lose from trying and should be prepared to “grind him down” through multiple attempts, if necessary. Others fear that he would be empowered by winning a larger mandate than he did last September and argue that he must be given “longer to fail”. Still more hope that Corbyn will instigate a midterm handover to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, his closest ally, whom they regard as a beatable opponent.

Those who are familiar with members’ thinking describe many as “anxious” and in need of “reassurance” but determined that Corbyn receives adequate time to “set out his stall”. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of being “caught between Scylla and Charybdis” – that is, “a Labour Party membership which is ardently Corbynista and a British electorate which is ardently anti-Corbynista”. In their most pessimistic moments, some MPs gloomily wonder which group will deselect them first. The possibility that a new Conservative leader could trigger an early general election is cited by some as cause for haste and by others as the only means by which Corbynism can be definitively discredited.

The enduring debate over whether the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged (the party’s rules are ambiguous) is dismissed by most as irrelevant. Shadow cabinet members believe that Corbyn would achieve the requisite nominations. Momentum, the Labour leader’s praetorian guard, has privately instructed its members to be prepared to lobby MPs for this purpose.

There is no agreement on who should face Corbyn if his removal is attempted. The veteran MP Margaret Hodge has been touted as a “stalking horse” to lead the charge before making way for a figure such as the former paratrooper Dan Jarvis or the shadow business secretary, Angela Eagle. But in the view of a large number of shadow cabinet members, no challenge will materialise. They cite the high bar for putative leaders – the endorsement of 20 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs – and the likelihood of failure. Many have long regarded mass front-bench resignations and trade union support as ­essential preconditions for a successful challenge, conditions they believe will not be met less than a year after Corbyn’s victory.

When Tony Blair resigned as Labour leader in 2007, he had already agreed not to fight the next general election and faced a pre-eminent rival in Gordon Brown. Neither situation exists today. The last Labour leader to be constitutionally deposed was J R Clynes in 1922 – when MPs, not members, were sovereign. Politics past and present militate against Corbyn’s opponents. There is but one man who can remove the leader: himself.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred