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Owen Hatherley: “I really hoped that with Grenfell the ‘metropolitan elite’ debate would just die”

The British writer and critic discusses his new book Red Metropolis and the future of the urban left.

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To Londoners confronted with the vivid geography of the 2019 general election result, Labour’s defeat may have seemed to contain a personal rebuke. The Conservatives, commentators agreed, were gifted an 80-seat majority because Labour had “lost touch” with its “traditional heartlands” in the post-industrial Midlands and the North. Its electorally irrelevant landslide in London, on the other hand – where Labour gained its only seat, Putney – was delivered by a Europhilic “metropolitan elite”, whose progressive voting habits were a kind of “cultural luxury”.

“It’s such bullshit,” the author and journalist Owen Hatherley told me when we spoke across south-east London via video link in December 2020. “I really, really hoped that with Grenfell” – referring to the tower block in North Kensington, where a fire killed 72 people in June 2017 – “the ‘metropolitan elite’ debate would just die, because I was like: this is who actually lives in London, and votes Labour.”

Conferring a lustre of plausibility on the “metropolitan elite” discourse is London’s dominance over the rest of UK: it is the nation’s capital, the seat of its government and a global financial centre, and no British city comes close to London in terms of the size of its territory, economy and population. Hatherley’s new book, Red Metropolis, is an emphatic debunking of the myth that the city’s visible wealth and formal power falsify its left-wing credentials. Covering the years from the founding of London County Council in 1889 through to its reincarnation as the Greater London Council from 1965 to 1986, when it was abolished by Margaret Thatcher, the book is a gripping account of the impressive, under-appreciated history of municipal socialism in a capital that is not “uniquely capitalist”, but a city “that has had more than a century of socialist and social democratic governments”.

“On a classical definition, of people who have to sell their labour power to survive and do not own property,” Hatherley explains in the book, “London is the most proletarian city in the country.” Londoners “have on average the lowest disposable income in the country, because of its immense cost of living.” London is also “one of the most reliable Labour heartlands”, Hatherley told me when we spoke again in February 2021. Working on Red Metropolis, he found it strange hearing “people talking about ‘the traditional heartlands being lost but Labour’s doing really well in London’”: “I was writing that book in a [London] constituency that has voted Labour continuously since 1931.”

London’s sociological complexity – occluded by the metropolitan elite discourse – cuts the other way, too. Londoners are not, Hatherley pointed out, uniformly socially liberal: “the idea that everyone in London is woke, I mean, it’s faintly ludicrous.” “London is the most religious city in the country and is also, in very large swathes, socially conservative. People talk about the Labour vote as having to be a ‘coalition’ – it already is. The Labour London vote is a coalition – of working-class people and gentrifiers, of devoutly religious social conservatives and social libertarians… it already is that.”

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Red Metropolis’s enthusiasm for London would perhaps be unusual for a native Londoner, which Hatherley is not. Born in 1981, Hatherley, who is 39, grew up in Southampton and Eastleigh, a railway town just outside it – “kind of a southern Crewe”. Hatherley was never “politicised”: he was born into a staunchly left-wing family the way, he has said, one is born into the Catholic Church. In his autobiographical introduction to a forthcoming anthology, Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances – “an attempt at a sort of greatest hits collection” – Hatherley describes his parents as “card-carrying Marxists”. They met in the 1970s in the Fairham Labour Party, “a very, very radical CLP”. His dad worked for years as a sheet metalworker and was “an active trade unionist”. His maternal grandparents were communists.

Hatherley moved to the capital in 1999 to study at Goldsmiths, University of London. He was drawn there by its reputation for being political and avant-garde but was disappointed to discover that it was “extremely boring”, “full of people from Newquay who liked surfing” and weren’t interested in their subjects. Hatherley was interested in his subjects – English and history – going on to do a masters degree while undertaking various temporary jobs, and then, after a year of “not really doing anything in particular”, embarking on a part-time PhD in the evenings at Birkbeck, supervised by Esther Leslie (a “brilliant militant aesthetician” as Hatherley writes in Clean Living).

