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Why Boris Johnson’s “donut strategy” is dead and buried

Both Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson won by tapping into one part of London - but as the city changes, that won't work for their successors.

By Kat Hanna

London’s demographics have changed tremendously since the first Mayoral election in 2000, blurring the differences between inner and outer London. This demographic osmosis poses challenge to the long accepted ‘donut strategy’ of treating inner and outer London as two distinct targets.

Consistently deployed in previous mayoral elections, the “donut strategy” was first seen in Ken Livingstone’s targeting of inner London with Zone 1-3 friendly policies such as the Urban Task force, the congestion charge, and rent controls. Seeking election for the first time in 2008, Boris latched on to the untapped voter potential in outer London, committing to unwavering opposition to Heathrow expansion and generous funding for outer London boroughs.

Yet the parties’ natural voters – the older suburbanites who tend to vote conservative, and younger and ethnic leaning towards Labour are no longer conveniently distributed along inner/outer lines.

Today, outer London is more like inner London used to be – increasingly young and international. The rate of people born abroad has increased faster in outer London than inner London in the decade to 2014. The fastest increases in migrant population happened in the previously whiter outer London Boroughs of Barking and Dagenham, Bexley, Havering and Sutton.

Perhaps through lack of choice rather than an attraction to the suburbs, Generation Rent is settling down in outer London. In Havering, Greenwich, Enfield and Harrow, the number of households who are private renters more than doubled in the decade to 2011,  tripling in Barking & Dagenham. Interestingly, the majority of these new private renters did not move it in new rental homes but into buy-to-lets that were formerly owner occupied: that’s more than 10,000 homes shifting from owner occupation to private renting in Croydon and Ealing, about 8,000 in Enfield and Brent.

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Outer London is getting poorer, while inner London is getting richer. In the 15 years since the first Mayoral election, outer London has gotten poorer, with more households in outer Londoner being considered poor in 2011 than in 2001. This is explained by three factors – both younger and poorer households moving to outer London, a drop in wages after 2007, and a simultaneous rise in housing costs.
The 2015 general election hinted at these changes. The capital was immune to the loss of 26 Labour seats lost across the whole country, with the party winning four seats from the Conservatives in the capital, all in outer London. Yet these results remind us that London’s changing demographics also affect the prospects of UKIP and the Greens. Less well-off areas will not necessarily vote Labour. UKIP outperformed the Lib Dems across London, doing particularly well in outer East London. Nor should it be taken for granted that a wealthier population means votes for the Conservatives – the Greens performed best in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, an area that is a byword for inner city gentrification.

As the son of a billionaire from Zone 5 takes on the son of a bus driver from Zone 2, there may be little reason to expect then donut strategy to fall from favour. Of course, both candidates declare themselves capable of governing for all of London, balancing core vote and outreach strategies. Yet London is not the city is used to be, both in terms of its demography, and its distribution of voter groups. Safe assumptions of propserous Tory suburbs and poor Labour inner city no longer work.

Centre for London are hosting a roundtable on the blurring social and economic characteristics of inner and outer London on November 2nd. For more information of this event, please contact

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