The word “Westminster” is often followed by the word “elite” – and it’s not hard to understand why. The name conjures up the Houses of Parliament, the gothic colonnades and the corridors of power swarming with lords, baronesses, MPs and their flustered staff. Round the corner on Whitehall are the palatial government ministries, the workplaces of thousands of Sir Humphreys and junior civil servants who lunch next to St James’s Park lake on summer days.
Buckingham Palace houses Westminster City Council’s most famous resident, a stone’s throw away from No 10 Downing Street, home to perhaps the second most famous resident. The central London local authority area includes the upmarket embassy districts of Belgravia, along with the Monopoly board’s most expensive neighbourhood: Mayfair. It’s not what is thought of as “traditional Labour territory”.
But this year, something strange happened: for the first time in its almost 60- year history, Westminster turned red.
For decades, along with Wandsworth and Barnet councils, Westminster was seen as one of the jewels in the crown of municipal Conservatism. They were some of the Tories’ final urban “holdouts” against the surrounding seas of Labour encroachment in metropolitan London. Conservative councillors prided themselves on keeping council tax low, unlike their spendthrift, socialist neighbours in other boroughs in the capital.
But things have changed. Before May’s local elections, Labour winning Westminster was at the very upper limit of the party’s expectations for the capital. And yet, on the doorstep, at house after house, residents seemed more receptive than ever.
Adam Hug, 41, is the new, and first, Labour leader of Westminster, and he is ebullient. Originally from Portsmouth, he moved to Westminster in 2006. He’s been a councillor since 2010 and was director of the think tank The Foreign Policy Centre – a role he’ll now step back from – before the election victory. He seems genuinely enthusiastic when acting as an ambassador for the area and setting out his plans to “make a real difference”. At one point – when Hug describes the shock of election night – a couple on the next table ask for the noise to be kept down. “I find myself accidentally annoying people by being bouncy,” he says, sheepishly, after apologising profusely to the other customers.
“We weren’t expecting to win,” he says, walking us through the Brunel estate at the north end of Westminster, with a press officer and photographer – organised on the council’s own initiative – in tow. “We thought we had a shot but knew that it was going to be tough.”
The modernist housing development was built in the 1970s to accommodate social tenants. It has a Grade II listed playground, which survives as a prime example of post-war municipal architecture, in the back courtyard. There’s too much brick and not enough concrete for it to be pure brutalism, but its raised walkways serve as the classic “streets in the sky”, housing a diverse mix of middle and low-income households, mostly renters. Hug shows me a closed children’s centre, one of two shut in the ward since the austerity programme of the 2010s kicked in. It isn’t the Westminster you see on the HP Sauce bottle, and the ward has been solidly Labour for many years.
“We have had to grow our electoral coalition,” Hug says, his party now expanding beyond its comfort zone – the pockets of social housing, cheaper private rental properties and well-hidden spots of urban deprivation that exist even in the most gilded of boroughs of the capital. “If we [had done] a base turnout campaign, we could have spent all our time knocking here on the Brunel estate and boosted the turnout, which here was quite low because we were focused elsewhere,” he explains. “We could have won the popular vote easily by piling up the votes in our safe wards, but we still would have lost the election with fewer seats.”
The vagaries of first-past-the-post politics aren’t only confined to the national stage. To win the council, Westminster Labour had to broaden its appeal. Hug heads out of the Brunel estate and over the main road, past the closed children’s centre, to smart, four-storey Georgian terraces. Audis are parked at the bottom of tiled steps that lead down from grand porches overlooking leafy squares. George Osborne, the former chancellor responsible for the closure of countless children’s centres, is a recent resident. There’s the kind of London mews housing you might see in a Richard Curtis film.
“In order to make a difference, we’ve had to build this coalition of people,” Hug says, acting like a guide on a tour that encompasses both sides of Westminster Labour’s convenient new union of the urban working classes and the liberal metropolitan bourgeoisie. The latter are the once proud Cameroons and Blairites who wouldn’t have dreamed of ticking a box next to a party represented nationally by Jeremy Corbyn.
“Some of these people will have voted for Blair at his height, moved to Cameron, then come on the return journey back because of Brexit,” he explains. Other, local, factors, had an impact, and were decisive in rendering the Conservatives’ claims to fiscal prudence obsolete: the disastrous, council-funded £25m Marble Arch Mound, a temporary artificial hill and viewing platform located at the west end of Oxford Street, became the subject of widespread derision in the national press.