An academic career didn’t appeal, however, for familiar reasons: “everyone I knew in academia was on casual contracts, was involved in huge quantities of bureaucracy and form-filling, and was basically being asked to spy on their students.” Fortunately, Hatherley was already establishing himself as a writer. He’d started a blog in 2005 “about modern architecture, modern design, cities, music, TV, film, politics – whatever interested me at the time”, Hatherley recalls in Clean Living. He moved in the same virtual and then real circles as the late cultural critic Mark Fisher, who had started his blog, k-punk, in 2003; Hatherley’s first book, Militant Modernism (2009), published by the imprint Fisher co-founded, Zero Books, had come out midway through his doctorate.

Hatherley has lived exclusively from his writing ever since – “just” – although since 2018 he has also had a “side-hustle” as culture editor of Tribune magazine, which was revived in the buoyant wake of the 2017 election. He is prolific – he has written virtually a book a year for the last decade. This alarming rate is an economic necessity (“I don’t teach”), rather than an organic or altogether comfortable pace. But writing does seem to come easily to him – at least, this is the impression given by the fluency of his prose, which is never overwrought: its relaxed eloquence, buttressed by impressive erudition, doesn’t seem hard-won, an effortless extension of his equally articulate speech.

A compellingly un-self-conscious writer, Hatherley is also very funny, sometimes mordantly so. A sense of humour is not always considered a major accolade, let alone a prerequisite, for left-wing intellectuals, but Hatherley’s wit is central to his acuity and internet-inflected idiom (his speech is entertainingly enriched, rather than degraded, by words like “trollingly”, and amusingly punctuated by well-placed swear words).

The mordancy is more pronounced on social media – a quick-wittedness and facility with the acid remark Hatherley may have acquired in his blogging days. “There’s a kind of belief that Twitter is the location of the trolls and the scum” and “there’s this idea that [the blogs were] somehow nicer”, but “actually I remember savagery on those comments boxes,” Hatherley explained to me. But if the blogospheric sparring sharpened tongues, it may also have had a mellowing effect, by teaching a certain resilience or lack of preciousness – one presumably had to learn to absorb criticism as well as dispense it – and by providing a lively intellectual community in which to experiment with style and trial ideas.

Hatherley is often described as an architecture critic; his journalistic “beat so to speak”, as he writes in Clean Living, is “housing and architecture”. But as the eclecticism of his blogging interests attests, his writing spans politics and culture – his PhD, officially in “political aesthetics”, was about the Soviet and Weimar German obsession with America in the 1920s, “as seen through architecture and film and design”. In Clean Living, he summarises his work as “a gradual mapping of twentieth-century modernism, writing articles and several topographical books that expanded out from Britain to Europe to the former Soviet Union and China.”

Despite this geographic extroversion, Hatherley is a distinctively British public intellectual, which may have something to do with his sensibility having been forged in the heat of the early internet’s counter-culture: “What we most wanted to do in the ‘blogs’”, Hatherley writes in Clean Living, “was set ourselves irrevocably against the cultural and political status quo of the 2000s, particularly the New Labour settlement in Britain.”

His three books about Britain are firmly arrayed against “a kind of cultural cringe in the UK”, as if “everywhere must be awful outside of London”, and are a timely summons to domestic tourism. This is one of the reasons it took him so long to write a book about the capital: “There’s this kind of national belief that London is the only city” and that “everywhere else isn’t worth looking at or talking about.” But “Britain’s really good!” he says, laughing. “In the south you do have places like Reading and Slough and Swindon”, which “have tried really hard to strip all possible character out of themselves”, but Sheffield and Liverpool and Glasgow are on a par with famously handsome European cities: “It’s not embarrassing to compare Liverpool to Hamburg.” “And then you have Newcastle, and it’s just sublime! Newcastle is staggeringly beautiful.” “What is embarrassing”, he adds, “is when you compare public services and public transport in Liverpool to Hamburg.”

