Nine years ago, as it prepared to host the 2012 Olympic Games, London basked in its global pre-eminence. The city had overcome postwar decline to become a political, economic and cultural powerhouse. “Effectively New York, LA and Washington all rolled into one,” as Neil O’Brien, the Conservative MP, observed that year.
But London’s ascent would not last. In 2016, the UK voted to leave the European Union and the capital was marginalised as the only English region to back Remain (with a 60-40 split).
London, which former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond likened in 2014 to a dark star – “inexorably sucking in resources, people and energy” – became an object of political disdain. The free movement of EU citizens to the UK, which helped power the capital’s expansion, has ended and the Conservatives have vowed to focus new infrastructure investment in the north and the Midlands.
London’s existential angst has been deepened by Covid-19. The pandemic left the city resembling the post-apocalyptic version depicted in the 2002 film 28 Days Later as residents stayed home or fled the capital entirely. Some will never return.
London’s population is now forecast by PwC to fall for the first time since 1988, by more than 300,000 to 8.7 million. The spectre of decline – the city’s population fell from 8.6 million in 1939 to 6.8 million in the 1980s – has returned.
It is in this precarious context that the capital’s residents will elect a mayor on 6 May. “It’s almost a perfect storm against our city,” Sadiq Khan, the Labour incumbent, said of Brexit and Covid-19 when we recently spoke. But he added: “The underlying strengths of our city are still here: professional services, culture, tech, creative industries, life sciences, universities. And if you look at the response of our city over the last 13-14 months, you’ve seen a resilience and stoicism, and a sense of camaraderie, that should give us hope.”
He warned Boris Johnson, his predecessor as mayor, that “the only way to have a national recovery is to have a London recovery… If they’re [the government] anti-London even after the election they are in danger of cutting [off] their nose to spite their face.”
In the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral the memorial to its architect Christopher Wren reads: “If you seek his monument – look around you.” After five years in office, Khan lacks a visible legacy. His planned pedestrianisation of Oxford Street in the centre of the city was vetoed by Conservative-run Westminster Council and the opening of Crossrail, a high-speed line running from west to east London, has been delayed from December 2018 until 2022.
But Khan is swift to rattle off achievements: “Reducing toxic air by half in central London, by a third across our city, the world’s first ultra-low emission zone, freezing [public transport] fares for five years, saving the average household £200… last year we began building more council homes than in any year since 1983.”
In at least one respect London is unchanged since Khan’s election – Labour remains hegemonic. Having won a landslide victory in 2016, polls suggest that the mayor will achieve another against his hapless Conservative opponent Shaun Bailey. The psephologist John Curtice recently described London as a “one-party city”.
It was not always so. At the 1987 and 1992 general elections, the Tories finished further ahead of Labour in London than they did nationwide. Johnson was elected mayor in 2008 and 2012 through a “doughnut strategy” that targeted the city’s outer boroughs – older, richer, whiter – rather than its inner zones.
But the boundaries of Johnson’s former imperium have been blurred. Over the past 15 years, outer London has become dramatically younger, poorer and more diverse. Between 2001 and 2011 (the last census), the white population of the outer boroughs fell from 74 per cent to 61 per cent of the total and the number of private renters doubled to 21 per cent.
Yet in a Conservative-run country, Labour’s dominance of London (the party holds 49 of its 73 seats) has been of little consequence. When we spoke, Khan lamented: “I look with envy at colleagues and friends around the world. New York gets to spend 50 per cent of taxes raised there, Tokyo 70 per cent, London just 7 per cent.”
The Tories, who abolished Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council in 1986 because it was “left-wing, high spending and at odds with the government’s view of the world” (in MP Norman Tebbit’s words), have ignored Khan’s pleas for radical devolution.
This has left the mayor with few means of redressing the inequality that scars the capital. The depiction of London as a gilded metropolis conceals such divisions. In the east of the city in Newham, the main Olympic host, 67 per cent of children were living in households in poverty even before the pandemic, unemployment was 14 per cent and one in 25 people were homeless – the highest rate in England.
The writer and architecture critic Owen Hatherley notes in his recent book Red Metropolis that, “On a classical definition, of people who have to sell their labour power to survive and do not own property, London is the most proletarian city in the country.”
The capital may boast Europe’s wealthiest region (Inner London-West) but it also has the highest child poverty rate of any English region and two of the ten most deprived local authorities in England. Its tenants on average spend nearly half (49 per cent) of their total income on rent.
The political focus on England’s Red Wall is overdue: the UK has long been Europe’s most regionally imbalanced state. Since 2009/10, for instance, London has received twice as much transport spending per head as the north. Large parts of the UK never recovered from the economic shock therapy of the 1980s.
But in an era when London’s name has become a term of political abuse, it is the city’s poorest who risk becoming the new left behind.
[see also: Have we reached peak London?]
This article appears in the 28 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new battle of ideas