“There’s a shift in the Conservative Party at the moment, where it seems to be trying its hardest to annoy people who previously would’ve voted for it” – the affluent urbanites who might live in smart mews houses, the “professional families who are anti-Brexit, socially liberal and believe in probity in public office” – Hug says during a stop for coffee.
The former think tanker is keen to dispel the myth of the capital as an over-privileged citadel surrounded by deprived regions that lack the same levels of investment, the world-class infrastructure, or the skills to match its highly productive and diverse labour markets – the subjects of the levelling-up project. London, as he points out, has some of the highest poverty rates in the UK.
“The Conservatives are seen as increasingly anti-London, both as a fairly crude pitch to the Red Wall, but also as part of a whole agenda that’s anti-diversity and hostile to the range of life we have here. It’s not seen as something they’re proud of… It can be an easy win to have an anti-London message. London’s got amazing things going for it. It supports jobs around the country. But it’s also got this massive dichotomy between rich and poor.”
The short walk across two very different Westminster wards evinces the contradictions of the capital’s economy – one in which poverty exists cheek by jowl alongside extreme wealth. Here, high-paid and asset-rich workers in financial or professional services, corporate law or the tech industry sit on billions of pounds of real estate wealth, but share their neighbourhoods, services and schools with low-paid workers who can only afford their rents with government wage top-ups and housing benefits.
But isn’t there a sense in which London operates what New Statesman contributor Paul Mason has called the “golden crumbs economy”? Even its poorer residents benefit from a world-class transport network cheaper than any other in the country. London has an international financial centre attracting a steady flow of investment from all over the world, as well as the headquarters of countless major corporations and of the media and creative industries. It has a booming retail sector, a permanent skyline of cranes erecting new offices and tower blocks. It has busy streets, high footfall, low unemployment, a young, well-educated, diverse and growing population, world-class arts and culture institutions with free entry, and a dynamic night-time economy. Isn’t the experience of poverty in London qualitatively different from poverty in one of England’s so-called “left-behind” towns, battered by deindustrialisation and defined by empty high streets, low growth and economic decline?
“I think that would only be true if the people who were suffering that poverty in London had access to all of that stuff,” says Hug. “If you’re poor here, you’re not even necessarily going into central London all that much. Quite a lot of people in my community will stay here, or go to Brent or other places nearby. The personal geography of everyone here is very different in each community or in each place.” There are, he says, “cities within cities”.
Nevertheless, it is perhaps because of London’s comparative economic dynamism that despite its high rates of poverty it also has the best rates of social mobility in the country. For people from poorer backgrounds in the capital, living just a short bus ride away from, say, Canary Wharf, the prospect of working hard, perhaps getting into one of the top universities, and going on to work in a high-paid role for an international firm seems a far more tangible possibility than it might for someone who lives next to a local high street that can barely sustain a row of charity shops and takeaways. Hug puts that partly down to Labour policies like Teach First, which vastly improved the capital’s schools in the New Labour era. “This is London,” he adds, “and we as the Labour Party need to be proud of it.”
But not everyone is convinced. After the local election results slowly trickled in at the beginning of May, some Conservatives saw silver linings in what was a woeful night for their party. Despite the encouraging results of the Wakefield by-election, Labour will go into the next general election as the undisputed “party of London”, unmatched in its dominance inside the M25 ring road while struggling in the more marginal heartlands that were lost in 2019. In many of the working-class, post-industrial towns and smaller cities, and in the more affluent bellwether seats of middle England, Labour has gone backwards. At the local elections, losses were tallied in Sunderland, Tyneside, Hartlepool, Nuneaton, Sandwell and Amber Valley. Wins in places people see as relatively well-to-do will only serve to bolster the party’s out-of-touch, middle-class, elitist image in time for the next general election.
Westminster’s new Labour leader is keen to get on with the job. Housing is the key focus in a local authority with long waiting lists for accommodation, and that has been described as the UK’s rough sleeping capital. Hug’s manifesto promises to freeze council tax and introduce a plan for “community wealth building” – the favoured local economic model of the Labour left.
His plans may bear fruit, and the party’s grip on England’s metropoles may be tightened further still. But Labour’s problems don’t lie in London, or Westminster. Instead, they lie in uniting the two poles at the opposing ends of its broken voter coalition – Remain-voting urban liberals and the more socially conservative and Leave-voting working class. The cultural chasm between the two tribes looks no more likely to be bridged by the middle-of-the-road managerialism of Keir Starmer than it did by the CND-tinged politics of Jeremy Corbyn. And Labour’s victory in Westminster is more a symptom of its predicament than a cure.