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Hatherley finished writing Red Metropolis in the spring of 2020, barely weeks after Keir Starmer was elected leader of the Labour Party. So, although Hatherley had, prior to the leadership election in March, written a long article dissuading members from voting for Starmer, in Red Metropolis he abstains from pre-judging Starmer’s leadership. By the time Hatherley and I caught up again in February 2021, I suspected his perspective might have hardened in the intervening months.

Reflecting on his pre-leadership election case against Starmer, he said: “the bits that are basically like, ‘I think he’s probably a nice guy and on the left and he’ll probably keep a lot of the programme’ – that proved to be extremely naïve.” Mostly, though, Hatherley is perplexed. “It’s really, really hard to work out whether he believes anything in particular.” Discussing Starmer’s largely inoffensive appearance on Desert Island Discs, Hatherley noted: “he sort of seems alright as long as you don’t talk about politics.” But “when you do talk about politics there’s this terrifying void.” “You just get this sense that he’s not actually thought about politics for 30 years.”

Hatherley isn’t “even sure” if “[Starmer] genuinely has rejected all of the Corbynite economic policies, it’s just that he can’t be the salesman for them, because he doesn’t think that you get progressive change by convincing people, he thinks you get progressive change by doing it when they’re not noticing.” Elected to parliament in 2015, Starmer is also, Hatherley reminded me, comparatively new to politics proper, whatever the “competence” exuded by his so-called “prime ministerial” deportment: as director of public prosecutions he was a civil servant. “Corbyn and Abbott and McDonnell were infinitely more experienced.”

Despairing of – and, more recently, darkly amused by – Labour’s trajectory and prospects, Hatherley is unsparingly realistic about what “Corbynism” amounted to: “It was purely electoral. All of the talk we did about being a social movement meant nothing, and was nothing. We did nothing… There was no depth to it.” “It didn’t have social roots. It was incredibly fast. It was almost a little bit like – the thought pains me – but it was almost a little bit like the People’s Vote [campaign]… It was really big and then it disappeared and it left no trace.”

“If anyone on the left was to try and do anything optimistic I think [they should] just commission a whole load of reports about how 2017 happened”. 2017 was “the only time that Labour have come close to winning power in 15 years”, “the one election that appeared to arrest the long-term decline of the North” since 2001. Unfortunately, that election has been “completely memory-holed”. The 2019 election is liable to be misremembered in certain ways, too. 2019 was “not 1983”:

It’s not an election where Labour got rinsed everywhere apart from Scotland. It’s an election in which everyone took the direction they were already going in and just went much further with it. Labour won an absolute landslide in London; it won a landslide in Manchester; it won a landslide in Liverpool, Nottingham, Bristol… in pretty much every sizeable city and university town in the country Labour did incredibly well at both of those elections.

These nationwide urban successes for Labour would, for Hatherley, be a productive and hopeful focus for the demoralised city-dwelling left. “In the capital, most people voted for [Corbyn’s social-democratic programme] so let’s try and build as much as of it as we can with the devolved institutions that we have.” It is patronising and pointless for “people feeling really guilty in Bristol and London and Manchester” to attempt “to find the authentic proletariat in Stoke”. “I’m not against socialist organising in Stoke... [but rather] than some Maoist movement of Hackney Communists being ‘sent down’ to work in Matalan in Kidderminster”, he writes in Red Metropolis, “a much more obviously appealing idea within the capital would be to turn inward – to use its huge advantage in the capital as a way of building an alternative, a shadow government, exactly as it did under Herbert Morrison and Ken Livingstone”.

I wondered if London’s turning inward could sound a dejected and even reactionary response to its political divergence from the rest of the country. “I suppose the main thing”, Hatherley explained, is to “try to highlight that the same thing is true of Bristol and Manchester and Liverpool and Newcastle… So it becomes an urban question rather than ‘let's declare independence for London’”. In that sense, Hatherley’s new book is a manifesto for red metropolises in blue countries everywhere. Filled with photographs of London, including the best of its social housing, mostly taken by Hatherley himself, Red Metropolis is, nevertheless, a true celebration of London as it is lived in. But London as prefiguration, not enclave, digging its heels into its left-wing base and history in order to develop a political vision it hopes may catch on nationally in future.

Lola Seaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman